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Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence, like the historical novel by Shūsaku Endō on which it is based, turns on an act of emotional blackmail. Inoue, a seventeenth-century Japanese magistrate intent on eradicating Christianity from his country, pressures a Jesuit priest named Rodrigues to apostatize not by torturing him personally, but by torturing his flock. If Rodrigues tramples on Christ’s image, the savage torture of a group of Japanese Christians will end. In his successful efforts to overcome Rodrigues’s resistance, Inoue has the support of another Jesuit priest named Ferreira, who previously apostatized under the same conditions. 

If it is always and everywhere difficult for human beings to hold in their minds seemingly contradictory tenets of Christianity, Silence makes the task feel impossible. Mercy is pitted against truth, love of neighbor against allegiance to God. Following the release of the film, the debate stirred up by the book was reignited, fueled by competing clues: For example, in both the book and the film, Ferreira’s appeals to Rodrigues to apostatize are rhetorically persuasive, but when Rodrigues actually steps on Christ’s face, a cock crows. The Jesuit Fr. James Martin, a consultant on the film, argued in America that in circumstances like these, well-formed, prayerful Jesuits might legitimately deny Christ. Other Catholic critics lamented Silence’s implications, appealing to centuries of church teaching and the eternal validity of Christianity’s truth claims.

On one point, at least, critics would probably have agreed. In a time and place unsurpassed in the history of the Church for the ingenious ferocity of the tortures that were visited upon Christians, Inoue’s psychological stratagem deserves an eminence of its own. How diabolically perverse must the mind of that Japanese magistrate have been to have dreamt up such a devastating turn of the screw, one that carves up the good and pits love against love—!

Turning to the historical record, however, one discovers that the real story unfolded differently. Inoue was a real magistrate who brutally persecuted the Church, and Ferreira was a real priest who apostatized at his hands. The character of Rodrigues is based on another real Jesuit named Chiara, who, hoping to make amends for Ferreira, entered Japan as part of a group of ten, all of whom were captured and all of whom eventually apostatized. But the truth about Ferreira’s and Chiara’s actual apostasy is straightforward. They were tortured, and they broke. They denied Christ not because of a manipulated, unbearable pity for the sufferings of others, but because of their own unbearable suffering.

What this means is that the deeply disturbing, polarizing drama at the heart of Silence is an anachronism. It is a projection of the modern mind, a hallucination of an anxious, confused, and codependent imagination. It is a story dreamed up by Endō himself, a troubled twentieth-century Catholic, which attracted the attention of Martin Scorsese, another troubled, long-lapsed cradle Catholic.

Not coincidentally, Silence was published in the same year (1966) that so-called Death of God theology made its Time magazine debut, a theology eloquently summarized in these pages by Matthew Rose last year (“Death of God Fifty Years On,” August 2016). Anyone interested in the Silence controversies who reads Endō’s novel and Rose’s essay side by side will understand that when Endō’s Ferreira says to Rodrigues, “You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed,” and “Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them,” he is speaking not the language of seventeenth-century Jesuits, but the language of Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton, twentieth-century Death of God theologians who believed that not only Christ but Christianity must die, that it is not finally Christian to be Christian, and that in the name of Christian charity, Christians must reject Christian truths.

In other words, if Endō sometimes defended his book by protesting that he wasn’t writing theology, he wasn’t writing history, either. The real Ferreira was not a Death of God theologian, and the real Inoue, a man of seventeenth-century Japan, would never have employed the strategy Endō attributed to him. Why not? Because it would not have occurred to him that it would have worked. A lot has happened in three hundred years. As secularization has advanced and man has had to learn to live without God, his solution for the most part has been to draw closer to other people, in unprecedented, ultimately untenable ways.

