Cultures of amazement

'New religious movements' are models for theological processes aimed towards self-criticism and self-improvement
Cultures of amazement

A devotee joins a throng of people dancing their way to church during a festival in the Philippine province of Bulacan on May 19. Part of the festival is the dance of childless women in honor of St. Claire. In many parts of the Philippines, the faithful turn to religion to fulfill the yearnings for prosperity or a more comfortable life, or even of children. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

In the present Filipino sociological setting of widespread poverty and corruption in social structures, the majority of our people, challenged to become "fully human" within an impoverished liminal existence, do not have adequate access to opportunities for financial stability, affordable health care and relevant education.

If we cannot rely on our major political and ecclesiastical structures to provide these needs, then we inevitably must search or create other options, giving rise to countercultural initiatives.  

In the case of religion, "cults" or "new religious movements" may serve the purpose and fulfill the yearnings of the poor for prosperity or a more comfortable life; for inexpensive means to prevent or correct ailments; and for clearer or more acceptable explanations of a much-involved divine reality.  

According to Father John Saliba, the term "new religious movements" is often used in professional literature, to find a better phrase to designate those religious phenomena popularly known as "cults," because of the ambiguous and derogatory meaning that the latter word connotes.

He identifies this view as the "relative deprivation theory" which "starts with the observation that economic distress, lower social status, loneliness and anomie are at the root of religious movements."

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It is thus no wonder that we tend to subvert our inherited religious traditions, reconstituting them into new forms — either as unbridled personal devotional practices or as communal "new religious movements" — through a process of inculturation of the same traditions within our cultural context of angst, cynicism and dire necessity, to create relevant — though eccentric and eclectic — new religious traditions.

Therefore, we must be at least respectful and critical witnesses of transforming cultures that shock us from our religious conformism, and perhaps amaze us to uncharted levels of religious thinking; they are sincere searchers of new meanings within new religious and social constructs.

Furthermore, we hope to achieve fair social recognition for these genuine "new religious movements," in view of their marginalized existence; and understanding of their unique faith-expressions and their potential contribution for the common good.

But most importantly, these amazing cultures serve as mirrors of our own folly, of our own shortcomings and excesses, and hence judgments on our conduct as an institution and as a country professing to be Christian.

It is imperative to be humbled and to learn from these indigenous churches that are extremely focused on listening to people, and on responding by aiding them in their unique expressions of faith.

"New religious movements" are models for our theological processes aimed towards self-criticism and self-improvement. We must never tire of asking ourselves: what can our Church of already-constituted meanings should or should not learn from churches that continue to burden upon themselves to be constituted and to constitute its meanings through a synergy of a distinct Philippine "way of life" and the call of Jesus to actualize the eschaton of the "reign of God?"

In these times, when we are called to rethink, if not fondly reminisce, our mission as a Philippine Roman Catholic Church on the fifth centenary of Christianity in our country this coming 2021, it is vital ever to be mindful that a Church should not exist only for itself, or that a Church should simply exist for a people: The Church is the people, our Church is the People of God.

Our Philippine Church must always continue to mirror the longings and aspirations of Filipinos in every age; and as the Body of Christ, must also continue to be the means for its fulfillment. We must strive as a Church to being and becoming Christ, ever drawing from the divine source of its inspirations.

Filipinos are a mixture of ancient races, a proud tribe of Malay descent, influenced by the many civilizations of a past age of more introspective humanity, conscious of a sacred cosmos. Then by an unfortunate fate, we became the victim of colonialism, and today, a wayward child of neoliberalism.

We have thus become a powerless people, numbingly frolicking in the sea of idyllic contentment, yet oblivious of our namelessness, cynical about our histories and indifferent to our destiny, burying us in despair towards the problems we are compelled to face.

We must then become a resurrected people, capable of recovering our dignity, enriching our heritage and fulfilling our vision, by being a Church in persistent confrontation with the crises of today and the challenges of tomorrow; we, therefore, beseech our common God that we be graced with the magnanimous splagchnizomai (compassion) of Jesus the Christ in this future endeavor.

We are at a critical juncture of being and becoming such a Church: should we continue to be a Church of extinct contexts, an irrelevant, unconcerned and unfeeling Church thereby provoking a subtle and subverting praxis of Christian faith that guardians of orthodoxy has branded as "outlandish," "deviant" and "sinful;" or to become a Church, trying its best to remain meaningful and relevant to the present distress and anxiety of the souls it serves, by being open and dialogical to cultures that have strived to search and have embraced the Divine Mystery, through ways and means that have never ceased to amaze us.

It is a decision we are all praying to wisely make.

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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