Monthly Archives: January 2017

In Priority Order

People using German terms that don’t accurately apply to refer to some seriously defective, wrongheaded, ill-judged, and stupid provisions for dealing with some actual security problems–friends–consider that the straightforward life-and-death matters are even more indisputably and obviously linked, there.

You can’t urge us to bypass the obvious in our rush to deal with the debatable. You can’t expect a culture that can’t agree whether babies and old people should be killed when they are inconvenient to treat Syrians, Ukrainians, Kurds, Tamils, or Chechens as anything other than the political footballs they have been taught *all* lives are.

Nobody can teach anything by skipping the fundamental. I cannot teach research writing to people who refuse to acknowledge basic subject-predicate relations. I cannot help anyone understand the Catechism who will not believe that Jesus is God. You cannot keep faith in marriage if you think sexual desire is just an itch you have to scratch.

You cannot help people avoid radical swings from paranoia to naivete except by helping them come into contact with real things. And you cannot do that by joining them in a “rhetoric trumps logic” culture, in a “only deal with priority one when we can also cut deals to deal with priorities four, six, and two hundred thirty-nine” politics, in a “it’s only an adequate argument if it convinces skeptics” sophistication.

Arch skeptics (not just people who aren’t yet convinced), those who reason in bad faith and actually make an effort to avoid coming into contact with basic realities they have pitted themselves against, are not convinced by arguments. Adopting their preferred structures of reasoning in order to gain their approval does not convince them; it confuses and discourages those who are trying to learn from us, lean on us, and share with us.

Speak the truth, or don’t.

But stop trading your birthright for pottage.

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And I still think this is a terrible idea from the latest execrable person the people of this country chose to elect.

But the analogy is poorly calibrated any time it does not take into account the much more obvious, much stronger, much more thoroughly institutionalized Progressive/fascist and even obviously Hitlerian evil this nation continues to embrace, calling them “left” or “right” but fixing them in place and moving on, see-saw fashion.

Let’s just be against all the evils, and let’s tackle them in priority order, and do whatever good we can at every stage, yes?

No bargains except temporary tactical ones. No alliances except on the top priority, until that one is resolved.

Just do right.

I Almost Cried With Relief

Read the whole thing.

In 2010, I finally received in full the strangely long-delayed thought, “Oh, I need to take the claims of the Catholic Church seriously:  they might require action if I understood them more fully, and not be of merely historical interest.”  When I did, I had very little idea where to turn–my limited exposure to Catholics in their own words had been more kaleidoscopic than coherent.  So I hunted down the only Catholic priest I knew by name, one I had been surprised almost ten year before to find myself back-to-back with in vibrant academic discussions about Church history.  “Father Tim,” as I recalled his name, had been a welcome presence among our Baylor grad circles, where Ralph Wood had invited him as an authentic voice of Catholicism in his Catholic novel seminars.  What he said to me in that 2010 conversation, I have since repeated to many a friend contemplating what conservative Protestants necessarily feel is a very large “blank check” we must write to the Magisterium in becoming Catholic.  I won’t repeat it here, though; ask me on my porch, sometime.

What brings this up is the immense feeling of joy, encouragement, and relief it gives me to see this heartening, straightforward witness to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” from Father Timothy Vavarek of the Diocese of Austin.  I have been reading and becoming familiar with many sound Catholic voices over the past few years, and as an RCIA coordinator and a professor I have tried to become, in a small way, such a voice.

But these are days when feeling betrayed by our leaders is more common than finding ourselves taught and encouraged and nourished by them.

Every counterexample, friends, is another day the truth lives on in the hearts of somebody who doesn’t want to give up, but is running out of fuel and getting no effective support.

Here, then, words of hope and encouragement; true spiritual works of mercy:

God is unfailingly faithful in his generous, wise, and loving work of drawing humanity to himself. Neither Israel nor the Church has any claim on him rooted in their own actions, certainly not in the face of sin. He is the faithful spouse; we are the adulterers.

Yet his fidelity expresses an infinite mercy that calls us to conversion and to sharing his life through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by which he comes to dwell in us and we in him. For that purpose, the Word took flesh and returned to the Father by way of the Cross. He is the faithful spouse who purifies his bride and brings her home. This unwavering fidelity led Paul to assert: “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” (2 Tim 2:13)

Only on the basis of Christ’s fidelity, poured into our heart by the indwelling of the Trinity, can we hope to remain faithful. Humanly speaking this is impossible, but “with God all things are possible.” (Mt 19:26)

In the present crisis regarding marriage, those who say it is sometimes impossible for Christians to remain faithful to the vow made to a spouse and to God (such as when the marriage is irreparably broken or has been replaced by a second union) have forgotten the meaning of Christ, the human person, marriage, and the cosmos, which all declare the glory of God and his fidelity. This is no development of doctrine or relaxing of Church discipline. It is the complete overthrow of the Christian vision of God and human existence.

Were there a single case in which fidelity to a spouse or to God was impossible for a Christian, this would mean that God’s fidelity had failed. Perversely, infidelity in that instance would be rooted in God’s infidelity of withdrawing his grace and/or misleading us through Jesus and the Church’s false teaching regarding the obligations of the Gospel.

Far from being realistic and merciful, the suggestions being made are heartless and cruel abstractions that imply that Jesus’ fidelity is not always available to us. This makes a mockery of those who have lived chastely, after a broken marriage, in fidelity to their earthly and heavenly spouses. The proponents of these theories must name a case in which God and Christ are unfaithful before they presume to permit a Christian to be unfaithful in the slightest matter. That is the concrete, real, personal truth of the Gospel.

