Archive for ‘Reflections’

April 4, 2015

Commemorating Good Friday in a Secular Landscape

Three points of reflection:

1. I feel a sense of uncanniness commemorating Good Friday in a place that does not treat it as much as where I come from. Cleveland – or should I say (most) of the US – is a highly secularized society, and because of that, social arrangements are profoundly different. Before I would scratch my head every time people wrote about the difference of the experience of space and time in secularized societies. Temporality and spatiality are profoundly different back in the Philippines, which become pronounced coming up to the holidays. Holy Week, being the most important dates for a Catholic, are days of reflection and prayer, of penance and forgiveness, and finally, of joy and hope. And because of that, everything stops; everything gets reordered, distended and intended, stretched to their limits and condensed to their densest possible singularity, according to the passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Here, however, today feels just like any other day. Much like how we regard Muslim holidays – a greeting of goodwill, and nothing more. Only now have I realized how profoundly different commemorating Jesus’ death is when you only have a few people to commemorate it with, which really underscores the intimate link between community and the very experience of space and time.

2. It gets me thinking about how we, Catholic Filipinos, take so much of the slowing down of time and the extension of space for granted. Our givenness in the Catholic faith allows us to experience things differently, and I daresay much more profoundly. The Stations of the Cross is a perennial example. While most of us – me included – will want to finish off the stations immediately, the invitation however is to slow down. And what better way to learn that slowing down than by learning how to walk slow, and not only walking slowly, but with the community. The walking is an act of praying. Incidentally, I met someone in an academic conference last week. She was a woman minister for the Church of England, and we talked a lot about religion. As we talked, it gradually dawned on me that much of the distinctiveness of the “Filipino-style” of practicing the Catholic faith comes from the very visceral, embodied, and even carnal depictions of the movement of faith. The excessive manifestation of the faith is not a relic of an non-Christian way of doing things; it is what makes the Filipino faith distinct. In other words, the Filipino faith offers nothing less than a profound change in the spatial and temporal arrangements of one’s living. The practice of everyday life, as a sociologist puts it, is changed because of faith. And the marvelous thing with Filipino religiosity is that this faith is acted out, performed most vividly in the process of practices involving the body, to the point of excess.

3. This unique and distinct style of Filipino faith, in my view, offers a deeper look into the very physical and traumatic nature of Christ’s suffering. The Gospels until Easter morning are populated by narratives involving touch, or at least intensely physical experiences. The first narrative coming up to Friday was the scene in the garden where Jesus prays to the point of painful sweating. This was followed by His arrest, where Peter cuts off one man’s ear, only to have Jesus heal the man’s wound by touching him on the side of his head. Of course we are familiar with the oft-repeated passion narratives, which are inundated with assaults to the senses. And coming up to Easter, we see the resurrected Jesus telling Mary to not touch him. We also see the disciples in the road to Emmaus, who witness a stranger touch the bread, raise them up, and whose eyes were opened and whose “hearts were burning” at the sight of the risen Christ. What do these narratives tell us? Perhaps this: that we are invited to slow down and feel those intensely physical invitations, for it is only in slowing down and in prayer that we are able to savor the salvific power of Christ. This is why narratives of touch are almost always narratives of conversion. I have said earlier that the distinctively Filipino style of practicing the faith has been very physical. There is another dimension to this physicality: its shared nature, how undergoing a similar or an analogous experience provides a deeper level of understanding. Perhaps the call is not just to emulate Christ for the sake of emulating Him in the most physical manner possible; perhaps the call is to unlock one’s doors and go out into the streets and share the burden and joy of being a Christian, embodied in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps physicality can be rendered in this way: as an extension of oneself to the other, just like Christ did. Compassion, lest we remind ourselves, comes from the Latin patir, which means “to suffer with.”

That might be the deeper lesson in Filipino Christian practices, over and beyond the usual interpretations of being instances of folk Christianity, or worse, inauthentic renderings of faith. Faith, at least in our experience, is never divorced from community, and community means to go through something together, even to suffer together. But one must be reminded that everything does not end in suffering, but in joy. Which is why the paradigm for Christian practice is the liturgy. And perhaps that is a good starting point for rediscovering our faith: simply by going to mass and letting God take hold of you, for it is in His holding that everything will change, and it is in that holding that I am also held together by others in worshipping Christ.

A blessed Good Friday.

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November 13, 2013

Exile: or, to Yolanda

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. […]. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.

– Isaiah 9:1-2

Growing up in a family that was technically not a family – that is to say, a broken one – I thought that it would be easy to “live alone,” so to speak. Father was regularly going around the country for business, so even then, I was nurtured to be a “grown-up:” to be used to your parents not being at home, and to be used to living alone. So when the family broke up, I had that itching stoicism within me that told me that I can take this all in.

And I guess it was quite reinforced when I studied in Manila. No doubt, I came from Manila and I grew up in the “gates of hell,” but I spent my so-called “formative years” in Iloilo, of whom I have every bit of affection to. So I wasn’t that much of a stranger to a change in context; I was able to assimilate quite well with a particular culture (I learned Bisaya in the two and a half months I stayed in Cagayan de Oro). Going back to Manila, then, was like revisiting my grandmother’s house: still there, but not quite. But the atmosphere was more or less the same. You only had yourself to look out for. You could say that the second amendment was built on that, on the idea of “I can handle this with my own hands.” – And “handle this myself” I did: I always got puzzled looks from my friends when i insisted that I eat out alone, or go somewhere alone. It was not that difficult to do it; it was just the way life was for me at that time.

So my transits between my provinces (Iloilo and Cagayan de Oro) and the city were literally transits: my visits were like whiffs of coffee when you scurry past the dining table during breakfast time. You can taste it – being home – but you always feel left out, as if it was you who was not part of that picture. You always gravitate towards the blinding light streaks that undulate across your windshield as you travel down the road – it was like that, just passing by.

2008 was quite a shock not only because it was my first year in college: Frank happened. For the first time, I felt helpless. Some of my friends were no where to be found. The floodwaters rushed up like a spring; nobody was quite prepared for it. Everyone near the river was reduced to sitting ducks on their rooftops. As images of death and destruction filled my newsfeed (Facebook was still not that “advanced” back then), I felt – and I swear it was the first time that I felt it – numb. Not because the “excremental assault” of these images were too much for me; it was that simple but disturbing feeling of being away from where you’re supposed to be: a spectator of my own possibilities for suffering. My feet trembled at the sight of people holding on to branches; it gnawed on me that I might have been that person. It could have been me. But I felt numb: I am supposed to be there, but I am not.

I remember that sinking feeling during the relief operations: only a few of us were there (less than five?). I helped SLB pack some goods in rice sacks, so that they will be shipped off to Iloilo first thing the next day. As I placed the goods in those sacks, the absurdity of it dawned on me: what if I was the one who was at the receiving end of this economy of relief?

