Filipino Spirituality Needs To Evolve


When the hundreds of thousands of devotees of the Black Nazarene of Quiapo have long since finished their often dangerous and fatal attempt to touch their icon, one could ask the question: why have the individual spiritual transformations that have taken place in this mass devotion not translated in the collective transformation of Filipino spirituality as a whole?

black nazarene procession

It need not be stated that monotheistic religion (Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, et al) saturates Filipino culture right down to the very core. Its pull is so powerful that entire congregations (with memberships in their millions) can influence secular politics, create civil chaos and nearly partition the country. Regardless of their denominations or their motives, there is a commonality that prevails when these large-scale long-term events happen: they all involve action only at the behest of their leaders.

In the Philippines, it seems, when it comes to matters of religion, the devoted won’t do anything unless their priest, minister or imam says so. (Ironically, this apparently also applies to certain Filipinos who profess to no religion at all, with action on certain issues by higher-ups attempted only when legal ramifications are imminent.)

Again this goes back to Filipino culture. If we take the theoretical framework of the Lewis Model of behavior and culture, the entire nation is lumped with its neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia as more or less halfway between being “Multi-active” (emotional, impatient, people-oriented, etc.) and being “Reactive” (polite/indirect, patient, non-confronting, etc.), with a slight skew towards the latter. In the model, such a position is opposite that of the United States, which is generally “Linear-active” (factual, logical, organizational, etc.). Though this model does not take into account the spiritual beliefs of the cultures and nations it has detailed, it nevertheless can in a way explain Filipino spirituality: it is a universe where the devotee is at the lower rungs of a seemingly infinitely ascending hierarchial ladder that cannot (and should not) be defied; its highest rungs are unreachable, and those at the bottom must wholeheartedly plead to intermediaries for favors.

True to the Philippines being a blend of the East and the West, Filipino spirituality is a unique combination of the feudal system of medieval Europe and the caste system of Vedic India: both are inhumane, antiquated, and obsolete in a rapidly transforming world.

I don’t have faith (for all it’s worth) that it would happen in my lifetime, but a gradual evolution of Filipino spirituality is sorely needed, for the following reasons.

RELIGIOUS INFANTILISM. The Sinulog is perhaps the other large religious  festival that Filipinos celebrate at the beginning of the year after the Traslacion of the Black Nazarene. At the heart of the Sinulog is the devotion to the Santo Niño or the Child Jesus, a phenomenon that is perhaps unique in modern Christendom. Psychologically, the Filipino can be said to be fixated on the perceived “innocence” of children, especially babies; this can manifest in how Filipinos often keep images of the Child Jesus in their shrines. Not to mention that in the secular world, Filipinos love “cute” children, from child entertainers on TV, to tweens who for some reason act younger than their age on the internet.

There is an undercurrent of belief among devout Filipinos of a childlike Jesus who symbolizes eternal innocence. Devout Filipinos often take that perceived innocence into their own and in effect personalize it; however, this takes the form of infantilization, a sense of an extended childhood — or, in the case of Filipino spirituality, a carefree childhood that lasts for eternity. This phenomenon has actually split many philosophers and theologians within the Catholic Church itself, with many of them postulating (for good reason) that a paternalistic church hierarchy only contributes to the spiritual retardation of the laity. Spiritual growth in Filipino religious environments is inhibited and sometimes vanishes altogether, resulting in a community totally dependent on its (often) male leaders for religious guidance.

MARIAN EMASCULATION. An infantilized spirit will undoubtedly yearn for a spiritual mother; for Catholics in particular, this comes in the form of a white-hot devotion to Mary, the all-graceful, all-gentle, spiritually immaculate Mediatrix of All Graces between the suffering dukha and her Son the stern King of the Universe. The Marian devotions that begun in Renaissance Europe and climaxed with the apparitions of Fatima in the past century have never really receded in Catholic Philippines, in part because the political crises that the Vatican faced in the 19th Century still affect religious doctrine in the country today. Prayers to Mary often supersede the conventional paternal Holy Trinity: the Mother is often seen as more “approachable” and “merciful” than the Father and/or the Son, the mediator between the highest and lowest rungs of the ladder.

