Suffering the Patient Victory of God: Shusaku Endo and the Lessons of a Japanese Catholic


When the chiming of time tolled across the French countryside heralding the year 1950, Lyon roared a triumph while two men lay on verge of defeat.  The men were strangers to each other, yet brothers; one a historian of Catholic dogma, the other a budding novelist; each bearing the long-suffering of theological and political tyranny.  One was a son of France and a caretaker of souls; the other a bastard son of Japan, a recently defeated political enemy of Allied Europe, who nevertheless ventured to Europe’s cultural center in order to mine the literary hillsides of a Catholic France.  Though spiritual, theological, and political defeat loomed over these two men at mid-century, in the course of subsequent decades both would rank among the most important theological and literary voices within the Roman Catholic Church of the twentieth century.

This paper seeks to link the theological imagination of Henri de Lubac with the literary imagination of Shusaku Endo, with special concern for understanding Endo’s robust Catholicism.  In addition, this paper seeks to understand the way Endo’s Japanese culture shaped his Catholicism and vision of Jesus Christ’s meaning for the world.  It is the goal to make clear the profound process of continuity and change with Catholic tradition present in Endo’s theological-literary imagination.  His is a vision of orthodoxy acculturation.  Endo’s novel Silence (1966) will be the main focus, particularly its climactic scene where the protagonist priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, is confronted both with the option of committing apostasy in order to save tortured peasant Christians and a mystical vision of a suffering and redeeming Christ.  In this scene, as we will see, Endo is shaped by a robustly Catholic sacramental view of the world and shapes his Catholicism in a way distinctly Japanese.  His is a literature of liberation from Western theological imperialism, and yet radically Catholic.

In 1950, while Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) was teaching at the School of Theology at Lyon, Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Humani generis that condemned humanistic trends in Catholic theology and implicated, some thought, theologians associated with the “new theology,” a “school” of thought linking diverse scholars like de Lubac, Yves Congar, and Teilhard de Chardin.  These theologians, especially de Lubac, were concerned with a resourcemont, a reclaiming of the ancient resources of Catholic orthodoxy and faith.  However, an air of suspicion led to de Lubac’s departure from Lyon that same year, though he came back into the good graces of Rome during the Second Vatican Council some fifteen years later (1962-66).  Friend and theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar testified to the fact that immediately upon de Lubac’s flight from Lyon “his books were banned, removed from the libraries of the Society of Jesus and impounded from the market.”[1]  Of the practitioners of the “new theology,” de Lubac arguably suffered the most.  Nevertheless, his trust in the authority of the Church never waned and his prophetic words were to have lasting impact in guiding the Church in engagement with its own history and with the wider world.  His successes were born on the foundation of his struggle.

As de Lubac left Lyon under pressure of papal scrutiny Shusaku Endo (1923-1996) arrived at the University of Lyon on a scholarship from the Japanese government to study French literature, particularly the French Catholic novelists François Mauriac and Georges Bernanos.  For more than two years he pursued rigorous study, especially of Mauriac, only to have his study interrupted by a bout with tuberculosis that forced his return to Japan.  A baptized Catholic at the age of ten in a Buddhist country, Endo hoped that the culture-Catholicism of France would offer him a sort of spiritual homecoming.  This hope never materialized.  As a Catholic in Japan, Endo was always the outsider, and from the start of his studies in France, he became keenly aware that he was everywhere a stranger.  He suffered in Japan on account of his faith and in France due to racial prejudice and the overwhelming humiliation of what it meant to be Japanese in post-war Europe.  These pivotal years would serve as the touchstone for perhaps Endo’s finest novel, Silence.

Silence, a story of a fictional seventeenth century Jesuit missionary to Japan, Sebastian Rodrigues, presents an autobiographically charged assault on what Endo sees as a vision of a triumphant Christ indicative of Western Christianity.  His resolution to what he sees as a cultural and theological problem, arrived at through a driving, sparse, and haunting narrative style, can only be described as a product of his christocentric imagination.  Endo presents a new image of Christ that resolves, however imperfectly, the cultural and theological tensions of a traditional Catholicism seeking headway in Japan.  There is something to François Mauriac’s self-description, “I am a metaphysician who works in the concrete”[2] that rings true in de Lubac and Endo.  There is little doubt that Endo was deeply shaped by reflections on the life of Jesus Christ, having followed his literary forefather Mauriac in writing an account of the divine Galilean.  However, what has been missing from the near entirety of Endo-criticism has been an account of his Catholicism as evidenced in his fiction.  I hope to recover his Catholicism by way of Henri de Lubac.  Then we will be able to see how Endo radicalizes his Catholicism, making it a religion palatable for the Japanese soul.[3]