Then Ondoy happened. 2009 was quite memorable because everyone just had a hand to help; one time there was actually more volunteers than there were goods. The need was indeed enormous; millions of people were affected, and being the imperial capital of the Philippines, goods were coming in like flies on a corpse. Everything stood still, just so people can help out. The shock was overwhelming; the stench of death permeated the air (especially in Provident – oh how I couldn’t forget that smell!), the images of people smashing against the bridge, leaving nothing but floating bodies being swept away, as if the storm hadn’t paused for its dead. It was clear; it was a tragedy to not respond – the only human thing to do is respond, even in a psycho-social way. Support groups were always around, people consoled each other. It was like family.

Sendong came. I nearly lost an aunt – she was struck by a piece of the roof as the river burst its banks and sent out a horrendous wall of water to the city. I was attending a conference when my mother – now in New Zealand – called me and told me to call my relatives because they have not yet been contacted. I feared for the worst; I knew that they lived in a low-lying area, and it will be a miracle to see them come out of it standing. By the grace of God, they did, with my aunt sustaining a deep cut on her leg, but nothing worse than that. Certainly it was better than those who actually died.

I was days away from leaving for Iloilo when it happened. It situated me within that uneasy space between my hometown (safe and sound from the storm) and a town that I have learned to also call my home (Cagayan de Oro). I told to myself: not this again. Once again, I was in exile: where was home, I hadn’t had an idea. I was at a loss, and once again, that numbness persisted: the feeling of watching those that you love and hold dear to you suffer immeasurably, and resigning to the simple fact that you cannot do anything.

Habagat also happened, and I was in Indonesia. I was always at the wrong place at the wrong time. I was also supposed to be affected by it. I do not understand, honestly, why this happens: to be forced to become a spectator of disasters.

And now Yolanda comes in and slices the Philippines in half. The death toll could exceed Ondoy, Pepeng, Sendong, and Pablo combined. There is no measure for the suffering that it has caused. And now I am stuck here in Manila, thinking: why am I here?

I think one can only go through so much, accumulated in memories for the past four years. Being away from home is never an easy thing, but nobody can prepare you for this: to be away from your home, and to see your home stripped bare, down to its foundations.

And I think those from the province understand quite well: no one can ever understand somebody who has seen before his or her very eyes her “family” being taken away from him or her, like a child being taken away for his first injection: the screams and the tears that fill your senses, because for the first time, you are in the hands of somebody or something alien to you. Looking back, perhaps that was the reason why I felt so numb: I was afraid that I would have no control over what was happening right before my very eyes.

And city-dwellers can never quite understand, I think, because it is not their homes that are torn apart by the silent beauty of our planet. It was heartbreaking to see people generally not care, going about their workaday lives, as if there was no disaster. It was heartbreaking, most especially, to see people who gave their all during times when it directly affected them, but turn a blind eye on their suffering brothers and sisters that were practically no where near the vicinity of their consciousness.

(That is why I always cry whenever people from the city show their concern and actually extend help; it is beyond comprehension for me to see them, without any direct link to those that suffer, extend so much of their selves just to help out. Most, however, are not of the same disposition to help, not even an inkling of concern you can extract from them.)

And I think I reached that breaking point where it was already impossible to become numb. Tears streamed down my face as I listened to the indifference of the priest during Sunday mass; it became difficult to control my feelings against those who claim some kind of ascendancy in their “interpretations” of what happened; it became overbearing to hear superfluous complaints, from the stain on their shirts to the fatigue that comes from studying.

This is not to say that these efforts are worthless, or that everything should stop. I get it that people really have to move on, and that is a fact of life. But there are also people who might be keeping something from everyone a sense of “not exactly being here;” the guilt of not being at home, of being in exile.

I guess that is included in the package, so to speak. The decision to be away from home comes at a price: sometimes a friend, or at times your house. And to continue to watch your own friends turn a blind eye on the suffering people of your home sometimes is too much to bear. The only way to continue from now on is to bear the burden to extend a helping hand, because it is not an easy thing. If one comes to relief operations with the hope of “feeling good,” you are only kidding yourself. To know – approximately – how it feels to be away from home and to lose a home also means to know approximately that it is important to help out those that have lost so much.

A while ago I attended a talk by a Rabbi on the 75th anniversary of the indignation of the Philippines against Kristallnacht. Towards the end a member of the audience – a Jew – stood up and looked at us, students and young professionals, and told us squarely: the only thing that can get you through is family, no matter how far away they are.

Looking back the past four years, I asked myself: but what happens if you don’t have this “family” to get by with, and every time you say “this is home,” it is taken away from you?

To be far away is a burden, but I guess at the end of the day, it also becomes some kind of a responsibility, not only to tell of your home and of your loved ones, but more importantly to begin the long trek home. After all, the tipping point of any exile is also the point where you finally decide: it is time to go home.

Even if it is yet to be found. Or more properly, it is also where other people have lost theirs.

So perhaps I was right when I was taught to look out for myself, but perhaps I was also wrong. Either way, I am left a sojourn. Things have to move on. I guess that is the best lesson we can get from one’s exile: to just move on.

September 21, 2013

Telling the Story of Philosophy: Reflections on Teaching and Research

A conversation with a friend over beer (but of course, philosophy cannot but be done in the midst of booze!) made me think of my experiences in teaching philosophy, much more with doing research on it. It also made me think of the reasons why I am still convinced that telling the story of philosophy is an essential activity (or, that “doing philosophy” is to tell its story, and “telling” can have a manifold of meanings here), and that this activity cannot but lead one to tell this story to others. So we can say, even provisionally, that part of doing philosophy is telling its story to others, and enjoining others to tell this story.

But first of all, why the story of philosophy? I am not one to essentialize but I think that one of the more fundamental human characteristics is the ability to tell stories. I was always amazed with how stories opened up vistas of lifeworlds. Trying to remember my childhood, I was never exposed to stories about knights, or about talking animals. My parents, however, would always buy me books about astronomy and the natural world, those of the D&K type. Deprived of the fantasy world, I dived in these books and was utterly amazed (I could still vividly remember the feeling of being awed at the sight of a nebula in the picture book) by the vastness of the universe. I was struggling to understand how, on the one hand, these stars hung above our foreheads, keeping everything safe and watching over all, and on the other hand, how these “gatekeepers” or “angels” as my grandfather used to call them, stand across some infinite distance, as if they themselves imposed that space between me and the stars. Of course I was not this eloquent before, and certainly I did not muse about the mystery of existence when I was a child, but I remember feeling a sense of “being enveloped” or the simple feeling of falling into silence every time I stared at the stars. They were there, and I was here, and it seemed that they were telling something important and fundamental to me.

And so I elected to want to become an astronaut, or to be one of those people in the picture books, who spent their whole day sitting by their telescopes, looking at the stars. But life (and conscious living) eventually caught up, and here I am trying to build a career in the academe, starting with philosophy.

What is it about the stars that made me think about the story of philosophy? Going back to what I said above, I was utterly amazed at how people had this craft of telling stories, and part of that is, of course, telling the story of why we are here. That was precisely the reason why every time I looked above, I could see the story of the stars, how these distances keep us alive in the first place, and how we might be able to understand this space between myself and whatever is outside myself. This was precisely the “story” that I encountered in philosophy: a story of how far humanity has come, and at the same time, a story of how far man has fallen. To speak the story of philosophy is to speak of a distance: of leaving, and of living; of starting a journey, to getting lost in medias res. For it is true, to tell a story is always done on the pretext that there is this distance between me and the listener, where somebody receives the story, i.e., listens to it. As one of my teachers put it (in epistemology class): it is a story of how we know, and how much we have yet to know.