In 1937, in Germany, near the end of a vanishing age, Romano Guardini wrote in The Lord:

Man’s desire to share in the life and the destiny of another certainly exists, but even the profoundest union stops short at one barrier: the fact that I am I and he is he. Love knows that complete union, complete exchange is impossible—cannot even be seriously hoped for. The human ‘we’ capable of breaking the bonds of the ego simply does not exist. . . . My every act begins in me, who am alone responsible for it.

Guardini goes on to describe the economy of the Triune God, and the way the Holy Spirit, mediating the relationship of the Father and the Son, makes possible a life characterized by both individuality and union. Only by the mediation of the same Spirit, he argues, can man’s longings for selfhood and intimacy be realized. Only with the help of God’s Spirit can his needs for both autonomy and community be met.

There is wonderful writing in the late chapters of The Lord, and wisdom for the ages, but by asserting as a given that, apart from God’s Spirit, man’s intractable separateness can never be overcome, Guardini failed to anticipate all the ways man would attempt to overcome it nevertheless. He failed to imagine the astonishing lengths to which man would go, and all the means he would employ—political, ideological, juridical, surgical—to try to break the barriers that separate him from other people, and to achieve, apart from God’s Spirit, the happiness for which he was created.

Already in the 1930s, at the same time that Guardini was writing The Lord, a young couple in America began testing the boundaries Guardini assumed were inviolable. Sheldon Vanauken and Jean (“Davy”) Davis, two self-proclaimed pagans, fell in love, and with an eye to preserving their love, agreed to reject everything that might separate them. Everything had to be shared: books and music, spur-of-the-moment impulses and long-term dreams. Because pregnancy and childbirth were exclusively female tasks, they ruled out children; Vanauken made every effort to think like a woman and Davy like a man; and against the threat of death, they made a suicide pact. Around the sanctuary of their co-inhering, gender-fluid love, they raised what they called the Shining Barrier, which held for a time but was eventually breached by God himself. His entrance into their lives did indeed bring about differentiation and separation, even to the death of the young wife and a prolonged reassessment of their relationship by the bereaved husband—a “severe mercy” in the words of C. S. Lewis, who was instrumental in the couple’s conversion to Christianity.

A Severe Mercy, Vanauken’s memoir, is a valuable book, because it articulates so clearly an impulse that is bearing such strange fruit in our time. Transgender experiments are only the tip of an iceberg. Underlying them is a widespread, largely unexamined assumption that has been gathering strength for some time: a conviction that we should be experiencing the feelings of others (which in practice turns out to mean their sufferings rather than their joys) as if they were our own, that this exercise is now morally obligatory.

In a world without God, the new commandment of empathy might have been foreseen. Once God has been pronounced dead and the loyalty we owe him void, the question of what we owe to others and what we can expect from them becomes urgent. Unable to locate our life’s meaning in God and his eternity, we seek it in our relationships with other people. This is the eventuality the Death of God theologians anticipated: a horizontal, desacralized world that has broken down every barrier to inclusion, a world in which, undistracted by an outgrown God, we can finally give our full attention to one another.

Empathy, in this secular kingdom, does not mean simple kindness, consideration, or compassion. It means actually feeling what you believe someone else is feeling at any given moment. If I am sorry that you are suffering, I am compassionate, but if I am suffering what you are suffering, I am empathic, which means that presidential candidate Bill Clinton got empathy exactly right when, in a crystalizing moment at a 1992 fundraiser in New York City, he said to AIDS activist Bob Rafsky, “I feel your pain.”

Many of us in the larger audience laughed at Clinton’s assertion at the time, but the joke turns out to have been on us. For many years now, we have been living in what Frans de Waal called an age of empathy, an age not of reason but of overflowing emotion, as if the sea, that great universal symbol of ungoverned passion and seething affective life, had burst the bounds God laid down for it in the beginning (“so far and no further”) and covered the whole earth with its waves.