The emergence of a provocative band of French Catholic theologians in the early to middle decades of the twentieth century, particularly Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar, is crucial in the understanding of the theological and cultural vision of Shusaku Endo.  This movement must be placed against the political and theological milieu of the struggle between pro-monarchist Catholicism and the supporters of the Third Republic and its anticlerical “laicism.”[4]  At the dawn of the early twentieth century the movement known as Action Française arose on the political stage as an opponent to the anticlericalism of the Third Republic.  Action Française’s goal was to reinvigorate the French monarchy.  Despite the fact that the leader of the movement, Charles Maurras (1868-1952) was agnostic, and the political philosophy of Action Française was grounded on a strictly naturalistic view of human nature and social order, many Neo-Thomist theologians found their theological worldviews entirely congruous with the politics of the radical right.  Materialist politics found a happy partner in the nature-from-grace splitting theology of many of Thomas Aquinas’s twentieth century interpreters.  This marriage of ideologies caused great unrest within various theological ranks.

Political relations between France and the Vatican soured in 1904, leading to changes in France’s constitutional law and instituting a separation of church and state.  Religious orders found themselves exiled to England and abroad.  It would be nearly 30 years later, when the Third Republic was voted out of power, that the theologians of the “new theology” would return to speak a prophetic word to a Catholic France thoroughly entrenched in a faulty Neo-Thomism.  Two important works by de Lubac during this time were Catholicism (1938) and Surnaturel (1946).

Catholicism stands as a theological bellwether of de Lubac’s subsequent writings.  He offers a correction to the rampant individualism of modernity negating the social nature of the Church.  Contrary to the political assumptions of the day, the Church was not to be judged on its societal usefulness or its ability to mete out inward spirituality for a privileged few.  De Lubac notes in Catholicism that for Christian Europe,

…faced by the naturalist trends of modern thought on the one hand and the confusions of a bastard Augustinianism on the other, many could see salvation only in complete severance between the natural and supernatural…Thus the supernatural, deprived of its organic links with nature, tended to be understood by some as a mere “super-nature”, a “double” of nature.  Such a dualism, just when it imagined that it was most successfully opposing the negation of naturalism, was most strongly influenced by it, and the transcendence in which it hoped to preserve the supernatural with such jealous care was, in fact, a banishment.[5]

Therefore, “what de Lubac was already claiming, in Catholicisme, was that . . . the anticlericalism of the Third Republic was simply the mirror image of a supernaturalist religion that was either the empty shell of cultic practice and the external observance or individual retreat into a spirituality of private interiority.”[6]  His care for the “social nature” of Catholicism, however, did not mean that individuals were subsumed into the community.  Unlike many modern political theories that force a decision between both society and the individual, de Lubac insisted on a Catholic inclusivism wherein both the person and the whole stand apart yet are dignified one through the other.[7] 

His thesis in Surnaturel suggests that the Neo-Thomist dualism “invented to protect nature against Lutheranism and grace against Enlightenment humanism, was itself the creator of deism and atheism.”[8]  Accusing fellow theologians of opening the door to atheism promptly led de Lubac into the center of controversy.  However, his alerting the Church to the dangers of ever widening the split between grace and nature stands as one of de Lubac’s most important services to the Church.  We will examine this issue briefly below.

After Surnaturel it was readily apparent that the “new theology’s” historical approach for doing theology was at odds with the constructive theology of the 1930s and 1940s Neo-Thomism.  While it signified the conflict of how to do theology, it also unmasked the fallacies of the Neo-Thomist notion of a pure nature whereby human fulfillment could be conceived without reference to a supernatural end.  To think that this is a purely academic issue, itself apart from reality, would be to overlook the ramifications in politics and interpretations of Church dogma.[9]  De Lubac’s historical work showed that Neo-Thomists had misread Thomas—a contentious finding indeed!

De Lubac argued that from the patristic to medieval eras, and especially in Thomas, the Church never endorsed a purely natural destiny for the human person apart from the eschatological vision of God; there is no graceless nature.  In due course, the graced nature notion fell away as the Scholastics and their heirs attempted to “secure the sheer gratuitousness of the economy of grace over against the naturalist anthropologies of Renaissance humanism,” just as later theologians drove a further divide between grace and nature in an attempt to hedge “the Protestant doctrine of the total corruption of human nature by original sin.”[10]  Elevating the sovereignty of God as a hedge against radical humanists and counting the good in human nature as a corrective to Protestant self-despising split the unity of nature and grace.  A mistaken Catholic theology was then to blame for the rise in secular humanism, deism, and atheism when God had been so elevated out of real existence as to lose meaning—a lesson only a historian of dogma could teach.

