Archive for ‘Religion and Culture’

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.

December 29, 2013

Kieślowski’s Dekalog, sześć: a Study

βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον.

ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους, τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην.


For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.

– 1 Corinthians 13:12 (NASB)

For the longest time I have preferred the English Standard Version as my go-to Bible translation, mostly because of the word usage and the general syntactic structure that seemed to “make sense” to me. But in this particular passage (which stands as one of my most favorite passages in all of writing), the New American Bible delivers, with the subtle usage of punctuation. Instead of “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known,” we get in the NASB “now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I also have been fully known.” The shift from the semicolon to the comma reminds me of the preference of Professor Ashford in Mike Nichols’ film Wit, where the comma signifies not a full stop, nor a separate thought apart from the first clause, but a transition – a mirror – between before and after, life and death. In the passage we see how “knowing” is not entirely separate from “knowing in part” and “knowing fully” because knowing is in itself made possible because “I also have been fully known.” The quick separation between partial and full knowing happens in an instant, like a face in the metro that evokes a happy memory. It is not some long intellectual process, but a happening, an eventThis is further confirmed in the Greek, where ἐπιστήμη (epistemé) is no where to be found. Rather, we are told of knowing as a kind of γνωστικός (gnōstikos), a special (i.e., secret) kind of knowledge that is already “known” (γνωστός), suggesting an event or an encounter. This event is not some result of a skill (as is suggested by epistemé, not to be confused with the almost-similar meaning in the Greek word τέχνη) but rather is unexpected – as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas likes to say, “of God who comes to mind.”

I think this subtle preference can be the key in understanding Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog, sześć. The film became some sort of an enigma to me when I first watched it. I then consulted some websites that offered interpretations of the film, and I came across The Film Sufi’s brilliant interpretation, which kind of set me to have my own reading of the film. Let me lay out some sort of structure to this post: first, I will discuss the cinematic techniques that Kieślowski employs that provides us a window into the psyche of the characters involved, along with the extant themes of the film; the second part will talk about these themes in detail (though not in the degree that other blogs have done, who in my opinion are brilliant, such as Senses of Cinema, and of course The Film Sufi); finally, we will look into its intimate connection with our short exegesis we have done above.

Kieślowski is quite known for employing colors to convey thoughts. One is reminded of the scene in Dekalog, trzy, where Ewa crashes Janusz’s car unto a Christmas tree in the climactic scene of the episode:


The colors do not only signal the dominant emotions in the scene – one of tension, anger, and resentment – but also signals the beginning of the high-point of the narrative: Ewa confesses in the station that she would have killed herself if Janusz left her in the middle of the night. In the penultimate scene we see Ewa flashing her headlights as goodbye to Janusz (it is interesting to note that Ew drives a red car, and Janusz a white one). In the final confrontation with the wife, we see again Kieślowski’s employment of light and color to signal a shift in the narrative:


The light that emanates from somewhere (the window, but in this scene it is suggested that one can only imply that it was the window – the frame is brilliant for suggesting that the light is there, while not showing the source of the light), reminding me of Caravaggio’s The Calling of Mathew. That is to say, Janusz “turns to the light” in confessing to his wife and telling her that he won’t be “going out again in the evenings” (notice that he never promises; he just tells he won’t), thus keeping the Sabbath Day – in this case, Christmas gains an all-new and deeper meaning – holy.

So we are to treat colors not only as an evocation of emotions, but also cinematic cues that signal a shift in the narrative. We also see this in sześć, during Magda’s confrontation to a bruised Tomek’s confession of his love to Magda outside 376:


The framing here is excellent: the window behind them is surrounded with red, with the light emanating from that very small space. Notice, also, that Tomek faces Magda when he says he loves her, and Magda looks on, away from Tomek’s face. The next scene shows Tomek partially illuminated by the light that emanates from the window. Notice that he wears blue (it is Tomek who wears the colorful clothes for much of the film, except for the date scene before the “events” in Magda’s apartment, where Tomek wears black and white) – this will be very important later on:


The partial illumination obscures the bruise on Tomek’s right eye, suggesting a kind of naïveté that is either childish (you do not know better) or childlike (I just know). The partial illumination should also tell us the conflict within Tomek as he professes that he wants “nothing” from Magda (this, again, will be important later on). The next scene has Tomek running around outside the apartment in happiness as per Magda’s acceptance of his invitation to have a date (where the ominous God-figure makes his first appearance – a person in white overalls carrying a white bag and a brown bag). It is interesting to note that in this scene only the uninjured face of Tomek is shown, suggesting the childlike/childish duality we have mentioned earlier.