Despite the reformations of Vatican II that put Mary in a more assertive apostolic (missionary) role, Catholic Filipino spirituality is seemingly stuck in the preference for Mary as the perfect mother figure. It’s no wonder that the largest statues and most popular religious shrines in the Philippines are of Mary, similar to how medieval Europeans constructed giant Gothic cathedrals in the name of Notre Dame. It then becomes rather unusual that non-Catholic denominations gather under Marian shrines to protest government intervention.

By itself, Marian devotion can be seemingly harmless. But coupled with spiritual infantilization as mentioned above, this combination has already brought about among Filipino devotees a sense of submissive conformity.

SPIRITUAL FATALISM. This is manifested predominantly in the popular Filipino euphemism “bahala na,” which in its most primitive semantic form means “leave it all up to God.” It has its benefits, but it becomes a form of fatalism that allows the Filipino to disengage from potentially everything, leaving control to external forces he or she couldn’t probably understand. Then there’s it’s more vicious cousin, “bahala ka,” which is more of an affirmation of giving up on something, absolving whoever said it from any action. “Bahala ka” became fashionable in Philippine politics during an awkward disaster management meeting after Typhoon Haiyan struck in 2013.

Bahala na/ka” is therefore a conscious and pragmatic decision to lose control, to leave everything that comes afterwards to the pre-Christian concept of Bathala, or God. Combined with the two other factors presented above, spiritual fatalism leads to spiritual stasis. Thus, Filipino spirituality becomes subservient to the whims of its superiors who perpetuate the doctrinal cycle of “innocence” and “purity” while stunting actual tangible change. Even Filipino atheists, mental innovators supposedly free from the shackles of religion, still perpetuate this cycle by sticking to secular dogmatics of supposed experts without actually creating new and “freethinking” ideas of their own.

So what’s the point here?

When for example a Filipino Nazareno devotee finally reaches the statue after fighting tooth and nail in the million-strong crowds that surround it, he or she might only feel for the moment but might not actually carry the spiritual experience long afterwards. So what strikes the devotee more: his/her suffering in the throng, the moment of contact, the euphoria of success, or the transformation that might follow? What if nothing happens at all after contact?

When a Filipino penitent crucifies himself in an imitation of Christ every Good Friday as a vow to the Blessed Mother, what lessons does he learn and what does he teach to those who he welcomes to watch him? If on the off chance he breaks his vow for any reason, can he do something about it?

When a Filipino churchgoer hears his minister’s exhortation to vote for a certain candidate this coming election day, what could he ask himself about the Godly values (or otherwise) that candidate possesses to deserve the vote of the congregation? Can he vote for someone else, or can he NOT vote for anyone at all?

When the nonreligious Filipino man is allowed the freedom and given the impetus by the most outspoken of his polemicists to freely and publicly mock the religious, does he have the courage to profess in tangible form that this might not be a rational recourse to sustain his  lack of belief? What affirmative actions can he do to divest himself of the dominant male privilege that prevails in his system?

When a certain doctrine states that all peoples of all nations are equal under God, can a Filipino adherent question the validity of the potential creation of a sub-state that would more likely incite religious violence rather than promote peace, as that same doctrine supposedly promotes?

These questions, hypothetical as they are, all seek to elicit answers other than the usual mindset of “just because it is.” All the great spiritual traditions of the world eventually had to go through this dynamic process of questioning and reinterpreting to adapt to the times and places when and where they existed, while keeping their hermeneutical traditions intact. Hinduism in the long run gave rise to Buddhism, the Abrahamic religions gave birth to to the Age of Reason, and even the Chinese traditions (Confucianism and Taoism), which were banned for a while during the Cultural Revolution, were eventually accommodated into the Chinese Communist Party’s state-sanctioned system today.

What matters here, though, is that most of the questions should be answered by the adherents themselves who live and pray and worship and speak rhetoric within that system. The new (and hopefully more empowered) direction that they wish to take their spirituality into must contain emic solutions to the problems that have arisen within them, meaning it must have answers that reflect their own identity, their own language and must be decided upon in their own terms, and must benefit everyone within that system (not just its leaders). That way, collective transformation does happen.

If Filipino spirituality should (and it should!) evolve, the process must begin with a Filipino.

All this is inextricably intertwined with culture, and perhaps one of the ways that a Filipino could better herself (and to her nation, if the nation still offers significant import to her) is to develop the ability to openly question the prevailing norms of her most deeply-held spiritual beliefs.


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