Mercy will not be found in exchanging the beauty of marriage for a lifeless illusion. It will be found, as it ever has been, by allowing Jesus to draw us to himself on the Cross and learning that with him we can be faithful even unto death.

Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.  Mary, Mother of God, and Joseph her spouse, pray for us.

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And thank you, Father Tim.

One Quibble with a Great Review

Alexi Sargeant has one of the best responses to Scorsese’s adaptation of Silence I have yet seen–really, go read the whole thing.

I do have one quibble, though.  (All right, one big one and one little one.)  Here it is:

In his discussion of Silence, Scorsese recapitulates the way he portrayed Judas as a collaborator in Jesus’s sacrifice in his own The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)—projecting his particular interpretation of Judas as pseudo-saint onto Endo: “In order for Christianity to live, to adapt itself to other cultures and historical moments, it needs not just the figure of Christ but the figure of Judas as well.” This image of Judas is far afield from the Christian tradition that formed Endo and his protagonists.

Sargeant wants to give Endo too much credit for orthodoxy, or those who taught him too much credit for sound formation.  It’s not Scorsese who infuses the suggestion that Judas is embraced as a collaborator in the work of Christ into Endo, though that is obviously the major connection between the two movies Scorsese has called “bookends” of his career, Last Temptation and Silence.

It is true that this is far from the Catholic faith, Endo’s baptismal faith; but it is inaccurate to view this as far from Endo’s practical belief and expression.  Even in Silence, this is obvious enough; but if you need it spelled out, go look at Endo’s radical rewriting of the Gospel accounts, A Life of Jesus.  It is just barely possible to differentiate Endo’s view, which is ambivalent about whether this reductively human Jesus positively intended or merely factored in the actions of Judas, but Endo’s take clearly interprets “Jesus loved Judas” not as meaning “Jesus embraced Judas in human-divine friendship that could lead Judas into perfect charity with God and other people” but “Jesus expressed to Judas human sentiments of caring and concern.”

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Because the second of these is merely sentimental, it is possible to imagine Jesus continuing to express these sentiments, even by dying, even when Judas rejects him; and if these expressed sentiments are the sum of the meaning of Christ’s atoning work, then of course Judas in betraying Christ makes the expression all the more dramatic–so why not portray Judas as a collaborator?

Of course, if you actually believe that God does real work that really happens in life and history, transforming “whosoever will” into not only objects of concern but reciprocating subjects of true friendship, creating perfect charity where enmity and amity had contended, you will not at all be able to agree that betraying Christ to death and committing suicide out of remorse can be evaluated merely in terms of their dramatic potential; you will not evaluate the life of Jesus merely as a performance expressing a sentiment.

Anyway, Sargeant is right on the point, but I thought it worthwhile to note that Scorsese doesn’t insinuate this theme into Endo; it is already part of Endo’s evolving agenda when he writes Silence.

Observations, Having Watched Scorsese’s Silence

Having the honor to write a little bit about Endo’s novel Silence, recently, of course I went to see the movie.  My observations here will make more sense if you know what I’ve written elsewhere:

Up to Garrpe’s death scene, I’d say we’re seeing material that is at least as good as the novel. A few details are dropped, but only to foreshorten the very long backstory and make this story more definitely about Rodrigues from the beginning, something it would be very hard to avoid in a movie adaptation. The companion left behind before they even reach Japan is a very noticeable omission.

One scene that some reviewers made confusing-sounding is clearer in the movie even than the book, as the Father-Brother system the kakure kirishitan used is clearly applicable only to baptisms and leading prayers; there is nothing exceptional at all about what they’ve done, nothing that would require special permission. The scene of Garrpe not understanding the woman’s confession is very well-rendered, one of many ways Scorsese tries to make the story legible to an American movie audience (something of a quixotic aim, but nobly attempted).

Scorsese gives very good play to both Kichijiro and Rodrigues. Kichijiro’s role is less ambiguous than in the novel; Kichijiro clearly and specifically acknowledges sin, his traumatic past is viscerally included in his characterization, and Rodrigues plainly gives him absolution. Catholics ought to love the presence of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in this movie; one of the most vivid visual presentations I can recall of confession.

Rodrigues comes across as sincere, passionate, and rather more adolescent than I imagine him from the movie–same for Garrpe. Garrpe is more erratic than Rodrigues, but it is Rodrigues who makes really dangerous errors, repeatedly. The first time Rodrigues tells the villagers “Trample!” is shockingly underplayed; the book treats it as a sort of loud Freudian slip, a word hastily spoken and instantly regretted. The movie makes it quite plain that Rodrigues thinks the villagers should just apostatize when threatened and then practice secretly, which fits with some reviews of the movie that suggest Rodrigues applies a radically different standard for apostasy to priests than laity. While I’m not sure I agree that this accords with the book’s depiction of Rodrigues in detail, it’s a simplification that helps to underscore one of the two important themes that do flourish in the movie: that treating spiritual warfare as a matter of summoning up enough internal resources, to try to “believe harder” or be “strong enough,” is fundamentally missing the point. We are all weak, and frankly under some circumstances we can all be broken. “Let him who thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.”