Again, we have said that colors signal not just emotions but events. This scene prefigures their date, which climaxes in Magda’s attempt to get him in bed and Tomek’s subsequent suicide attempt (or was it?). We have mentioned that Tomek, for the first time in the film, wears contrasting colors: black and white. What does this tell us? – that perhaps, Tomek is running up to a crisis – krinein in Greek means decision – as to whether he truly loves Magda or not. The face-to-face encounter may be too much for Tomek to bear, and the moment of choice comes up to him. Magda, on the other hand, coerces Tomek to sensualities, going as far as to attempt to have him in bed, which results in Tomek’s very premature ejaculation. We learn that Magda is trying to “teach him a lesson” that there is nothing more to love than ejaculation (but is it just that?), and she succeeds, albeit to disastrous results.

Another technique that Kieślowski employs is the use of close-up shots that focus on the eyes. More than just an emphasis on emotiveness and sincerity, these shots are also meant to tell us that character development is not done or does not happen with oneself alone – it is always with another person, to whom the character beholds his or her eyes to. In short, Kieślowski wants to show us the relational aspect of being human, and in terms of character development, the roundness of characters can only be possible with other characters in the narrative (even the Dostoevsky’s underground man was at some point relational). It is thus not an accident that Kieślowski focuses on the only aspect of the human face that has sharply contrasting colors – the eyes (white, and non-white, and in the most common cases, black and white). What, then, does this tell us? – that it is in the face, particularly the eyes, that we can see Kieślowski’s characters grow, in the moment of decision, of either this or that, of krinein.

What is particularly brilliant in the film is how Kieślowski juxtaposes eyes but separates them through mirrors and glass. Tomek’s use of the telescope is obvious; the first encounters with Tomek and Magda happen in the post office, separated by a window, and of course Tomek’s and Magda’s rooms can be perused because of the presence of windows. Despite this separation, however, there is always an opening and a “way” of being intimate: the telescope erases distance, the window in the post office has a hole where Tomek can see Magda face-to-face:


(Notice in this scene that after this shot, we get to see Magda, but not through the opening – this will change in the final scene where it is Magda that sees through the hole. More on this later.)

Now, on to the more “juicy” part. All these cinematic techniques are meant to tell a story of human frailty, especially in the realm of love. Though some commentators have pointed out that Tomek’s love was pure, I stand by Spirituality and Practice‘s interpretation that Tomek’s innocence is shattered when they finally have each other face-to-face. This explains, in my opinion, the use of contrasting colors during the date scene – the most painful shattering of an idol is when you choose one over another. Tomek’s idealization of Magda (yes I think it was an idealization, because there was never really any “real” encounter between them) happens when it is Tomek that assumes the receiving end of Magda’s conception of love. This also tells us another thing: that love entails a decision that cannot be content with distance – notice Tomek’s godmother, who tells Tomek at the first part of the film that women also want “tenderness.” The interesting thing about the telescope is that it provides an illusion of intimacy and closeness; what we fail to realize is that inside the telescope there are numerous mirrors, and the more mirrors there are, the closer we can get. Paradoxical, isn’t it? Tomek was seduced to a naive kind of love. Surely he was right when he told Magda that he wanted nothing; what he failed to realize was that love itself also had a physical dimension, and it is this that one must choose to assume.

Likewise, Magda did not attend to the spiritual dimension of love, and resisted any kind of idealization of it. It was she who told Tomek that “there is nothing more to love than sex.” But after Tomek’s suicide attempt, we see a role reversal: it is Tomek that experiences the intensity of sensuousness in his suicide attempt (represented, again, by red), and it is Magda that now uses a telescope (a pair of binoculars) to watch over Tomek’s arrival.