And so I bring along this mindset whenever I teach or do research. I think conceptual learning can only go so far; one pedagogical technique that has been proven to be effective time and time again is none other than the telling of a story. People seem to remember better when people listen to stories (and I am not one to generalize; this is but an observation). As Paul Ricoeur puts it, our memories can be said to have some sort of a narrative structure, an “elusive unity” as a Thomist puts it (though he refers to another thing) – that which forms us, and that which is continually formed by an other. No wonder Ricoeur spoke of “oneself as another!” The greatest value of telling a story is that you are implicated in that telling; every narration is always an ethical decision, an event of appropriation, if you will (and here you get traces of Heidegger’s poetic thinking).

Whenever I teach, I always start with a story, present the lesson as a story, and if time and opportunity will have it, narrate my own stories and enjoin others to tell their story. As I have said, teaching philosophy is telling a story of how far humanity has come, and how far we have also fallen. Teaching in the mode of narrating “our contemporary situation,” or showing that “not everything is crystal clear,” or, as Wittgenstein puts it “how our thinking is surrounded with a haze” not only implicates me, the story-teller, in this big, heterogenous gamut of narratives we conveniently call history, but it also implicates the students. To be sure, I am certainly against the idea that to teach philosophy is to merely “see it in my own life,” or worse, “finally know how I feel or who I am,” or what have you. To teach philosophy is to implicate myself with the Other, for it is the Other that has spoken first.

And what does this implication mean? Of course it is not always a happy ending; one has to confront, for example, the Holocaust, or closer to home, the Martial Law. One has to confront that our modes of appropriating knowledge are not as “neutral” as some of us would like to think. In this sense, to teach philosophy is always being-late: I teach only in retrospect. But it also means that this implication opens one up to the working-through of myself. So as much as my students learn from me (or so I think!), the more I learn from them. To tell the story of philosophy, is in the final analysis, to be told the story myself – to be reminded of it, like that small note inscribed on the walls of Auschwitz: “never forget!” So telling a story is essentially a movement “to the Other,” because you have already been oriented toward it, by the Other. That is why I think, for instance, that one cannot do philosophy or theology without taking the Holocaust into account.

So the same goes for research. Every moment of inscription of writing is always an ethical move; one implicates the storehouses of knowledge, of possibilities still unthought of, and of course, the possibility of being-wrong. And one never writes for oneself, it is always, again, to the Other. And one will never stop writing, just as the Other never stops irrupting.

Of course you would say that we are falling into deep disquietudes, and worse, into platitudes that eventually amount to nothing. For what can words “do” in the midst of extreme suffering (in Zamboanga, for example), but assume the simple and silent act of narrating? I think this is the core of teaching: when your words do amount to something, when it pushes other people to act, and in the final analysis, pushes you to act. Teaching and research are never neutral things. A stake to the good (one can debate on it later) is what happens in teaching and research. The least one can do is to enjoin others to also speak of this story. This demonstrates, I think, the most important instance in a student’s learning, for it is in telling stories that one can even begin to think of the possibilities of action.

Even now, when I look up the sky, and see a world getting farther and farther away from those that hold us together, I still see faint stars. The overpopulation of lights and man-made stars have made it difficult to cultivate and share this wonder to other people. But there the stars remain. At the end of the day, one has to commit oneself to a memory of them. The word “remember” really brings it home, so to speak: to commit oneself to memory is to re-member, i.e., rejoin and retie and repair what has been broken, or at the very least, what has been found wanting. There is no end in sight, like the stars that populated my childhood.

As Rimbaud eloquently puts it, “[True] life is elsewhere. we are not in the world.” So long as we are in this incessant movement of leaving and of living, teaching never ends. Or should we say, our stories never end. And so that distance between I and the Other is infinitely preserved. The stars, no matter how few or how dim, still fill me with awe.

Bear with me, O mystery of existence, as I pluck the occasional thread from your train.

Soul, don’t take offense that I’ve only got you now and then.

My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once.

My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man.

I know I won’t be justified as long as I live,

since I myself stand in my own way.

Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,

then labor heavily so that they may seem light.

 

– Wisława Szymborska, excerpt from Under One Small Star

 

March 31, 2013

The Prodigal Mother: a Blessed Easter!

What was Mary doing between Jesus’ death and his resurrection? This was the question posed to me during my holy week retreat two years ago, and only now I have only come to realize how important and profound that question was.

Mary stands out for the simple fact that she seems to be the person that was always around Jesus. Biblical scholars can debate what happened to Jesus between the presentation at the temple and his ministry, but we can be assured of one simple thing: Mary’s presence. She was there before Jesus was born into the world, when Jesus was in the world, up to his death and resurrection. But surely it must have been a difficult time during those three days: her son had just died, his followers have just went into hiding, and, if we are to take into account the Johannine narrative, was in the care of the most beloved disciple. It seems stranger to note that we are not told what happened to Mary after Jesus rose from the dead: one can, of course, imagine her happy, but again we return to our question: what was she doing during those days of waiting for her son’s return?

My unqualified yet justified (of course by faith!) answer to this is: nothing, except that she trusted her son’s word, for indeed, her son was the Word. I detect three things within the Marian trust that could help us understand not only her motherhood but also of our task in embodying Mary’s hope: memory, honesty, and courage.

(1) Memory: One must have imagined Mary being sustained by her memories of her own son: travelling into the night to hide in Egypt (or so we are told!), hopelessly losing herself in the temple to find her son, being “told off” by her very own son in his very first public miracle, all the way up to the cross, where she would not have forgotten her son looking at her, as if to say “we will see each other again.” But none can equal, I think, the memory of that night when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her to announce her special mission, with the disturbingly consoling words: nothing is impossible with God.

(2) Honesty: Mary, I think, is one of the most self-aware people to have ever walked this Earth – she knew she was not God. That exactly is the essence of being a mother: she is not her son. I think that the moment of annunciation was also the moment of terror for her: she was not God, and yet she had a godly task at hand. This if course didn’t get into her head – in fact it kept her sane: she knew she was finite, and a mother can only do so much, that is, to watch her son die, and to be condemned to be subject to time, waiting for her son’s promise.

(3) Courage: or maybe more of fortitude. God is dead, and the forces of evil seemed to have triumphed. Mary is left to the care of John, and nothing more. Like the apostles, Mary must have been afraid for her life. But something about her made her stand out apart from the apostles: she was the mother, and as they say, mothers know best. The source of that courage had to be unimaginably deep: her love for her son. There is then no question as to why Christ chose John to take care of her: he resonated the same filial and profound love, and John cannot but also be a source of strength for Mary.

It might be conjecture, but one can point out a striking parallelism: memory is none other than faith, honesty is none other than hope, and courage is none other than love. At the heart of it all was Mary’s sense of grace: everything had been given, and giving back amounted to nothing less than silent waiting, for she knows that in her heart, her Savior lives. God gives excessively, to the very end; Mary returns the favor, beyond the end, just like any mother’s love.

