Notes & Essays

What It's Like to Be a Modern Man of Modern Faith

Clinton Palanca reflects on the difficult task of being a believer.

Being a Christian, for many of us, is not something we chose, but which our parents chose for us; when we learned who we were we also learned that we were baptized Christians. For those who have chosen to reject Christianity later in life, there is no ceremony of reversing one’s baptism or of de-Christianization; to do so in a church, before God, would ironically affirm there was a God to whom one was addressing one’s non-belief. Many others have chosen a life of passive agnosticism, being able to recite all the responsorials during Mass when called upon to do so at weddings, baptisms, and funerals.

In our household, although all of us are baptized Roman Catholics, we have different degrees of belief—but it has never become a point of friction. For the very rare instances that people ask about it, I tell them that my own faith is that of an Roman Catholic, but a very liberal and non-doctrinal one.

I believe, for instance, that all religions lead to God, just as all disparate paths can converge at the same summit. I believe in a more abstract God, rather than one who must be praised like an egomaniacal king, one who manifests in the deepest recesses of one’s own soul rather than in miracles or relics or statues, and for whom prayer can be contemplation or wonder just as much as the rote recitation of the Angelus. As I see it, all religion is essentially metaphorical; even if I am a sceptical Christian, I choose to remain within the Catholic Church, because it is a set of metaphors that I am familiar with.

This puts me in an awkward position—at odds at once with the Church, for whom being a member is an all-or-nothing affair, not something you can pick-and-choose at your own discretion like items off a buffet; and also with more outspoken atheists, for whom I am just hedging my bets, or reluctant to cast off the societal pressure to remain within the fold of Christianity.

I have had this discussion with some of my close friends who are atheists, who point out the inherent ridiculousness of some of Christianity’s beliefs; the corruption that has occurred both historically and currently within the ranks of the Church, from the medival practice of selling indulgences to the recently emerging claims of sexual molestation; of the bigotry of the Church in its treatment of women and homosexuals.

In the modern world, the bells and spells of the Church—the swinging censer of incense, the robes of the clergy, the remnants of Latin that still emerge post-Vatican II—seem closer to the realm of magic than of science. This allows sceptics to claim a high ground from which they can cast stones, or at the very least take potshots: being a Christian, especially a Catholic, can be made to seem as antiquated as continuing to believe the earth is flat. It is conflated with gullibility, moral conservatism, superstition, fundamentalism, bigotry.

In our country, which is overwhelmingly religious, and where the Church and various evangelical groups hold sway over most of the population, my emphatically liberal views towards divorce, gender equality, homosexuality, and a political system that can operate independently of religion means that I spend more time with atheists and agnostics than other Catholics. In not-so-subtle hints, I have been told: look, you’re actually one of us, you just don’t want to admit it to yourself.

Being a Christian can be made to seem as antiquated as continuing to believe the earth is flat. It is conflated with gullibility, moral conservatism, superstition, fundamentalism, bigotry. 

What is true is that I may have stretched Christianity to the limits of being recognizable as such. But one can go too far in the direction of moving God from a supernatural creature into the realm of metaphysics, or a phenomenological safe zone. There is so much of contemporary theology that is obfuscation and abstraction—trying to make Christianity more a mind game than a core belief. In some cases it reads like poorly argued speculative psychology or the numbing mental gymnastics of contemporary philosophy. At its worst, modern Christian thinkers have developed a God that is so remote and incomprehensible that while it leaves the sceptics’ questions unanswered, it at least leaves them bewildered. This is not my God, either.

Then again, no god, or idea of God, should simply be one’s own God. Just as a language is of limited use if only one person speaks it, a God that you have created bespoke for your needs, whom you address in private and don’t share with anyone: this is problematic. The nature of faith is that it is shared. Worship is practised as a community. We may not believe that the priest has a clearer direct line to God or receives coded transmissions, but we believe that he has spent time studying the classicsk meditated on the nature of humanity, and (unlike ancient Egyptian priests with their secret Nile-o-meter or a Delphic oracle) derives their authority from their devotion to a lifetime of service, to compassion, to guideance. Between the mafia boss and the priest, we assume that the latter is a better man, if only because he tries, we assume, to be one.

The massed unities of faith, the collective devotion of the religious heart, never fail to inspire awe in me, even if I always stand a little apart from them, not with my lips curled in scorn like an atheist, but because I cannot muster the simple, pure, uncompromised belief.

I carry with me a Qibla finder as an app on my smartphone, and it comforts me to know that as dusk falls, Muslims are turning in the direction of Mecca for the Maghrib; just as I see my taxi driver make the sign of the cross, and know that we are passing a church; and every year, 15 days after the spring equinox, my family joins the millions of other Chinese who sweep the tombs of their ancestors in a ritual called Qingming. The massed unities of faith, the collective devotion of the religious heart, never fail to inspire awe in me, even if I always stand a little apart from them, not with my lips curled in scorn like an atheist, but because I cannot muster the simple, pure, uncompromised belief. And yet I see that as human we have a natural urge towards faith, a yearning towards a divine.

Personal prayer is where I wrestle with my faith most. I have wrestled with all the tropes—that God is not a magician who grants wishes; that it is redundant to pray because God, by definition, already knows what you are praying for; that one should not impose one’s desires on God, but only ask that His will be done—but when confronted with the terror and panic of uncertainty and loss, it is impossible to imagine myself alone in the cork-lined room in the inside of my mind. Like many, I fumble for God in times of deepest emotional need—while there are others who see the hand of the divine in prime numbers, or in natural beauty, or in the vastness of the astronomical universe; what is sometimes referred to as a deistic god, as opposed to a theistic god. This is where my conceit that “I’m a Christian—but a clever one” breaks down. Like everyone, I wonder at the mystery of my birth, of why there the world exists at all and there is something rather than nothing, and I wish to see my loved ones again. The reasons are as selfish as they are banal. If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

The smugness of atheists does not blind me to the fact that they are brave enough to pose difficult questions in an overwhelmingly religious country. They are precious allies in the struggle against bigotry and theocracy; but at a certain point, our paths diverge. I will find no refuge amongst the pious, however. In the end I find myself cast out alone in the wildnerness—just me, and my God.

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About The Author
Clinton Palanca
Clinton Palanca has won awards for his fiction and in 1998, came out with Landscapes, a book compiling his short stories and earlier works for children. Today, he ventures into food writing with his regular column on Inquirer Lifestyle, and with restaurant reviews for other publications.
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