So in the end, both Tomek and Magda are cases of human frailty – one too attached to sensuousness, and one too innocent to dwell in the world.

The final scene presents somewhat of an ambiguous end to the narrative. Magda visits the post office and finds Tomek working, to her joy. She approaches him and Tomek tells her “I’m not peeping you anymore.” First, it is clear that the roles have reversed. We now have Magda looking at Tomek through the hole in the glass:


But the role reversal does not stop there. It is not as simple as Magda becoming Tomek and Tomek becoming Magda; notice the lighting in this shot – Magda’s face is partially illuminated. We also see Tomek’s partially illuminated face:


What is interesting here is that the other scene where Tomek’s face was partially illuminated (we have pointed out above) had the illumination reversed. The scene before concealed the bruise that Tomek incurred at the hands of Magda’s angry lover. Now, we see, with the illumination, that the wound has healed.

What does all this have to do with role reversal? – They didn’t simply “switch sides,” but rather, they were transformed – conversio. This is the real reversal in the film.

For Magda, her face is illuminated halfway to tell us of the moment of choice that Magda had undergone. Remember the scene where her lover comes over, to which she replies “I am not here.” That was the moment of decision, whereafter she confesses through the phone (presumably it was Tomek on the other side, but I think it was his godmother) that he was right, that love really did exist.

For Tomek, the moment of choice reached its climax when he ejaculated (shades of Michel de Certeau’s “white ecstasy”), to which he left the apartment without his coat – a black coat. We have said earlier that Tomek lost his innocence in that event, so it would have been logical to have a white shirt left over. But I think this is where Kieślowski’s genius comes in: the black coat signified the loss of his black-and-white ideal of love and sex. So yes, he learns from Magda, but in the hard way. The suicide attempt was not guilt-driven, in my opinion. It was, above all, a baptism (notice the bowl that he uses to catch the blood).

So what does this have to do with the oft-repeated quote from the Corinthians? – I bring you to the final scene, where Magda passes by the post office and sees Tomek, through a glass:


After which she goes in and looks at Tomek face-to-face through the hole. I think this sums up the film: how one learns to love not by calculating and by pre-empting any kind of definition of love (as both of the characters did), but by an event that is not of their doing, the forgotten “third term” in any relationship: God. It is this “third term” that sunders any corruption and adulteration of love (both of Tomek and Magda) and restores communion through conversion and encounter. The final line is telling: “I am not peeping you anymore.” While others have interpreted this as Tomek falling out of love, I think it just reaffirms the love that, perhaps for the first time, they now share: one does not need telescopes and distance to love; it is already in front of you, and the choice is there. Both of their half-illuminated faces tell us that both of them have chosen to love not just despite of but because of their respective frailties.

July 6, 2013

Some Notes on the Theme of Interreligiosity in Pope Francis’ Lumen Fidei

Upon learning that our beloved Pope Francis would call his encyclical Lumen Fidei, or the Light of Faith, I was immediately reminded of a key passage in Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, or the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions, which reads:

She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of Truth which enlightens all men. (NA 2)

And as I downloaded Lumen Fidei from the Vatican website, I couldn’t help but be excited at the thought of how Pope Francis would tackle the question of the dialogue between religions. Reading through it produced within me not only a sense of affirmation that I am truly at home with the Church (even if I’m still far from truly dwelling in it!), but also a profound sense of joy and hope with the dialogue of religions, something I’ve grown to love after some time in Indonesia, and after some good professor-friends led me to this academic field.

What follows is in no way exhaustive of Pope Francis’ encyclical – indeed, if I had the time I could write more and more about it – but are rather notes that I tried to organize (I hope I didn’t fail!) around the theme of interreligiosity in light of Lumen Fidei, and of course in light of the Church’s position regarding the dialogue of religions.

1. The first part of the encyclical clearly establishes the continuity of the Jewish faith with that of the Christian faith, which we also find in Nostra Aetate (4), with the outright condemnation of anti-semitism. This is especially interesting since it is through this continuity that the encyclical develops key themes, such as the unity of sight and hearing, culminating with the face-to-face encounter with the Christ Jesus.