The other theme that comes across quite clearly in the movie is the persistence of faith even under external and internal rejection. This theme comes across clearly, I should say, despite many obstacles. To be honest, the arguments and motives become almost incoherent in the last third of the movie. Garrpe dies, not singing with bobbing “basket-worms,” but clinging to one of them and pushed under, apparently drowning while trying with panicked inefficacy to save her life. The scene is rushed, with the “basket-worms” being hastily drowned in a manner that sharply departs from the book; the effects on Rodrigues are thus intense but not intelligible. Similarly, the colorful characterization of Inoue and the flattening of the interpreter’s character put speeches which have less influence on Rodrigues in the novel in more prominent positions. Scorsese is hardly to be blamed for this, because those speeches include many of the most-quoted lines from Silence and are very close to the novel’s climax. The scene of the pit torture is actually muted after what we have seen before; the flashback to Ferreira’s ordeal at the beginning of the movie, especially, has stolen the thunder of the climax. The “snoring” is still horrifying.

As is true many places in both book and movie, Rodrigues appears to be determined by the author’s problematic, rather than internal motivations, in his decisions. This is especially true of the “voice” telling Rodrigues he can formally apostatize, which has to either be a delusion (in which case it cannot help justify the later actions of Rodrigues) or something we are to imagine could actually be a speech of Christ (which would be straightforward blasphemy). Given that the voice quotes Rodrigues, and is inconsistent with Christ (though consistent with Endo’s later A Life of Jesus), I am confident that the right way to take this is as a semi-autobiographical delusion shared by Rodrigues and Endo; I would like the movie to have made that clear, in some way. In many cases, the movie sides with Endo’s baptismal faith rather than Endo’s ideological agenda; in the case of the voice from the fumie, it simply renders Endo literally.

All that by way of concession against my point that the movie does make the story one of the persistence of baptismal faith even when one is forbidden to practice and when one struggles against it. This is a fitting theme to draw from Endo, both because this is his own stated experience and because his style of writing explicitly deploys characters to act out possibilities of experience for the highly subjective narrator (a modification of the I-novel genre). The film makes a number of interpretive choices for the viewer that the novel does not, and these are not obviously motivated; and the Confession scene of Rodrigues and Kichijiro is completely fabricated (it partially duplicates a scene elsewhere). Whether the choices are especially effective, or faithful to Endo, though, they do all tend to underscore what I hope Scorsese intends us to take away: that even under conditions where we find our faith suppressed and distorted beyond belief, the grace of God that reaches out to us through the Mochiki or Kichijiro he sends us may shape an opportunity for repentance–symbolized by a wife who knows her fallen husband will of course want Mochiki’s crucifix in his hands at burial, and who risks her life to place it there–that we must willingly accept. Not by proving our strength, even under the banner Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, but by setting aside our boasts and entrusting our feeble selves to His mighty love.

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Vandals

Well, this happened. For peace, you must be better than this.

(source: Photos of the Violent Protests of Trump’s Inauguration)

OK, I have to admit.  Part of me wants to just leave it there.  And part of me can’t help pointing out that these presumably leftist dolts attacked those high symbols of conservative hegemony, Starbucks and the Washington Post.

The all-conquering Will to Incoherency does not lend itself even to strategic planning, apparently.

Just Published: “Interpret Carefully” in Christ and Pop Culture

I suggest three fundamental approaches to finding the best possibilities in Silence. When I go to watch Scorsese’s movie, I’ll be hoping he chooses to emphasize elements such as these; I shall be elated if that happens and critical if it doesn’t. First, it is possible to read the very cryptic section that follows the end of the main plot as offering a definitive reinterpretation of the plot. When the story moves on past the self-justifications Rodrigues offers for his apostasy, and instead traces the bureaucratic records concerning the household where the new apostate has been set up, it is possible that we are meant to see that both Kichijiro and Rodrigues return to the faith. That is, though both of them break under pressure, they are subtly called back to the faith; their baptismal faith repeatedly subverts their apostasy, and triumphs over it when they are punished. To weigh this very heavily in our evaluation, though, we need some basis for disregarding pretty much every conclusion that Rodrigues draws from his experiences. Most importantly, we need a reason to believe that Rodrigues has returned, or returns periodically, to a faith that specifically repudiates his claim that Jesus personally called him to commit an act of apostasy.

(source: Interpret Carefully: Balancing Caution and Hope in Responding to Shusaku Endo’s Novel Silence – Christ and Pop Culture)

From the cutting-room floor: Why bother retrieving the nourishing from the toxic?

This is the second post that features portions deleted from “Interpret Carefully: Balancing Caution and Hope in Responding to Shusaku Endo’s Novel Silence,” just published in Christ and Pop Culture.

(Incidentally, here’s the first “cutting-room floor” post.)

This was an extra conclusion, not needed for the article’s internal logic, but connecting to an anecdote I included at the beginning (which, alas, didn’t make the cut, either).  You can see how these paragraphs, exciting though they were to compose, were good candidates for the “kill your darlings” treatment.

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Here, then, the paragraphs attempting to vindicate the effort of sorting good from ill in Endo’s signature novel:

Why bother with such a reading?  Why bother to seek vindication for truth when it seems so futile, when the interpreter’s arguments begin to sound so plausible to us?  Here is where we consider Rogue One and the kakure kirishitan.  In Episode IV of Star Wars, the “new hope” spoken of in the title is the resumption of the Jedi line–of a discipline that guides its practitioners to right use of a talent invisibly implanted within them–after the destruction of all the Jedi by Darth Vader.  The genius of Rogue One, I argue, is in convincingly depicting the era when those who had heard of the Force, who were sensitive to it or were aligned with the benevolent goals of the Jedi, were scattered “like sheep without a shepherd.”  Rebel factions protested each other, fought and undermined each other; lone Force sensitives marched into dangerous situations full of devotion to what they remembered but untutored and without well-founded hope.  Goodness, hope, reverence do recur in such situations, and Rogue One bears compelling witness to the beauty and tragedy of those who achieve great things in such terrible times.