The argument between de Lubac and the Neo-Thomists revolved around one key question, what did Thomas mean by a “natural desire for the beatific vision”?  For Cajetan (1469-1543), “the natural desire for the beatific vision” meant that human nature was elevated and enlightened to a supernatural end by the revelation of God.  However, the only philosophical sense to be made of this claim, according to Cajetan, was that human nature can only have a natural desire for an end within its own natural realm of possibility; a purely natural satisfaction in a state of pure nature.  This distinction between nature and grace abandoned the patristic doctrine of human nature as created in the image of God and by its nature open to the movements of God’s grace.  This issue was of grave importance for de Lubac, as well as for those who were then considered the interpreters of Catholic dogma, the Dominican Neo-Thomist School.  The world, for de Lubac, is not an evil place, rather it is an ambiguous and even dangerous place that remains fundamentally good because it is the arena for God’s redemption.  The drama of human salvation is worked out in the world; it is not cast off into an escapist future.  But this salvation in the world is God’s unfolding; our actions are our participation in the master plot of the divine.  Politically and spiritually it means that

an anxiety to make a clear distinction between the two orders, natural and supernatural, must not prevent faith from bearing its fruit.  If in the upward direction a discontinuity between the natural and the supernatural is fundamental, there must be an influence in the downward direction.  Charity has not become inhuman in order to remain supernatural; like the supernatural itself it can only be understood as incarnate.  He who yields to its rule…contributes to those societies of which he is naturally a member…The service of his brethren is for him the only form of apprenticeship to the charity which will in very truth unite him with them…Whatever freedom he may justly claim for the details of his task, it is impossible for him not to aim at establishing among men relationships more in conformity with Christian reality.[11]

This is the nature of “social Catholicism”—a movement of God’s gratuitous salvation in the world whereby Christian unity builds upon the unity of humanity and the common destiny to which all are called, in practices of charity and as witness to truth.  The impact of this thought would be felt far and wide, even in the fiction of a Japanese Catholic.


As noted above, Silence stands among Endo’s most important and well-known novels.  The novel can be read on many levels, but is surely drawn from his cultural and religious suffering while a student in France and as a Catholic in Japan.  It is a book about suffering and redemption, nature and grace.

Endo emerged from a generation of pre-World War II Japanese Christian writers who struggled to maintain their faith in light of cultural identification as Japanese.  For the Christian writers in Japan at this time, “their faith eventually gave way to a kind of humanism, or to a special mode of thought and style known in Japan as ‘naturalism.’”[12]  When the war ended, there was not a single Christian novelist in Japan, in contrast to 20 by 1972.  Shusaku Endo is largely given credit for the increased acceptance of Christianity in the literature of Japan.  The reason, I will seek to show, is that Endo offers a sound rebuttal to the kind of naturalism that plagued the pre-World War II generation.  The rebuttal is not attempted on a philosophical level, but on the literary level with a clearly Catholic core.  Whether in Japan or in the West, the debate about naturalism was nothing new to Endo.

He returned to France in 1959 to complete a project on the Marquis de Sade, the radical early nineteenth century French novelist, who with religious zeal cast in modernity’s mold, could not reconcile himself to the authority of the Church at Rome and its savior, and thus duly elevated Nature to God’s place.  Shusaku Endo writes against such modern impulses, fully aware of the debate on grace and nature, critical of reducing all things to the natural, and equally critical of casting the hope of the Church into an escapist future.  Within this context, he writes his book about a Portuguese Jesuit, Sebastian Rodrigues.

Endo’s narrative begins with two young Portuguese Jesuits, Sebastian Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe, embarking upon a journey to the far reaches of Japan at a time when the Japanese Christian community is being savagely persecuted.  The trip is carried out with a missionary zeal for the hidden Christians of Japan as well as for personal intrigue to see whether the stories that had made it back to Europe about another priest’s apostasy were true.  Christovao Ferreira, the man who mentored Rodrigues and developed in him a passion to spread the gospel, was said to have apostatized under the cruelty of “the pit,” a technique where victims were hung upside down in a trench filled with excrement.  A small incision was made behind their ears and on the forehead to allow blood to drain slowly from the person’s body to prolong agony.  “The pit” was designed as a public spectacle, and until 1632, no priest had ever apostatized.

Ferreira’s apostasy is an historical fact; he is not a purely fictional character.[13]  Francis Xavier first brought Christianity to Japan in 1549.  Within thirty years Christians numbered nearly 200,000.  A change in the Japanese government led to growing suspicion toward the Christian missionaries, who until then enjoyed privileged rank in society and dined with the country’s magistrates.  By 1614, all foreign missionaries were expelled from Japan, and for those that remained, brutal torture awaited them.  Public tortures only served to fasten the resolve of the Japanese Christians, that is, until an even more diabolical form of torture was invented.  The Japanese Christian community numbered 300,000 at its peak, but with the advent of “the pit,” public martyrdoms turned to public renunciations.  When Ferreira apostatized under torture in 1632, as the leader of the mission in Japan, the repercussions for the hidden Christians were devastating.  It is at this point that Endo has inserted Rodrigues initially into a journey of imperialistic missions that ends in a face-to-face encounter with the divine.