In our neurological arsenal, scientists now tell us, we have neurons called “mirror neurons” that do not distinguish between the self and others. They tell us, too, that an empathic response to another person’s pain can involve the same brain tissue that is activated when we ourselves feel the same pain. Moreover, while some people are naturally more empathic than others (women, for example, tend to be more empathic than men), with practice, or “empathy training,” everyone can improve. By deliberately and habitually dwelling on the sufferings of others, as the empathy commandment, sensational media, and a culture of victimhood encourage us to do (contemporary versions of Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, which required traditional Jesuits to dwell on the sufferings of Christ), everybody can enlarge their empathic capacities. Indeed, given a choice between reason and emotion, or sense and sensibility, as a culture we incline to emotion and sensibility more and more, and we are proud of our choice, as if it were evidence of our evolving humanity.

But is it? What have been the real consequences of our unprecedented emotional spending? What have we purchased by it, and have there been hidden costs for what Buddhism calls “sentimental compassion” and psychology “unmitigated communion”?

Sadly, it turns out to be an exhausting, counterproductive business, this business of trying to participate in the sufferings of other people. In his recent book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom summarizes the experimental evidence and concludes that empathy, strictly defined, “[corrodes] personal relationships; it exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love.” Far from being kinder and more supportive of others, overly empathic individuals are so overwhelmed by the sufferings of others that they are finally helpless to help them, and may even actively avoid them. Nursing students, for example, whose empathy scores were high spent more time seeking support for themselves than caring for their patients. Bloom’s book is full of examples of people suffering from what he calls “empathic distress,” not only in the helping professions but in relationships in general.

Part of the problem with empathy is that it is so vulnerable to manipulation. If empathy means feeling what you believe someone else is feeling at a given time, then not only the psychopath but any especially needy or unscrupulous individual will enjoy an advantage in an empathy-driven world. Empathic individuals are imaginative individuals, easily persuaded that the sufferings of others are worse than they are. (Who would know?) In The Great Divorce, in an imagined posthumous encounter between an emotionally manipulative husband and his long-suffering wife, C. S. Lewis distinguishes between a proportionate, constructive pity and a pity that we merely suffer, a Passion (Lewis’s word) that Endō all but divinizes in Silence, but one that impairs our judgment and destroys our peace, and may persuade us to concede what we would not otherwise concede.

Consider, too, Adam Smith’s mournful observation that “Nature, it seems, when she loaded us with our own sorrows, thought that they were enough, and therefore did not command us to take any further share in those of others, than what was necessary to prompt us to relieve them.” Is it reasonable, or wise, to expect people to bear other people’s sufferings? Is it a coincidence that in a world that has made a fetish of vicarious suffering, suffering itself—real suffering—has become taboo?

Today, even the Church is increasingly fearful of inflicting pain: afraid of exercising appropriate authority or disciplining her members, afraid of telling them hard truths. In the home, likewise, parents are overly protective and anxious, ineffectual and unsure. They shrink not just from disciplining their children but even, in some cases, from bringing them into the world. In her introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann, Flannery O’Connor warned that, in an age of unbelief, we govern by a tenderness that, long since cut off from the person of Christ, ends in terror. Abortion, opioid addiction, assisted suicide, euthanasia: Can we agree that this is not the brave new world the Death of God theologians promised us, but a new kind of hell, with new kinds of suffering in it?

In the same introduction in which she calls our secular tenderness into question, O’Connor argues that a gain in sensibility and a loss of vision go hand in hand. “If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith.” They saw, in other words, all the way to the telos, the end for which man is made, in light of which the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18).

