Tuesday 6 March 2012


By Edmund Lo, S.J. 

We Jesuits in studies all have ministry work on the side. For me, I teach RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, as preparation for the sacrament of Baptism) to Chinese refugees. In the Catholic tradition, there are many “bells and whistles” that are imbued with significance, but which may not seem important to those who don’t know the underlying meanings. If such a disconnect between actions and meanings exists, we become automatons. I decided to address this issue to my students.

But how on earth does one explain this dualistic fallacy in simple terms? And in Mandarin? Thanks be to God, I was able to come up with an analogy: robots, or ji xie ren. I encouraged my students to not be robots, to not mechanically and lifelessly bow to the altar or genuflect to the Tabernacle as if “this is what Catholics do”. Know what you are doing. But having the head knowledge is not enough: it needs to be incarnate. Know what you are doing, and do it like you mean it. This would help to alleviate the half-hearted curtsy to the Tabernacle, or the “half-bow-while-shifting-away-horizontally-because-I-am-in-a-rush” phenomenon. The Lord desires that we worship and revere Him not in body, nor in soul, but in body and soul. 

We all have our robotic moments, be it tending a toddler during mass, or saying a half-hearted “I love you” to loved ones while thinking about the hockey game. This Cartesian-like separation necessarily pulls us away from a reality that manifests itself in the here and now, in flesh and blood. One of the tell-tail signs is when we find ourselves saying “my heart is not in it”. While it may serve as a defensive mechanism for those who have been traumatized in various ways, one ultimately needs to live in an incarnate reality to be fully human.

Moreover, we are more likely to treat others as robots if we see ourselves as robots. In other words, we fail to acknowledge the subjectivity of others and begin to objectify them. It ruins interpersonal relationships: friends become objects of my own emotional fulfillment and affirmation. It also turns religion into idolatry. God becomes a something, not a Someone. The “Who” becomes a “What”. This is a serious problem that rears its ugly head in many ways.

Both psychologists and philosophers speak of the importance of intersubjectivity, engaging in a subject-to-subject relationship. This clearly has implications in our life of faith as well: we have to learn to love God not as a concept, but as the Father who loves us to the extent of sending His only Son to save us. To go back to the RCIA example, we genuflect to the Tabernacle neither in a “monkey see, monkey do” manner nor with a “I am intellectually convinced that my Saviour resides within it” mentality. He is, in full corporeality, and this calls for a reciprocal action that is fit for a King.

This is perhaps something that we can work on during Lent: to be less of a robot and more of a human being.

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