2. The emphasis on the Oneness of God – something that some Islamic Scholars of the Common Word Initiative have pointed out to be the key similarity with regard to Islam and Christianity. It is also of no surprise that this is mentioned explicitly in Nostra Aetate (3).

3. Perhaps controversial for some self-identified “pluralists” – the confession that all who see the light – who have loved precisely because they have been loved first – are also following in the “footsteps” of Jesus. One could immediately discern Rahner’s famous (or infamous) articulation of the “anonymous Christian.” This is also evident in the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s controversial document Dominus Iesus.

This third note, rather controversial as I have just mentioned, deserves our attention, not only because of the fact that it is controversial, but also because one can see in Lumen Fidei the more comprehensive articulation and explanation of this so-called “advental” view of other religions. I wager that – and I see it as the main point of the encyclical – one can understand the Christian responsibility towards other religions and other people for that matter only in the light of Faith, which professes the love of Christ exemplified in the Cross. It is quite difficult to explain this in purely theological terms, so allow me to tell you a story.

One of the most profound experiences that I had of learning to become a good Christian was  my stay in Indonesia. A staggering 90% of the population profess to be Muslim, and clearly from the get-go we were immediately the minority. Not that it was an intrinsically evil thing; quite the contrary, only through the experience of being a “small Church” – something much-loved by our beloved Benedict XVI – did I fully experience being one with the Church. It taught me three things:

1. Our sense of homogeneity can blur our vision and in turn produce a narrow understanding of what is “true.” This is elaborated in the latter part of Lumen Fidei as a confrontation with the modernist hope of the “universal brotherhood.”

2. What is “True” necessarily lies outside myself – in this case, the truth of the burning faith of the Muslims, and the truth – in the final analysis – that it is the love of God in the person of Christ that propels all of this. This “Truth” can be seen as a unity of Christ’s love with that of our love with our neighbour. This is also seen in Lumen Fidei, where it says that “the more Christians immerse themselves in the circle of Christ’s light, the more capable they become of understanding and accompanying the path of every man and woman towards God” (35). It is no wonder, then, that when the Common Word initiative was created, it emphasized “love for God and the love for Neighbour” as the essential meeting point of both Christianity and Islam.

3. All this culminates in the understanding that the Truth is none other than the encounter with Jesus’ love, most especially in the profound injustice of the world, where God makes His presence felt not to offer “arguments which explain everything; rather, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light” (57). We didn’t stay in Indonesia just for the cultural immersion; we also lived with the poor, and we encountered Christ even in the faces of those who do not profess Christ to be God, because in the end, it is the love that engulfs the world. And this love can be seen and felt, believed at and hoped for, because of the light of Christ.

If all light is centered on Christ (35) then it only demands that the Christian be receptive of this  light. This is the key insight of Lumen Fidei, in my opinion: that faith is a light that does not come from oneself – it is freely given, and as it is freely given, it is freely accepted, assimilated, and even rejected. One of the most profound experiences I had in Indonesia was when we were invited by some people in a Mosque to pray with them. We were taught how to pray, and in the end, we were also invited to feast with them. We only came to know much later that eating with that particular community also signified a kind of “baptism” into the community (to be sure, I am using the word “baptism” rather loosely; I am in no way saying that this is similar to the Christian baptism). None other than Lumen Fidei reminds us that baptism is not a change of a solipsistic identity; rather, it is a welcoming into the support and love of the community (43). For the Christian, it can only mean one thing: encountering Christ. So for me as that wayward Christian, it was a transformative experience not only because it gave me an opportunity to “know” in a very intimate manner the customs of the Islamic faith – more than that: I encountered the face of the Lord even in those who do not profess the same way.

So much for this post being “mere notes.”

To recap, we see in Lumen Fidei the unicity of Christ only in the light of faith, and it is in receiving this light through participation not only in one’s Church, but also in encountering other religions and religious people, that we come to an intimate encounter with Christ Jesus. So the Christian responsibility is none other than meeting people of different faiths and engaging in the “dialogue of witnessing,” or the “dialogue of life” as was mentioned in the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue’s Dialogue and Mission. And what kind of witnessing? – None other than being a witness of Christ’s love by loving others. Only one thing propels our being Christians and being in the world: the light of faith.