This ability to take the long view, this far-seeing eye that fills the whole body with light, is a distinguishing mark of the saint. The saint is not empathic; he is charitable, which means that he always wills the ultimate good of his neighbor. Because the saint’s emotions are ordered to faith and to reason, he is neither particularly manipulable nor unduly afraid of suffering, his own or anyone else’s. The mother in Maccabees, for example, in the second century B.C., urges her sons in her presence to suffer and die for the truth. In 1619, in Kyoto, Japan, tens of thousands of native Christians accompany and encourage fifty-two of their own as they are slowly burned alive for their faith, among them small children in their mothers’ arms, the mothers crying out, “Jesus, receive their souls!” More recently, in 1940 in Germany, the Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe refuses an offer of German citizenship from the Gestapo, even though acceptance of the offer would have saved the lives of his brother priests as well as his own. In his refusal to save either himself or his spiritual family (a refusal that does not seem to have been for him a “terrible dilemma” or an “impossible choice,” words Fr. Martin uses to describe Rodrigues’s dilemma in Silence), Kolbe resembles Christ himself, who accepted not only his own Calvary but the Calvary of all his disciples, all those who would suffer and die for him down through the ages.

Solidarity in suffering is a keynote of the Body of Christ, but it is a solidarity constituted by singular individuals, whose unity derives from each one’s primary allegiance to Christ. Empathy solidarity, on the other hand, is Christian solidarity’s demonic counterfeit, one that carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. If the Holy Spirit strengthens both individuals and the ties that bind them, empathy weakens them. Excessive, unmediated intimacy leads to affective confusion (whose suffering is whose?), and even to confusion about identity and agency (whose choices are whose?). In a world of porous boundaries and blended identities—think of Dante’s thieves in hell, bleeding into each other—Guardini’s confident assertion “my every act begins in me, who am alone responsible for it” is cast into doubt. Modernity suffers not only from Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence (an oedipal fear of being influenced by one’s forebears), but also from what we might call an anxiety of influencing others, a disabling fear of being responsible for others’ choices.

Again, Silence holds up a mirror to modernity. Repeatedly, in the novel and the film, characters give voice to a fear that Japanese Christians are suffering and dying for their priests. (“Look! Look! For you blood is flowing . . .”) The despondent Rodrigues concludes that “he had come to [Japan] to lay down his life for other men, but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives one by one for him.” Where is God in this sentence? Where is the truth that, convinced by God’s Spirit, seventeenth-century Japanese by the thousands suffered and died of their own free will for the God whom they refused to betray?

Christianity is not a cult. Its stated goal is not to control others but to set them free, even from the person evangelizing them. In a letter to Vanauken, Lewis compares the disproportion between an evangelist’s influence and its sometimes outsized effects with the disproportion between a boy’s puny finger on a trigger and the thunder and lightning that follow. Christianity’s ideal method is to preach to others a word that has the power to put them in touch with the Source. Its goal is to introduce others to the God who alone has the power to confer identity and individuality on human beings.

Our age’s obsession with individuality is expressive of a crisis of individuality; it is symptomatic of a deficit rather than a surfeit. People today are no more selfish or egotistical than previous generations; rather, their selfhood is more genuinely imperiled. Unacquainted with the Holy Spirit, which introduces into human relationships the same kind of spacious, identity-enhancing intimacy that characterizes the Trinity itself, and far from the Church, whose sacraments, the Eucharist especially, “[enable] us to break our disordered attachments to creatures and root ourselves in [Christ],” too many people fall into binary, diminishing relationships; thievish relationships in which, in Guardini’s words, “always the one must live at the cost of the other”; mutually destructive relationships from which people eventually withdraw in dismay.

Put another way, in a world without God, man attributes too much agency to himself. This may exhilarate him for a time, but in the end, he cannot bear so much responsibility. There is a reaction, and, across the culture, a collective retreat, as unprecedented numbers of people lick their wounds in solitude, or seek comfort in drugs, legal or illegal, or in pornography, or in the soothing, impersonal ministrations of electronic devices.

This is not a world in which Christianity can flourish. Christianity, to be passed on, depends upon strong individuals, people who know where they end and others begin. It depends upon people who understand both their natural limits and their supernatural potential—secure individuals, who are unafraid either of proposing strong truths or of entertaining challenging proposals from others.