Such is the prodigal mother: one who is willing to risk life just to be by her dying son’s side. Too much for this world, too much for words: hence the lack of any account after the resurrection – pure love.

But I guess one can imagine them meeting three days later: one can imagine her shedding tears of joy at the sight of her son, “who was lost and now has been found, who was dead, and now has come back to life again:” indeed, a mother and a son who are, finally, home: with each other.

A blessed Easter!

March 15, 2013

The Preferential Option for Sacrifice; or, Reflections of a Disturbed Christian

The new pope continually amazes me. In his first mass as the bishop of Rome, he said this in his homily, which struck me as profoundly insightful, given not only the state of the Church today, but also how the most ordinary people live their lives “as if” oriented toward Christ:

“When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, and when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord.”

I would like to characterize my life as a struggling Christian as one of a never-ending series of conversions and confessions, as I would like to say to one of my friends. Whenever I get comfortable with my faith something jars me into a realization that I have not lived up, so to speak, to what I say I profess in. And no doubt it creates a stir of embarrassment and contrition. It seems inconceivable for me to call myself a “true Christian” precisely because I don’t always live my life as if it was truly oriented in the glory of the Lord, as von Balthasar loves to say.

No doubt that sometimes I like to think of myself as a good Christian – a devout one at that! But hearing the pope’s words made me rethink my own convictions. And therefore with this disturbance I ask myself: what does it mean to live a Christian life in the context of the Cross?

We love convenience. When we get a chance to bend the rules for the sake of, say, not lining up to get our license because we’ve violated traffic rules, we immediately do it. We “pay off” people just for the sake of not going through the bureaucracy that all of us hate. A similar thing happened just about a week ago, and honestly, I have yet to wrap my head around it; seeing friends whom I considered “justified in the faith” despite their faults and inconsistencies do this was just disturbing for me to witness. What profoundly disturbs me is the fact that other people – namely, those whom we pay off for the sake of our convenience – were affected and/or were used in this exchange. When you factor in persons in the equation, it never just becomes “an equation;” it becomes a personal encounter with someone that is very much like – but more so very much different – yourself.

And I think that this is the most profound, most novel contribution of Christian discourse in the public sphere – what was revealed was our infinite capacity to love precisely because we are human persons. This was revealed in the body of Christ. And I think hand in hand with this gratuitous gift of charity is the unavoidable responsibility of sacrifice.

When we separate charity and sacrifice as if one could compartmentalize, say, one’s own hard drive, then I think we are veering away from what we profess in; it becomes a mere professing to. Let us try to understand this artificial distinction and perhaps it may yield something that we have yet to think about.

Professing to – no doubt the more convenient option. Who wouldn’t want to believe something that can be grasped, something that can be understood, and I daresay, something that can be achieved? When we “profess to,” we have the clear end in sight: I believe in this! We, so to speak, “know” what we are aiming for. And it becomes a great temptation precisely because in the Christian revelation, “everything has already been given.”

This of course – and unfortunately – creates a space for convenience and leniency. Up to a point where we can actually control our time and our actions, simply because “we know that we’re saved anyway.” What is paradoxical about this is that in having a clear picture of our end – and in effect, thinking that we understand the world – we forget those who share in this hope, and that the “target” of this conviction is himself or herself like myself, “in all things but sin.”

Professing in – this is none other than trusting in the Lord. St. Thomas loves to speak of credere in – and I think this sums up the responsibility of our faith. When we finally realize the infinite beauty of the revelation of the person, then I think it could serve as a good reminder – and a silent call – to all of us that even the smallest things bear the greatest responsibility. In professing in, we profess to a person – not an idea, nor a principle of power, not even the concept of Christianity. When we profess in, we profess – that is, trust – in a person.

And what does trusting in a person entail? – None other than the fact that we can never pre-empt nor can we ever place firmly in our hands the human person. Christ transgresses all boundaries, and that is a datum of our faith. The datum of our experience is seeing this transgression in every single human person whom we share with in this world. And it is a datum both of faith and experience that each person is infinitely deep; any amount of objectification is the glorification of violence.

The life of faith is never a life of convenience. I think the new pope shows this to us in the most profound way possible. Sans the new age illusion of all our connectedness and the intertwining synthesis of all human actions with each other – a bastardization of chaos theory – we can understand our responsibility as one of sacrifice.

Because we share the world with persons, and because persons bear the infinite capacity to love, it is clear why convenience is never an option: precisely because in doing so, we reduce persons as objects that can be manipulated. But the Christian revelation shows us otherwise, exemplified in Jesus Christ. And what disturbing way to show it to mankind than with His sacrifice on the Cross.

No doubt “we are only human” – but precisely the point! Because we are human, we can love, and love entails sacrifice. That is the whole point of Jesus becoming one of us.

But suppose we attempt to venture into professing in, and we understand the necessity of sacrifice, we can indeed still fall into professing to simply because we don’t see the point in sacrificing even if we do it. For what do we sacrifice to? Now here’s the hinge – we sacrifice to not an object, nor an idea, but to a person. And at the heart of it all, sacrificing for a person leads to the most profound sense of joy: not a joy where there is no tinge of suffering. Precisely the reverse: joy is to see the other grow with oneself. Suffering is inevitable, the Buddha likes to say. And I think it rings true for the Christian revelation – it cannot be avoided, but it is not the point. Precisely because the “point” lies outside oneself.

So the question: what is the point of being a Christian? – loving a person, orienting oneself to joy. And the novel thing about this is it is never an imperative to us – it is a choice. This is the most profound mystery of human freedom: the possibility of evil.

A friend likes to say: never lose sight of Christ! And I think this was what the pope was telling us – never lose sight of sacrifice that leads to joy! We tend to think sacrificing only happens in big events, in rallies, and fighting for the poor. I daresay that if the Christian revelation is true, then every encounter with a person – and of course the possibility of love – also entails the responsibility of sacrifice, a responsibility that never ends. Such is the task of the Christian today: to bear witness to the Cross that leads to joy. We can therefore understand Cardinal Tagle when he speaks of us becoming an “Easter people;” faith leads to joy, and faith only leads to joy when we root it in a person, in the most real sense of it: somebody like me.

Thus the greatest challenge is still one of avoiding convenience. A person is never a convenient option. Christ has shown us this. But it remains to be seen – indeed, I would know because I continually fail at this – how Christians have lived up to the name of their conviction. The pope continually reminds us of bearing the Cross, and because of it we are bound to fail.

That is why at the end of the day, trust is essential. And only in this context can we begin to talk about repentance. Only in this movement of trust and repentance in the context of love and sacrifice can we even begin to walk into the light of joy in full freedom.

I have yet to learn this, and I pray to God that I will have the strength and courage to embody this mystery wrapped in joy.

