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I gave a series of recollections to Ateneo de Manila graduating college students this past school year. What surprised me most of all was how many of these students have become agnostics and atheists. I handled around 10 groups of 40-50 students each, and every group would have around 10 to 15 who would not join the mass–and not just because they’re of a different religion–but because they don’t believe in institutional religion at all. One of them told me that she was born a Catholic, but she doesn’t find that relevant in her life now. Another one mentioned that the last straw was a bad experience with their parish priest who could not talk of anything else but the RH law at a time when his parents were about to separate. He was turned off when the priest said people who believe in the RH Law will go to hell but could not even discuss the issue intelligently. I heard their stories and found common threads: they were dealing with relevance (or the lack of it), meaning, rebellion. Some of them said where they are right now could just be a phase, which is amazing awareness for people who are not yet 20 years old. Others were adamant about God’s nonexistence. But they were all respectful and talked to me about life. There was one who seemed really angry and wanted to debate with me. I just told him that I hope the anger he feels about God comes from his heart and not from his head. Because nothing we talk about will make him feel better about how he looks at himself and the world. I think that stumped him because he smiled afterwards and quieted down.

I honor the intelligent searching for what is relevant, and what makes sense and it was because of this intelligence that we were able to have a meaningful discussion at all. I’d rather talk to someone who genuinely searches for meaning in life, than someone who follows a belief system fanatically and without question. There are some in my own Catholic Church I am ashamed of because they persecute people who do not believe as they do. I talked to a Muslim Imam some years back, and he was apologetic because I was being harassed by muslims who wanted to convert me to their faith. He said that it is usually people who know little about their faith that want to convert others. The ones who are secure about their faith do not find the need to force people to believe the way they do. And the ones who are secure about their faith are the ones who have questioned it, broken it down, put it to the dock, and come out the other side. They are the ones who have come out not just stronger but also more compassionate and less judgmental.

At the same time, agnosticism and atheism seems to be the luxury of the rich and those who have time in their hands to ask these questions at all. In all my years in Payatas and Sapang Palay, I’ve never encountered anyone who doesn’t believe in God. I’ve encountered a lot of people who are angry with God, yes, but never someone who ignores Him completely. Questions about meaning in life and if God exists does not even begin to enter the consciousness of one whose main goal it is to put food on the table and survive another day. Marx would say that “Religion is the Opium of the Masses.” And that may be true. But in a real nuanced sense, religion — or the spirituality of the masses — is very real to people who have been stripped of everything but God. There is truth to the beatitudes: blessed are the poor (in spirit), because they see God. Or as one psalmist would say, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” There is a peculiar dynamic here, we could say that the poor draw closer to the Divine, or we could say it is the Divine that draws closer to the poor.

In the Exodus, Yahweh heard the groaning of His people who have been enslaved by Pharaoh. The first Jews were slaves. The first Christians were fishermen and common folk, until Paul the first Christian Theologian fell off his horse and joined their number. But the beauty of it all is that there is space for both the poor and the pharaoh, the fishermen and the theologians, in our faith. There is even space for the insincere and the corrupt. We are all called to some kind of conversion and the conversion is never-ending and not a one time deal.

I think there is also another reason why the Divine is closer to the poor (or the poor in spirit). It is to people who have lived with the contradictions of life that faith can become most compelling. People who think in black and white and us vs them have a harder time accepting a God who lives in the tensions of life. These are the people who usually end up either as fanatical hard-line believers, or agnostics. But people who have truly lived and loved and lost know that life is full of contradictions — that there is suffering, just as there is hope, that there is doubt and faith and doubt in faith, that there is sadness and joy, and that weeds and wheat in fact grow together and look the same, but by its fruits you will know them.

That is a lesson you do not get in Ateneo de Manila or De La Salle or UP or in recollections or retreats. That is a lesson you learn from life.

[by Eric Santillan]

eric santillanAbout Eric Santillan
AngPeregrino is Eric Santillan. He is a management consultant for two firms specializing in sustainable business, competitiveness and risk management, cost control and culture management. During weekends, he does counselling for Clinica Salutare, an Integrative Health Clinic. He is also a writer for The Mindanao Current, a core group member of Heroic Leadership Philippines, and a retreat giver.

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