The trouble with Digong's god

NOT really God was the object of Digong's polemic, but the Catholic teaching—or what he takes to be Catholic teaching—on God, particularly on the Story of Eden. And that is just where the trouble is. He took a potshot at Catholics, particularly Catholic leadership in the Philippines, but his jabs landed smack in the region that even scholars of religion avoid. Here are just some of the issues. Distinguish between myth and history. Both are useful, and the categories of "true" and "false: Are applicable to both, following different criteria and standards. For the truth of a myth involves what Ricoeur calls "metaphorical truth," and the fecundity of suggestion, allusion and analogy. Obviously, when you are intent at making sport of a myth because you have mistaken it for a historical report, then things go terribly wrong and you too become vulnerable to the charge of mixing up literary forms!

But there too lies the challenge to the Church, for how competently and usefully have our priests and catechists handled the story of Adam and Eve? Is it not in fact the case that in many a catechism class, the saga of the God-Adam-Eve trio is told no differently from the way teachers regale their pupils of accounts of Lapu-lapu's heroism in the face of Magellan's effrontery? Yes, Digong is to blame for having missed the nuances of literary form, but the Church must also take the blame that Filipinos, including graduates of Catholic schools, have missed the point, and still ask what kind of a fruit it was that got the couple into trouble, and whether the serpent had legs or not before it was condemned by God for all eternity to crawl on its belly.

Then, there is the notion of "perfection." Why would God create a perfect world, Digong asks, and then put a serpent in it that would beguile his favored creatures? But whoever said that God created a perfect world? In fact, a "perfect creature" is a contradiction in terms, and the notion of omniperfection is likewise troublesome, because the simultaneous and concurrent realization of all perfection results in the perfections canceling themselves out! Human experience bears this out: the more compassionate a person is, the stronger is the degree of empathy, the less capable she is of that distanced and detached position required of a neutral observer. The first is a value in human relations, the second, in scientific pursuits.

The trouble with protology—reflection on the absolute beginning—and eschatology—reflection on the absolute end—is that both lie on "the other side" of human experience. Which is why the books of Genesis and Revelation present us with riotous imagery, the unbridled constructs of human imagination, but all with the richness and pregnancy of metaphor.

But why pick on the Christian faith? Every religion has its own myths and sagas and metaphors and visions. And while dilettantes may find it entertaining to compare the absurdity of the stories the various religions tell, the more thoughtful will pay close attention to the depths of human experience as well as to the flashes of Divine revelation that they conceal. Hermeneutics is always a difficult task—and it is not for the faint-hearted nor for the feebleminded. In fact, the recent national debate over quo warranto was, in essence, a hermeneutic exchange on the text of the Constitution. Several times, the President has shown himself to be capable of a profound grasp of things. There was no need for him to be flippant about a story that offers an answer to what human rationality has always recognized to be fundamental: "Why am I here?" "Why is there anything at all?" The answer to this questions spells the difference between a life lived as nothing more than a pointless interval between birth and death. In Macbeth's words, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing." For those who read the Genesis story with faith and in serious reflection will find in it an offer of purpose, meaning and value.

Not God, but the God we teach about—and that is an important point, because it compels us to revisit our conceptuality of God as well as of the concept of creation. And it is not only Digong we must have in mind. When our youngsters go for university studies and read Stephen Hawking's works and how physicists advocate the idea of "spontaneous creation" and the superfluity of any other causal factor, or study the evolution of species and how many animal, even human kinds, led to dead-ends, apparently trails of failed experiments, then the question becomes very urgent indeed: "What does it mean that an all intelligent, all good God created the world"—and to presume that we have a ready to answer to this, or that repeating wellworn formularies will do can be disastrous to the future of the faith.

Once upon a time, Domingo de Guzman went around Spain while the Albigensian heresy raged and found out that the destructive flames spread so fast because the Church, particularly the clergy, was so inept at teaching competently, efficiently, clearly and convincingly. He thus founded the Order of Preachers, prescribing that every friar devote a substantial part of his day to study, to be able to engage the people in meaningful discourse. It is good to learn this lesson again. We have been complacent about the need to study with assiduousness and to teach with competence—partly because, in the past, the words of a priest were as good as the words of the Lord. Not anymore. A degree of cynicism is good for our faith. It takes us through a desert of criticism to enable it to emerge purified of naiveté.

It will not help Digong to continue shaming Catholics for what they believe for to a believer, there is nothing that draws his loyalty more than his faith. His political capital cannot be strong enough to overcome this. But it will not help us either in the Church to dismiss Digong's criticisms as the ranting of a man inebriated with himself—for he has thrown down the gauntlet of a challenge that we in the Church must, without hesitation and determination, pick up.

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