Who Are We, Anyway?

41zs0ocj5gL“What are the Japanese peasants looking for in me? These people who live and work and die like beasts find for the first time in our teaching a path in which they can cast away the fetters that bind them…. for a long time they have lived in resignation to such a fate.”

The Washington Post called Silence by Shusaku Endo “a profoundly moving, a profoundly disturbing book”— and it is that, from beginning to end. One of the most difficult books I have read, it takes up by necessity the most difficult of all questions.

We are known by our questions, aren’t we? Trivial questions, weighty questions, questions that don’t matter very much, questions that weigh us and form us— in their different ways they are windows into our hearts, into what we care about, and why. And of course we are all, everyone of us, a complex assortment of questions, clay-footed as we are, stumbling through life as we do, sometimes caring about things that matter, often not.

When I began to realize that the Beach Boys weren’t yet thinking very much about the world beyond California’s beaches and girls, and that the Beatles hope to hold a girl’s hand simply wasn’t going to be enough to make a good life, I began listening to Simon and Garfunkel. Beautiful, lyrical, poetic, they were asking questions about human identity, about our place in the world— and I was too. Though their answer wasn’t finally very satisfying, I came to realize that “I am a rock, I am an island” was more than silliness, and in fact their songs were asking questions that were mine.

When I was 20 this troubled me enough that I left college for two years, what I then called “my extra-academic education,” living in communes here and in Europe, hitchhiking wherever I needed to go, asking questions wherever I went. Over the years I have only dug deeper into the question of “Who are we, anyway?” visiting it again and again in my studies, and as must be, working at it in my own vocation as a teacher, wherever my classrooms have been.

What does it mean to be human? And what difference does our answer make? In my dropped-out years I began to see that everything— sex and love, politics and art, education and economics —that everything grows out of what we believe about ourselves, about who we are, and why we are.

My questions have taken me from years of pondering philosophical anthropology, to political philosophy, to popular culture, seeing threads that are woven in and through these different conversations that together create a fabric that makes sense of life. So over the years I have been intrigued by Albert Camus, Vaclav Havel and U2, each in their own artful ways asking the same question, “What does it mean to be human?” Hearing Camus write stories about human beings plagued with their responsibility for the world, hearing Havel resolutely argue that “the secret of man is the secret of his responsibility,” and hearing U2 sing songs that lament the possibility that we are “stuck in moments we cannot get out of,” I see Endo take up this same dilemma, the question at the heart of everyone’s heart: what does it mean to be human?

Perhaps surprisingly, Endo is at one and the same time the most respected novelist in Japan, and a serious Christian; the two come together in an unusually profound way, a moving and disturbing way in his masterpiece Silence, taking up the story of the 17th-century Jesuit missionaries to Japan who were pushed to the very edge of faith and hope and love. The story is not cheap, because it cannot be.

Grace is like that too— not cheap, because it cannot be. In fact if it is true, the whole world changes, and our sense of self is different because we know that we are not stuck. Several years ago, U2 wrote a hauntingly beautiful song, “Grace,” in which they sing that “grace is more than karma, karma.” A poetic argument against Fate as the first and last story of human existence, that “the fetters that bind us” are not the only story of human life under the sun; the same hope is written into the heart of Endo’s novel, hard as it is, moving and disturbing as it is.

In the strangeness of our hearts, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, we prefer to be bound, whether we live in the pantheist East or in the materialist West. We choose Fate over every other possibility, resigning ourselves to “things are the way they are”— the in-your-face lyrics of Lady Gaga’s “born this way,” is the same resignation as that of the Japanese peasants in Endo’s novel  —rather than find our way out by a path in which we can cast away the fetters that bind us.

So yes, a difficult book, with no cheap questions and no cheap answers. But at the end of the day, life is too hard for anything cheap, and we long for stories about the world that is really there, difficult as they sometimes must be, graceful as we long for them to be.

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