One more thing: this “light” has become too bright for some that it has scarred the world with untold suffering. Its intensity and superabundance always runs the risk of misinterpretation, turning it into a justification for murder and persecution. It has also become too bright for some who force down their homogeneity at the cost of one’s faith. Justin Martyr reminds us that precisely because it is true, that it can be rejected. Lumen Fidei, therefore, exhorts us to pursue the defense of this Truth, of this light that may seem too bright. And how do we embody this courage to defend the Truth? –

None other than the silent and humble work of love, exemplified in the Virgin Mary. It is no wonder why Lumen Fidei ends with a prayer to the Mother: a prayer of hope to Her children that we too may follow Christ, that in the end, when the world becomes too unbearable, we will find our Mother by our side as we suffer our crosses, borne from the desire to love more and more.

It seems fitting to end, I think, with the image of the Risen Lord towards the end of the Gospel of John: sitting by the seashore, cooking fish for us as we come closer and exclaim, “It is the Lord!” Not only is this important as this was one of the appearances of Jesus after he rose from the dead, but also because it is the Lord that awaits us as we go through the waters of our lives, and in the end lies the salvation of the world: the humble and gentle care of Jesus Christ who only wants to nourish us with the light of faith. It is therefore telling that this image of Christ is taken to be an eschatological image: the Gospel narrative says that this happened in the morning, when the sun has finally risen.

In the dialogue of religions, in living with others in the light of Christ, we can take this as our eschatological hope: when we face each other and work for the common good of humanity, when we confront the challenges and difficulties of our time (we are reminded of our brothers and sisters in Egypt), may we be sustained by the hope of this morning – a morning that, in the words of Richard Kearney, never ends.

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)

April 20, 2012

Where is our Church of the Poor?

Footnote: This is not at all a generalization, but more of a reflection, regarding the perceived lack of presence of the so-called “Church of the Poor” especially (and ironically) in urban-poor communities that I have been to.

A while ago I had the chance to do some “field work” in Barangay Payatas, home of the infamous Payatas dumpsite, for a fact-finding project by the World Bank in relation to how it could address the pressing needs of the state’s constituents, in order for it to know where the money the Bank is going to, and to assure that wherever the money is going to must be relevant to the communities that need it.

After doing the required work – I had to take down minutes during the Focused Group Discussion and point out certain reactions or what my companion would say “intangible data” such as facial expressions and cues and whatnot – I had took the liberty to ask more questions to some of the participants of the Focused Group Discussion. Among one of my questions was the social involvement of the Church in the area.

I couldn’t say that I was surprised, but it was surprising nonetheless that the Church, according to the participants of the Group, was not making Herself present in terms of social justice. It went even as far as Ate Cristina leaving the Church and moving to another Parish to pray and attend religious services because the parish in the Payatas area was not at all accommodating to the marginalized. Ate Virginia, one of the participants in the Group Discussion, also said that the Parish was no more than a play of power – of whether who had the largest donation, or whether who has an elevated social status, or even, and it is sad, because they were leaders in the community. It is the very lack of representation that prevents them from actually worshipping.

This was not far off from another depressed community. My foster community in Depensa in Barangay Capunitan in Bataan virtually has no “Church” if we take the term to mean “the house of God” and not merely the physical structure. We had no data precisely because there was nothing to record in the community regarding the presence of the Church and its social justice component.

Having taken some theology courses on the social commitment of the Christian, it cannot but be a stark negative experience of contrast to see other people suffer because of the structural injustice that is perpetuated by our sinful state, and it depresses me even more to see the Church I belong to having no response to this particular reality. All public talk of religion nowadays seems to be the contradistinction with the secular, with how “reason” is supposed to be contrary to the self-incurred minority of belonging to such an institution, with how the “scientific mind” has revealed truths that religion for ages hasn’t had any answer with.

