When Jesus Returns, Will He Find Faith or Technology?

Faith in Technology
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When Jesus returns to earth, will he find faith? Perhaps not, but he may find technology. I thought about this topic while listening to an interview where Martin Scorsese discusses his new movie Silence, his own personal story, and faith. Refer here for the interview.

The film is based on Shusaku Endo’s book by the same title (I recently wrote about the movie in a post titled “Apostasy: Would You Ever Renounce Your Faith? Reflections on the Movie ‘Silence’”). The movie chronicles two Jesuit missionaries who journey from Portugal to Japan in the seventeenth century, when Christianity was prohibited. They went secretly in the attempt to find their mentor who had supposedly renounced the Christian faith and to strengthen the suffering church. The movie deals with the weakness of the human spirit, but also its strength, in the struggle of faith. We who are believers must come to terms with both: we need to be honest and empathic with others in their failures in faith in that we are all weak; we also have the potential to be resilient in the face of great travail, as in the case of the Japanese Christians who paid the ultimate price for their faith. All of us are bound up in this two-fold struggle.

The interviewer asked Scorsese if people in America appreciate and understand the kind of faith expressed by the Japanese Christians, which involved the willingness to undergo such excruciating suffering. Scorsese responded:

Do we have that kind of faith here in America? Does our culture reflect that? I don’t know if it does…Faith here now is our technology, I think. But when they pull the plug from the technology, there’s still gotta be something…There’s gonna be that confrontation or that realization of yourself really…

Such faith, as Scorsese says earlier in the interview, involves encountering Jesus when everything else is removed. He’s the one we ultimately face, not church institutions, however important, or technology (Refer to the segment in the clip that runs from 12:30 to 15:03).

Our certitude in view of our technological sophistication, advancement and alternative-reductionist scientific explanations stand in the way. Scorsese expects many to be hostile, and others to be at least critical (perhaps cynical?) of external aspects of the mission on display in the movie. He claims that so many films have dealt with such external dimensions, including no doubt associations with colonialism. Scorsese went in a different direction with this movie: he decided to go at the subject of religion and mission from the inside out, not from the outside looking in. In other words, he chose not to focus on the external struggles of religion’s interface with political and institutional forces, but rather, the internal struggles of faith (Refer to 18:00-20:50 of the video clip).

I’m not sure one can understand the film without some appreciation for faith—what goes on inside. How often do we play the role of the Inquisitor and his subordinates in the movie who simply focused on external forces associated with faith?

The Japanese interrogators did not appear to hate the Christians as individuals, but rather hated what their teaching and its import meant for Japan. Is there not a sense that they were looking simply from the outside in, just as the Western powers did, and just as many people do today? Having come through an extremely lengthy and costly civil war, Japan had only just recently experienced united rule. In no way were they going to allow an external force such as Christianity that was to them exported from the West to jeopardize their culture. They simply wished to cultivate and preserve Japan, which is exactly what they did over the next few hundred years; there was hardly any contact with the outside world during the Eido era.

I wonder to what extent the Inquisitor and his associates’ adherence to Buddhism, as alluded to in the film, was a matter of the heart or external forces that involved bringing about greater social cohesiveness. The same could be said of the Western political powers of the day. It is probably fair to say that many of the Japanese political and military leaders were drawn to Western technology, not Christianity, when sojourners from the West first landed on Japanese soil. Even when America under the auspices of Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open its ports to America in the nineteenth century, it was not the call for freedom of religion that captivated the Japanese imagination, but Western military technology: the Japanese wanted to achieve equivalent military might so as to protect themselves from Western empires’ quest for expansion (Refer here to a discussion that includes consideration of this theme).

Authentic faith is never very efficient; as a result, it often runs aground when coming onshore in the East and in the West. Efficiency was and is increasingly the name of the game for those who approach faith from the outside, whether Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, or American. But inefficient faith is needed more than ever before, for technology, like Scorsese reflects, does not prepare us for the most vital encounter in the depths of our being after the plug of technology is pulled. While technology makes life convenient and efficient, Jesus is inconvenient and messes with our sense of autonomy and modern superiority.

Scorsese’s concern for Americans expressed in his interview reminded me of Jacques Ellul’s assessment of modernity: the new orthodoxy frames the good life as the most efficient. The technological mechanization of all of life construes value by way of efficiency in the form of technique (See Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, with an introduction by Robert K. Merton {Toronto: Vintage Books, 1964}, pages 12, 21.) Only “the consoling hum of a unified society” appears to relieve us of anxiety as the age of machine extends its reach (See page 6).

Scorsese and Ellul are no Luddites. They have nothing against machines and technology. What they challenge is the certitude of human faith in machines and its eclipsing of human meaning and value. I believe they would much rather champion human frailty involving faith, whether Christian, Buddhist, or another, than the Promethean quest for omni-competence. An awareness by faith of our inefficiency prepares us far better for the divine encounter to which Scorsese alludes in his interview. It also helps us come to terms with the realization of who we truly are as frail humans. But are we willing to be so honest? The stakes are high on the high seas between the East and West and inside you and me.

If Jesus were to return to earth, would he find faith? Yes—in technology. But perhaps we humans with all our weaknesses and agonizing struggles to be authentic before God and one another in the face of mechanistic efficiency will be no more.

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