But finally, Rogue One describes a generation that lived and died without any well-founded hope that their desire to do good was anything but a futile refusal to acquiesce in evil.  Under those circumstances, we see people who want good things justify terrible acts; we see leaders of men fatalistically embrace death, families torn apart, whole lives lived in alienation from what is best in humanity.  It is beautiful, I suggest, when a voice tears through all that, determined to do at least one thing that is definitely good, and to reject futility; it is fitting that such a voice should become identified with the word “hope.”  But consider those Christian villagers, well portrayed in Silence, who were forced to find whatever ways they could to maintain a partially-taught Christian faith over not just a generation, but over centuries of official persecution and separation from the teaching office of the Church.  How could we not, like Jesus, be “moved to compassion” when we see them?  How can we not long for their descendants to know the fulness of the faith they lived and died desiring?  How can we not choose Garrpe’s way, and dive into the ocean, swimming as long as we can, to bolster their faith?

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From the cutting-room floor: taking Endo’s theology seriously

I’ve been working on a popular article about Silence and, true to form, I wrote about twice as much as we could use.  I find I pretty much have to “write long, edit short” to get anything done (which is also why so few projects reach completion–that first step takes time, and half the material isn’t useful).  Anyway, if the final product ends up being useful (I have well-founded hopes that it will), I’ll be sure to announce it.

[Update:  Here it is!  “Interpret Carefully” at Christ and Pop Culture.]

Here, then, a couple “deleted scenes” paragraphs that I’m not sorry I wrote, and not sorry we cut, either:

I hope I don’t have to work very hard to convince readers…that it is patently ridiculous to take works like Silence or The Shack or The End of the Affair or Brideshead Revisited or Crime and Punishment or The Da Vinci Code as “mere fiction” that should not be evaluated on its theological content.  To take an obvious example, Dan Brown included a clear statement that The Da Vinci Code was based on fact in the front of his novel (it takes only reading both books to know those “facts” were ripped clumsily from the pages of Holy Blood, Holy Grail–so blatantly, in fact, that its authors, themselves no strangers to breathless hyping of easily-exposed hoaxes, unsuccessfully sued Brown for copyright infringement).  Graham Greene thought the struggles of malformed conscience and institutional fecklessness that he dramatized in stories like The End of the Affair were serious enough, in real life, to keep him out of communion with the Church he entered dramatically as an adult.  In Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh specifically modelled elements of Sebastian Flyte’s life on the conversion story of Oscar Wilde.  It would be easy to multiply examples, but I trust the principle is clear.

More specifically, scholars and readers of Endo’s best-known novel have certainly not found that it is “mere fiction” without theological significance.  Scholars like Mark Williams, John Netland, Van Gessel, Darren Middleton, Mark Dennis, and many others have analyzed and evaluated Endo’s work not only for its compelling fictionalization of history but for the significance they see in Endo’s interaction with Christianity, traditional Japanese culture, Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and a whole host of other issues.  Of course, some readers think that the theological significance of Silence lies in a repudiation of organized religion in favor of a wholly individualized practice of charity; others think it lies in a subtle depiction of fidelity under almost impossible conditions; still others see a substitution of a “motherly” Jesus for the traditional portrayal of the “Son of the Father.”  Some focus on the climactic scene of apparent apostasy, others on the epilogue, others on the “silence” invoked by Endo’s second choice of title.  Many regard it favorably as an important moment on Endo’s trek into radical pluralism, not least because it anticipates the views Endo would more ardently promote after he encountered the works of the man we might call his guru, John Hick; others deplore exactly this character of Endo’s work.  If we don’t choose to simply ignore the features of Silence that provoke all these comments, or to consider one characteristic (for example “pluralism” or a subjectivization of moral or religious judgment) as proper to “mere fiction” but unrelated to theology, then we will simply have to agree that our varying evaluations of the theological significance of the novel are essential to our grasp of its significance.

Don’t Play Catch-22 Against Truth

This post is lightly connected to an earlier discussion of how swapping intensive and extensive statements illegitimately can undermine a conversation and make plain truths seem obscure.  The similarity is that, in both cases, responses that are in some sense true are organized into a one-two punch that leaves many people who want to affirm the truth feeling that they are being irrational or stubborn, perhaps missing the point.

When used as a strategy for derailing arguments, of course, these are perverse. It also happens, though, that people see what truth there is in each “step” of the argument and, applying them separately but without adequate reflection, find themselves unable to defend truths that they have learned. For both of these reasons, it is important that we actually learn to think more clearly than that.

The challenge I want to point to, today, deals specifically with authoritative moral teachings and the need to have them expressed with clarity.

The setup for this Catch-22 goes like this:

First, those who affirm an inconvenient truth are offered hard cases and unusual situations, usually with no acknowledgement of the relative frequency of such situations or of any factors that distinguish them from the rule. Attempts to distinguish cases, to show how a sensible application of the teaching or rule improves situations, are consistently treated as evidence the truth is “too complicated” and those who explain the rule are “legalistic.”  To insist on such teaching is called “arrogant” or “selfish,” signs of people who are more interested in defending their own status or attainments than in loving service to others; to adhere to it is treated as the privilege of those who find it easy, or who have been given support that they are denying to others.

