Split-level spirituality

A long time ago, the Jesuit psychologist Fr. Jaime Bulatao invented the curious term “split-level Christianity”.  Very simply, it meant the superimposition of imported Christian meanings upon native religious beliefs and practices.

For example, scapulars replaced amulets.   Images of saints displaced the wooden gods in our ancestors’ homes.  Priests took the place of our local shamans.  And the sacred mountains, those ancient places of worship, were replaced by the colonial churches.   But the new forms did not erase the substantive spirituality.

Rome refers to it as our evangelization.  Thoughtful Filipinos call it subjugation — no less violent than its political version.  Others may see it as enculturation, or the working out of God’s message in the local idiom.  However we might describe it, one thing cannot be denied: the native never died, and the local soul was never completely colonized.

Today, as we perform the rituals and festivities of our Christian overlay, it is well to remember that in many ways, we are also unconsciously enacting the idiosyncratic fantasies of our ancestors. There is, after all,  nothing western  about the spirituality that Mt. Banahaw evokes in those who worship on its slopes, even if the goddess of that magical mountain has sometimes been called Mother Mary.  In the other mystical mountain of Arayat, the goddess is called Mariang Sinukuan, but we know that that is hardly in reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Pilgrimages to sacred mountains take place in Bataan and Zambales every Holy Week, typically under the guidance of charismatic women healers  — quite possibly the descendants of the pre-colonial shamans.  Ordinary folk come from all over Luzon in rented buses and jeeps to participate in syncretic rituals that bear no similarity to the traditions of Roman Catholicism.  These are  the same simple folk who, on Good Fridays, bring out their amulets and recite ancient incantations before them in the belief that the spirits that roam the earth are strongest and most responsive on that day.

Perhaps only the doctrinal purists who think there is only one way of adjusting one’s life to the awful mysteries of the universe are disturbed by the eruption of marginalized forms of spirituality.  These are sometimes labeled folk Catholicism, to distinguish them from the presumably authentic Church-sanctioned traditions.  But we must question the usefulness of these distinctions.  Because, in truth, the history of western Christianity itself is replete with examples of interweaving with the various Oriental faiths that had spread all over Europe in the later days of paganism.

“An instructive relic… is preserved in our festival of Christmas,” notes Sir James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough, “which the Church seems to have borrowed directly from its heathen rival.  In the Julian calendar, the 25th of December was reckoned the winter solstice, and it was regarded as the nativity of the Sun, because the day begins to lengthen and the power of the sun to increase from that turning-point of the year.”

Where the Church was dealing with the residues of ancient faiths, it wasn’t easy to make converts, who were accustomed to welcoming the birth of the Sun, celebrate instead the birth of the Son.  Thus, today we can still see the colorful thread of pagan practices artfully woven into the otherwise austere fabric of  Christmas.

Sir James believes that Easter and many other Christian feasts and holy days may have had the same origin.  “When we remember that the festival of St. George in April has replaced the ancient pagan festival of the Parilia; that the festival of St. John the Baptist in June has succeeded to a heathen Midsummer festival of water; that the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin in August has ousted the festival of Diana; that the feast of All Souls in November is a continuation of an old heathen feast of the dead; and that the Nativity of Christ himself was assigned to the winter solstice in December because that day was deemed the Nativity of the Sun; we can hardly be thought rash or unreasonable in conjecturing that the other cardinal festival of the Christian church – the solemnization of Easter – may have been in like manner, and from like motives of edification, adapted to a similar celebration of the Phrygian god Attis at the vernal equinox.”

Because mor often than not, the cross came with the sword of colonialism, we are bound to find not just the clever substitution of festivals that Sir James speaks of, but indeed the violent obliteration of indigenous sacred places.  Any visitor to  Mexico and Peru, for example, cannot fail to note where the Spanish conquistadors deliberately erected their first cathedrals – on the self-same ancient sacred grounds of the Aztecs and the Incas.  The descendants of these subjugated peoples still go to these places, but perhaps it is debatable to which gods they pray when they do – to the gods of their ancestors or of their conquerors’?

It is sad that there are still those among us who mock the curious blend  of indigenous magic and Christian religiosity by which many of our people try to appease the forces of an awesome world or pursue their quest of immortality.  Myself, I have stopped thinking that there is such a thing as a pure spirituality and a “split-level” spirituality.  I believe that all spiritualities, without exception, syncretically weave their unique fabric from every available material.  And that material is necessarily historical.


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