February 12, 2013

Filiation: Learning to Love the Family

My mind has yet to fully recover from the shocking news that Pope Benedict XVI, our beloved Papa Razi, will step down. Needless to say, I was quite surprised, disturbed, and at some point, grateful at my own reception of the news. In all honesty, I have never encountered such sadness, yet at the same time a profound sense of hopefulness, in my life as an oftentimes-erring Church member, never fully integrated, always along its fringes. As if, only now have I realized that I really am a member of this troubled but loving family, as if for the first time.

As I look back at my own history with this Regensburg professor, mediated through the media, his countless publications, televised speeches, homilies, and wikipedia articles, I cannot help but wonder: how did I come to know of the man?

I remember encountering him during the requiem mass for our beloved John Paul II. He was a peculiar character; his slouch gave off a conservative stench; his eyes, deep from late nights of writing; white hair, highly advanced in age; the stout, uncle Fester-like stature – in all, a fanciful trope of secularist propaganda. And my, it worked! I tended to believe that he was hell-bent on plunging the Church into the middle ages, that he was out to get other religions, and so forth. One cannot but remember his striking resemblance with Emperor Palpatine. Truly, I believed that the empire was being brought back.

I accepted the fact that I was going to confront him (or his thought) eventually, since Ateneo education bombards you with theology. Reading his work, I surmised that he was too Greek – in all senses of the word, I felt that I was listening to someone who never realized that there was such a thing as inculturation, and that oftentimes, it was not such a good thing. My spirit was all for the oppressed non-persons of Latin America, and of course of the Philippines. I remember a friend of mine trying to have me read Ratzinger’s “Introduction to Christianity,” scoffing at the idea in my head.

But things started to become a little bit more different. As I continued my studies, I eventually had to read up on Benedict, since he just pops up anywhere. My research interest lies in religion, and in this day and age, one cannot “do” theology (or religion from the point of view of the Christian) without going through Benedict.

And then, one Lenten retreat some two years ago, a good friend of mine left a copy of the second volume of Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth” series at my doorstep. I felt like St. Augustine as I picked up the book, and read it in the garden outside the retreat house. In 3 days I finished the book. And I guess that things have never been the same again.

I started to read up on Benedict, not because I was forced to, but because I found his thought interesting and intriguing. Not long after, I realized that every time I spoke of theology or of faith and spirituality, I would always go back to some insight or intellectual nugget that Benedict said in his books.

I rediscovered him. And by then, after pages and pages of Logos and charity and the unicity and salvific priority of the body of Christ, I learned to love him. He was a compassionate servant of truth, always humble to admit his own limitations, and always fiery in his zeal for the truth of the Word. I was always in awe everytime I read his works, always moved by his solemn recitation of Latin verses, always emboldened by his struggle to find unity in our otherwise-broken Church, a family that has longed enough for its return home. In time, I also learned (I think) to share in his struggles.

Which is why, I think, his resignation left an indelible mark in my faith journey. I finally found someone whom I can call my ecclesiastical father. There was a strange attraction with his passion for the truth of Christ – it was infectious that he strove to be a beacon for a family that was in shambles. It was inspiring that he stood by the conviction that if Christ was true, then everything must make sense in light of this truth. It was awe-inspiring that he treaded the thin line between uncritical dogmatism and the fullness of the unicity of the Church through the magisterium.

“Being strong for the family” was never a distant idea. I should know; I come from a broken family. It is no joke to be “strong” for the family, especially when you see yourself sliding into oblivion just for the sake of getting the family together again. It is a mighty task reserved only for those who know that it is not up to them to make things better, but God’s. Time takes away the spirit and zeal for charity, the passion for the impossible, everything; time takes away our ability to give ourselves to other people.

As I read the pope’s statement, I couldn’t help but feel the pain and the weakness of Papa Razi. It was indeed no joke to hold on to the family when its members have come and gone. He was getting older and more ill as days went by – I felt the pain and the humility in his resignation. In his critics’ eyes: such a weak person.

On the contrary, I believe that he exercised his power to the fullest in his resignation: it is pure power to acknowledge one’s finitude. As Christ asks for water on the Cross, so too do we see our beloved and ailing pope asking for some time off. Such is the glory that is found in the littlest of things: stepping aside for somebody else to take the lead. In God’s eyes: rest now, my son. “Come all of you who are weary and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

And this “somebody” is not the soon-to-be new pope, nor is it the college of Cardinals; it is none other than Christ himself.

It is difficult to love something (and most especially somebody!) that is broken. The Church indeed is broken, and at some point, I think beyond repair. But Benedict chose to believe otherwise. If Christ was true, then the Church should stand in all its glory and honor. In all, I think that I learned to love the Church because of this man.

To be sure, he has his own defects and limitations – let us not sugarcoat his papacy. His emphasis on the unicity of the faith will most definitely not sit well with other religions (one remembers Dominus Iesus!), nor do the simple facts of his involvement in the numerous cover-ups of the sex scandals that has rocked the Church in the recent decades bid well to his name. But at the same time, I ask: what makes it different from our own lives, when, in more ways than one, we have failed our promises to our brothers and sisters, where we also lied in our dealings with people, when our treachery sows discord and division even among our closest friends?

The struggle of the Church is the struggle of the individual, just as the struggle of the individual also reflects to that of the Church. Benedict will forever be the face of this struggle. But this struggle is not one of deception and violence – it is one, I think, of a profound sense of hope, a hope rooted in the risen Christ. Benedict has not created these problems, for it is true that these are inherited. The fact of his reign remains: in his struggle to mend the wounds, he failed in healing all the wounds, but succeeded in touching even a few number of hearts. I should know, even if he doesn’t, for I wouldn’t even bother writing this down if I were so not moved by his humility and his passion.

His papacy will always be for me a papacy of conversion; where I realized my own dirt and sinfulness, where I came to share with the struggles of the other members of the Church, most especially the pope himself. Finally, it is in his papacy that I finally realized that the Church is, after all, a family that laughs, that cries, that struggles, that rests, that is broken, that is brought back together again, that is, in the final analysis, a loving one. And a sinner such as I am will always find a home in this family.

Only now do I feel a sense of filiation. Coming from a broken family, it is quite difficult to find that powerful and profound spirit once again. But thanks to Benedict, I think I can say that I, too, would want to share the love that I have experienced in the Church to other people, starting with my own family.

Thank you, Papa Razi, for bringing me home.

December 29, 2012

My Journey with Philosophy: Thoughts

Suffice to say, much has changed since I’ve started graduate studies. Some of my previous posts here muse on the ideas that I would have wanted to pursue in the long run, but acknowledged that things can very well change.

Not the subject matter, of course; for philosophy and religion still lie at the heart of anything that I am committed to doing or writing in the future. Exposing oneself to the literature of the field really changes one’s perspective: for instance, some of what I’ve already read led me to deconstruction, while others have led me to more “analytic” (though I disdain the distinction, as if continental philosophy is not analytical in itself) means. Still others have also led me outside the contours of what is generally considered “conventional” philosophy, well into sociology and anthropology, specifically cultural studies, memory studies and systems theory.