As a response to this, many of us try to remind others that we adhere to such teachings precisely for the reasons that generations of Christians have handed them down to us–that they promise to make us whole, to make us available to the grace that transforms us.  We hold on to these truths, that is, not only because we believe they are necessary for the good of others, but because we need them ourselves.  We are not asking for teaching to be clear, laws just, disciplines lovingly but firmly maintained, because we think that helps us control others; we know that without the help of others, and especially without instructions and patterns of living together that push us in the right direction, we ourselves will wander in confusion.  Sometimes through excess, sometimes through defect, sometimes through blind spots we don’t notice, sometimes by sheer failure of will with regard to the good that we are called to embrace–but we recognize ourselves in that old hymn lyric that says, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it / Prone to leave the God I love; / Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, / Seal it for thy courts above.”  We trust in the mercy and the grace of God, and we do not want to be told that what we can live up to now is all we’re meant for; we know it is not.

And that is what triggers the second half of this Catch-22, this perverse and unjust equivocation.

Second, admitting that we need external assistance, that we are called together in a body because I need others to maintain expectations and discipline, to cooperate with me in cooperating with grace, is interpreted as a weakness that invalidates my adherence to truth.

Sometimes this is just another iteration of hand-waving.  Sometimes this is akin to the long-exploded Freudian slander that an excess of repression of sexual drives accounts for insistence on moral norms, and that denying this confirms it.

Sometimes this abuse of honest conversation comes in the form of an unutterably offensive claim of “hypocrisy” that turns the meaning of the term on its head.  Where a hypocrite would pretend to be better than he is in order to seem credible, most of us who are called “hypocrites” are just being honest about who we are:  sinners being saved by grace, not perfectly-formed Christians trying to prevent others from joining us.  In fact, people who discredit fallible witnesses in order to avoid their responsibility to infallible truth are pushing all of us to actually be hypocrites.

If the only way to be taken seriously in speaking for truth is to have miraculous perfection in that truth already, then we are all incapable of learning from each other; and if anyone who claims to have learned something is to be dismissed for “not struggling” enough, then we will never be able to listen to each other.

When you see this one-two punch, then, be sure you are witnessing an effort of Satan to conceal the truth and shame those who bear fallible witness to that truth.  When you see those who speak reasonably about truth called “unsympathetic” or “rigid,” while at the same time those who admit they need the help of sound teaching and concrete discipline to achieve personal holiness are dismissed as weak or hypocritical, you may be sure that you are witnessing a perversion of discourse, the very “smoke of Satan” rising in what ought to be the Temple of God.

So don’t do this.  Pray harder.  Be holier, but do not act holier than you are.  And do not confuse the worth of the witness with the worth of the truth.

After all, the Truth Himself relied on the claims of one of whom it was said, “He was not the Light, but was come to bear witness to the Light.”

May we be counted worthy to bear witness, and may we not cloud that witness with the gobbledygook of our Enemy and Accuser.

Humility or “epistemic humility”

There is great virtue in being able to say, “I did not know that.  Thanks for telling me.”

Also, “I do not understand.  Will you teach me?”

Likewise, a teacher simply must be comfortable saying “I don’t know, but I’ll ask” and “I don’t know how to explain it, but we do know at least this much about it.”

And no one should grow to adulthood without a strong “Look it up!” habit.

Being willing to admit ignorance is part of being teachable.  There is, then, a place for “epistemic humility” properly understood:  learning that a proper estimate of my understanding involves recognizing the boundary between what I know and what I do not.

But that recognition has two components, not one.

It is not humility, but arrogance and folly, to think that if I am uncertain about it presently, there must be no one who could teach me to understand the matter more precisely and confidently.  It makes my present knowledge, or really my feelings about my present knowledge, the criterion of all possible knowledge.

It is bigotry to object when I am told that others have learned, and that if I intend to honor my obligation to truth I ought to listen to what they have learned.

Humility means knowing that some things can be learned, and some of those things can be taught, and therefore that I can learn some of them when I am teachable (and prudent about my choice of teachers).

That means that it is humble to stand on what you have learned, friend.  It is admitting that neither you nor I are, in our momentary wishes and feelings of assurance, the absolute limit and criterion of all possible understanding.

It is acknowledging that the young, the old, the living, the dead, the very holy, the rather profane, the erudite, the crude, the refined, the simple–all may well have something to teach, just as all assuredly have something to learn.

So when you have learned something, do not let the latest wave of uncertainty hatched by someone’s attempt to shame you deceive you.  Do not let bigots drive you away from what others have, in better spirit, taught you.

Have the humility of your convictions.

Rodrigues, Kichijiro, Judas–a 2012 conference paper (Part Two)

Here’s the final part of that SWCCL paper from 2012:

————–

What we may miss when reading Silence, and what may lead students astray when we teach it, is how sharply dependent certain elements of its portrayal of Christian truth are on Rodrigues’ own imaginings.  Of course, we must debate the “Trample!” instruction which, whether as command or permission, echoes Rodrigues’ own verbal or mental cries for those who are about to be martyred to apostasize instead (for the village martyrs, see 83; for Garrpe, see 204).  However, in more subtle ways the role of Kichijiro is colored by the fact that from the first Rodrigues has treated him with contempt and suspicion, and glosses over alternative possibilities for responding to him.  For example, Kichijiro offers Rodrigues some salted fish, and chews grass instead himself, when they are fleeing (113).  Rodrigues himself says that he “snatched greedily” and “ate ravenously,” yet when he begins to be thirsty, he accuses Kichijiro of giving him the salted fish to weaken him (116-7).  Kichijiro only comments that Rodrigues ate too much; Kichijiro also manages to secure Rodrigues some water, which Rodrigues also consumes “greedily and shamelessly” (118).  We have only Rodrigues’ literally fevered imaginings to help us decide whether Kichijiro used this as a stratagem, or whether Kichijiro offered Rodrigues all the food he had, and secured him water, while avoiding confrontation with Rodrigues over the latter’s poor manners.  Many similar examples are available, but for now let us move on to the Biblical portrait of Judas.

