My students and I at Fordham have been reading Shushaku Endo’s Silence this week as part of a class on Catholic novels. Translated by William Johnston, S.J. (whose long and distinguished career includes a recent essay published in America), the novel treats the struggles of Christian missionaries in Japan after that nation closed its borders to Christian missionaries (and Europeans in general) after 1614. In his preface to what many consider Endo’s masterpiece, Johnston writes of Endo’s own struggles to find harmony between his Japanese identity and his Christian faith. He quotes Endo:
For a long time I was attrached to a meaningless nihilism and when I finally came to realize the fearfulness of such a void I was struck once again with the grandeur of the Catholic faith. This problem of the reconciliation of my Catholicism with my Japanese blood has taught me one thing: that is that the Japanese must absorb Christianity without support of a Christian tradition or history or legacy or sensibility. Even if this attempt is the occasion of much resistance and anguish and pain, still it is impossible to counter by closing one’s eyes to the difficulties. No doubt this is the particular cross that God has given to the Japanese.
Johnston concurs, adding:
In short, the tree of Hellenized Christianity cannot simply be pulled out of Europe and planted in the swamp of a Japan that has a completely different cultural tradition. If such a thing is done, the young sapling will simply wither and die. Yet this does not mean the Christian cause is doomed. For Christianity has an infinite capacity for adaptation; and somewhere within the great symphony of Catholicism is a strain that fits the Japanese tradition and touches the Japanese heart. A different strain this from that evoked by the cultures of Greece and Rome, a strain perhaps so intimately blended with the whole that its gentle note has never yet been heard by the Christian ear. But it is there, and it must be found.
The discussion is a familiar one to anyone who followed the election of the new Jesuit Father General, Adolfo Nicolas, S.J. Nicolas, a Spaniard who has spent much of his career in the Far East, has made a number of public comments over the course of his many years in Asia on the need for a similar inculturation. Speaking of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in a Far Eastern context, he has said "[t]he fact is, if God is guiding, then the Japanese will be guided the Japanese way. And the same with the Chinese, and with people from other religions." This could be an interesting focus of Nicolas’ generalate, and one not without tensions with those in the Church who see the Christian message as impossible to divorce from Greek philosophy or other Western intellectual traditions, especially as the Church sees increased growth in Asia, Africa, and other areas with a different self-understanding from Europe and North America. Jim Keane, S.J.