In the swamp of modernity, these conditions no longer obtain. In Silence, Inoue calls Japan a swamp in which Christianity cannot take root, but in fact it did take root in the seventeenth century, surviving underground for generations. Modernity is the real mud in which Christianity struggles to find a footing. Christianity, after all, can only take root in individuals, and in our day, bona fide individuals are in short supply. In a world of recovering codependents, God’s word is still reverberating, but man is too timorous to repeat it. He is too fragile and insecure, too existentially touchy and emotionally raw. Suspicious of others’ influence and terrified of exercising his own, frightened of suffering himself but even more unnerved by the thought of others suffering—how can such a person receive Christ or offer him to others, when either to receive or propose Christ is always, at the same time, to receive and propose his cross? In a suffering-averse world, handing on the Gospel is almost impossible. In the culture of the modern West, it is not God’s silence that should trouble us, but our own.

Meanwhile, in a world in which even our present pontiff has compared Christian evangelization to jihad, another kind of proselytism continues unabated, one that has no anxiety at all about influencing others. This is the kind of proselytism brought to bear on Rodrigues: the insidious, relentless pressure on the Christian to deny Christ.

Like Satan himself, Ferreira wants Rodrigues to apostatize to justify his own apostasy. So, at a remove, do Endō and Scorsese. Inoue, too, a former convert to Christianity who abandoned the faith, has skin in this game, as do the film’s liberal admirers, many of whom have made their own compromises with orthodoxy. Even the native Christians suffering in the pit belong to this company, because in Endō’s fiction they, too, have apostatized and are being tortured anyway, in an effort to persuade Rodrigues to fold. The deck, in other words, has been stacked in every possible way. If modernity has been called rationalized sexual sin, how much more is it rationalized apostasy.

What is most subversive about Silence is that it recruits Christ himself to this team. (“Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them.”) The same double-talk that we are accustomed to hearing from Death of God theologians (to fulfill itself, Christianity must deny itself), and from advocates of assisted suicide (your dignity demands the right to destroy your own dignity), Endō places in Christ’s mouth, as the image of Christ (the fumie) on which Rodrigues is being pressured to step speaks to him: “Trample! Trample! . . . It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.” By this device, Endō turns Rodrigues’s denial of Christ into obedience to Christ, and the Christian God into something like the arbitrary, self-contradictory deity of Islam.

In his article in America, Fr. Martin takes this scene at face value. He does not specify that it is Endō’s imaginary Christ who tells Rodrigues to trample. Instead, he treats Endō’s fiction as a private revelation, one with the same status and authority as sacred Scripture. He says flatly, “This is what Christ asked [Rodrigues] to do in prayer”; and “Confusing as it seems to some Christian viewers, Christ requests this contradictory act from his priest”; and (betraying a little impatience?) “There is nothing subtle here: [Rodrigues] apostatizes, finally, because Christ asks him to.” There is no mention by Martin of Christianity’s long tradition of discerning spirits, no mention of the myriad occasions in the lives of the saints when a demon shows up disguised as an angel of light, or even as Christ himself. If in Eden the excuse was “The devil made me do it,” in Silence the excuse is “Jesus made me do it,” a rationalization that gives new meaning to the word Antichrist.

As promised, there are many Antichrists abroad in our day, of which Endō’s fictional deus ex fumie is just one small, particularly brazen example. In an age of empathy, the more pedestrian temptation is to become faux Christs ourselves, false messiahs who promise more than we can deliver.

Thinking along these lines, we can understand, finally, why empathy is preoccupied with the sufferings of other people, rather than with their joys. In the spiritual economy of modernity, the place that remains vacant is the place that belongs by right to Christ alone: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” Our culturally sanctioned practice of empathy is an attempt to fill Christ’s shoes; it is a reiteration of the sin of Eden in a fresh guise. In place of Christ’s fearless, definitive Passion, we offer others our problematic, uneasy pity, a passion from which no one rises incorrupt. 

Patricia Snow is a writer in New Haven, Connecticut.

Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our December 2017 issue.