We can roughly find seven relevant elements in the portayals of Judas Iscariot in the Gospels and Acts; one of them will be especially worthy of exploration in this context.

 

1) all four Evangelists carefully identify Judas Iscariot well before the Passion narrative.

In lists of the Twelve, Matthew has “Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him”; Mark has “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him”; and Luke has “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”

In John 6:71, John explains one of Jesus’ predictions of His Passion as follows:  “He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.”  And in John 12, we read that “Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples” was “about to betray him.”

 

2) Judas manifests behaviors and attitudes indicative of unbelief well before the betrayal.

(see discussion of John 6 & 12; short version is just John 12)

 

3) Judas receives money in advance and begins plotting.

“Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver.  And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.”  (Matthew 26:14-16)

see also Mark 14:10-11; Luke 22:3-7; John 13:2

 

4) Judas is described as possessed by the devil (Luke 22 & John 13).

 

5) Judas definitely takes the initiative in arranging signals and revealing Jesus’ whereabouts.

(in addition to some of the texts above about Judas’ unbelief,) see Mark 14:43-52, which gives the most extensive account of Judas’s use of the kiss as a sign, his acting as a scout for the guards, etc.

also John 18:2-5; Luke 22:47-48

 

6) Judas is confronted with his treachery in advance, but continues.

When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?”

He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.  The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.” (Matthew 26:20-25)

also John 13:21-30.  Note that these texts make it quite impossible to take the “Jesus gave Judas permission to betray Him” theme seriously.

 

7) Judas is remorseful but impenitent.

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death.  They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.  He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”

But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.”  Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.

But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.”  After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners.  For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”  (Matthew 27:1-10)

 

8) Judas is considered a deposed apostate by the Church and his office given to another.

The first act of the assembled Church after Christ’s Ascension is led by Peter, who speaks of “Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus” as they seek a replacement twelfth Apostle, someone “chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”  (Acts 1:12-26)

 

John’s remarks in chapters 6 and 12 of his Gospel are of special interest, as these two passages also typify the manner in which the reception or rejection of the Incarnate Word is portrayed throughout John’s writings.  Judas is characterized by what he does and does not receive of Jesus, and the nature of God’s self-revelation in Christ is characterized by the infamous treason that crowns the career of one whose acceptance of some of Jesus’ words masked a deeper rejection of the Person of the Son of God.

In John 6, there are actually two mentions of the betrayer embedded in a twofold interplay of belief and disbelief.  Speaking to the Jewish audience in a series of synagogue discussions following the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, Jesus has just caused significant consternation by insisting that all and only those who are “taught by God” follow Jesus, and in fact insisting that following Jesus and having “heard and learned from the Father” are strictly identical for those faced with the presence of the Incarnate Word, the Christ “who is from God,” who is the only one who “has seen the Father” in the relevant sense.  When Jesus says “whoever believes has eternal life,” then, the saying is not received as a universal call to earnestness or sincerity or openness or wonder, but appears repugnant to the hearers.  Jesus warns them, “Do not complain among yourselves,” and John tells us that “The Jews then disputed among themselves.”  This first controversy takes place among the mostly Jewish audience comprising both followers of Jesus and His most passionate opponents, as well as many still unsure where they stand.

What Jesus’ Jewish interlocutors find so offensive, here, is the concrete historical form of truth that Jesus sets out for those who are “taught of God” and follow Him.  Jesus said, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  Eating the multiplied loaves and fishes, or debating the significance of Jesus’ teachings, or following a portion of divine revelation, is of limited value; those who “ate the manna in the wilderness” undoubtedly followed the Father’s teachings up to a point, but “they died.”  Only when the unique “bread of life” has been provided can the one “drawn by the Father” and “taught by God” come to “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” so that Jesus can promise repeatedly, “I will raise that person up on the last day.”  The question “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” expresses the perplexity of those who have not yet come to terms with the fullness of the Incarnate Word, as well as the challenge of those who set themselves in opposition.

This perplexity, though, divides even those accepted among Jesus’ followers.  Even those identified as “disciples” up to this point are heard “complaining” that “This teaching is difficult” and asking “who can accept it?”  As He does frequently throughout His career, Jesus does not alleviate their perplexity, but exacerbates it, in order to expose unbelief and clarify belief.  Jesus’ words “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” work in at least three ways at once:  they argue a fortiori from the greater material difficulty of the Incarnation to the lesser difficulty of the Real Presence; they underscore the moral hazard of abstractly affirming the Incarnation while denying its concrete historical form; and they directly foreshadow Jesus’ later Ascension.  (In the unfolding of John’s Gospel, of course, this passage also closely echoes Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in chapter 3.)  Building on that multiplicity of sense, Jesus’ declaration that “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” indicates that followers of Jesus must understand and order material realities according to their spiritual relations.  They must finally evaluate Jesus’ claims in the full light of revelation, rather than by the limited light of unaided natural reason.  This meaning is anchored when Jesus tells His followers that “among you there are some who do not believe” and John informs us that “Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.”

This portrait is rather different from the one in Silence; Jesus is quite clear on who will betray Him, and considers that person an unbeliever.  It is at precisely this point, when the betrayer has just been mentioned in association with the unbelievers still numbered among the disciples, that we hear that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him,” which leads Jesus to turn and directly ask the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”  This question, of course, would be as close to the “permission” to apostasize as Judas would be likely to get.  What follows is one of Peter’s two famous confessions:  “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  However imperfectly, Peter and the faithful together recognized that the Incarnate Word had offered not just teaching but body and blood, and that this was their sole source of salvation.  Jesus’ reply, however, demands of them a further understanding than this temporal followership, though not less than that:  “Did I not choose you, the twelve?  Yet one of you is a devil.”  John specifically indicates that Jesus was speaking of Judas, “for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.”  Judas’s betrayal, then, was an indication of a deeper fault; an unbelief which persisted even under the guise of religious vocation, which must eventually betray itself by betraying Christ.  John’s arrangement of the account underscores the particularity of Judas’s unbelief:  Judas refused to accept the unity and unicity of Christ’s salvific message with His saving Person so concretely stated in Jesus’ teaching about His Body and Blood.

