The Influence of Family Ethics and Ancient Philosophy on Philippine Christianity

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The Philippines has the most number of Christians of any country in Asia, though Timor Leste has a much higher percentage. But as many observers and foreign academics have noted, the Philippines does not seem to observe Christian beliefs as they are practiced in the West. Rather, it practices spirituality that is more in line with that of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, from Indonesia to Thailand.

Human bonds and the obligations derived from them are viewed as the most important thing. As Ledivina Cariño has discussed, Philippine ethics and morals, in general, diverge significantly from those of the Western world, which puts a premium on rules of ethics and justice. Morality in the West is derived from following rules of ethics, and conversely, ethics are derived from rules.

In contrast, the Philippines does not have a belief system that stresses a stiff and uncompromising idea of justice as the end-all-be-all of ethics. Instead, the Philippines has what anthropologists call an “ethics of care,” where premium is placed on nurturance, concern for others, equality, and the recognition of different points of view. Rather than implementing some kind of formal logic or “formula” for fairness based on rights and rules, Filipinos base their morality on the logic of relationships, and keeping those relationships healthy and harmonious.

Philippine Christianity places the ultimate relationship—the family—at the center of the universe. Where Christian philosophy in the West formed the basis for individualism, Christianity in the Philippines is built on preexisting systems. Philippine Catholicism developed to become a symbolic representation of family relationships, as Niels Mulder says, reflecting the ancient status of the family as the core institution of Filipino societies.

No one in the family is more important than the mother. Throughout Southeast Asia, whether in Indonesia, Thailand, or the Philippines, the mother has the highest honor as the giver of life and nurture—again, a reflection of the ethics of care in Southeast Asian societies. Devotion to Mother Mary is very strong in the Philippines because she is a symbol of indigenous beliefs about the role of mothers.

In fact, a distinct characteristic of Philippine Christianity is the lack of devotion to ideas about sin, repentance, and atonement. These ideas of morality never really took root in the Philippine version of Christianity, with family being the focus instead. In the Philippines as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, religion is future-directed and serves to ensure a blessed life going forward.

Spirituality is not really directed toward past sins committed against abstract principles. Sins are located in very real interpersonal relationships rather than in arbitrary rules. This belief is not Christian in root.

But what about the shape of Philippine spirituality?

Contrary to popular belief, pre-Christian Filipinos were not animists. Filipinos did not indiscriminately worship nature spirits and forces, which is what animism entails. Rather, as Charles Macdonald discusses, pre-Christian Filipino religions are based on firmly organized pantheons of clearly identified supernatural beings. They were not vague notions derived from natural forces but were named beings with identities and functions.

The type of Christianity brought by Spain was also arguably polytheistic. Macdonald defines polytheism as, “a belief system in a number of clearly identified supernatural beings having their own characteristics, names, and personalities, and having some effect or influence on human affairs, as well as cults or rituals for those beings.” Does the cult of saints in Spanish Catholicism not sound polytheistic at its root?

The cult of saints found in Catholicism could be readily accepted by cultural groups whose religions were polytheistic with a supreme deity (Bathala in Tagalog). Anitos were lesser gods and spirits that aided Bathala, and these are in many ways analogous to saints. Dayang Makiling becomes Mary, Dian Masalanta becomes St. Valentine, Lacapati becomes St. Gianna, and Indianale becomes St. Isidore, are some examples of the easy transfer of beliefs and rituals (such as feasts). If one wants to understand how pre-Christian Filipinos worshiped, one can use it as some sort of window to how modern Christian Filipinos worship.

Sterling V. Herrera Shaw

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