Postscript on Quiapo: Private Piety, Common Faith

As in the past years, millions of devotees flocked to Quiapo last January 9 to celebrate the annual feast of the Black Nazarene.  Hordes of barefoot pilgrims once more flooded the selected thoroughfares, which, for that day, were cordoned off from traffic for what is considered in the Philippines as the mother of all processions.  Thanks to the local TV networks, what used to be a mere religious procession has now become one giant reality show that lends the plight of the contemporary Filipino a human face in a way even the best soap opera or the most edgy of indie films would never capture.  The TV outfits always have a special eye for anything that draws a huge crowd trusting that wherever people congregate, ratings won’t be far behind.  For the foreign tourists unfamiliar with a religious festivity of this magnitude, the feast of Quiapo was definitely a sight to behold. For the cynics however, it was but a one-of-a-kind enlarged flash mob. For the devotees among us, the scenes from the feast of the Black Nazarene were an unassailable testament of the enduring religiosity of Filipinos.

 

Of these, it is the latter, I suppose, that seriously calls for a closer reflection given Quiapo’s religious character.  I don’t really have anything against popular profession of piety.  After all, mass demonstration of faith is not something endemic to Catholicism alone; various religions like Islam, Judaism and other Christian churches also have their own versions of public display of pious affection.  The Quiapo procession however distinguishes itself from others for its almost Dionysian sense of abandon despite its conservative provenance as a Catholic devotion.  Observers note how the number of devotees that converges in Quiapo continues to swell year after year and with this increase also rises the toll of physical injuries, petty crimes and the heap of garbage left behind by a sea of penitents.  This has been the recurring story of the feast of Quiapo, a story which definitely detracts from what can actually be an inspiring narrative of a people’s testimony of faith.

 

As it is, there is really nothing harmful in the performance of piety in the public space.  What really invites rethinking is the romanticization of a religious outpouring in the name of a piety which has not grown larger than the devotees’ private intentions.  Religion, admittedly, is a personal experience and surely one that incorporates the desires, anxieties, conquests and aspirations that a person brings into the rendition of his religious engagement.  But then religion too is an ethical relation, something that requires transcendence of one’s self for the sake of the other, whether that other is a fellow pilgrim or his country or the very divinity that animates one’s religious devotion. 

 

Last January 9, something truly bothersome was caught by the TV cameras when the statue of the Black Nazarene was almost overcome by a multitude of devotees vying for a spot nearest to the image.  This took place even when the Mass officiated by Cardinal Tagle was still in progress and the procession was yet to commence.  Later on, while in transit, there were also those who literally defied all odds  to find their way up the Black Nazarene’s carriage and render what is thought to be the supreme gesture of homage and sacrifice – a touch, a kiss, a mere wipe with a towel or hankie which would seal the wish for a miracle. People would risk lives and limbs for that moment, throwing all sense of public order and public safety to the wind.  At one point, a group even attempted to remove the barricades at the MacArthur Bridge specifically put in place to reroute the procession and prevent the weight of almost three million pairs of feet from massing over an aging bridge at the brink of collapse. 

 

These incidents magnify what has been a regular fare in our day-to-day exchange.  Increasingly, yet unconsciously, our society is transforming itself into a mere aggregate of individuals, a pseudo-community where the personal is the primary determinant of choices and actions.  We have yet to identify with a self larger than our own and pursue a good that we can collectively aspire for and enjoy.  It is as if society is but a venue for our competing individual wills.  We are lulled by the illusion that we are one because we occupy the same space.  The veneer of unanimity effectively hides the deep-seated fragmentation that marks off one’s motivations from others’. We see each other as co-inhabitants and not yet as co-actors hence our potential as a people for a collective ethical action has yet to concretize itself in terms of an actual personal as well socio-political change.  We mistake our proximity with unity and our parallel interests as common goals and daily the corrosive effect of this state of affairs is palpably present in the crises which weigh on our families, our systems, our institutions even our religions.  The scenes at the Quiapo procession are a painful remainder of what can happen even to something as lofty as religion once overtaken by private piety and individual devotion under the guise of common faith. Apparently, even the divine dispensation is not spared from the cut-throat competition once spoken of by Thomas Hobbes as the state of nature. One wonders what happens to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth who as a servant thought of the other ahead of himself, away from the hysteria and pressure of the crowd.