As with the other functions of religiosity, certainly the social commitment aspect cannot be below other functions, such as liturgical worship, nurturing a balanced spirituality, and, well, striving to understand the dogmatics of faith. I do not understand the discrepancy that is – all too prevalent with Philippine Society – present in the lack of social action by the Church, as evidenced by the large number of people living in poverty. And we’re not just talking about them being materially and economically poor; they are subject to the Church’s oppression by discrimination. This is a different kind of poverty that in the end still causes death to those who experience it – a death of representation, of voices. If the Church is committed to the social transformation of the world through the living example of Christ’s hope and ministry in our works in the public sphere, why isn’t anything happening?

Sure, one might say that poverty in itself is a very difficult and, well almost impossible problem to solve. But one might look at the poor communities of Latin America and how the Church has organized the communities to realize that they too have voices in society, that they can dare to speak, even if they are perpetually silenced by the elite. One might assert that we do in fact have Base Ecclesial Communities (BECs) whose function is to empower the disempowered. But why is it not visible? Granted, there are existing BECs in the country today, but why haven’t these reached the public sphere? Why, instead of looking into the grassroots-level of capabilities development, have we focused our attention to the national-level, policy making problems? Why generalize that the most basic problem of the Filipino people is overpopulation, instead of actually going to these communities and actually realizing that it is more than overpopulation; it is also the lack of representation, the lack of choices due to the domination of certain rationalities and identities, and ultimately, the lack of confidence and trust in oneself and one’s neighbor, preventing us from truly becoming a just society. How are we to become a just society if we ourselves do not know how to become a society?

I guess it is symptomatic of the faith of the Filipino; to gaze at the macroscopic level, to a point of forgetting the essential components of the microscopic level, as with our die-hard belief in the Passion and death of Jesus, and yet the forgottenness of the Easter Morn, and in this light, the reason for the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Large scale is essential, but without the “little dots” that connect each element to form the conglomerate, nothing would remain.

On a more personal level, how am I to believe in the hope of the resurrection of there are people who strive to stifle that belief from within the Church, or more hauntingly, what if the Church itself – how it is today – is the very structure preventing us from seeing the hope of the resurrection in the ministry of Jesus? How can I proclaim the unfailing love of God when those very people who claim to be God’s messengers are the ones who deny other people the love of Christ? Can I even face the altar in humble reverence, knowing at the back of my head that there are those who think they are above the dominion of love?

Up until now I still believe in the hope of the integral social transformation of the whole world, from one of sin, to one of gratitude and peace. But until we learn to look into how things start out small, and until we realize that we should stand up as a community of believers – rich and poor alike – to confront the ugly head of sin and death, we will never learn what it means to be poor. Until there is division and dismay – and true enough, Satan means the accuser and the divider – sin will reign, and we will not even notice it.

April 6, 2012

Comprehending and Confronting the Faith of the Filipino

I know that this does not at all encapsulate the faith of the Filipino, but rather only one facet of our understanding of faith. Nevertheless, I think this experience creates a space for us to talk about it and question it, for indeed, it has become part of what we call “Filipino.”

Yesterday we went to the Divine Mercy Shrine here in Cagayan de Oro. It was around late afternoon when we left the hotel to go to the shrine. It is a good 30 minutes away from the city center by car.

When we arrived, we were greeted with a lot of people going to some place at the back of the shrine, holding water containers and the like. My tita told of the “holy water” station in the shrine, and that it is free. So I insisted to go to the area and observe how it goes over there:


There were a lot of people crowding the sink-like structure on the station, each filling up their water containers to bring it home. Some wet their hands with water place their hands on whatever body part they have in mind. Some, still, drink directly from the faucet, while some wash their faces. It is sad, however, that only a few people actually pray, as far as I have observed, before taking the water:


We then proceeded down to the shrine itself, but not before taking one last look at the beautiful sunset over yonder:


The Divine Mercy statue was huge; by my estimates, probably 15-25 meters in height. It stood over a large and beautifully-crafted garden full of flower arrangements. People were all around the foot of the statue, taking pictures, praying, or basically just staring at the face of the statue:


 I took the liberty of strolling around and observing people; some were quietly praying, some were with their families, taking “jump shot” pictures in front of the statue, some trespassed the garden and sat on the grass, regardless of the clear instruction that the grass is off-limits:


The photograph's a little off, though; too many people passing around

We then left the place, but not before taking one last shot at the moon shining on the valley, with sporadic campfires here and there, for those who have chosen to sleep the night away to avoid the long lines for Good Friday:

Looking back, one cannot but ask: what does it really mean to believe? Does belief amount to the intellectual capacity to accept something that is beyond comprehension? Does believing mean giving one’s life completely to the Church? Does believing mean always asking for graces, or infinitely asking for forgiveness? Is faith relying on holy water? Is faith to strictly follow the precepts of the Church?

