Can faith be harnessed for the common good?

The average Filipino’s religious faith is legendary and beyond question. It is strong and it goes into the core of his or her being. It is effusive and often produces a dramatic effect on his or her disposition and conduct. Can such a force, which in other circumstances has been used to justify war and terror, be harnessed for the common good?

Can the same faith that keeps the Filipino hopeful in the face of distress, resilient in the face of tragedy, and selfless in the face of hardship be also a force for good citizenship? Can it reduce crime in everyday life, cheating in business, and corruption and meanness in our political life?  Can the same single-mindedness that the Black Nazarene’s devotees bring to their vows be summoned to form dedicated public servants? Can the power of faith be tapped to eradicate violence against women and the exploitation of children? Can it be used to bring groups and communities locked in ceaseless conflict to the peace table? Can we build a just and caring nation on the foundations of our religious faith?

Perhaps, we can put the same question in a less sublime way: How much piety do we need to muster to prod the participants of our spectacular religious processions to take care of their own trash and not leave mountains of garbage behind them?

These are not easy questions. Firstly, because people often do not hold similar notions of what constitutes the common good. Even when they do, their priorities are typically not always the same. They may profess the same social goals but strongly differ in the means to achieve them. They may redescribe and rationalize the foulest means in such a way that their use comes out as necessary and virtuous.

But, the difficulty in offering a positive answer to the kind of questions we pose here lies mainly in the very nature of faith and the religious system. Faith is, in the first instance, a highly personal form of consciousness. As such, it tends to have a high tolerance for inconsistency. Filipinos, for example, have no trouble keeping their religious devotions even while everything else they do in their everyday lives may contradict the essential elements of their faith. (This is not the same phenomenon of compartmentalization that accompanies functional differentiation in modern society, which to me is a matter of social structure than of consciousness.)

The biggest benefactors of church projects and priestly vocations are also sometimes the most corrupt, just as the most violent killers may often profess an amazing childlike piety. Clearly, piety does not always translate to social virtue. I once saw a churchgoing couple throw bags of garbage into a vacant lot, having lugged these in their car on their way to Sunday service. I have heard first hand of church volunteers who, over many years of pious service, systematically filched cash from Mass collections, and, when confronted, tried to justify their deed as their way of helping those in need. And, not to forget, when priests and bishops are themselves denounced for sexual and financial opportunism, can we blame the ordinary faithful if they seem unthinking in the observance of their faith?

In their coverage of the Black Nazarene procession, the mass media have tended to stick to one formula: Seek out testimonies of how individuals became Nazarene devotees. Such inquiry into the range of personal needs that people satisfy through religion, in my view, is seldom productive of sociological insights. We have seen how vast and diverse these needs can be. What is of greater interest to me, as a student of society, is the communication of the religious experience itself—how religious leaders attempt to manage this experience, tame its excesses, and keep it within bounds—and, most important for our analysis, how it is linked to the other spheres of society.

This brings up the key question I pose in this column: Can religion be harnessed for goals that fall outside the religious sphere? The answer, of course, is yes, but there is no way of ensuring that the consequences are going to be good for the larger society, or even for religion itself.  Indeed, in recent years, we have witnessed the disastrous coupling of religion and politics in the

Islamic world. While political projects have surged phenomenally, drawing strength from this potent nexus, the long-term consequences for Islam itself have been corrosive. This is where Christianity used to be once upon a time.

History details the retreat of Christianity from the other domains of society—for example, as a source of legitimation for legal and political orders, for invasions and conquests. That era has passed. Whatever functional “loss” Christianity may have incurred in the course of this evolution has however been abundantly redeemed by its persistence as a guarantor against meaninglessness in a complex world.

I share the exasperation the general public feels when religious adherents seem oblivious of the mess (e.g., traffic or garbage) they create in the course of their religious observance.  I wish God could tell them to keep in mind their neighbors’ welfare. But, on the other hand, wouldn’t religion be trivialized if its tenets were invoked for every conceivable problem we encounter in the world?

I admire people who can view every aspect of their lives through the prism of religion. But I admire even more those for whom both “the religious life and the religiously indifferent one are socially accepted and endowed with communicative ability.”

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