Versions of Philosophy

As it evolves from its Greek origin, philosophy assumes a variety of forms throughout history. These varieties of philosophy are what other textbooks call branches or kinds of philosophy.  For our purpose, we prefer to call them versions of philosophy.  There is only one love of wisdom but there could be different ways by which the same philosophy expresses itself in different  ages and cultures. Even authors vary in the way they present philosophy in its different forms. Sometimes it is labeled according to the nationality or geographical location of certain philosophers (German philosophy, French philosophy, British philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Indian philosophy, Continental philosophy) or according to an identification with a particular period of history (ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy, renaissance philosophy, modern philosophy) or according to affinity with a religious thought (Islamic philosophy, Jewish philosophy, Christian philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, Daoist philosophy).  Philosophy is also identified following the name of the philosopher which espoused a certain system of thought (Thomistic philosophy after Thomas Aquinas; Cartesian philosophy after Rene Descartes; Kantian philosophy after Immanuel Kant; Hegelian philosophy after George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; Marxist philosophy after Karl Marx among others).  It is also common to name philosophy according to different schools of thought which embody the spirit of the times of different epochs (skepticism, scholasticism, idealism, rationalism, romanticism, materialism, existentialism, modernism, structuralism). Philosophy also sometimes adopts the name of the method or tool it uses as in the case of logic, hermeneutics or analytic philosophy. The most familiar of all philosophy’s names is taken after the subject matter it covers.  Among the popular ones, we have epistemology if it concerns the question of the validity of knowledge; ontology if it concerns the question of the basis of reality; ethics if it concerns the question concerning the basis of human action; aesthetics if it concerns the question concerning the criteria of beauty. When it comes to the question of divinity, philosophy resorts to theodicy or if we turn to politics, we have political philosophy; for issues that concern fundamental questions related to our humanity, we have the philosophy of the human person.  Lately, we one can also hear of philosophy of science and philosophy of mathematics. In other schools here and abroad, one may also find courses on applied philosophy like environmental ethics, business ethics and philosophy of technology.

As one can see, philosophy excludes nothing in its purview.  Philosophy practically embraces the entire landscape of reality. Those who think of philosophy as a stand-alone discipline is gravely mistaken for philosophy’s real worth lies precisely in its ability to embed in other the disciplines the spirit of self-critique and rigorous inquiry. We do not philosophize if we merely subscribe to a particular philosophical doctrine or make ourselves blind disciples of this or that philosopher or worse, if we think and write as though philosophy will cure the ills of the world. The point of discussing the different versions of philosophy is for us to see the range of philosophy’s critical enterprise.  Philosophy has this distinct capacity to push the boundaries of its scope as wide as possible not so much by providing answers to all possible questions but by posing questions which enable it to establish “bridges”, to use the expression of Deleuze, with other disciplines. When philosophy dips its finger into seemingly alien frontiers like economics, quantum physics or biotechnology, it is actually engaging them in a kind of a critical interface in order to bring to the attention of the experts our human concerns. What appears like an interference is actually a necessary engagement which philosophy undertakes as a critical discipline. Philosophy does not compete with other fields of inquiry but puts itself at their service.

This is also the same spirit that we imbibe from studying philosophy. Philosophy introduces us to an interpretive life and makes more intense our yearning for wisdom by inspiring  and teaching us first of all to ask questions. A student of philosophy is a pilgrim and the questions he makes help him identify the landmarks in his map. A question is the first step towards understanding.  It creates the space and sets the condition of possibility for the construction of new meanings. It likewise opens up our sight to the multiplicity of alternative perspectives.  To live therefore an examined or interpreted life which philosophy offers us is to live a meaningful life.  It is to find the world and know it as if we see it for the first time.  We no longer look around us and see a world surrounded by dull figures and bland tones but trees, flowers, sunlight, air, raindrops which speak to us and out of whose language we are able to create meanings that make our lives worth living.  With philosophy, we no longer live inside the cave described by Plato. We become men and women of light, freed from the cave walls where the only images we see are shadows.

 

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.

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.