Philippines: Land of split-level Christianity

Dean Tony La Viña
We are a people of faith, a hopeful people. But we are also sinners.

When Pope Francis visits the country he will encounter a warm and hospitable people, where according to one survey 87% are “excited crazy” (I am one of those) about the papal visit. Yet beneath the euphoria and frenetic scramble to please and secure the papal delegation, the Pope comes to a land full of contradictions, to visit a people whose faith, one Jesuit priest and scholar once described as “split-level Christianity”.

More than 4 centuries ago, our ancestors worshipped their bathalas and anitos and engaged in other forms syncretic religious practices. However with the coming of the Spanish conquestadores, many inhabitants in our islands were converted, some forcibly and others by convenience, into Christianity.

Slowly the inhabitants, derisively called “Indios” by the colonial masters, learned to believe in one All-powerful and living God and assimilated the religious practices and rituals of Catholic Faith. Yet even now these Christian belief system remains interspersed with practices that find their roots in indigenous syncretic beliefs of long ago. So that while we adhere to the religious rituals and practices handed down to us by our Spanish colonial masters such as processions, cenaculo and the like, we continue to cling to native customs like amulets, barangs and the like. Even the religious language we use, handed down through translation, is a mixture of indigenous and colonial. The result is a unique brand of Catholicism that some brand natural religiosity.  

The Pope will have a first hand experience of this natural religiosity in the Mass at Rizal Park on Sunday when, prior to the mass, the Sinulog dance will be performed and thousands will be bringing their Santo Niño statues, shouting “Pit Señor!” while dancing to the beat of drums from dozens of bands. At least, those dancers will not have been drinking alcohol as many revelers would be in Cebu, Kalibo and other places where this ritual of celebrating the Feast of the Holy Child is a yearly, much-awaited event.

While some people might not look kindly at this form of religiosity, I actually appreciate it. Having grown up in the province, in the city of Cagayan de Oro which was once quite a small town, the Catholic faith was passed on to me, among others, by my maternal grandmother, Lola Pita Chaves Maestrado, who went to Mass twice a day, brought me to early dawn Simbang Gabis and  Good Friday processions. And this, inspite of being married to a lawyer-politican and a former congressman of Camiguin and Misamis Oriental, my maternal grandfather Silvino Maestrado, who was also a protestant, mason, and a Rizalista.

However it came to us, 400 years of nurturing of the Christian faith has ingrained in many Filipinos a deep awareness and love for God. This innate religiosity enables many of us to comprehend realities as God’s intervention in human’s daily existence. Many of our people seek and see the Divine in any and all things; the Divine is integrated in our work and in our daily existence. From triumphs to defeats, many Filipinos see God’s hand in everything.

Overall, this is a good thing, this total dependence in God. I have seen this in the many faith communities I have been part of. In the early years, I saw this from the time I was in grade and high school in Xavier University, where I first learned to deepen my faith, and where I also got exposed to how poor communities in our city lived theirs. I saw this too at the Ateneo de Manila where I joined the Ateneo Catechetical Instruction League and taught poor children in schools and urban communities the basics of Catholicism.

I witnessed this in my work as  a Jesuit Volunteer in the early 1980s when I witnessed the birth and early years of many Basic Christan Communities in Bukidnon and other places in Mindanao and in the Jesuit Volunteers Philippines, which itself, is a faith community. Above all, I have seen this in the nearly 20 years I have walked with a community of adult itinerants in the Neocatechumenal Way and in the work that I do today on climate change, environment, human rights, and anti-corruption where the Church is very active in.

People of faith and contradictions

The Pope will also see this deep faith and reliance in God when he visits Leyte and meets the survivors of Yolanda/Haiyan. When he hears their stories over lunch on Saturday, no doubt the Pope will wonder where the resilience of these people comes from. For sure, there will be tears, but I am quite certain there will be a lot of laughter too.

For me, the lasting images from that 2013 typhoon will always be a picture of women carrying the holy image of the Sto Nino, if I’m not mistaken, walking in a procession around their now gone village after Typhoon Yolanda, and another picture showing teenagers playing basketball with destroyed homes and mountains of debris as their background. These images eloquently bespeak of Filipino religiosity and resilience.

So I say to Pope Francis: we are a people of faith, a good people.

