MARCH 22, 2021 – “Trust in the slow work of God,” French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin counsels in his well-known lyrical prayer composition. “We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.” “And yet,” he continues, “it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability — and that it may take a very long time.” 

Resigned but with a sense of hope, he concludes his prayer thus: “Give God the benefit of believing/ That the Divine hand is leading you/ and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself/ in suspense and incomplete.”

Although Teilhard was referring to the spiritual journey, the same attitude of “patient trust” is essential when we reflect on the Philippines’ history of nation-building. It is a history that traces its inception in an encounter that took place half a millennium ago, when the first circumnavigation of the world reached our islands. Not only did this encounter trigger events that would forever change the lives of the inhabitants of the archipelago and the generations succeeding them, it also served as the launch pad from which sprung the very concept of a “Filipino”, and of a “Filipino Nation”.

And yet, five hundred years hence, present-day Filipinos grapple with the question, “what does it mean to be a Filipino?”, often at a loss for a satisfactory answer. This crisis as to our national identity,  to paraphrase the words of Col. Jose Almonte as quoted by Dr. Paul Dumol, leads to our uncertainty with the direction we are heading for as a people, and the steps we need to take together in this pursuit. All this points to the fact that the “project” of nationhood is a project that is far from over – our history of nation-building is one that today continues to unfold.

This much has been made clear in the recently-concluded three-day online conference organized by the Universitas Foundation, Inc., together with Divina Law and in partnership with and PressONE.PH. 

The conference, held last March 16, 18 and 20, 2021, was entitled “500 Years of Nation-Building: Understanding the Past, Leading towards a Better Future”. Through this event, Universitas seeks to take part in the nationwide Philippine Quincentennial Commemorations. Working on the premise that “you can only love who you know”, the Foundation keeps to its advocacy of forming the future leaders of society by instilling in its members a strong love for their country, achieving this particularly by facilitating a discussion on the foregoing watershed moment in Philippine history.

The event gathered together veteran speakers who are professionals, intellectuals, and leaders in their own fields, to share insights on the themes of nation-building and national identity in light of the Quincentennial Commemorations.

Examining “the Filipino Identity”

The first day of the webinar series was graced by the presence of renowned playwright and historian Dr. Paul Dumol who tackled the problem of Filipino identity with a historical perspective. During his lecture, he drew insights from the writings of Dr. Jose Rizal and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, among others.

Dr. Dumol began his talk by making reference to another conference that he attended in 2011 entitled “The 150th Rizal Anniversary Conference on Nation and Culture” which was convened by National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose. Col. Jose Almonte, who was then in attendance, summarized the conference’s proceedings with the following statements: “We do not know who we are. We do not know what we can become. We do not know the first step to take to the future.”

Interestingly, Dr. Dumol pointed out that the conference held in 2011 was a follow-up of an earlier conference on a similar topic held in 1987, and he quoted CCP Artistic Director Nanding Josef who attended both conferences as saying in 2011 that the same set of problems were already being discussed twenty-four years earlier. 

It appears that a decade after the 2011 conference, nothing much has changed. But Dr. Dumol backtracks further into the past by harking to the work of our National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal, who he said, “had a bleaker verdict of the Filipino of his time,” in their lack of a sense of nationhood. It would appear from Rizal’s writings, particularly in his novel El Filibusterismo, that the foundation of nationhood lies more than anything else in the acknowledgment that each and every person has a soul and intelligence and is capable of being redeemed, and that “the right to life resides in each individual as do the right to freedom and the right to light.” (p. 250)

Dr. Paul Dumol discussing a passage from Rizal’s El Filibusterismo

National identity would thus be constituted not so much by ethnolinguistic homogeneity, as by having shared values. This point is further emphasized in a passage in El Fili where Padre Florentino speaks about conquering our freedom as Filipinos, not by force and violence but “by deserving freedom, elevating reason and the dignity of the individual; loving what is just, what is good and what is noble to the point of death.” (p. 283)

These ideas of Rizal brought Dr. Dumol to reflect on the ethical and political dimensions of nationhood, while turning to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church as reference. Under its section on the Foundation and Purpose of the Political Community, the Compendium defines “a people” as not simply a “shapeless multitude… to be manipulated and exploited” but as a group of persons, each of whom — ‘at his proper place and in his own way’– is able to form its own opinion on public matters and has the freedom to express its own political sentiments and to bring them to bear positively on the common good.” (386) The Compendium then identifies the primary characteristic of “a people” as the “sharing of life and values, which is the source of communion on the spiritual and moral level.” (386)

Dr. Dumol concluded that national identity is “a child of time; a people’s interaction with one another, over generations, within a specific place.” 

He proceeded to elaborate on a philosophical concept that is indispensable when speaking of nationhood, namely, the concept of the common good. In this discussion, Dr. Dumol shared passages from the Compendium, which looks at common good as “the principle… to which every aspect of social life must be related if it is to attain its fullest meaning, stem[ming] from the dignity, unity and equality of all people.” (164) He drew parallelisms between principles from the Compendium and the ideas of Rizal about Filipino nationhood as revealed in his writings.

Dr. Dumol ended his talk by restating the words of Col. Jose Almonte during the 2011 conference, but with his own rebuttals. “We do not know who we are. We do: we are different peoples. We do not know what we can become. We do: we can become one people. We do not know the first step to take to the future. We should pursue civic values seriously.”

Dr. Bernadette Abrera, dean of the UP Diliman College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, served as the reactor during the first day of the conference. She affirmed that our national identity, being a diverse and multiethnic society, should not be based on a homogenous and unified identity. “The nation is not a seamless unity,” noted Dr. Abrera, “but it is a dynamic reality. It is always evolving, it is full of diversity, it should be encompassing, it should be embracing, we should not be giving a template of identity.” 

The differences notwithstanding, Dr. Abrera emphasized that “it is the power of the common aspirations that will transform the nature and the relations of the State and the various ethnic groups. Therefore, the quest for nationhood is not to eliminate the ethnic groups, but precisely to recognize their common dignity, to celebrate their own cultural identity.”

Dr. Bernadette Abrera giving her reaction to the talk of Dr. Dumol

During the question-and-answer portion, one of the participants asked Dr. Dumol how we can contribute to nation-building especially now that we’re in a time of pandemic. In his response, Dr. Dumol pointed to the examples of the “heroes-next-door”– not only the front-liners, but also those people in our own neighborhoods who do their little bit in serving other people and doing good acts according to their own circumstances. Some examples he gave are the parents who do their best in raising their children well, and the teachers who dutifully conduct their online classes, however tiring it may be.

In relation to this, he mentioned three institutions that play key importance when it comes to nation-building, namely, the family, the school, and the business enterprises. For him, these institutions are areas where values are effectively communicated, transmitted and shared between and among different individuals.

Towards the end of the webinar, Dr. Dumol reflected on nation-building in the present context where modern technological advancements are at an all-time high. He then brought up a compelling insight embodied in the image found in the Manunggul jar – a pre-colonial burial jar whose lid is decorated to look like a sea, on top of which is a figure of a boat containing two people, one paddling the boat (the alipin) and the other seated at the front (the maginoo). 

For Dr. Dumol, this image shows the exact current condition of the Filipino and of Filipino nation-building. We are constantly sailing towards the new and unknown, while beneath us are the bones of our ancestors. As we embark on the journey to nationhood, this image urges us to keep working with our past, as only by doing so can we make full sense of what is to come.