‘And supposing the God whom those Japanese believed in was not the God of Christian teaching…’ Fereira murmured… ‘What the Japanese of that time believed in was not our God. it was their own gods. For a long time we failed to realise this and firmly believed that they had beocme Christians… I am saying this neither to defend myself nor convince you. I suppose that no one will believe what I am saying… the very word “Deus” the Japanese freely changed into “Dainichi” (the Great Sun). To the Japanese who adored the sun the pronunciation of “Deus” and “Dainichi” was almost the same… From the beginning those same Japanese who confused “Deus” and “Dainichi” twisted and changed our God and began to create something different… They twisted God to their own way of thinking ina way we can never imagine. If you call that God…’ Fereira lowered his eyes and moved his lips as though something had occured to him.
‘No. That is not God. It is like a butterfly caught in a spider’s web. At first it is certainly a butterfly, but the next day only the externals, the wings and the trunk, are those of the butterfly; it has lost its true reality and has become a skeleton. In Japan our God is just like that butterfly cuaght in the spider’s web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton… They did not believe in the Christian God… The Japanese till this day have never had the concept of God… [they] are not able to think of God completely divorced from man; the Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human.’
I recently read Silence by Shusaku Endo (thanks, @picadorbooks), and aside from engaging my general squeamishness about the European Age of Exploration and the Christian missions all tangled up in it, this was the bit that caught at my brain. Feirera, who is a Roman Catholic priest who denied his faith after years as a missionary in Japan (the story is about Rodrigues’ journey to find him and find out what happened) is arguing that he chose to deny his faith in order to save Japanese Christians from death, because it wasn’t fair for them to die for a faith that wasn’t really true.
I mean, I know that this is a fictional story – but I can’t help but wonder how he knows this. Or how anyone would know this about anyone else’s conception of God. I mean, because someone from a different culture than you is talking about God in a different way to you, does that mean that they’re conceiving of God differently to you, or is it just that the lanugague and concepts that they have for talking about God(s) are different to yours? Can you ever get over that – either in conversations about God, or thinking about God yourself? If you can answer the endless question of whether language limits thought or vice versa, let me know.
I’m also intrigued by the idea that a person’s conception of God defines the truth of their faith. I mean, does it? How much? Don’t get me wrong, I think that how a person understands God matters, but on an in-or-out of eternal life level? And, it’s not like thinking of God as a being that transcends the human is an easy thing to get your head around – as a human. How does Fereira know that he’s acheived it, aside from the fact that he’s learned that this is how you’re supposed to talk about God?
And if it Feirera were right that it matters, then how much does advantage does a particular mediterranean-western european cultural group have when it comes to salvation?
Lots of questions running around my brain. No answers, except that I think Fereira’s wrong. I just can’t explain why.