On Religion, Atheism and Ethical Responsibility

Filipino Catholics celebrate the feast of the Black Nazarene on the 9th of January every year.  Millions of devotees would flock to Quiapo to join the traslacion, or the commemoration  of the translation or enshrinement of the image of the suffering Christ in its present location. Observers have often described this massive display of Catholic devotion as a showcase of Filipino religiosity, one that is marked by filial loyalty, by a physical, almost visceral expression of faith, by tales of desiderata and narratives of answered prayers. The broadcast media see in this event a romantic dramatization of the plight of the common Filipino; others see in it an outpouring of a sublimated angst against the political and economic inadequacies which characterize Philippine society; still others prefer to look at it as a raw portrayal of simple faith, one that finds a glimpse of the divine with the feel of the paved road under one’s naked feet or with the faint scent of the holy lingering in the white hanky that brushed the face of the miraculous ebony.

An article published in Rappler.com however provides an alternative, better yet, a Levinasian perspective on what is traditionally perceived as a purely religious affair.  Rather than asking whether Quiapo reflects the true color of Catholic faith, it raises instead the same question tirelessly probed by Levinas: does it make the Pinoy a better neighbor?  The article was written by Paterno Esmaquel II, a multimedia reporter for Rappler and once an associate editor of the The Guidon, the campus paper of the Ateneo de Manila University.  In the said article, Esmaquel directs his attention to what he perceived as a glaring disparity between the devotees’ almost manic outpouring of religiosity and their utter oblivion of any sense of social responsibility.  This observation was inspired by an interview done by Esmaquel with Fernando Zialcita, an anthropology and sociology professor, also, at the Ateneo and editor of the notable book Quiapo: The Heart of Manila and author of the highly rated Authentic Though Not Exotic:Essays On Filipino Identity.  In the said interview,  published likewise by Rappler, Zialcita explained: “The devotion to the Nazarene should be seen in the context of utang na loob (debt of gratitude): ‘God gave me some tremendous gift – napagaling ang miyembro ng pamilya ko (a family member was healed) – so what will I offer in return?’ Something difficult like, sasali ako sa prusisyon taun-taon (I will join the procession every year), risking my life.” He described the Nazareno devotion as an “awesome” display of gratitude to God for graces bestowed upon devotees and their families. This devotion, consistent with Filipino loyalty, according to Zialcita, is often limited only to the family and to the “angkan” or clan. As such it fails to take into account “social responsibility to a group larger than their family.”

In the context of Levinasian discourse, therefore, the feast of Quiapo is but a celebration of identity garbed in the language and tradition of religiosity.  What we see in the annual affair is the public translation of an experience of want and fulfillment that begins with self and ends with self.  Even the divine itself is held hostage in this melee of private religiosities. One finds a very strong suggestion of totality in a religious festivity where everything, including God, is reduced to the imperatives of identity at the expense of the other. “It is interesting to note,for instance, that in 2012,” Esmaquel writes,  “the Nazarene procession left over 500 injured and also piles of garbage in its trail. The call then of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle – to clean up and show concern for the environment – went unheeded.” This year’s procession is no different.  As noted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial, entitled “Nothing sacred” and published January 12, 2013: “This year’s passage of the Black Nazarene took “only” 17 hours—the reported result of a redesigned carriage, new solid-rubber tires instead of inflatable ones, and better organization. Metro Manila Development Authority Chair Francis Tolentino described the event as “faster and more organized.” It is thus quite unfortunate that the annual pietistic display was crowned by a massive collection of rubbish. The estimates vary, but the devotees apparently left more than 120 tons of garbage. Public places like Plaza Miranda, Rizal Park and the streets leading to Quiapo Church were choked with assorted trash, plastic water bottles, empty food packs and rafts of other throwaway items…ndeed, how reconcile this terrible act of littering with the show of faith and devotion that the Feast of the Black Nazarene represents? How justify inflicting one’s garbage on others?  It’s obvious that those “faithful” who disposed of their trash without a thought for those who would have to clean up after them have much to atone for in terms of their inconsiderate and self-centered ways. It’s galling that as they were going through the motions of piety, they were actually causing the suffering of the street sweepers and the army of volunteers who would later pool efforts to clean up the avenues leading to the house of God.”

The feast of Nazareno, or any religious festivity, need  not degenerate into this level as long as we remember with Levinas that religion is not a mere private affair but a movement towards ethical responsibility. What is missing in the scenario cited both by Esmaquel and PDI editorial is a genuine experience of transcendence which frees one from the restrictions of subjectivity and flings him into infinity, which is the realm of the ethical. The devotees of Nazareno need to experience Quiapo as a religious event that allow them, beside experiencing answered prayers or spiritual satisfaction, the heightened desire for transcendence. In his essay, God and Philosophy, Levinas explains: “Affected by the Infinite, Desire cannot proceed to an end which it would be equal to; in Desire the approach distances, and enjoyment is but the increase of hunger. Transcendence or the disinterest­edness of Desire “passes” in this reversal of terms. How? And in the transcendence of the Infinite what dictates to us the word Good? For disinterestedness to be possible in the Desire for the Infinite, for the desire beyond being, or transcendence, not to bean absorption in immanence, which would thus make its return, it is necessary that the Desirable or God remain separated in the Desire; as desirable it is near but different: Holy. This can only be if the Desirable orders me to what is the nondesirable, the undesirable par excellence – the other (autrui). The reference to the other (autrui) is an awakening, an awakening to proximity, and this is a responsibility for the neighbor, to the point of substitut­ing for him.”

It is for this reason that, as explained by Dr. Leovino Garcia, even religion must leave a room for an experience of a-theism, that is, the space that allows one to look at God not as an object of need but as an object of desire, not in the sense of an objectified desire but in a sense of a constant activation of desiring.  This desire sees no end and does not settle for some proxy gratification.  Desire is a movement towards the infinite, inviting one to disengage from the self-affirmation of the same into the celebration of transcendence that constantly speaks to him within the context of his social relations. Such atheism, as Levinas explains  “conditions a veritable relationship with a true God Kad’abrd. But this relationship is as distinct from objectification as from participation. To hear the divine word does not amount to knowing an object; it is to be in relation with a substance overflowing its own idea in me, overflowing what Descartes calls its “objective existence.”… To posit the transcendent as stranger and poor one is to prohibit the metaphysical relation with God from being accomplished in the ignorance of men and things. The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face. A relation with the Transcendent free from all captivation by the Transcendent is a social relation. It is here that the Transcendent, infinitely other, solicits us and appeals to us. The proximity of the Other, the proximity of the neighbor, is in being an ineluctable moment of the revelation of an absolute presence (that is, disengaged from every relation), which expresses itself. His very epiphany consists in soliciting us by his destitution in the face of the Stranger, the widow, and the orphan. The atheism of the metaphysician means, positively, that our relation with the Metaphysical is an ethical behavior and not theology, not a thematization, be it a knowledge by analogy, of the attributes of God. God rises to his supreme and ultimate presence as correlative to the justice rendered unto men.”

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