End struggled throughout his life to understand the relationship between his identity as a Japanese and as a Catholic. Silence ponders whether Western Christianity (though not Christianity itself) is incompatible with Japanese culture. If it is, then Western Christianity must adapt to Japan, rather than Japan and the Japanese adapting to Western Christianity. The repeated discussion of “the swamp of Japan” reaches no neat conclusion, but Rodrigues’s stepping on the fumie and his internal debate about its significance indicate that his Portuguese Christianity has been overcome by the swamp of Japan. However, a new understanding of Christ, Christ’s work in the world, and Christianity may be at work in Rodrigues: Some form of Christianity is possible in Japanese culture.
The issue of the adaptability of Christianity applies, of course, not only to Japan in the 1600’s or Japan in the 2000’s but also to all cultures at all times. If Western Christianity found a swamp in Japan, as the novel suggests, might it not also find a swamp in twenty-first century America, Africa, or Asia? If it does, what would an acceptable adaptation of Christianity be for those countries?
The eponymous subject of the novel has been interpreted in two main directions. Either God remains silent throughout the novel despite the pleas of his followers for him to speak or the reader is invited to see the ways in which God communicates in or through the apparent silence. End supported the latter interpretation in interviews and video presentations. The novel is an extended meditation on Habakkuk 2:20: “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” Readers are invited to be silent so that they can hear God.