Seduced by Cosmopolitanism

Some social scientists look at cosmopolitanism as a political concept. Others look at it as a world-view or a disposition. Some believe that cosmopolitanism is an actual and existing reality. Others view it as the other side or a critique of globalization.

My fascination with cosmopolitanism is, of course, from the various academic conceptions – from the above-mentioned conflicting perspectives.

Nonetheless, there is something personal and intimate with the way I understand this complex concept.

My conception of cosmopolitanism has its roots from my strong Catholic foundation. I used to be a devout Catholic (I was a seminarian from 1996 to 2002). However, I do not deny that my current relationship with the Catholic faith is estranged. I still consider myself Catholic – and have not considered myself an atheist or agnostic. I have not denounced or disowned my Catholic faith. I am still a believer and to date, I have no plans of denouncing my religious affiliation. I just don’t practice its “official” rituals but I still am attracted to its ideals.  

One doctrine I learned when I was still in the seminary was the concept of the kingdom of God which is always explained in terms of the “here and now.” I am, in no way, an expert in religious studies, but one thing about Catholicism that may not be found in other religions is this sense of “kingdom” in the present. Many religions talk about a kingdom with a Divine, which is beyond this world. Other religions profess that life on earth is a preparation for the entry to that kingdom. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, teaches its congregation that every individual is already participating and living in the kingdom of God. Although of course, this sense of “kingdom of God in the here and now or in the present” is still very abstract and a very ambiguous assertion. However, it gives a sense of comfort and security.

The doctrine says that members of this kingdom perform a “welcoming” gesture. The doctrine always cites the Pauline epistle where Paul asserts that in the kingdom, everyone shares a common humanity. A church song composed by the Jesuit priest John Foley is inspired by the epistle:

“And we, though many throughout the earth we are one body in this one Lord; Gentile or Jew, servant or free, woman or man, no more.”

Here is a sense of utopia. The “no more” is a proclamation of equality. Many theologians would explain, everyone in this kingdom is a son or a daughter of God. Hence, this utopic vision of the kingdom paved the way for me to visualize or imagine a sort of community where foreigners are not at all looked as strangers. In this way, the idea of the kingdom provides an ideal sense of living together within a community where difference paradoxically matters and at the same time, it is not really important.

This ideal community also implicates a sense of concern for the “other,” which in my reading of cosmopolitanism is an important character. The dogma has a strong concern for others:

“love thy neighbor as yourself”

“love thy enemies”

“throw a piece of bread instead of stone to those who offended you”

“Everyone is a sinner but God always forgives”

Considering these maxims, Catholicism seems to feature inclusivity where the concern for others is a guiding principle. From the Pauline epistle to these pronouncements and provocations, it invites a sense of harmony and peaceful co-existence not only with fellow-Catholics but also to non-Catholics.

The “neighbor” proclaimed here should not be literally conceived as someone living nearby. The teachings of Jesus in the scriptures provide several accounts of “neighbor” which refers to non-Catholics. While many conceive this as an introduction to tolerance, the way I conceive it is openness, care and respect. I do not believe in tolerance. Like political theorist Wendy Brown, tolerance is a regulated aversion. Besides, who wants to be tolerated anyway?

Going back to the teachings of Jesus, the sermon at the mount – the beatitudes of Jesus are good examples to support the pronouncement of openness, care and respect: blessed be the poor, blessed be the downtrodden, blessed be the sinners, blessed be all.

Several of Jesus’ parables and stories are also indicative of this care, respect and openness. For instance, when the community wanted to throw stones at the adulteress because the torah or the book of laws states so, Jesus proclaimed “whoever among you who has no sin, cast the first stone.” I believe Jesus was inviting everyone to be more critical instead of just a simple submission to any dogma. The miracle at the mountain involving two fishes and five loaves was for me a momentous encounter which may also be analogous to a contemporary rendering of cosmopolitanism. The scripture says that everyone encountered a miracle because there was an overflowing of bread and fishes when Jesus blessed these pieces of food.

In the gospel of John, there is an emphasis on the presence of a boy. Everyone was already hungry in John’s story. I read somewhere (probably a history book on the Jewish tradition) that it was a custom in Ancient Israel not to share food with strangers. It was the boy who actually presented the five loaves and two fishes. My interpretation is that – the boy did not offer the food but proclaimed that his family was bringing five loaves and two fishes. I could just imagine how the boy’s parents reacted to this. Jesus praised the boy for not having the burden of dogma (or tradition). Perhaps, Jesus used the boy as an example in order to show kindness and care to strangers. This could have been the start of bringing out breads and other food and the sharing with others.         