But why is there so much corruption amid us, so much impunity for crime and human rights violations, and such scandalous poverty and inequality? The extent of corruption is such that it has contaminated every echelon of society and gravely weakened the very moral and spiritual fabric of our society. We have made some progress in some administrations, as we did with Presidents Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos, and under President Noynoy’s “Tuwid na Daan”, but to say that we have defeated corruption permanently is delusional.

One other contradiction – the country is endowed with so much natural and human wealth, yet it is a paradox that majority of us continue to be poor. Worse, the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than ever. This is most evident in Metro Manila where the rich, residents of plush and exclusive subdivisions, see from the comforts of their homes the multitude of homeless with only makeshift sheds over their heads. Expensive restaurants abound while many cannot even find a scrap of food to quiet their grumbling stomachs. A few drive around in their luxury cars while most have to make do with antiquated and ill-maintained transport systems.

Decades ago, the eminent Jesuit psychologist and priest, Fr Jaime Bulatao SJ wrote about our split-level Christianity, which he describes “as the coexistence within the same person of two or more thought-and-behavior systems which are inconsistent with each other.”

According to Fr Bulatao: “So it is with the split-leveled person; at one level he professes allegiance to ideas, attitudes and ways of behaving which are mainly borrowed from the Christian West, at another level he holds convictions which are more properly his “own” ways of living and believing which were handed down from his ancestors, which do not always find their way into an explicit philosophical system, but nevertheless now and then flow into action.” In that famous article, Fr Bulatao gave examples of inconsistency of values with behavior from how Filipinos dealt with pornography, infidelity and corruption.

Fr. Bulatao also explained this split-level Christianity. He proposed that: “A study of the two levels may bring out the following analysis: the top or surface level is the more “Christian” part. “It is made up of rules and beliefs picked up in school or in church. In large part, it is conceptualized, or at least verbalized, usually in a foreign language like English, Spanish or Latin. Much of it is learned by rote, from catechism or from books.”

Fr Bulatao then argues that the lower or deeper level is made up of the rules, beliefs, attitudes and action tendencies which are more common in the environment, which are picked up at home and in the street rather than at school. “A large part of it is never verbalized, but acts as a sort of unspoken philosophy, spontaneously flowing into action when the occasion calls it forth and the inhibitory forces are removed.”

Fr Bulatao ends his article as a good Jesuit who has posed a problem does, by asking “what can be done about split-level Christianity? He quotes another Pope, Saint Paul VI, who in his Encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, says, When the Church distinguishes itself from human nature, it does not oppose itself to it, but rather unites itself to it…The Church should enter into a dialogue with the world in which it exists and labors.”

Pope Paul VI describes how this dialogue is to be carried on: And before speaking, it is necessary to listen, not only to a man’s voice, but to his heart. A man must first be understood, and where he merits it, agreed with. In the very act of trying to make ourselves pastors, fathers and teachers of men, we must make ourselves their brothers. The spirit of dialogue is friendship and, even more, service.”

Finally, Fr Bulatao summarizes Paul VI’s words well and applies it to split-level Christianity: “Here then is a possible line of action to close the gap between the Christian authority figure and the common mass, namely friendship, brotherhood and listening attitude xxx There must first come about a change of attitude in those who are the culture’s authority figures. They must reflect in their own lives the model of the first teacher. Christ was incarnated, took flesh as a man among men. The priest must not be afraid to be a man among men. One must not thank God that he or she is not like the rest of men. In the Gospel the one who did so was the Pharisee. “Taking flesh’ means being with one’s own time and place, speaking its idiom, wearing its dress, weeping with it, and, by one’s presence, sanctifying it.”

Overcoming the split

So there is hope that we can overcome our split-level Christianity. The Catholic Church must take the lead, but not only the priests but more importantly, the lay people. Thankfully, we have a Pope that understand this and exhorts us to do this.

We are a people of faith, a hopeful people. But we are sinners also. In these days of the Pope’s visit, where he comes not as King but as Pastor, as Vicar of Christ who wants us to focus on the Messiah and not himself, amid the noise and chatter, I hope we can all find the time and look at ourselves – the good and bad sides, the beautiful and ugly – and listen closely to the Spirit that asks us to convert. Once and for all, lets end our split-level Christianity. –

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