Well and good, I think, so much so that I consider these excursions to be very beneficial to how I can articulate what interests me at this time. Some observations:

(1) It seems that, over and against critics pouncing on the perceived “uselessness” and the “aloofness” of it, philosophy still holds a very prominent (I daresay essential) place in any kind of thinking, whether it be “pure” philosophy or even in the social sciences. I guess tracing the contours of the philosophical core of any kind of thinking about society and social relations has to take into account the frame that philosophical discourse provides, or, to put it plainly, why we say what we say. The mere rejection of philosophy and philosophical discourse is tantamount to the very exclusivism that enlightenment-era science perpetuates. Philosophical discourse provides the frame of reference for any data, for example, that is laid out against the problematic, and how that data fits in the background theory of any problem. Philosophical discourse, simply put, is an ordering of data in a coherent manner, over against the backdrop of a larger context. I think the cardinal problem with philosophy starts when we have a preconception of philosophy (that it is “high up in the clouds,” or that it does not concern itself with the empirical), and then proceed to cast that conception of philosophy as a blanket concept, handy for criticism.

(2) Which leads me to my second point: that of the horrendous misuse of language and the forgetfulness of the context in which words are uttered. I cannot reiterate Wittgenstein’s point here more forcefully: that (philosophical) problems arise when language “goes on holiday.” This concern, I can even say obsession, with context has led me to love linguistics and language studies, which I think figures in quite well with what I want to do in the future. For I think that problems, personal and social, stem from the grave misrepresentation of language, how we use language, and ultimately, how we receive whatever is uttered to us. To be sure, contexts and background ontologies are hardly evident in ordinary discourse; what I man to say here is that in the configuration of the public space where interlocutors are able to present their stands in a way that implies communicability, people tend to forget the irreducibility of concepts and instead use words as “blanket concepts.” What I am concerned with is not the normativity of public discourse, but the awareness of the radical incommensurability of discourses that allow for the multiplicity of rationalities to come to the fore. Can discourse – especially in the realm of policy-making – allow for a space where incommensurability is safeguarded? I understand that I am broaching upon liberal multiculturalism here; I intend to avoid that pitfall by stating that what I am concerned with is the semantic construction of rationalities that are made evident in the public sphere, and how “language going on holiday” negates this semantic construction by immediately proposing a normative discourse, such as multiculturalism. This, more properly, is my “philosophical frame:” a frame that looks into the semantic construction of culture and society in order to take into account the radical alterity of our interlocutors. Thus, translation and cultural criticism arise as categories of study, how cultures and societies are constructed and reconstructed according to how they use language – that is, an endless hermeneutic.

(3) This complicates my issue even further: what about religion? To be sure, religion operates with its own “language-game,” (and I am guilty of using this as a blanket concept) with the inclusion of the category of transcendence within the frame of discourse. Accentuated by more recent debates regarding the place of religion in the public sphere, I think religion deserves its sui generis category of study. Firstly, because religion as an area of study is becoming more and more of the “in thing” with the academia; secondly, (which is why the first reason is what it is) the power that religion exerts in the public sphere – and consequently, how we use and misuse language – is phenomenal, and in itself deserves our attention and study; thirdly, and this is a simple fact, I am a believer, and that my being part of the faith community compels me to affirm that communal solidarity by committing to its precepts. Through the years it has proven itself time and time again: religion forms the human person, whether for better or for worse. I am interested in how religion exerts its power on the semantic construction of culture and society, how the extensive symbolic constellation that religion employs allows for the flourishing of a culture, or its opposite. I understand that I might be committing to a functionalist treatment of religion; but at this level, there is no choice but to commit to it. Such is the consequence, I think, of an academic environment that is largely influenced by the enlightenment ideal of “no emotions allowed.”

(4) Which leads me to my final point: that of my own faith conviction. It is sad indeed that the academic world disdains the realm of feeling and faith, as I they can both be lumped together, depriving them of any objectivity and validity. I wholeheartedly disagree with the putative treatment of the academia towards feelings: I think it is the driving force behind any academic undertaking, let alone a study on religion, as if faith conviction can be separated from religious practice. I guess this is but another consequence of our misuse of language and how we lump concepts together to form what we think is a coherent network of ontologies. Which leads me back to my first point: this is where philosophy comes in, for it allows for such preconceptions to be included within the nexus of interpretation, namely, phenomenology. And I cannot deny my own indebtedness to the education that I have received from Ateneo, which is largely (though I have reservations of calling it as such for fear of committing something I am against) phenomenological, and for it I am more than grateful: “driving home the context,” as it were. That being said, I guess what I am trying to put forward is that I am operating within my own faith conviction, with all its joys and struggles, and that I am bringing all of these in what I love doing, namely research, not only for myself but for others. Whether I have succeeded in staying true to that commitment or not, I am sure I have, on countless occasions, failed. But that that is why, I think, I still believe, for in faith lies redemption.

Simply put, philosophy allows me to study religion in a way that does justice to the totality of the religious experience (that is, including my own faith commitment), and this commitment leads me outside the realm of “academic” or “formal” philosophy, well into its more sociological, i.e., linguistic implications. And how is this possible? – Only through the primacy of experience. Which is why I think philosophy cannot but branch out into the empirical side of experience, namely, more qualitative and quantitative methods. Wittgenstein, Quine, some Japanese thinkers, Ricoeur, Marion, and Levinas (and to a certain extent Derrida) all figure in my attempt to struggle with the reality of religious experience. These form a “core” that I hope could employ research methods that are measurable. This, in turn, would hopefully lead to a more nuanced understanding of our place in this world, and how we might live with and for others in just institutions, to quote Ricoeur. In this sense, philosophy now is actually the most grounded of all disciplines, because it looks at experience in the context of the totality, which it admits can never be known fully.

Some concluding notes:

(1) I have come to appreciate the empirical side of things, as it were, as necessary data in interpreting our experience of the world. We cannot avoid it. I think that the perceived disdain of so-called “theoreticians” of the importance of empirical data only shows their lack of critical thinking, and thus, an assent to the very distinction of the enlightenment (which in itself is also wrong; a caricature of the enlightenment at its best): that philosophy does not concern itself with the world, but with ideas, and that sciences are the “way to go.” Denying the importance of the empirical is just another rebellious tendency, I think, like that of a self-entitled, unappreciated teenager. If one is committed to understanding the world, one has to be open to the different ways of understanding it. Any exclusivism forgets the dynamism of human experience. I guess I have Ricoeur to thank for this attitude.

(2) Graduate studies is an exciting time; for you get to explore the multi-faceted dimension of human experience, and how people have tried understanding it, but always falling short of the ideal, as it were. Those who think that graduate studies is about proving that their theory is rock solid and perfect are missing the point. The learning process is like learning a language: you won’t know whether you are using words right until you are told they are wrong in their appropriate context. It is, in the final analysis, all about one’s wrongness in things. And, following Wittgenstein (this time the early Wittgenstein), “only then can one see the world aright.”

———-

And I’m just in the first year of my graduate studies. Oh, what exciting times. I am more than elated in thinking about the possibility of opening up to more disciplines and approaches. There is no earthly joy compared to learning new things. Only one joy surpasses everything: following Heidegger (surprisingly), that of the joy of being loved.

