Opinion & Analysis
One's goodness amid many faiths7:20 PM, June 10, 2019
Philippines:Of all our wicked biases, our discrimination against religion can sometimes be the most dangerous.
A devotee of the Blessed Virgin Mary joins a religious procession in Manila. In the predominantly Catholic Philippines, the family and the Church are considered instrumental in shaping one’s core values. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
It is difficult to overcome our socially conditioned predisposition to assign people to specific categories and make judgments on an individual person, based primarily on the category where one belongs.
We tend not to make a deeper, critical assessment of particular facets that make each human unique from others and much less on a deliberate understanding of what each person is trying to become.
Such is the tragic consequence of our desire for efficiency: it is easier to see classes of people rather than the much harder reality of incomprehensible diversity.
As a result, we all tend to live up to our "predetermined categories" — and those who do are happily conformant, while those who cannot are miserably deviant.
But is it an accurate description of truth? Does belonging to one faith, or not belonging to another, make one intrinsically good or intrinsically evil? Or does refusing to belong to any faith make one intrinsically unconcerned or stubbornly indifferent?
Are we always happy being around fellow Catholics but suspicious and uneasy being around those with beliefs peculiar from our own? Have we been deeply wired to distrust and to act to be protected from incomprehensible diversity?
The stability of our religious identity is founded on setting norms on beliefs and actions congruent with that identity. We establish a system of meanings and a set of socially motivated — or socially imposed — doctrines, thus creating an immutable moral compass that defines standards for proper living and conduct.
We have always been told to behave "this way, but not that way, because ..." Such notions arise from our own experience within Catholic culture, and from our own observations of circumstances outside of it.
The acceptance of diversity, therefore, is considered a threat to our catholicity, as if we never understood that to be Catholic in the early Christian era meant embracing the richness of the varying Christian traditions being nurtured in highly different social contexts.
We must always be reminded that catholicity is not an illusory celebration of sameness but a courageous approval of inevitable divergences.
This process of efficient categorization and sweeping generalizations of moral action does not merely happen as a phenomenon exclusive to the higher social orders; they occur in observable transactions between two people. For instance, socially unacceptable conduct in a child can trigger an immediate inquiry "if the parents are going to church" or that a praiseworthy adolescent likewise triggers immediate acclaim "because the parents are going to church."
Indeed, the family and the Church are instrumentally vital in shaping and strengthening one’s core values, and indeed embody the lingering conscience of one’s life, but the questions of good or bad behavior simply put the credit or the blame on one’s heredity, domestic background or adopted religion.
Oversimplified "pigeon-hole" thinking that tends to brand people as either good "pigeons" or bad "pigeons" because of who their parents are, and what church they belong to, may make matters worse: if someone belongs to a certain family, community, social class or religion, then they are this kind or that kind of a person.
One of the worst perversions we have generated in modern civilization is the propensity to give everyone a label.
Such are the roots of our own prejudice against different neighbors and communities; against different social classes, such as views of the affluent against the poor and marginalized; and against different religions.
Of all our wicked biases, it is our discrimination against religion that lacks the most basis but can sometimes be the most dangerous. Our nearly fanatical devotion to a belief system will render anybody outside of it "worthy of hell."
It is an irony in the history of humanity’s search for deeper comprehension of the Great Mystery that even our responses in faith to our interpretations of divine revelation, when uncontrolled or misguided, can make one evil.
But where does goodness come from?
Every human, it seems, is truly born with the capacity for being good and the potential to do good; faith therefore becomes an expression of goodness, and for many people it provides the framework of teaching goodness. Therefore faith is not so much the source of goodness but rather its language. We cannot say "I believe, therefore I am good," but rather "I am good, I can do good and so I can believe."
Goodness can therefore exist amidst many faiths, or even in the apparent lack of it. Goodness therefore does not have a name, in the same way that God does not have a single name; goodness therefore has many faces in the same way that the Beloved comes to us in many surprising forms.
The source of goodness is the great Spirit, and with enough mindfulness of our acts of goodness, and sufficient consciousness of ever-changing expressions of goodness through relevant articulations of faith, we are led to the Spirit.
That journey of faith, only the Spirit truly knows.
Brother Jess Matias is a professed brother of the Secular Franciscan Order. He serves as minister of the St. Pio of Pietrelcina Fraternity at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Mandaluyong City, coordinator of the Padre Pio Prayer Groups of the Capuchins in the Philippines, and prison counselor and catechist for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.
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