Archive for August, 2012

August 28, 2012

A Meditation on the Prophetic Call of a Different God

First of all, I would like to recognize my indebtedness in this reflection to the many thinkers and philosophers who have, in one way or another, formed me to what I think and believe in. Among others, and I apologize for not recognizing those I marginalize, I recognize my indebtedness in this piece to Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, Richard Kearney, John Caputo, and Donal Dorr. Not that I know them personally, but that their thought has been essential for the development of this piece, however long it may be.

Can we rightfully, in our own language, our frail and fragile, often violent language, describe an encounter with the Sacred? Does what we say do justice to what has been revealed to us?

Surely this has been the perennial hermeneutical problem for the philosophy of religion: how can one describe what is indescribable? Is it tantamount to human arrogance, to speak of the unspeakable, as if it was speakable, as if there was no other way but to speak of it? Whence this ethical call to speak of the unspeakable?

From this scaffolding, allow me to proceed to meditate upon the more-or-less-three-week-stay in Yogyakarta and its socio-cultural-religious context with my friends from the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, and Korea. From this rather quick sketch of what we have experienced these past three weeks, it is my hope to meditate upon the testimonial character of our experiences, that is, speaking of them to other people, like the Apostles, who, after having been touched by the Holy Spirit, went out “to the ends of the Earth” to bring about the Christian kerygma. Limited by my own cultural and religious indebtedness, this meditation will be a properly Christian meditation, that is, a reflection on experience in the light of Christian revelation.

Thus, permit me to reflect upon a scriptural passage, a passage that has been important not only for my spiritual nourishment, but also for my Christian social responsibility, in the hopes of fleshing out what I have mentioned above: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mi 6:8)

One thing I humbly request; this will be a lengthy meditation, and that it is my hope that you also patiently go with me through these words. For to be patient – from the Latin pati – is also to suffer-with.

“He has shown you, O man, what is good”

I went into the program with a lot of reservations; how am I going to fit in? Considering that I was coming into an undergraduate program as a graduate student, I thought to myself: could I, a testament of the silent march of time, even for just a few years apart from them, fit well with them? I also thought about the fact that for the first time in my life, I will be going to a country where my faith, a faith that I have always proclaimed for the sake of love and justice, is regarded as a minority. How can I speak of a God who loves in a place where He is called differently? Most importantly, I went into the program thinking about my own spiritual sojourning; “the dark night of the soul,” as St. John of the Cross would always say. Needless to say, I came in with a lot of what we might call baggage.  More than that, I also carried with me the hope that the baggage, even for a short while, could be lifted off of my shoulders.

A religious experience, I think, begins exactly like this: full of expectations and historical contingencies. For how can we say that there is something “beyond” if there is no place where we might trespass the limits, the visible, the revealed? How can we even speak of something “otherwise” if there is no crossing over the line? I guess it is safe to say that at least for me, something was transgressed, surpassed, surprised. Not that I had a theophany, but that the abounding yet silent stirrings of love made itself manifest in the different people whose lives I had the grace of sharing with.

I remember Pa Kidi, my foster father, whom I shared quite a number of silent moments with. I guess the language and the cultural barrier was actually a grace. The filters of culture and language sometimes blind us of how a person makes him or herself present in front of us, in front of our eyes. It takes an experience of radical indeterminacy, of intense alterity, of infinite depth to make us realize that our way of understanding people and their actions are always interpreted according to our own context and comfort. To experience someone who is entirely outside my own history takes me out of myself. It is, strictly speaking, not my own history, but now, his-story.

Still, despite this we tried to communicate as best as we could. It was now not about saying what we thought, but actually showing how we felt. It was an entirely different kind of rationality, that of empathy. I can say that for the first time, I didn’t have to rely on what I knew or thought – as I am wont to commit – but that it was all about how we were just there, sharing the same space, as if the same sacred space that Moses shared with the burning bush. Sometimes we had the opportunity to speak to each other, because father knew very little English, and my immersion-mate had quite a good skill in translating from Bahasa Indonesia to English. But most of the time, it was all about just being there, like a child, I guess.