And this whole philosophical journey, as I am more than willing to commit to in all its unpredictability and possibility, is a product of that love, a love that never ends. And there can be no other appropriate response to that joy but praise and thanks.

December 24, 2012

The Strangeness of God: Merry Christmas!

Recently I’ve gotten a copy of Archbishop Rowan WIlliams’ book on C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia” entitled “Lion’s World: A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia,” and suffice to say that I have immensely enjoyed Williams’ explication and interpretation of Lewis’s so-called “theological” themes, and I’m just in the first few pages! Though not entirely about Christmas, a lot of what WIlliams has to say in the first few pages touched a very profound insight of Lewis’s that we could somehow connect with this season’s festivities: that of the strangeness of God.

Certainly, how strange it is to reflect on the strangeness of God, when the whole point of Christmas, it seems, is the solidarity shared by God, foretold by the prophets and the oracles, in the mystery of the incarnation. In Lewis’s world, Aslan represents God (a lot of debate surrounds this representation, Williams notes, regarding the representationality of the doctrine of the Trinity) not like “one of us, in all things but sin,” but rather, as an animal; we daresay, a lesser being than the human being. So we return to the question: why reflect on strangeness?

I follow Williams’ cue, saying that Lewis’s representation of God as Aslan removes all kinds of familiarity we have of a God who went down to us, on this day, to be with us and our sinfulness. And haven’t we become too accustomed to rely on the simple but profound truth that God is with us that it loses all its luster and glory?

And certainly we see this in our representation of Christmas, where the madness of God becoming man is shielded by the pronounced reality of His shared solidarity with men and women. This is not to say that solidarity is bad; what we are saying here is that perhaps we may be leaving out an essential kernel of the Christian truth in forgetting the strangeness of God. To focus solely on solidarity forgets the madness and the strangeness of Christmas.

How can there be solidarity without the assent to the complete difference of God with man? True solidarity maintains the difference between God and woman, and this solidarity is maintained through the indifference of God to this difference. We call it simply: love. And this love is made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.

Such was this strange occurrence more than 2 000 years ago: so strange that Shepherds were drawn into the silent manger, to behold a child; so strange that all “went according to plan” according to the Scriptures, forcing Herod to a bloodbath of innocents; so strange that until now, we haven’t quite grasped the strangeness of Christmas.

Such a strangeness of the event only leads to wonder and joy. Why wonder? – for God becoming man is the surprise of all surprises, exceeding the bounds of possibility and impossibility, opening our eyes to the radical divide between God and man, and yet is transgressed, leading us to let out a cry, like Mary, saying: my soul magnifies the Lord! Why joy? – because there can be no other appropriate response to this transgression, or this “border-crossing:” just like the father who sees his Prodigal Son “who has died and has now come home.” There is no other joy than seeing one’s beloved after a long wait. Surely, nothing else comes close.

So we actually need to preserve a sense of strangeness in Christmas, for through it, “all things are new.” Wonder, joy, and love are all strange. And Christmas invites us to meditate on this madness and make them real. There can be no other substitute than to love one’s neighbor, no matter how strange it may seem.

Merry Christmas!

October 28, 2012

Opening Up to Joy

Lately I have had the privilege of reading a particular book by Fr. James Martin, S.J. entitled “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of Spiritual Life,” which focused on an oft-forgotten truth: that faith leads to joy. I can say that I have immensely enjoyed it, so much so that I would want to recommend it to anyone who has had a less-than-stellar spiritual life. And who could argue? Looking at this world, it is indeed easy to get drowned in all the injustice and suffering that the world has to bear, so much so that our beloved Pope has declared this year to be a “Year of Faith,” which would hopefully lead to a more discerning and sensitive Church, springing from this call to rediscover our faith that leads to the joy of the Resurrection. One has to swallow the bitter pill and concede – in light of the Pope’s declaration – that we need remembering precisely because we have forgotten.

But what have we forgotten? I believe that an essential element of our faith that needs remembering and rediscovering is the sense of joy in our faith. I remember a time when a good professor friend of mine caught up with me as we were walking down the brick road during a rainy Thursday afternoon, where he told me that he was shocked at how this student of his felt an intense sense of guilt at her own problems precisely because this teacher, it seemed, has taught her that “there are more people (the poor and the marginalized) that suffer a great deal more than her.” He said: “Alam mo, nasaktan ako dahil hindi naman iyon ang punto ng tinuturo ko. Hindi ko sinasabi na dahil may mga mahirap, kailangan din nating magdusa. Oo, kailangan nating makiramay, ngunit hindi na ba posible ang maging masaya? Iyon ang punto ng Prodigal Son, diba? – Na kahit nagkamali siya, tinanggap pa rin siya ng tatay niya nang buong galak.” His frustration, I believe, is one that many of us can share: that we place too much of a premium in giving our whole selves that we often forget that this giving is energized, made possible, by a love greater than death and sin, by a love that leads to joy, a joy that has led to the Cross, of which has given us life eternal, and that which has now acquired this humble imperative to share this joy to “all the ends of the earth.”

And this is where I would like to start off this short reflection. I would like to offer a wager: to walk with me in this short reminder of why we are essentially made for joy, and that working with the poor and the marginalized does not entail giving up a sense of fidelity that at the end of the road – which always eludes us – is none other than the joy of seeing Christ face to face, and sharing this joy “to let all creation sing.” I myself have been guided by Fr. Martin’s book, along with some key insights from Pope Benedict, St. Anselm of Canterbury, and a very well-known theologian named Hans Urs von Balthasar, and I believe that writing this short piece is but one of the many ways I can share this joy of being joyful to others, especially in a world that would rather be serious about things. With these preliminaries done with, we can finally proceed.

Remembering Joy

Fr. Martin couldn’t have said it any better: that joy seems to be off-limits in the Church, and it is more interested in navel-contemplators that are dead serious about being serious. One cannot deny this fact: how often do we see priests smile and laugh at themselves? Of course, media has always been a thorn in the Church’s side by portraying this tepid seriousness that somehow dictates what one ought to feel in the Church, but the bigger problem is that the Church – clergymen and laypeople alike – perpetuate this image of a no frills, no joke kind of piety that just sucks the life out of everyone around them, drawing away people who may have genuine concern about their own spiritual lives.

We also have to recognize the “rising popularity” of liberation theology, especially in our context here in the Philippines. Some elements within the Church, either by ignorance or by sheer will for seriousness, put forward a kind of liberation theology that puts too much emphasis on struggling against injustice and sin, leaving no room for a quiet sense of hope in things one cannot see, and of course, the joy that springs from a care for self and others.

Apart from the manifold of reasons that has led to what I would like to call a destructive kind of seriousness, I think there is but one chief reason why we have been too serious in our faith, and not enough levity and mirth to share: that we have forgotten the essentials of our faith. It with this point that I wholeheartedly agree with the Pope in his call to “rediscover the content of the faith that is preserved, celebrated, lived, and prayed” for this “Year of Faith.” And one of the essentials of our faith, I daresay, is that our faith should lead to joy.