There are also some fabulous encounters with the institution, which I think are celebratory, communal and participatory (also indicative of my cosmopolitan understanding). The conception of a kingdom of God has produced a ritual, which invited participation among members of the congregation. I am particularly referring to the Eucharistic celebration (or the Catholic Mass). In this sacrament, the most attractive parts for me are the sharing and the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine. Everyone in this part of the mass is invited to share the bread – the body of Christ and drink the wine – the blood of Christ.

 Another performative gesture I find attractive is the reading of the “word of God.” Ideally, everyone is encouraged to listen and participate in a communal meditation and contemplation of the scripture. This is an invitation to participate in the interpretation of the text. It seems that the words read do not belong to any authorial manifestation. Each one is actively engaged in the contemplation and meditation of the texts. This is supposedly be happening after everyone has taken the host (the body of Christ) – a moment of silence while contemplating and mediating what were read before the congregation. Of course, there is the homily where the priest delivers his interpretation of the scripture (the gospel) – but my take on the homily is just one interpretation of the text and like Jesus in his parables, the priest is inviting the congregation to listen and then be critical about what he said and what was read.

The celebration of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is also significant in this articulation of the cosmopolitan. Some religions separate the male from the female members of the congregation during their important and official rites. In the Eucharistic celebrations, regardless of gender categories everyone is sitting side by side. Also, notable is that when the Lord’s prayer is recited, every member holds the hand of another member of the congregation whether that member is a relative, a friend or a complete stranger (at least in the case of the Philippines). Then there is also the kiss of peace where at least in the community where I come from everyone moves around to greet each other “peace be with you” – some people shake hands and some (especially relatives) kiss each other on the cheeks. In these ritualistic gestures, the welcoming gesture of the kingdom of God shifts from abstract to actual even for a very short time.

But despite the actualization, at the end, everything returns to the status quo. The vision of utopia is an illusion, yet there is sense in believing in it. It is this very reason that I myself find attached to Catholicism. At the same time, it is also the same reason that detaches me from it.

Like cosmopolitanism, it is an aspiration that provides hope for a better world – a better community. Nonetheless, the real world is far too distant from that. Take for example the inclusivity attached to the doctrine is also far from real. Despite Pauline epistles, in reality not everyone is really welcome in the institution. The gays for example are not really “welcome” – they are merely tolerated. The ideals of openness and respect are not really practiced. For instance, several families back home have strong affinities with Catholicism and having a gay family member will eventually become a problem because of such strong affinity with the aforementioned religion.

The idea of community is not after all a perfect one but because of the dogma, it strives to be something almost perfect.

On a different note, our reality presents that the world is actually more divided than the ideal world that the Catholic doctrine tries to impart to its congregation. For instance, look at the different conflicts on borders like the ongoing issue on the West Philippine Sea. Also, there are conflicts among religious fundamentalists, which led to the death of several individuals. Racism is still predominantly everywhere.

Despite the parables and stories about solidarity in the Catholic tradition, I also find myself experiencing a sense of distancing with others. At times, I find myself struggling with aloofness to other people who are not particularly familiar to me. Even in the gay community, I thought it would be easier for me to figure a sense of solidarity among gay people. But this is also an impossibility particularly in the context of the Philippines. There are gays who are flamboyant and despise the hyper-masculine ones. There are the bisexuals who do not want to be associated even to the straight-acting gays.

And then my once-upon-a-time mobile life also proves that at times, I am trapped with this sense of ambivalence and aloofness towards my encounter with other people. Perhaps, the Catholic doctrine is really teaching tolerance and not openness, respect and care. In this regard, these different aspects contra the ideals of Catholicism make me question not only Catholicism per se but even aspects of socialization in general. In my mind, I cannot help but think that the world is getting crueler and crueler. But then again, the cosmopolitan dimension in the Catholic faith always acts as my antidote every time I feel aloof and ambivalent with my encounters with other people. It is this cosmopolitan aspect of Catholicism that makes me believe that there is hope for a common and a shared humanity. It is this cosmopolitan aspect within my religious faith that makes me want to believe that a life may be lived based on an encounter of difference and based on care and respect.

This is how I envision cosmopolitanism – it is a cosmopolitanism inspired by my Catholic upbringing. It is a vision and a glimpse – an inspiration and an aspiration. It is there – in a very abstract way – completely aware that it is quite far (at least for now) impossible to achieve it yet there is a struggle to reach for it.

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