The antithesis to Rodrigues’ missionary zeal is Kichijiro, a Japanese man who serves as guide and locates pockets of hidden Christians.  Kichijiro is a coward, a sake soaked nervous-wreck of dubious character.  The man denies being a Christian, but as the narrative unfolds, we discover his secret:  Kichijiro himself is an apostate Christian.  His family had been delivered to the magistrates in customary fashion in order to practice the ritual of renunciation where Japanese would be asked to tread on an image of Christ called a fumie.  Of his family, Kichijiro was the only one to apostatize, as the rest embraced the horrors of being burned alive because they dared not tread on the face of Christ.

Kichijiro and Rodrigues travel the Japanese countryside together.  The two are an unlikely pair.  Kichijiro often annoys Rodrigues, though the pathetic Japanese man raises a modicum of pity within Rodrigues.  Rodrigues and Kichijiro flee from the magistrates and their samurai henchmen when the two men are discovered among some hidden Christians.  In flight, Kichijiro confronts Rodrigues with the question at the heart of the novel, “Why has Deus Sama imposed this suffering on us?”[14]  Why, Rodrigues asks in turn, does God remain silent when his peasant people suffer?  Rodrigues understands that though he meant to bring the gospel to Japan, he has brought nothing but suffering for the Japanese who are tortured and suffer on his behalf.  The peasant Japanese found it difficult enough to hide their Christian faith from the magistrates, but their jeopardy increased when knowledge of the priest’s arrival in Japan made its way to the magistrates.  The triumphant missionary activity in Japan is translated into a bringer of suffering; this activity in God’s name brings death not redemption.  All the while, Endo asks, why does God remain silent?  Endo’s answer to the question of God’s silence is shocking.

Kichijiro betrays Rodrigues for 300 pieces of silver.  Like Judas, he profits from his disloyalty and suffers the anguish of his decision.  He returns to Rodrigues—now in prison—to confess his weakness, whimpering that, had he been born during the comfortable period of missionary movement in Japan, he would have been a good Christian.  Rodrigues grants him absolution despite the lack of sympathy for the weak man.  Endo raises the question of timing and truth—had Kichijiro been a Christian in the comfortable hay-day of Japanese Christianity, his weakness would not have been exposed.  Endo asks his reader whether they, too, would turn apostate like Kichijiro if times were different.  After Kichijiro leaves, Rodrigues has visions of the face of Christ, a face he has spent much of his life meditating on.  Rodrigues begins to see Jesus’ face differently. 

The peasant Christians incarcerated with Rodrigues spend their nights and days in song.  Even when they are taken to “the pit,” words of hope spring to their mouths.  For they sing

We’re on our way, we’re on our way,

We’re on our way to the temple of Paradise,

To the temple of Paradise…

To the great Temple…

The words are inherently hopeful, while decidedly future-oriented.  While hope in the present is dashed by the rigor of Japanese magisterial inquisition, the peasants posit a future of worship and peace.  The suffering of today is part of a path to God that ends in future bliss.  This awes Rodrigues, but he hopes for something more in the present.  Rodrigues counters the future hope of the peasants by asking why God remains silent, efficaciously powerful only in a future time.  A God exclusively of the future seems at odds with a true vision of God.

While in prison, Rodrigues debates the magistrate’s translator, and thus provides the context for Endo’s specifically Catholic vision for the Church’s witness in the world. The translator encourages the priest to apostatize, to step on the fumie, though he need not commit the violation with any conviction, only as a formality.  Rodrigues sees no division between action and intent. 

When brought before the fumie, the translator exhorts Rodrigues, “It’s only a formality.  What do formalities matter?…Only go through with the exterior form of trampling.”[15]  This division between inner and outer, and Rodrigues’ refusal of the paradigm, indicates Endo’s critique of the modern dichotomy between grace and nature.  For the Japanese interpreter, all that really matters is the external, the material, the “natural.”  All the interpreter hopes for is an outward sign of apostasy, and he tries to convince Rodrigues by appealing to a sometimes Christian desire to spiritualize the matter through retaining the proper “heart” or inner understanding of the facts of the case.  For Rodrigues, and Endo, action and intent are one.  The interpreter cares only for the public perception of things, hoping to draw Rodrigues into apostasy only to use that against the Christian cause.  All the while, the translator argues that the Church is useless in Japan, serving no societal function, assuming a naturalistic view of human nature and the social order.  His understanding is that the Church, to be worth anything, must be a functional cog in the mechanism of culture, giving value to Japanese modes of being.  Religion must be interiorized as not to step on the toes of culture, state, and market.

