Silence and Evolution
If God speaks in gentle whispers, is it any wonder we so often miss it? Our lives are filled with winds and earthquakes and fires.
What does Martin Scorsese’s new film adaptation of the Shusako Endo novel Silence have to do with evolution? Nothing directly. The book and movie, set in 17th century Japan, are not concerned at all with a scientific explanation for how life has developed on earth. But people in my line of work often see indirect links and hear deeper resonances with the worldviews involved in the origins conversation. In this sense, I think Silence points powerfully to the God who works patiently through the created order (including us) to achieve his goals.
The basic plot of the story is that two young Jesuit priests set off for Japan where, they have heard, their former mentor has renounced his faith in the face of intense persecution. We’re led on an insightful and difficult journey exploring the nature of faith, its outward cultural manifestations, and God’s response to us (or lack thereof) in times of suffering.
I went to see the movie last Saturday morning. The only showing was at 10:00am, and there were only 30 people in the theatre (and this in a principal actor’s hometown!). Those facts don’t bode well for the movie getting a long run, which is a shame because it’s really good. As you would expect with a Scorsese film, it does not whitewash or shrink back from the difficult subject matter, and the acting is terrific.
The movie is also faithful to Endo’s widely acclaimed novel. I’ve read it three times now, most recently in the lead up to the movie’s release. My wife and I held a book club at our house with a bunch of millennials whose faith has undergone some rather dramatic shifts in the last five years. We read the book outloud, going around the circle with each person reading as much or as little as s/he wanted. That oral presentation lent a more intimate quality to the story. These weren’t just words on an impersonal page, but someone you knew and loved who narrated the tragic circumstances of the story, often betraying some emotion with a slightly trembling voice.
Juxtaposed with scenes of horrific physical torture is the psychological or spiritual suffering of the young priest Rodrigues. Why doesn’t God intervene to stop the violence against Christians? Why is God silent? This time through the book, I couldn’t help asking Rodrigues, “What exactly do you expect God to do? Send a thunderbolt from the sky and smite your enemies?” Occasional accounts of that sort of thing from the Bible notwithstanding, that doesn’t seem to be God’s style. And in the end [not much of a spoiler] Rodrigues says, “Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.”
Two things in that statement (the last line of the book) are worth thinking about: God wasn’t silent; Rodrigues just hadn’t heard him in the midst of the trials. And secondly, God speaks through other means than just directly with a big booming voice.
To the first point, one of my favorite stories from the Old Testament is in 1 Kings 19 when Elijah had fled into the wilderness to get away from the wicked Queen Jezebel. He came to the mountain of the Lord and,
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
In that gentle whisper, he stood in the Lord’s presence; he heard the Lord’s voice; he received instruction for ordering his chaotic world. If God speaks in gentle whispers, is it any wonder we so often miss it? Our lives are filled with winds and earthquakes and fires.
I’ve often used this passage of Scripture to argue for the necessity of creating times of solitude and silence. In my own life, I’ve regularly gone to a monastery to get away from the hustle and bustle for a couple of days, let my mind slow down, and listen for the still, small voice. Sometimes I don’t hear anything but my own thoughts. Sometimes I think I do hear something else, but I’ll be the first to admit the evidence is slight and ambiguous enough that you wouldn’t be unreasonable in affirming either side of that debate.
I guess that’s one of the main things I take away from Silence. Faith is not so much a creed to assent to or a set of outward actions to perform—though I think those things have a place in the life of faith. Rather, faith is a way of looking at one’s life and choosing to see more than a series of random and meaningless events. It is possible—and I’d say, not unreasonable—to hear the gentle whisper as the voice of God, who numbers our days and orders our lives in subtle and loving ways. One of my favorite contemporary writers, Frederick Buechner, says it this way:
In my own experience, the ways God appears in our lives are elusive and ambiguous always. There is always room for doubt in order, perhaps, that there will always be room to breathe. There is so much in life that hides God and denies the very possibility of God that there are times when it is hard not to deny God altogether. Yet it is possible to have faith nonetheless. Faith is that Nonetheless.1
In Silence, Rodrigues didn’t think any faith would be left if he abandoned the outward forms [sorry, that’s kind of a spoiler, but if you’ve read this far I’d guess you know the story!]. What kind of faith is it when Christ himself urges you to deny him publicly out of love for other people? Or was that really Christ? Lots of people do things because they claim God told them to (or the more evangelical version of that: God called them to). For some of the crazier instances of this I want to say, “Let’s look at the rest of the circumstances and listen to that message again.”
That leads to the second point: God’s speaking and God’s action are most often found more indirectly. Rodrigues looked back at the ordeal he had gone through and saw the hand of God actively working through his own life. I remember a sermon illustration that is pretty cheesy but attempts to make this point. It went something like this: A devout man’s house was being flooded so he climbed up on the roof and prayed for God to save him. Some neighbors came by in a canoe and said they’d take him to safety, but he refused saying he believed God would save him. Then a police boat came around and said he needed to evacuate, but he refused again believing God would save him. Then a helicopter came and lowered a rope, but he held firmly to his faith that God would act to save him. The flood continued and the man drowned. In heaven he asked, “God, why didn’t you save me?” God replied, “I sent a canoe and a boat and a helicopter! What more did you want?”
Too many people believe God’s only actions are miraculous actions. If there are normal, non-miraculous, or scientific explanations for something, then they think God had nothing to do with it. They want to see a burning bush, or they won’t believe God is speaking. They want to prove special, de novo creation or they don’t think God is creating.
I fear these attitudes, which are prevalent among the religious communities I’ve been part of, actually make it more difficult for us to see God at work in the normal circumstances of life, or more pertinently for the origins conversation, in the fossil record or in the genetic code. God has not left unambiguous evidence of his activity there, so we might see why science-minded skeptics interpret that as divine silence and content themselves with purely natural explanations. Nonetheless…I don’t think we’re being unreasonable when we look the scientific data squarely in the eyes and see something more at work. That something more is not in the gaps we don’t understand scientifically, but in the beauty and elegance of it all. There are difficult things we see too, and integrity demands we talk about them honestly. Still, it is reassuring to me how often through the eyes of faith we can see hints of the difficult things serving bigger purposes and even being transformed in the end.
To have faith is to respond to what we see by longing for it the rest of our days; by trying to live up to it and toward it through all the wonderful and terrible things; by breathing it in like air and growing strong on it; by looking to see it again and see it better. To lose faith is to stop looking.2
At BioLogos we pledge to keep looking.
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