There are so many questions that one could ask in confronting the faith of the Filipino: one remembers the almost-blind devotion to the Black Nazarene, or the incessant belief in the power of karma, or the doctrine of temporal retribution, that God will always punish the wicked and reward the “just.”

Definitely, to show acts of piety and to relish in the rich tradition of the Church by actually participating in the different ceremonies certainly is essential in the faith. It is here that our faith as a community is nourished, for certainly, faith is both private and public: private for the fact that in the final analysis, faith is rooted in the decision of the person to believe; public, because this choice is formed and informed by the community that upholds a particular belief system. True to the word communion in community; it is to share-with, implying the lot of members that shares that belief.

But until our frames of mind break free from our very colonial tendencies; until we forgo the language of retribution so prevalent in our culture; until we learn that to limit the faith in merely physical manifestations is to really not be faithful; until we learn that to have faith is to fully be in communion with the Church (and consequently with God) through a commitment to its beliefs, not only doctrinally and sacramentally, but also existentially; until we realize that our responsibility as Christians is a responsibility for the poor; and until we realize that questioning is as essential as believing, then we are stuck in the quagmire of our so-called “faith.”

Public talk about religion is largely viewed to be polarized: on one hand, the image of the uncritical and “conservative” believer; on the other hand, the “free-thinking” secular liberal who believes that religion denies the human person freedom. Perhaps it would also help the society if we break away from our concepts and notions on what religion and the secular life are and learn to question our own predispositions and beliefs. The most dangerous thing for today’s citizen is to think that religion serves only to stifle human agency, replacing it with the logic of the market, of the secular man, “fully free” (as if the Enlightenment era didn’t fail), thus replacing organized religion with the secular ideal, which functions strangely like the proverbial uncritical and conservative religion.

There is more to our own beliefs, whether it be secular or religious. If we could just learn to question ourselves, it would be easier to talk about things considered “taboo” and “old” in today’s world. To comprehend and confront the faith of the Filipino is to learn to question our own predispositions and prejudices by first identifying our own inherited epistemologies. To comprehend and confront the faith of the Filipino is not to put it down but to learn to talk about it.

But first, one should also learn to immerse oneself, suspending one’s judgment, and to talk to people about their faith – this sets up the stage for us to finally question our own predispositions and beliefs, in the hopes of genuinely understanding what it means to believe in our context and time.

April 5, 2012

Zizek, the Siberian Jesus, and Schizophrenia

For the benefit of the reader who has never encountered Slavoj Zizek’s The Fragile Absolute, here is the short spiel behind the book:

One of the signal features of our era is the re-emergence of the ‘sacred’ in all its different guises, from New Age Paganism to the emerging religious sensitivity within cultural and political theory.

The wager of Zizek’s ‘The Fragile Absolute’ – published here with a new preface by the author – is that Christianity and Marxism can fight together against the contemporary onslaught of vapid spiritualism. The revolutionary core of the Christian legacy is too precious to be left to fundamentalists.

Certainly, contemporary culture has witnessed the regeneration (and degeneration) of organized religion into different forms and amalgamations; while watching Don’t Tell My Mother in National Geographic, where they featured Russia for that particular episode, Zizek’s thesis came into mind. In the show, they documented a religion (or ‘a cult,’ as the Russian Orthodoxy is concerned) called The Church of the Last Testament. The Church worships a sort-of-Zarathustra-Jesus-Cult-like-figure called Vissarion who is very much alive today.


