The Jeans of Faith

Eight years ago I wrote a blog entry on religion and blue jeans. I know, I know, it sounds like a bit stretch and you are probably thinking of rebellious priests in the jungles preaching Theology of Liberation and the banishment of oppressive multinational companies. No, this has nothing to do with that.

Religion in Europe, as I have experienced it, is very much akin to a monk’s habit: structurally sound, relatively functional, drab, shrouded, shredding at the fringes, and out of touch with the present, stagnating in the past, and a shadow of what it once was. The wearing of the habit excludes and restricts, but also confines and stunts, defining behaviour, life choices, and to some extent, movement.

Religion in Asia and Latin America, on the other hand, is more like a pair of trusted old blue jeans. It is old, well-worn, gentle, familiar, trusted, a part of your daily routine, adaptable, and ever so resilient. This is my kind of faith, one that bends backwards for me and accommodates my spiritual needs, one that I can try on for size, wear it a few times until it fits properly, go formal and fancy, or casual and light, dress it up or go ragged, and more importantly, mix and match.

It is impossible to separate religion in Asia from its culture, pretty much in the same manner that you cannot wear only one pant leg of the jeans. To understand the faith, is to understand the soul. Catholicism in the Philippines or Buddhism in Thailand cannot be extracted and separated from all the local influences that have shaped the major religion into something distinctly Filipino or Thai. There are endless traditions to conform to, but there is fine line between cultural norms and religious guidelines in Asia – it all merges into a glorious myriad of colour, festivity, rejoicing, and music, all of which set the backdrop of a profound faith.

Every once in a while there will be hole torn in those favourite pair of jeans – be it social unrest, political change, change in institutional leadership, or personal crisis. Whatever the reason, the fundamental nature of the jeans does not change, unless you discard them altogether – it simply adopts a bit more character. The individual orientation and preference to the different types of jeans is something to be respected, as each person will wear theirs with pride. Most importantly, those jeans have taken a person years to achieve that look.

I have my mother to thank for this concept. Many years ago she invited me to give a talk at a workshop with her parish community. I was told not to go all theological on the audience, not to come across as a foreign snob, and to simplify the concept as much as I could without sacrificing depth. Wow, no pressure Mom! Well, I did struggle with the language, because no matter what I did, my Tagalog was dismal and my accent a dead giveaway that I was not a local. So I was challenged to find a metaphor that my audience could identify with right away, which is how I landed with the jeans.

During my own battle with depression and journey through emotional abuse I threw my jeans aside for a while, questioning their validity and role in my life. I continue to struggle with the institutions, but because of all my active years in inter-faith dialogue, I found a way to become more spiritual and less religious. Essentially what happened in my case is that I ditched the jeans and switched them for chinos instead, which is a reflection of the actual events in my life. It has taken me three years to rebuild from scratch, and I choose to wear chinos with jeans mentality. Amen.

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