Recalling Sartre

In the former times, when a kid is asked what he wants to be when he grows up, the answer one would usually get is that he wants to be an astronaut, a doctor, an engineer, a soldier, a priest.  These days however, when a kid is given the same question, the answer most likely one would hear is that he wants to work in America, in Australia, in Canada, in Singapore, in Dubai or anywhere but home. This observation resonates with a remark made by Prof. Randy David in one of his recent articles entitled “Migration As A Way of Life.’  Prof. David noted: “Migration studies report that more than 10 million Filipinos, roughly 10 percent of our population, today live and work in about 193 countries. These figures have prompted analysts to speak of a Filipino diaspora. The term is a derivative of the Greek word “sporas,” meaning “scattered like seeds.” We are a seafaring people and long-distance travel is not unknown to us. We have had waves of Filipino migration to Hawaii, Guam, and the rest of the United States, as a byproduct of our colonial ties with America. But, for a long time, the rest of the world was unmarked space for us. Indeed, throughout its colonial past, the Philippines had been more of a receiving than a sending country, attracting over the centuries migrants from China, Japan, India, and from as far as Lebanon…Our kind of organized migration is vastly different from that pursued by young people elsewhere, who might spend time traveling, studying, or living in other cultures in order to gain international experience. They do not stay abroad out of desperation or necessity.  They don’t leave young children behind. Most of them come back to start families and build their careers hand in hand with the development of their societies.”

More and more Filipinos are leaving their own county out of this growing consciousness of nothingness which has become a phenomenological fact of our daily lives.  Such nothingness manifests itself in different forms and levels of deficiency, from basic nutrition to public healthcare to quality education to public order to good governance to name a few. It is precisely this awareness of nothingness which impels one to create himself according to Sartre. But as we have seen, such self-creation is defined these days no longer in terms of a self-project.  With the advent of global economy, underwritten by liberalist ideology, self-creation has been equated with mere acquisition of skills considered marketable in well developed countries such as those mentioned above.  The current generation sees their becoming no longer as a meaningful pursuit but as an endeavor towards a more profitable future.  Certainly there is nothing wrong in aspiring to earn more; what makes the situation lamentable is the reduction of human potential to mere acquisition of profit.   This obsession with profit, either in individual or social scale, is the chief characteristic of the modern society and it infects the way individuals look at themselves and the manner with which they relate with one another and the world at large.  Sartre’s notion of freedom as the key to human creativity has no place in modern society.  There is no need to be free after all; our fates have been decided and our journeys has been charted by the gods in the Olympus of the global economy long before we could learn how to dream   Our needs have been subsumed by the needs of the market.  Our hopes are pinned on the worldwide financial forecasts.  Our angst hangs in the balance of the shifting behavior of the global trade.  The only freedom left in us is the freedom to choose which skill to acquire to match the demands of the labor market or the freedom is to stay home and starve ourselves to extinction.  Such is the famous Sartrean irony of freedom.  Whether to be the worlds’ laborer or to remain poor in one’s own country is a matter of a personal cboice.  Freedom is both our transcendence and condemnation.  There is really no exit out of it.  The Sartrean notion of freedom is a celebration of individual autonomy and at the same time, a phenomenology of the irony of the human condition.  Sartre’s existentialist philosophy is an exploration of the inherent promise and problem of becoming human which freedom itself underlies.  Sartre reminds us that:  “Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist; and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist. Since man is thus self-surpassing, and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing, he is himself the heart and center of his transcendence. There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe) – it is this that we call existential humanism. This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realize himself as truly human.”

There is therefore something definitely remiss then when the individual is disempowered of his ability to surpass himself and relegated merely as a cog in the machine of global wealth creation; when the individual as a being for-itself is reduced and restricted into a mindless being in-itself by the lords and masters of profit.  Sartrean philosophical anthropology, when read with critical caution, is a good reminder of the beauty of becoming human, which sadly, is gradually fading from the appreciation of the modern individual.  Or maybe it has not really faded but suppressed by a caricature of himself as free man inside the cage he himself gilded with gold and silver.

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.