In an attempt to convince the captured priest to turn traitor, his mentor Ferreira is brought in.  The years of speculation as to Ferreira’s fate are answered when he enters the room.  Like the translator, Ferreira functions as a mouthpiece for the virtue of apostasy.  The Church can perform societal good, according to Ferreira, by leaving the Japanese people alone.  When confronted with why he himself apostatized, Ferreira readily admitted that, as peasant Christians hung in “the pit,” their moans within hearing distance, he realized he must do something for them because God did nothing.  “God did not do a single thing,” Ferreira said, “I prayed with all my strength; but God did nothing.”[16]  Having lost faith in God and the Church, Ferreira did the only thing he could do for the tortured peasants; he recanted his faith, stepping on the fumie so that the peasants might be released from their demise.

The translator and Ferreira do their best to convince Rodrigues to trample the fumie.  Like Ferreira before him, the groans of those Christians dangling outside precariously in “the pit” make their way to Rodrigues’ ears.  At first he thinks the groans are snores carried through the night air.  But when he discovers what this “snoring” really is, he wonders again why God remains silent.  He lifts his foot.  Rodrigues apostatizes.

Does Ferreira convince Rodrigues and Endo?  Does the translator?  Do the translator’s words ring loud in Rodrigues’ ears that Japan is a mud-swamp incapable of supporting to the roots of Christianity?  Is this why he lays his Portuguese foot on the Galilean nose?

In the most shocking twist of the book, Jesus makes his appearance.  The haunting silence of God is broken in a broken Jew.  The face of Jesus, constantly on the mind of Rodrigues throughout the novel, appears in the end and speaks a word of permission.  Rodrigues hears the moans of the peasants and sees a vision of Christ’s face.

Yet the face was different from that on which the priest had gazed so often in Portugal, in Rome, in Goa and in Macao.  It was not Christ whose face was filled with majesty and glory; neither was it a face made beautiful by endurance to pain; nor was it a face with strength of a will that has repelled temptation.  The face of the man who then lay at his feet [in the fumie] was sunken and utterly exhausted…The sorrow it had gazed up at him [Rodrigues] as the eyes spoke appealingly: ‘Trample!  Trample!  It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.’[17]

The triumphant Christ of the West, dominant in the mind’s eye of Rodrigues until now, has shifted to a kenotic Christ, emptied and broken.  The silence of God, then, is broken in no triumphant blaring of horns or in a show of divine might, but in a paradox and mystery of divine suffering.  God is not silent to suffering, but is suffering alongside creation.  The beatific vision, the face-to-face encounter with God, is turned upside down.  The suffering Christ who encourages so-called apostasy embodies a radical image of God.  This is a necessary picture.  Our natural longing for God equally matches God’s desire to relate and engage the human.  In the end, the soothing hymnody of the persecuted peasant Christians

We’re on our way, we’re on our way,

We’re on our way to the temple of Paradise,

To the temple of Paradise…

To the great Temple…

affirms our basic nature to seek the unmoved Mover, while God has shown himself involved in the affairs of the world.  Escapist-future eschatological and reductionistic and naturalistic interpretations of Endo crumble.  Endo’s vision of a graced nature permeates his entire project.  The exclusively future hope of the peasants and the naturalistic goals of the translator are both critiqued. 

In trampling the fumie, Rodrigues frees the peasants.  It is an action, partaking in the action of God, which bears hopeful fruit among the people.  In taking foot to face, in trodding on the image of the savior, Rodrigues is not committing apostasy.  Instead he is affirming the vocation of Christ; he is partaking in divine mission.  Rodrigues sacrifices himself, including his pride and place as an upstanding member of the clergy, in order to participate with God in a redemptive suffering that seeks the ultimate liberation of the peasantry.  So Rodrigues tramples.  But this trampling hurts.  It is not just a formality, as the translator would hope us to think.  Endo writes, “The priest raises his foot.  In it he feels a dull, heavy pain.  This is no mere formality.  He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man.”  Endo concludes, “How his foot aches!”[18]  Suffering the victory of God hurts and implies a divine patience and victory that rests not on societal fixes or divine fiat, but on human participation in the long suffering of God.  Grace and nature are one; our history is participation in salvation history.  Salvation is now, in suffering not political parties, government structures, or future-oriented hopes.

