Remembering the Ancients

Imagine coming to a cinema halfway through the featured film, at the time when the climax of the story has started to build up, the identities of the characters have unraveled and the anticipation of the audience has mounted to another level.  It is still possible to feel excitement in this situation but the excitement has to compete with a thousand and one questions that whirl in our mind.  That is the price of coming late for a movie date. When we miss a substantial part of the movie’s preliminaries, we are bound to experience a kind of vacuum within and this can easily distract us from the movie’s narrative or  cinematic effects.

In our age however, this minor inconvenience can easily be remedied.  Most movies shown in theatres are preceded by comprehensive reviews long before their debut. In other words, when a cineaste visits a movie house, she is already loaded with substantial information about the movie she wants to see.  She might have read something from blogs or heard comments from talk shows or have browsed the movie’s book version. If she fails to do any of this, she can wait for the next screening and then tie up the loose ends once the movie starts again. Besides, most people these days no longer go to the cinema to watch a movie.  Movies today are either downloaded or burned and they are shown, no longer in huge cinema halls, but in offices, bedroom, waiting lounges, public transportations, practically any place where we can safely hold our gadgets where the movies are stored as files.

There is no shortage of options as long as the topic is confined to missing the beginning of a movie.  I guess it won’t be as easy once the issue shifts to life itself, how it began and how much we do not know about it.  As in the example given, we came to life in midstream. Events have taken place and episodes have transpired long before we barged into the scene.  History is past precisely because it is always ahead of us.  Like our tardy moviegoer, our advent to life is the entry of someone who is late for the screening. That explains why human existence is marked by so many unknowns.  This partial blindness to basic truths about life gives occasion to uncertainty but still, others take it as a motivation to journey and to search.

In the beginning of human civilization, our ancestors mitigate this problem of human condition by seeking recourse to religion, rituals, mysticism and superstition. They drew assurance and consolation from the latter to sustain them through a life marred by instability and doubt. From them, they derive answers that are ready-made and repeatable.  When we are dealing with something greater than ourselves, we often look for a north to give us constancy of direction.  In the old days, religion, ritual, mysticism and superstition perform that function. Then at one point, somewhere in ancient Greece, a group of people thought that maybe there is more to reality than what is prescribed by the oracle and the pronouncements of the gods.  There might be, they thought, a way of seeing life other than what is purported by the temple keepers and the worship leaders. Rather than relying on their word, these new breed of seekers started taking nature as it is – courting it, coaxing it to reveal its riches and secrets.  For this reason, these early thinkers are called sometimes as the first natural scientists because of their efforts to understand nature in its own terms. Their names, literally and otherwise, are indeed Greek – Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander among others.  They were collectively referred to by scholars as the Milesians. Their goal was to determine the primary stuff that underlies reality. They came up with different theories.  Thales thought it was water. Anaximenes thought it was air. For Anaximander, it was something undefinable.  Despite their differences, they were in agreement that a new and different way of looking at the world is possible.  They were breaking new grounds though unaware that they were laying the ground for a discourse which will be later known as philosophy.

We remember the ancients because they remind us of philosophy’s origin. While it can be said that philosophy historically began from Greece at around 6th century BC, it is also true that its being historical does not only mean it originated from the past; it also means its origin stems from our human nature to seek an alternative way of looking at the world.  Philosophy therefore has no fixed and single history because it always begins, even today, even from us, every time we venture to search for a way of looking at life differently.

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Minding Good Friday

The featured preacher on the second day of the retreat was a diminutive fellow, probably in his early to mid 30’s and who, according to his self-introduction, was also an active player in the preaching circuit.  He was also, as he claimed, a radio host and a book author.  In fact, he told his listeners, copies of his latest work were on sale outside the hall and that they, members of the audience, were bidden to buy them, adding in jest, on the pain of death.  He admitted he accepted the invitation to preach in the said retreat aware as he was of the prospect of huge receipts from his book. From start to finish, that would be the constant refrain of his preaching.  Each time he tried to make a point or cracked a joke, he would refer his listeners to his book in case they wanted more.  The audience loved him and was practically at his finger tips for the most part of the session.  They would laugh at the slightest suggestion, shrilled when he sang and reacted instantly to any remark he mouthed.  It was indeed a highly successful marketing pitch, garbed in the tone and language of a spiritual retreat. During the break, the listeners stepped out of the hall edified, “touched” as they described themselves, and went back to the session later clutching a copy of the book bought from the sales preacher.

Later that day, another preacher came in, a healing preacher according to the description found in the programme.  In his homily, the preacher narrated his journey from being an average pastor to becoming a much sought-after healing minister for over a decade now. He had travelled to different places said he and has delivered countless people from various illnesses through his miraculous touch.  He would remind his audience every now and then that it was not he but the Lord who heals. The actual healing session took place after the mass has ended.  It began with the healing preacher giving out basic instructions on what was about to happen: where to fall in line, how to keep oneself disposed, what to expect when one is “slain” by the Spirit.  Towards the end of his introductory remark, the preacher mentioned his “special request.”  He announced that a group of volunteers would walk around the hall with empty baskets in hand and members of the audience were encouraged to manifest their generosity by filling up those baskets with their “love offering”.  Proceeds from those offerings, said the priest, will go to a special project he was undertaking.  The audience was kind enough to understand and to oblige.  When the baskets gained weight, praying began and soon, people started to make a queue to receive the minister’s extended hand.

Both preachers appeared at the same spiritual retreat, on the same day and for the same reason of spreading of the Word.  They certainly did not charge anyone for what they did but that doesn’t mean they didn’t earn a profit out of it. If even the thought of fusion between God and mammon in the former times was considered sacrilegious, the two preachers showed how conveniently it can be done these days.  It is not just a case of money changers and peddlers swarming at the temple gates as reported by the Gospels; what we have here is prayer itself converted into a commodity, something that can yield profit or traded, a good that can tempt anyone to be a vendor, a buyer or a thief.

Karl Marx once called religion the opium of the people.  He was talking about the hallucinating effect of religion and its capacity to alienate people from the real state of affairs.  If he were alive now, he would probably be surprised to find out that even the religion he had in mind then has been displaced by capital.  Capital is the new religion of the people.  It is the Golden Calf mounted at the center of most modern institutions for worship and adoration. One wonders what kind of devotional purpose can explain the relation between the expression “In God We Trust” and the way we look at money represented by the mighty US dollars where that expression is found.

By capital we mean not just physical money; it also includes the acquisitive drive that it inspires, the illusion that more is better as well as the misbelief that everything can be commodified. It is not religion but capital that speaks when one hears a Catholic devotee glorifying his favorite patron saint for a material reward which he has received or has yet to receive. Even acts of piety has assumed some form of a trade, a kind of exchange deal: I’ll give you a prayer, give me my raise. It is the same with the examples cited above: the preacher gives a talk because he can sell his book; the priest heals the sick but only after the baskets are filled with love offerings.

Religion is a huge magnet for money and the people behind religious organizations registered at the Securities and Exchange Commission know this.  They won’t say it is not trading God for money. Another fellow ages ago argued the same way.  Apparently, he only realized the bad deed he made when the subject of the deal hung lifeless on the cross.