And isn’t this what is good, to be just there, and yet the presence makes manifest the infinite depth of experience? Like gazing at the terrifying and fascinating mountain of Merapi staring down our houses and farms, or sharing a meal with our Muslim brothers and sisters in the braking of the fast during Ramadan – to stand in front of experience, trembling. The Good is always beyond any qualification, be it race, age, religion, culture, orientation, gender, being. An encounter with the good always leaves us wounded, in the sense that we are not the same again. It leaves us wounded because we realize that we failed to see beyond what we thought was true. It leaves us wounded in the sense that all our past pretensions and prejudices are literally broken – as if essential to our being human, shattered. It leaves us quite literally naked before experience.

But is there anything else that opens us up to whatever is that exceeds ourselves? That is why we are wounded; we are opened up to whatever is that makes itself present. Such a painful way of being human – we can only transcend when we are told that we cannot go on anymore, when there is too much suffering, too much memory, too much regret, too much hatred. Having been shown “what is good” could only mean this: that because the Good exceeds us, it is necessary to break ourselves open, and that this breaking-open is made possible with an encounter with whatever is otherwise than ourselves, “than that which nothing greater can be thought,” in the memorable words of Saint Anselm.

In the most straightforward way, we can say that an encounter with God – whoever God is – will ultimately hurt us, like my Muslim friend who, for the first time in his life, felt like being the minority during our immersion (the community was a Catholic community). And we are hurt because we cannot stand too much goodness because we ourselves sin and err. It hurts because we’ve become too proud and comfortable. But most importantly, it hurts because we realize that there is something more important than what we think or feel. This opens us up to the prophetic call of whatever is that calls us, “like a voice in the wilderness.”

“To do justice”

To witness the Good also means that there is something diametrically opposed to this Good, for if goodness was the only category, then we wouldn’t be surprised, we wouldn’t be hurt in our encounter with the Good. There must be something wrong. And when we gaze at the world – and of course ourselves – we realize that there is sin and death; there is suffering that also exceeds our expectations: the desolate landscape at the foot of Merapi, littered with ruins, and most probably, bones under the ashes; the less-than-stellar relationship between the people of the community and their Parish (so it is not that different from the Philippines, after all); the animosity by Muslims towards other Muslims who are not part of their community; the stark marginalization of the Buddhist and the Hindu tradition despite its clear and distinct influence in the formation of the culture of Indonesia; and closer to home, our own violence, whether in thought or in act, against our marginalized religions, most notably Muslims.

Because there is this Good beyond qualification, beyond whatever is beyond, we recognize that there is still “work to be done.” That is why we can recognize injustice – because there is still justice-to-come, and isn’t this the struggle to bring the Kingdom here on Earth? This is the calling of the Good, what “the Lord requires of you” – to fulfill His age-old promise that “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” because “long have I heard the cries of my children.”

Thus, it is safe to say that when we open ourselves up to whatever is that exceeds excess, we also open ourselves up to the challenge posed by the voice of God in the world of injustice: dare to be Good! And what can be as challenging as our ways of thinking, or ways of dealing with other people, as if reducible to race and creed? What else can be as challenging as ourselves, how we are in front of other people, in front of God?

Perhaps this is our vocation – to transgress the borders of identity and open ourselves up to the Other, and to heed this calling entails that we go against those who assert their purity and identity. “Going against” certainly has violent connotations, but what I mean to say is that the struggle for justice is opposed to the self-interest of those who think otherwise.

What then, is the response appropriate to this call for justice?

“To love tenderly”

The structures of injustice in this world – the stories of rampant corruption shared by my foster family of the government in Indonesia, especially with the ministry of Education; the misrepresentation of the different religions in the national government, and even the absence of recognition of other religions in my own university – become so daunting that we are left with an important choice: to refuse to address them in silent acquiesce, or to choose to be responsible (responsibility as a response and as an ability) with and for others to struggle for this justice-to-come? If one truly opens oneself up to the Good beyond transcendence and plunge into the deep heights of this transcendence, we realize that this Good beyond transcendence has been there long before we have ever been ourselves. In the most general sense, that we have been loved first allows us to actually recognize that there is something beyond sin and injustice. This “first act” is what we can call love.