We are misled by the translation if in the reading of “Trample!  Trample!” we hear a hint of the imperative.  The original Japanese was in a permissive mood, not the imperative, so that a better translation would be “You may trample.  I allow you to trample.”[19]  The free offering of God, then, is preserved in this rendering, so that we can say with Flannery O’Connor “there is nothing in our faith that implies a foregone optimism for man so free that with his last breath he can say No.”[20]

Silence ends with an “Appendix,” the “Diary of an Officer at the Christian Residence.”  In it we learn that years later Rodrigues has taken on a Japanese name, even a wife, and is known throughout the community as Apostate Paul—Ferreira being known as Apostate Peter.  This “Appendix” is extremely important in that it hints at a living, subterranean Christian community in continued existence, wherein Rodrigues (Okada San’emon) is the head servant.  Kichijiro returns to the story here as the personal secretary of the apostate priest.  Like the Peter of the Gospels, Kichijiro as Judas is brought back into the fold.  There is a place for weakness and forgiveness in the community.  Endo shows us that the church is made of redeemed Peters and Judases; it is a broken community whose triumph is in the shared suffering with God.  The “Appendix” suggests that Rodrigues has taught Kichijiro, who in turn is teaching others, about the veneration of saints and the order of the Church.  A random search by the magistrates turns up a loose paper inscribed with “Father, Archbishop, Bishop, Pope.”

Though Rodrigues’ turmoil over stepping on the fumie was intensely personal, Endo’s vision of the gospel is not individualistic, for it ends with the Church in Japan passing on traditions and forms suitable to the Japanese.  It is a gospel with its roots in the radical nature of God-with-us, and finds social embodiment in the Church, even if authorities of the West would condemn the Church that is represented at the end of Silence.  As the book ends and Rodrigues hears Kichijiro’s confession, the priest affirms that “Even now I am the last priest in this land.  But Our Lord was not silent.  Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.”[21]  Silence is about Church and culture, triumph and suffering; most of all, Silence is about presenting a human nature bent toward God, and a God toward his people.


In 1946, Kazoh Kitamori, a Japanese Lutheran pastor, published ­Theology and the Pain of God.[22]  Its publication amidst the aftermath of World War II is not insignificant.  However, Kitamori insists he recovered a central biblical theme at the heart of the gospel.  In the wake of the book, Kitamori “was cheered as having produced the first genuinely indigenous Japanese theology.”[23]  This genuinely Japanese theology posited pain as essential to the nature of God.  Pain is the mediation between God’s love and hate; God’s compassion and just wrath.  “God who must sentence sinners to death fought with God who wishes to love them.  The fact that this fighting is not two different gods, but the same God causes his pain.  Here heart is opposed to heart within God”[24] and this pain belongs to God’s eternal being.  God’s pain is not simply an aching over human rejection.  Indeed, “God is angry at our sins, never hurt.  God suffers pain only when he tries to love us, the objects of his wrath.”[25]

Human suffering has a close relationship to God’s pain.  It is the “symbol of the pain of God.”[26]  Recognizing God’s pain through human suffering can produce healing of human pain.  Love rooted in the pain of God heals all human wounds.  Without this, all human suffering would be meaningless.  Human suffering can serve in comprehending God’s pain, but only bears meaning because “the surpassing grace of God’s pain makes human suffering valuable and precious.”[27]

Kitamori rejects Western Christianity’s over-dependence on Greek metaphysics.  In particular, rejected is how Christianity has been bound to concepts like God’s perfection, immutability, self-sufficiency, and impassability.  If God is impassable, then Christ’s suffering on the cross cannot affect God himself.  Kitamori wants to argue that Father and Son feel pain because of their essential unity.  Overall, his criticism is directed at two theological schools: liberalism and Barthianism.

First, Kitamori criticizes liberals for lefting only on the love of God.  Such a one-sided emphasis neglects the scandal of the cross and the pain of God.  In fact, church history “knows no such instance in which the pain of God was denied on such a large scale as in liberal theology.”[28]  Second, a critique is levied against Karl Barth, who in his own right was exposing the fallacies of liberal theology.  Barth remedied liberal theology by offering a theological system based on a radical separation between God and humanity, the “infinite qualitative distinction.”  This stresses judgment over reconciliation, and is ultimately incongruous with the needs of the Japanese as Kitamori sees it.

The general failure of Western Christianity to acknowledge the pain of God is not a problem the Japanese are particularly prone to make, according to Kitamori.  The Japanese may in fact have a particular vocation in history to expose the limitations of Western readings of Scripture and the dominance of Western cultural traditions.  The Japanese mind allows a receptiveness to divine suffering in its cultural “spirit of tragedy.”[29]  Kitamori utilizes the notion of tsurasa, “when one suffers and dies, or makes his beloved son suffer and die, for the sake of loving and making others live.”[30]  God’s pain, as mediator of his love and hate, makes itself visible in the Father’s sending of Son for the sake of others.  True compassion means real suffering, and a compassionate God necessarily must not be elevated in sovereignty beyond history, but enmeshed in the world and its pain, bringing about its redemption.  To preach this gospel is the vocation of the Japanese people.  Warren McWilliams summarizes the value of Kitamori’s project, saying “When Christianity is proclaimed to the Japanese, an attitude of dialogue is necessary even though one must avoid the danger of syncretization.  The flourishing of Christianity in the Greek and German cultures brought about divergent understandings of the gospel.  Japanese culture can enrich the understanding of the gospel by its sensitivity to the pain of God.”[31]