You have to hand it to him; he's got all of this likeness thing going on

Their religion forbids any form of monetary exchange, cultivates their own veggies (as they are not allowed meat), believe in reincarnation (Vissarion himself is claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus of Nazareth – note the similarities), and assert the inherent unity of the major world religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism – it is peculiar that Hinduism is not included) as represented by their cross (which I feel to be plagiarized from some Celt cemetery):


This is not the cross; this is from Ireland. But their cross bears some striking similarities, especially with the circle crossing the four corners of the crucifix

Originality aside (can we ever claim to be original these days?), the religion seems to have something going on: 4,000 followers in the Siberian Taiga, and 10,000 worldwide. You look at yourself and say, with that Obama-meme-face: not bad! Indeed, it is “not bad” in the most real sense (as far as we know), setting it apart from Jim Jones’ self-destructive cult: their religion has indeed lived a relatively long life (relative to other cult-like religions), and while they have preached the impending end of the world (what religion doesn’t, anyway?), they have not been destructive about it, calling their preparation “a desire to fully commit oneself to others.”

One characteristic of our contemporary society is its insistence on some form of tolerance and acceptance for the basic fact that people have different background ontologies, different contexts and prejudices (to use the Gademerian term). If we were truly relativist, we would just dismiss these historical reemergences of the spiritual as different forms of articulating the Absolute. And indeed! When somebody asserts that people must be expelled from a country because of religious difference, the whole world lights up in anger and instead asserts the universal rights of the human person.

The problem with this position is the people tend to disregard the notion of religious identity, i.e., difference. If everybody proceeds to accept everything as true, what becomes of the notion of the Absolute that is so espoused by religions? This becomes even more of a problem in religions that seek to fuse other religions and incorporate some of their teaching into one amalgamation of a religion – what of the Absolute?

It is indeed schizophrenic to accept everything as an absolute – to make manifest contradictory and irrational tendencies, the degeneration of every facet of human experience into fantasies of unity and the delusion of uncritical belief. This schizophrenic tendency gains its terrible face in fundamentalism: to interpret everything, disregarding the simple fact of difference, according to my standards, and nothing else.

The simple fact of difference – it could go both ways: on one hand, it could be a call to relativism; on the other hand, it could also be the very thing that fuels fundamentalism. What is needed is to radically question these tendencies via socio-cultural diagnosis, and in turn piece together the Absolute in such a way that is rooted in something truly Other, truly different: not in the case of relativism or fundamentalism, but of exclusive inclusion, of agonism.

Zizek undertakes precisely this, and with calculative precision, surveying all the capitalist tendencies of the unreality of the Real, the retreat of the subject into emptiness, replacing it with the trash of capitalist accumulation, and eventually, the emergence of these spiritualities as a response to the capitalist tendency to create spaces that are already full of trash. There must be an absolute to respond to the alienation – this is the main hinge of the critique.

But are we wont to relegate the absolute as a mere response to the terrible face of capitalism? If the Absolute is merely this, then it is not strictly the absolute. It becomes a mere participant of the cycle of capitalist accumulation.

Going back to Vissarion, how are we to understand this religion? Perhaps, we cannot truly know since we do not have direct experience of the said religion, but we can be content in asserting, with a sense of caution, that perhaps this religion is also a response to the prevailing ideology. It should be noted that The Church of the Last Testament emerged only after the fall of the Soviet Union, because they claimed that the past ideology prevented them from fully expressing their views. If Fukuyama asserted that history ended in the fall of the Wall, he forgot the people within those walls, that there is also a history of the oppressed. Vissarion’s religion is thus a symptom of the capitalist tendency to exclude whatever is not “free,” of whatever does not understand the logic of exchange.

But it only goes so far: it is a response to the tendency of Capitalism to exclude, but as regards the appropriateness of the response, perhaps it might be missing the point. The Absolute is still interpreted to be a response: the disregard for money, the fusion of religions, and whatever is that they believe. If there must be an absoute, it must precede all responses, all experiences. But as for articulating this Absolute, we are still, I’m afraid, searching for a way to speak outside our language.

And until then, until we unlearn the language of Schizophrenia, we will always respond according to the market, according to the prevailing ideology. Perhaps the utopian vision does not lie in unity, but absolute difference, but it is in this that creates the space for infinite understanding. Until then, we are crazy.