With this background in mind, the scene at Lazarus’ home in Bethany becomes much clearer.  In John 12, the account of Mary, sister of Martha, using expensive ointment to treat Jesus’ feet—an apparent waste to which Judas objected—is not left to stand alone.  In fact, the very next occurrence after this is Judas going to the Jewish leaders to conspire against Jesus.  This story is framed with pointed references to Lazarus as “Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead” and ends with the Jewish leaders expanding their plot to include Lazarus, because his resurrection led to a situation in which “many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”  In this environment, and against the backdrop of John 6, it is clear that whether Judas was actively interested in stealing money or wasn’t, his unbelief was the issue.  Judas treats Mary’s response to Jesus’ death and resurrection as indifferent, measuring it solely by secular measures.  He fails to consider that the ongoing responsibility of caring for the poor, as taught by Jesus, cannot eclipse the response to the Person of Jesus called for by the Incarnation itself, which is inseparable from the words by which the Incarnate Word teaches those who hear Him.

Mary’s act of devotion, by which she chooses to “cash out” her secular worth in terms explicitly responsive to the Person of Jesus, cannot be evaluated in merely secular terms without becoming the occasion of fresh unbelief.  John underscores this by introducing Judas, immediately before he speaks, as “the one who was about to betray [Jesus].”  And, indeed, it is as those who evaluate the resurrection of Lazarus in terms of its effects on their following begin to plot against Lazarus that Judas joins their plot against Jesus.

It is in precisely these respects that Rodrigues resembles Judas a great deal more than Kichijiro.  Kichijiro is a stumbling follower of Jesus, but like Peter or John Mark, he repents—and even, if we are to believe the appendix, becomes in his faltering way evangelically useful—after his many failures.  He seeks absolution and shows signs of real contrition, though his manifest weakness does make a struggle against sin, rather than freedom from sin, the reasonable pastoral goal.  Rodrigues, by comparison, comes not to understand Judas—and barely to understand Kichijiro—but to become Judas.  Rodrigues becomes a betrayer who, however remorseful, does not repent; indeed, he justifies himself over against the Church whose laws, like those of Peter in the days immediately following the Ascension, inform him clearly of his state.  Whatever of clarity or confusion we may find when we read Silence, we are at least well served if we see Rodrigues’ imaginations of Judas for the dangerous delusions they become to him.

 

————–

 

Endo, Shusaku.  Silence.  Trans. William Johnston.  New York:  Taplinger, 1980.

Quotations from NRSV Bible.

 

Rodrigues, Kichijiro, Judas–a 2012 conference paper (Part One)

As the Scorsese movie comes out, it’s interesting to see many fresh commentators return to ground I last started to work when a good friend opened a discussion that led us to planning a panel at the Southwest Conference on Christianity and Literature together in 2012.  This is the paper I gave at that conference (I’m going to make more than one post of it).  I have notes for a larger article based on this, and plans for how this can fit into a book with my existing article, another I have planned on the character Garrpe, and some other points I think worth examining.

One result of the discussions I had with my friend and others after this conference was that I’m now quite a bit more open to the possibility that Silence depicts Rodrigues moving from bad faith to better faith; I still maintain that this requires our finding evidence that the narrative pushes Rodrigues away from the delusions and self-justifications that he wants to cling to all the way to the end of his last reported conversation with Inoue.  This is the territory I’d like to explore more once I’ve worked out these notes, assuming the discussion remains interesting that long.

Enjoy, critique, respond.  Please don’t hand-wave away the serious problems Endo makes his characters pose for living faith!  Whether you think Silence is ultimately a net benefit to faith or a net danger, you must decide having taken the full measure of those challenges.

Here, then, Part One of the article:

Summary Judgment:  Kichijiro’s Identification as Judas Tested Against Other Biblical Betrayers

Peter G. Epps, Oklahoma State University

From shockingly early in their acquaintance, Endo’s priestly protagonist Rodrigues reads Kichijiro as a potential and actual Judas.  Unlike the Judas described by the Evangelists, however, Kichijiro displays real penitence; he is therefore very far from the embodiment of despair that the suicidal Judas was to become.  It is, in fact, Rodrigues who appears to take counsel of despair, like his former mentor Ferreira; and it is Rodrigues whose accusations and inability to forgive most resemble the Judas role he attributes to Kichijiro.

In order to evaluate which of Rodrigues and Kichijiro most resembles Judas Iscariot, though, we need a clearer picture of Judas and the ways in which each character comes to be comparable to him.  Let us begin by assembling the portrait of Judas in the text of Silence, a portrait that resembles Rodrigues at least as much as Kichijiro

Several key scenes paint this portrait.  There is a hint, though not very explicit, in Rodrigues’ comments about Kichijiro when he and Garrpe are preparing to leave for Japan (33).  Rodrigues claims to be moved to laughter by the notion that “I have entrusted my future to a fellow like Kichijiro,” reflecting that “Our Lord himself entrusted his destiny to unworthy people.”  That Rodrigues can recognize Kichijiro as “unworthy” simply by noting Kichijiro’s alcoholism and lack of physical courage foreshadows the development of both characters, but it also suggests what will become a major theme of Silence:  the betrayer’s intrinsic weakness.