Shusaku Endo carries Kitamori’s torch into the world of literature.  To understand how, let us imagine an alternate ending for Silence.[32]  Rodrigues’ trampling is almost a forgone conclusion, if we follow the plan of the magistrates.  What if, instead of trampling, Rodrigues refused to apostatize, and the peasants died the death of “the pit”?  Their suffering would be evil, but the magistrates would not have found victory in their manipulative scheme.  As William Cavanaugh states, “to refuse to trample would be to throw back the curtain on history and reveal God, not the magistrates, at the controls.”[33]  Revealing God in this way would not save the lives of the peasants, but would strip from the magistrates the power of defining the meaning of the lives of the poor.  Rodrigues’ refusal to apostatize would be a public witness to the courage of the poors’s refusal to cease suffering.  This refusal would be witness to evil’s defeat by Christ.

Endo does not make the easy leap to victory.  All history can be viewed through the eschatological victory of the end, but only at the expense of understanding the costly path through history.  Endo would have his readers recapture a Christianity of compassion over a Christianity of triumph.  His Japanese sensibilities of the tragic make it so.  The virtue of compassion is redeemed in Endo, recapturing its root meaning to “suffer with.”  We have lost this sense.  Cavanaugh notes, “In a society in which personal choice has overtaken such a grand narrative [of the Kingdom of God’s confrontation with principalities and powers], however, suffering and truth become dissociated, and we come to believe that our highest calling is to eliminate any suffering at any cost, even the cost of truth.”[34]  Western culture has sought to eliminate suffering through technique or ideology and has only eliminated the sufferer.  Violence is done in the name of compassion; evil and atrocity have become means to “peace”.  In the process we have lost what it means to be compassionate; we have lost the meaning of God and of suffering.

In eliminating suffering and the suffering God from its story, Western culture has sought to control history by trying to make all things come out right.  Endo refuses to play the card of future victory, at least until the profound depths of God’s pain have been acknowledged and we have become participants.  Silence tells the story of such participation.  Before the reader’s eyes, we read about how Rodrigues learns to see Jesus differently.  First we read of Rodrigues’ reflection on Jesus as the paragon of beauty and perfection.  This vision of Christ dominated his life as child.  While in Japan, he meditates on Jesus’ face regularly, and that meditation begins to take different form.  In the end, Jesus appears before Rodrigues not as ideal beauty or cosmic perfector, but as a haggard face burdened with the travails of the world.  Compassion for this face leads Rodrigues to stomp on the fumie.  Endo reflects that the true vocation of the Church, then, is to be moved to compassion and to suffer with God and the peasantry of the world.  To participate in God’s saving work requires nothing less.  The suffering is not a social strategy and not determined by efficacy.  Suffering becomes a matter of fidelity; the ultimate irony being that apostasy just might lead to faithfulness.


The goal of this paper has been twofold: to show both Endo’s robust Catholicism along with the necessary cultural adaptations mandated by Endo’s Japanese culture.  In the process we see how one man has gone about shedding unnecessary Western baggage from a religion that boasts a universality, which nevertheless requires particular expression.  Endo often spoke of Christianity as an ill-fitted suit for his Japanese frame.  He comments, “I received baptism when I was a child…in other words, my Catholicism was a kind of ready-made suit…I had to decide either to make this ready-made suit fit my body or get rid of it and find another suit that fitted…There were many times when I felt I wanted to get rid of my Catholicism, but I was finally unable to do so.  It is not just that I did not throw it off, but that I was unable to throw it off.  The reason for this must be that it had become a part of me after all.”[35]  What Endo inherited rightly was his vision of the world, a sacramental worldview that sees human action within the grand narrative of God’s redeeming activity in the world. 