What is joy? – More than the light and giddy feeling we have whenever something funny comes up, spiritual joy is much more different, much deeper: spiritual joy is none other than recognizing that God is always here with us, and that every decision, every opportunity to respond to the needs of His creation is an invitation to open up to joy, because opening up to joy is itself an invitation to become closer to God. Surely this might seem too loaded for some; let us unpack it some more: joy is to be happy and content because God is with us, and to share this joy with others is to be grateful for God’s presence in our lives. In other words, joy is to be enthusiastic – enthusiastic comes from the Greek en-theos, which literally means, “to be filled with God.”

Joy has its roots in our very tradition. The Psalms speak of an overflowing joy, a joy too much to contain that God’s creation burst out in song. The beatitudes start with the phrase “Blessed are those…” which, if one were to look at the original Greek, “blessed” can be taken to mean “joyful.” The famous parable of the Prodigal Son ends with an affirmation of the returning son with a grand feast – a sure sign of joy! – and despite the elder brother’s anger, is still met with the loving arms of the father, who proclaims that the son is now alive again. What joy in realizing that one is alive again!

The Bible is also filled with comical scenes that somehow invite us to take pleasure and joy in what we read. Fr. Martin notes that much of Biblical humor is alien to us since we haven’t had the privilege of inheriting their social context. For example, Jesus admonishing the Pharisees with witty remarks was found to be funny during their time. The woman who cried her heart out because she found a piece of lost coin might be too overbearing for us moderns, but for the Jews, this certainly was funny. Even the fact that a tax collector – Zacchaeus – went up to a tree just to get a glimpse of Jesus was already funny to them. So much can be lost in context, and one of the most essential things that can be lost (and has indeed been lost) is the sense of joy. I couldn’t agree with the Pope more in retrieving our tradition and rediscovering our faith, because indeed, in remembering our heritage, we are led to open up to joy.

Joy in Remembering

How do we see this kind of joy operative in our everyday lives? – Fr. Martin tells us that there can be no other source of joy that is as effective and as profound as laughter. A heartfelt joke with a friend, an embarrassing snafu in front of people, the intense feeling of joy when walking down a street filled with falling leaves, of feeling that everything, somehow and in some profound way, is gift.

Joy also leads to a more profound sense of community. I cannot emphasize this more: there are countless cases of failed relationships and failed organizations because the people in these groups do not leave some space for joy to flower out of control. We can think of it this way, paraphrasing Fr. Martin: whoever wants to join a group that is always grumpy and sad, who are more than eager to point out one’s mistakes and make a big deal out of it?

Even more important, I think, is that joy leads to a profound sense of humility. Oftentimes we are too proud of ourselves; we take things too seriously because we like things in order. I remember a time when I was quite famous (or infamous) in this organization for my temper whenever I had some work to do. I believe that I still am that serious when it comes to work. This insistence to be “dead serious” invited me to look back and ask myself: have I hurt anyone in a profound way, so much so that they have been led away from God? And I am not proud to say that unfortunately, I have. Fr. Martin’s book invited me deeper into my desolation; have I not become a joy to others every time I transformed into “work mode?” And you guessed it right: I have not. Realizing this, I couldn’t help but laugh! I couldn’t imagine how contorted my face was whenever I was angry, as if it was always Halloween every time I lashed out. And I believe that taking myself lightly actually helped me to have the strength to ask for forgiveness to people I have hurt. Indeed, this God of ours has a sense of humor, for He wants me to laugh at my failings, in order for me to truly be sorry for my sins.

To laugh at life’s absurdities is a sure sign of God’s presence in our lives. This is not to say that suffering and desolation are necessary states for God to enter into our lives: far from it – too much sin leads us away from the joy of the Lord, and one of the most powerful forces that our faith possesses is the fact that it can withstand suffering. As von Balthasar notes, in order for Jesus to withstand God abandoning him, he must have had a profound sense of joy, a joy that rested on the frail yet constant shoulders of love. Faith conquers sin in the most profound way: it can laugh at it.

To affirm God’s presence in our lives is to finally concede – and I think this is the most important element in joy – that we are ultimately not in control. To be told that we are not in control is like being stripped naked in freezing-cold temperatures; we are at the mercy of what is around us – but precisely! And here we can borrow from our Muslim brothers and sisters in one of the names of Allah: that he is merciful beyond measure. We are at the mercy of what is around us, and when we are open to joy, God is the only thing that surrounds us, and we are entirely at His mercy – one of love. To say that we are not in control is to let ourselves be engulfed in God and with God – this is what St. Anselm would profoundly call Gaudium.

We see God at work here: in remembering our responsibility to be joyful, we are led to share this joy with others. This is precisely what Benedict spoke of when he said that there needs to be a new kind of evangelization “in order to rediscover the joy of believing and the enthusiasm for communicating the faith.” In remembering joy, we remind others to also be joyful. There is no other way for the committed Christian: he or she cannot but share his or her faith in joy, as this joy mirrors the ecstasy of the Apostles upon seeing Christ Jesus on the shore, cooking fish for them, during the Resurrection morn.

To be joyful is ultimately to share in the new life offered by Christ.

With the Church: Concluding Remarks

Of course, all of this is easy and nice and dandy on paper, but is this really the state of affairs? Isn’t it the case that more and more people are leaving the Church, and that more and more priests are “coming clean” about the never-ending list of sins and injustices that they continually perpetuate, giving a social structure to the sin that infects the very house of the Lord? Isn’t it the case that there are less and less people taking up the religious vocation precisely because this “sense of fullness” can now be found outside the cloistered life? Isn’t this reason to be dead serious about the Church? Isn’t this, in the final analysis, the most important thing to confront in our contemporary Church?

These pages are not enough to express the profound misery that mires our Church today. How can we be open to something that we know will ultimately hurt us? Indeed, more than this being a misery is it being a mystery unto itself. I think one will never know why these things happen, and indeed, when we are confronted with profound terror, as did the Catholic Church with Auschwitz, we cannot but fall silent. This is a given. But I also think that despite the lack of answer, to give answers is not the point of living with the Church. What is important is that one have the humility to ask for forgiveness, and this can only be attained when we have acquired a sense of spiritual joy. And alongside this, what is also asked of us is to become the source of joy for our ailing Church. We can only perform this dual character of our responsibility when we have accepted that things can never be the same, and despite this, we continue to be joyful and hopeful, and this is done in working happily and with joy with the poor and the marginalized, of those that the Church has shunned, either by ignorance or willfully. How shall one be joyful in spite of all this suffering, one might ask? – One has to hope in the divine promise of God, promised to creation for all eternity: I will be with you.

So in the final analysis, what is important is that we remember that joy is one of the most profound signs of the presence of God, and in sharing this joy to others, we likewise share His presence – His love – to others. In sharing this love joyfully, we sustain the hope that cannot plunge into darkness. I think this is what the Pope is trying to tell us: to be strong in faith by being joyful. Too much is lost when we give too much of ourselves and forget that it is indeed from the joy that we ourselves are gift that actually allows us to give. We run out of steam. We become exhausted. We falter in our faith. The contemporary Church has given us too many problems to even begin to think about being happy in it. What the Church is asking is impossible.

“But with God, all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).

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)