Faith in the country

A storm like the one we’ve just had awakens the best in everyone, which is why I am glad that volunteerism has been reawakened these past few days. It is even more meaningful when one realizes that their friends and family are affected by it, in very tragic and not-so-tragic ways.

I am convinced that all the solutions we could have tried but did not were a result of a leadership that was not there. All our Presidents since the Second World War, including both Presidents Marcos and Aquino, have failed to arrest the tide of “development” that ruined the well-laid plans of people for Quezon City and its environs. Where I am writing from now should have never been. This area, Don Jose Heights is part of the La Mesa watershed, a forested zone that could have remained a large and wonderful national park. (I’d imagine this would have made a good ranger’s hut overlooking a two-lane access road, but I digress.)

At the same time, there is one seminal event that we ought to blame for the current state of affairs. It took place in Rome in 1967, and it was a row caused by a line in a religious leader’s issuance that was, as an acquaintance of mine points out, otherwise a decent call for responsible parenting. Since then, the consequences have been that some nations in the world could not even have a decent population policy–ours included. It has become almost a litmus test of one’s religiosity that one refuses to use a condom or even countenances the idea of a public health center carrying one.

So the Church and State are to blame, and in this non-secular land, we tend to be part of both. My reflection today focuses on the religious aspect of the situation.

*****

Years ago, a friend told me that there is no space for the secular in this country. At first glance, he seems to be right. Our culture is permeated with the symbols and trappings of religiosity, and even the more Americanized part of it has taken on the suburban mega-church culture of the States on board. It is impossible for a truly secular space to be set apart, as even our ostensibly secular national university countenances two chapels and a (proposed) mosque in a space which would, if we had the equivalent of the National Secular Society here, be the subject of furious lawsuits on the Establishment Clause.

Yet no religion, as indeed no text, lies uninterpreted, as the hermeneutical thinkers of the 20th century have argued rightly. If there is no space for the secular, it is paradoxical that the kind of religion we have been allowed to have is the kind that William Cavanaugh argues is crucial for the growth of secularism. It is in the modern era where the State, as a separate entity, emerges, and more importantly, becomes the dominant means of exercising power in the world, including over life itself. To take the argument further: in the age of Empire, as Hardt and Negri point out, Empire itself has taken on the trappings of what was once the State.

Religion in the State, or indeed the Empire, is subordinate to it. We play by its rules, and rightly so. We assert that we are part of the country, and often we criticize those who overstep the boundaries between a privatized faith and the public life. We believe that it is the way God meant things to be. Did not St Peter say that we ought to fear God and honor the Emperor?

Yet there is another witness, and that is where the work of biblical interpretation and theology, has to begin the difficult task. Elsewhere we read that Babylon has fallen, and it may well be that this Babylon is anything we have put in place of God. The irony in Jesus saying “Render unto Caesar” is lost on us if we forget that he was addressing those who rightly held that our allegiance really ought to lie elsewhere. Even Caesar owes everything to God, and he cannot put himself in place of the Holy One.

Indeed, the age of Empire puts out a theological challenge for those who are still enamored by the theologies of the last century. We are asked to challenge the assertion that there is no space for the secular. On the contrary, there is no space for God, for we have domesticated the Holy One. And even if many claim to have a personal relationship with his Son, we have transformed him into whatever we think he is. (Indeed, that is unavoidable, but must be avoided. As Br. James Koester, SSJE, said some time ago, Jesus sometimes becomes Wonder Bread.)

So we do not allow God to be God, and not allow ourselves, as Church, to question and relativize our allegiances, to question whether we allowed the land to be destroyed in the name of “development” and a false understanding of “dominion.” We have to question ourselves, because we have reduced God to our cipher. Indeed, that is what Nietzsche means by the “death of God.”

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