What Endo rebuffed in European Catholicism was not Catholicism per se, but particular modes of thought and cultural assumptions about strength and weakness, patriarchy and the power of the feminine.  Like Kitamori, it is the particular vocation of the Japanese, among other likeminded cultures, to redeem faulty patterns of reasoning in Western Christianity.  In particular, images of God as impassable and immutable have often served the cause of the powerful and require serious reconsideration on behalf of the poor.  Endo’s project is more universal than many assume.  The idea of God does not only need to be re-imagined for Japan, but necessarily for the West as well.  As William Johnston, Endo’s English translator notes, “For if Hellenistic Christianity does not fit Japan, neither does it (in the opinion of many) suit the modern West; if the notion of God has to be rethought for Japan (as this novel constantly stresses), so has it to be rethought for the modern West; if the ear of Japan is eager to catch a new strain in the vast symphony, the ear of the West is no less attentive—searching for new chords that will correspond to its awakening sensibilities.”[36]

As mentioned above (note 19), Endo’s widow has sought to protect the careful sensibilities of his novel.  In particular, Junko Endo has stressed that the voice of Christ that speaks a word of permission to Rodrigues is in fact a feminine voice.  Shusaku Endo was keenly aware that a dominant patriarchy of Japan had to be offset by a new vision of God as mother.  He developed this further in his A Life of Jesus, where he states:

The religious mentality of the Japanese is…responsive to the one who “suffers with us” and who “allows for our weakness,” but their mentality has little tolerance for any kind of transcendent being who judges humans harshly, then punishes them.”  He continues, “In brief, the Japanese tend to seek in their gods and buddhas a warm-hearted mother rather than a stern father…With this fact always in mind I tried…to depict the kind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus.[37] 

In this way, Endo offers lessons not only for the Japanese captive to Western thought, but to all people incarcerated by God-talk that, in trying to protect God’s sovereignty, limits the very meaning of God-with-us.

[1] Susan K. Wood, Spiritual Exegesis and the Church in the Theology of Henri de Lubac (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 3.

[2] François Mauriac, Viper’s Tangle, with an introduction by David Lodge (New York: Carrol & Graf, 1987; Penguin Books, 1985), 8.

[3] This is not altogether different from the way Gustavo Gutierrez works within, and radicalizes, Catholic dogma.  Of particular interest is Gutierrez’s theological framework, especially his discussion of grace and nature, which sets up his constructive work about “one history.”  Although Gutierrez sides with Karl Rahner, over against de Lubac, the issue remains the same—the importance of a sacramental view of the world.  See Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 15th Anniversary ed., (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), 44ff.  The parallel interests of Gutierrez and Endo in liberation, suffering, and a sacramental view of the world are significant.

[4] Fergus Kerr, “French Theology: Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac,” in The Modern Theologians, 2d ed., ed. David F. Ford (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 105-117.

[5] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 313-14.

[6] Kerr, 109.

[7] Joseph A. Komonchak, “Theology and Culture at Mid-Century: The Example of Henri De Lubac,” Theological Studies 51 (1990): 593.

[8] Kerr, 109.

[9] Ibid., 112.

[10] Ibid., 113.

[11] Catholicism, 203-4.

[12] David L. Swain, “The Anguish of an Alien: Confessions of a Japanese Christian,” The Christian Century 112, no. 34 (November 1995): 1120.

[13] Shusaku Endo, Silence, trans. William Johnston (New York: Taplinger, 1980).  For the historical context behind Silence see the translator’s preface, vii-xviii.

[14] Ibid., 55.

[15] Ibid., 171.

[16] Ibid., 168.

[17] Ibid., 175-76.

[18] Ibid., 171.

[19] Junko Endo, “Reflections on Shusaku Endo and Silence,” Christianity and Literature 48, no. 2 (winter 1999): 146.  See also Van C. Gessel, “Hearing God in Silence: The Fiction of Endo Shusaku,” Christianity and Literature 48, no. 2 (winter 1999): 150.  Junko Endo, Shusaku Endo’s widow, was shocked upon learning that both the English and French translations used the imperative and not the permissive mood of the original Japanese.  She is working with the publishers of Silence in an attempt to alter future printings.  Not only is “Trample!” not an imperative, according to Junko Endo, but also it likely represents a feminine voice as juxtaposed to a triumphant, patriarchal voice of Jesus.

[20] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 182.

[21] Silence, 191.

[22] Kazoh Kitamori, Theology and the Pain of God, trans. M.E. Bratcher (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1965).

[23] Kano Yamamoto, “Theology in Japan: Main Trends in our Time,” Japan Christian Quarterly 32 (January 1966): 40.

[24] Theology and the Pain of God, 21.

[25] Ibid., 115, 45.

[26] Ibid., 62.

[27] Ibid., 147.

[28] Ibid., 24.

[29] Ibid., 134.

[30] Ibid., 135.

[31] Warren McWilliams, “The Pain of God in the Theology of Kazoh Kitamori,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 8 (Fall 1981): 193.

[32] The fine essay by William Cavanaugh was helpful in this exercise.  See William Cavanaugh, “An Apocalyptic Reading of Endo’s Silence,” Logos 2 (Summer 1999): 114-15.

[33] Ibid., 114.

[34] Ibid., 115.

[35] Silence, xv.

[36] Ibid., xvii.

[37] Shusaku Endo, A Life of Jesus, trans. Richard Schuchert (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 1.

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