But love not in the sense of senseless giving of oneself completely; in order to struggle for this justice-to-come, it is also necessary to enrich our interpersonal relationship with the Other, beyond any boundary of identity markers, especially religion. What this entails, therefore, is that we, after having been witnesses to the Good without qualification, plunge deeper into this Good with and for others. It is only through the community that we can struggle in order to confront the reality of injustice.

Accepting differences, then, is a requirement for justice; for how can we ever understand the word “solidarity” without the admission that I will forever be incommensurable to my neighbor? That is why there is such a thing as neighbor – he or she does not live with me. Whatever the Good is, it exceeds me being a Christian, being a Filipino, and so on. It is the horizon that does not end. To love, therefore, is to go beyond the qualifications that make us all too human. To love, in the most naked sense, is to recognize the presence of others, and in turn present oneself to others, in their utmost depths. In this, the community can and will grow in depth. No wonder the community after the 2010 eruption of Merapi picked themselves up and emerged stronger; no wonder some religious groups transcend tolerance and actually lend a helping hand to their others.

Such a difficult love, that it even requires that we love those eternally distant to us, our enemies. But isn’t this what God has been doing since then? – to continue to love despite the insistence of the selfishness of men and women. The prophetic call, therefore, enjoins us to continue the love, to embody the love through the work for justice, beyond any category, beyond any border. To love, then, is to cross borders.

“To walk humbly with your God.”

One can only cross borders if one learns to walk humbly – what does this mean? – None other than to be led by something greater than oneself, to be animated by the Good beyond transcendence, to struggle for justice with and for others. Surely this seems like madness, to be led by someone I do not know, “to some place you do not want to go.” That, at the end of the day, whatever the loving community does will never be complete without the silent guidance of the God of difference, of the God who always defers Godself, transgressing the borders of thought. For surely, our language can only do so much in trying to comprehend whatever is that is beyond transcendence: we can only say one thing – that it is different. To walk humbly then means to live in difference, to always commit oneself to the indeterminate determinacy of our conviction.

And to be sure, the God that I have heard calling me to love and justice in Indonesia was certainly a God that went beyond what I thought about God. For the longest time I have been walking in confidence with a God whom I knew I knew completely, whom I recognized to be the God of my childhood. But this experience of woundedness showed me that God exceeds my idea of God – it is this to-come that animates how I relate with and for others. It is this horizon that never ends that allows me to share with the presence of others, in tender love, in order to strive for what is Good, which is always already late. It is the God that calls me to cross the borders of religion and proclaim a Kingdom that is still to come, and yet is already here in our thoughts and acts with other people. My three-week stay in Indonesia has been a calling to live in humble testimony for a different (i.e., always deferring) God.

In a sense, that is why we can speak of the unspeakable, because it is this God of difference that animates our speech – because we have been loved first. Thus, it is not arrogance to speak the unspeakable: it is a response to the opening up of everything to the Goodness beyond transcendence. Faith, in this sense, is always a responsibility. We can speak the unspeakable because it is not us that have the last word, but always, but always never already, God. To speak of God, then, is to stop short of totalizing God, and this can only be possible if we open ourselves up to what is good beyond transcendence. That is why we are called to walk “humbly” – to cross the borders with a God that transcends Christianity, Islam, or any other religion for that matter. It is the God of difference that leads us across his different names. It is not about proclaiming that everyone must believe in a God that rules everything; it is about proclaiming the love that animates how we relate to God, no matter what religion or culture it may be.

At long last, we have reached where we have begun, “and to see it, as if for the first time” – the naked encounter with the Sacred, reducing us to speechlessness. Indeed, like the prophets of the Israel of old, it will take time to struggle for this justice-to-come that is animated by the Good beyond transcendence. Like the Acacia tree that only starts to grow if Merapi’s slope, if the volcano erupts, heats up the seed just rightly for it to break open, so will our humble work for justice take its time. To commit oneself to a different God, then, is to learn to hope – to always have God Himself deferred. It is the hope that patiently waits and works silently. It is a conviction that knows how to take time:

“What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.” (Ecc 3:11-14)