A much more significant mention of Judas comes right when Rodrigues and Garrpe reach Japan.  Kichijiro, whom they have engaged as their guide, immediately runs off to scout out the area, as they are not even sure they have landed in the right country (41).  Garrpe leaps to the conclusion that Kichijiro has just fled, but Rodrigues says, “I was thinking of a more terrible fate.  He had not fled. Like Judas he had gone to betray us.  Soon he would appear again, and with him would be the guards” (42).  Both of the priests are far gone in imagining themselves betrayed when Kichijiro returns with some Christians from a nearby village.  The portrait of Judas in Silence, then is not only of a weak betrayer, but of one who actively arranges the capture of a passive and trusting victim.

Of course, some of the difficulty in drawing any conclusions from Silence derives from its extremely subjective I-novel conventions.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Rodrigues’ description of his capture and the events leading up to it.  Rodrigues keeps trying to outpace Kichijiro, who begs him to slow down, telling him that “the magistrate says that the man who finds a father will get three hundred pieces of silver” (112).  Rodrigues then says his “first words to Kichijiro,” accompanied by a “bitter laugh”; he says, “So my price is three hundred pieces of silver” while inwardly noting the that “Judas had sold Our Lord for thirty pieces of silver; I was worth ten times as much.”  While the passage tells us more about Rodrigues’ spiritual exhaustion and fearfulness than about Judas, it does suggest that pecuniary advantage—or perhaps just a weakness for money, or for addictive consumables like alcohol—was the motive behind Judas’ betrayal.

These three elements—the intrinsic weakness of the betrayer, his active betrayal of a passive victim, and his specifically economic motives—are all overshadowed by the portrait that emerges from the two most central reflections on Judas in the plot of Silence.  In a reverie on Christ’s last words to Judas, Rodrigues admits that he has never been satisfied with the explanations offered for Christ’s instructions to “do quickly” what Judas was “going to do” (115).  Rodrigues struggles to imagine the tone of that instruction, and what that would tell him about Judas.  “If it was anger, then at this instant Christ excluded from salvation this man alone of all the men in the world,” he reflects, before rapidly drawing a series of unorthodox conclusions from his imaginary scenario:  “It could not be so.  Christ wanted to save even Judas.  If not, he would never have made him one of his disciples.”  From this conclusion that Judas was not the subject of Christ’s anger, and that Judas’ being among the disciples implied Christ’s belief that Judas could be salvaged, Rodrigues proceeds to wonder, “Why did Christ not stop him when he began to slip from the path of righteousness?”  Having gone thus far, Rodrigues proceeds to recapitulate a Gnostic interpretation of Judas’s relationship to Jesus:  “I have the feeling that Judas was no more than the unfortunate puppet for the glory of that drama which was the life and death of Christ.”  This necessitarian view of Judas’ acts is not only incoherent with regard to Rodrigues’ prior speculation that “Christ wanted to save even Judas,” but introduces an element of fatalism which impugns Divine Providence, treating God as either impotent or callous.  In any case, the portrait of Judas now receives several touches:  in addition to being intrinsically weak, though active in betraying a passive victim, and motivated by money, Judas is now to be seen as someone Jesus thought he could save, but who was not rescued because his actions were fatalistically necessary.

The incoherence in Rodrigues’ speculations at this point is addressed by the gradual breaking of Rodrigues described in the rest of the novel (his capture takes place just past halfway through the book).  When confronted in the denouement by Kichijiro, who again begs to confess and receive absolution for his sins, Rodrigues revisists his last reverie on Jesus’ words to Judas (285).  This time, Rodrigues casts himself as Judas, while speaking to that imaginary inward voice of Jesus which has replaced the imaginary inward face of Jesus that Rodrigues idolizes.  Rodrigues, trying to decide how to respond to Kichijiro’s betrayal and apostasy now that Rodrigues has become an apostate and betrayed his coreligionists as well as the faith entrusted to him, says to his personal Jesus, “You told Judas to go away.”  The voice in his head then answers that he intended no such thing, but that “just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do.  For Judas was in anguish as you are now.”  Not only does this tend to suggest that Rodrigues has realized that he is a closer fit to Judas than to Jesus in the scenario, but it confirms the portrayal of Judas as fated to betray Jesus—so much so that Jesus is now represented as complicit in this betrayal.  (Those familiar with the Gospel of Judas described by Irenaeus and periodically rediscovered by Gnostic sympathizers will recognize elements of this depiction.)  It also curiously conflates the anguish Rodrigues feels after committing apostasy and sacrilege, giving scandal to the faithful, and becoming complicit in their persecution, with an anguish Judas felt before actually betraying Jesus; the suggestion is that Judas was torn between his desires and his fate, and in choosing his fated betrayal did so with Jesus’ permission.

The picture which we form of Judas from Silence, and it must be said principally from Rodrigues’ own reflections and imaginings, is thus one of an intrinsically weak person, who nonetheless actively betrays a passive victim, doing it for money; this betrayer is someone Jesus saw as salvageable, but whose betrayal was fatalistically necessary, so that he was torn between fate and desire, with Jesus resolving this by permitting the betrayal.  And as it is a major theme of Silence to portray Rodrigues’ own transformation into an apostate and betrayer of others, it is perhaps no great accomplishment to assert that Rodrigues fits this portrayal very well.  Before moving on, though, it is well to note that Kichijiro does not always fit this portrait so well as Rodrigues thinks.

[Continue to Part Two]