Freedom and forgiveness
“If there were no God, there would be no atheists,” the British writer G.K. Chesterton once said, with his characteristic wit and dialectic sensibility. The roots of modernity, secularism and the broader phenomenon known as the Renaissance lay in the largely Eurocentric reaction to the medieval hegemony of the Catholic Church, through the revival of the Greco-Roman system of knowledge from antiquity.
Modernity, in simplest terms, has been understood as the reassertion of individual sovereignty, taking off from the Aristotelian emphasis on the centrality of mankind and its pursuit of self-perfection as the ultimate purpose of “polis,” or collective life.
Modernity is also the reorientation of mankind’s temporal frame of mind, shifting from the sentimentalism of tradition to the brave new world of the future built on an uneasy cocktail of radical empiricism and mathematical deduction. Fundamentally, modernity can be understood as the inexorable march of history for the expansion of the individual’s realm of freedoms.
Yet, freedom can be understood in different ways. On one hand, it is the ability of an individual to make self-interested yet rational and empirically grounded choices within the bounds of law. This is more or less the liberal school built on the works of Anglo-Saxon thinkers such as John Locke, John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith.
But, dialectically, it could also mean rejection of the tyranny of Reason (the singularity of Truth and the methods by which it can be discovered) in favor of subjective-affective bonds, so long as this doesn’t undermine the rule of law. This is more or less the contribution of continental thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, existentialist philosophy and German Romanticism.
Liberal democracy, which emphasizes both individual freedoms and pluralism, has been precariously built on this seemingly contradictory internal dynamic. Instead of privileging Locke over Rousseau, Reason over Romanticism, objective truth over subjective meaning, it seeks to find a fine balance between the two.
Thus, liberal democracy is an aspirational society, where individuals can contest the nature of truth and the shape of the collective good so long as such efforts are within the bounds of law.
Thanks to the Western imperial march throughout the centuries, postcolonial nations such as the Philippines have been exposed to all these competing traditions, but without organically absorbing their diachronic relevance. The upshot is a profound sense of confusion over what freedom in a democratic setup truly means.
It’s precisely within this context that Carlos Celdran’s predicament should be understood. As a democrat and a man of faith, I have always believed, similar to Pope Francis, that freedom of expression is the right to speak truth to power, to be sincere to your conscience, and to fight for the rights of the collective—but never as a license to spread deliberate falsehoods, commit slander, and intentionally disrespect each others’ religious beliefs, no matter how profound our doctrinal differences.
Freedoms aren’t absolute, but they are inalienable. Mutual respect, if not mutual tolerance, is the bedrock of pluralism and any functioning democracy.
Even Friedrich Nietzsche recognized the social function of religion (as a bedrock of faith) in modern democracy: “Faith is always coveted most and needed most urgently where will is lacking; for will, as the affect of command, is the decisive sign of sovereignty and strength.”
Not everyone prefers or can derive faith from science alone. Many of us largely derive our inner strength from the belief in the Almighty.
Nonetheless, democracy and our freedoms are a constantly negotiated process. Along the way, some of us may inadvertently push certain limits and cross certain lines in expressing and asserting our deepest convictions. Democracy is, after all, ritualized contestation. And that’s where spirited debates, fines, warnings and criticisms come in.
Thus, I find it extremely puzzling that Carlos P. Celdran, an icon of Philippine culture, is facing jail time — not fine, not probation, not warning, not community service — for asserting, if excessively in the eyes of many, his political conscience and convictions. And this is where we should return both to the spirit of forgiveness, which is the foundation of Christianity, and the spirit of dialogue, which is the foundation of our democracy.
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