This blog features some of the author's lengthy essays on sacred scriptures, theology and history.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Commencement Address delivered by Msgr Lope C Robredillo, SThD, to the 2012 Graduates of Eastern Samar State University (ESSU), Guiuan Campus, on March 27, 2012

THE TITLE OF my commencement address is, “Combating Our Materialistic Culture.”  Let me begin with a common phenomenon.  Probably, no gadget is more popular among Filipinos than a cell phone.  Almost everybody has it.  People use it even while driving, eating, singing, and worshipping in church. I have known of graduating students who, having been asked what gift they expected from their parents, said that all they wanted was a cell phone of recent vintage.   Indeed, so many of us are so attached to it that we hardly part with it.  It is not rare to hear from the radio or TV of someone who was wounded or even killed in a hold-up for refusing to let go of his or her cell phone.  But a month or so ago, I got a surprise in my life.  I read from the internet about an Asian girl who surrendered her virginity in exchange of a new cell phone. 

A Materialistic Culture

It disturbed me.  I asked myself, “what kind of thinking goes with that?”  I do think that most girls value their virginity—but to swap it with a mere cell phone… what kind of hierarchy of values does one hold?  When has a cell phone become more valuable than one’s virginity, honor and good name?  This remains opaque to my understanding.   But on second thought, need we be taken by surprise?   This exchange is repeated every day.  It is an exchange that is redolent of prostitution.   We exchange our sacred vote during elections for a paltry sum.  We betray friends in exchange of cash.      We do not observe contracts in exchange of bribes.  We pad payrolls.  We kill for money.  Oh, the list is almost endless.  But all this points to one thing—what dominates us now is a materialistic culture.  That money or material good is the chief consideration in our employment, in our dealing with others, in our relations with our environment—this clearly indicates that our culture has
succumbed to the temptation of materialism.

What is materialism?  In itself, materialism is a philosophy.  It holds that all phenomena can be explained in terms of matter.  Anything that happens, results from the conditions or activity of matter.  It denies the existence of spirit or of a transcendent realm.  The Greek Democritus was the first materialist philosopher, but it was Marx and Engels who shaped the modern world in terms of scientific materialism.  However, I will not go deeper into that.  I know this is not a lecture in philosophy, but a talk for graduating students.  I therefore focus on how this philosophy works in our present culture by pointing out areas of life where various aspects of materialism are palpable.

The first aspect of our existence has to do with [1] the definition of being
human.  In a materialistic society, what counts is not who you are, but what you own.  Society does not give paramount place to your virtues like honesty, helpfulness and charity; its obsession is largely about possession.   You are defined by what you possess.   People will consider you important if you have seven dollar accounts in several banks, a vacation house in Boracay, a condo unit at Belaggio residences in Taguig and a number of establishments in Trinoma.  In addition, you have awesome powers, or proper connections so that even the long arm of the law cannot reach you.  I will not be surprised, therefore, if you, for example, a college student, want to have the latest cell phone model, a laptop, a Nike, a Louis Vuitton luggage and evening wear, and a branded T-shirt.  You are just flowing with the materialistic current.

Why?  It is because having these things, gives you a sense of self-worth.  You think you are notches above others because you have them.  You believe that people will think highly of you, and you will earn their respect, if you are a person of
substantial wealth.   In other words, your dignity does not come from the fact that you are immortal, can think and reason, give and receive love, and know what is right and wrong, nor from the fact that, according to Christian teaching, you are a child of God.  No.  In a materialistic society, your dignity is directly proportional to the wealth you acquired.   That is how a materialistic culture looks at people.  Not surprisingly enough, there are so many young people who feel they are inferior to others because they have nothing to show off.  This is exacerbated by the attitude that some rich people have toward you—they tend to look down on you because you belong to a poor family, you do not have fine clothes, you cannot distinguish wine from spirits, nor the American accent from British one; you are a scum of the earth.  Naturally, you develop inferiority complex.  You begin to have a very low estimate of yourself.  You begin to think that you are less-than-others, unimportant, almost good for nothing.

[2] This brings us to the second area: Motivation.  Because society sees you in terms of what you possess, the most important drive is not love, faith or
hope, but greed.  Selfishness becomes a virtue.  What is greed?  It is the inordinate desire for riches, status, and power.  In greed, you are not contented with what you have.  Your desire is to have more than what is needed.  The welfare of others never enters into your mind.  You are not your brother’s keeper.  That is why greedy people resort to means that normal society would consider sinful or illegal.  They steal millions from public or private institutions, they kill or do violence to those opposed to them, they resort to bribery in transactions, they manipulate people to their selfish ends, they betray even their friends, they harm the environment, they tell lies, and they hoard materials for profit purposes.  Thus, they have to acquire much wealth by hook or by crook.   In other words, when it comes to the question of the purpose of life, the answer is obvious.  It is neither to serve God nor to serve people, but to accumulate wealth in order to make life comfortable, without pain and suffering.  Life is about serving oneself.  Success in life is seen in terms of the superabundance of everything that wealth stands for.

[3] The third area has to do with the means in the acquisition of wealth. 
Since what is all too decisive for a greedy person is that he gets what he wants, he does not ask whether what he is doing is morally right or morally wrong.  The sense of morality is the first victim of greed.  What is meant by morality?   It is about the rightness or wrongness of what we do.  Ideally, what we do should conform to standards that befit us in society.  Those standards could come from the laws of God, the laws of nature, and the laws of the community.  Thus, one should not steal because this goes against the Ten Commandments.  Unfortunately, though, a greedy person is a practical atheist—his practice does not show that he believes in God.  To the contrary, he believes only in himself.  Thus, he discards God’s laws.  For him, what ought to be one’s primary consideration is not whether his action is acceptable to moral people, but whether the means he uses achieve their purpose—the acquisition of wealth.   It is a sad commentary of our society that when we see
evidence of unexplained wealth, we are no longer scandalized, nor do we bother to ask where it came from.  It is as if what matters, is that we have plenty of wealth, but we are not transparent of the manner it was acquired.  We praise to high heavens a “kuratsa” dancer who scattered peso bills to the wind, but we are never curious where he got them, in the first place.  Conscience has no use at all; anyway, everybody claims he has a clear conscience, even though his hands are clearly dirty.  For a materialistic person, the ultimate question is not whether an action is good or bad, but whether it is pragmatic—meaning in Tag-alog, “kikita ba tayo dyan? Magkano?”

A Hedonistic Culture

[4] This leads us to the fourth aspect—the destination of wealth: what is one to do with his substantial wealth?   If Christ were asked, the answer would be predictable: distribute your wealth those who do not have it.   That would make God, who loves the poor, happy.   But in a materialistic culture, there is only one answer to
it: enjoy it.  Have a comfortable life.  What’s the point in amassing a great fortune, if it would only wind up in distribution?  No, you do not share your wealth.  You have to take pleasure even in its mere possession.   After all, people delight in exhibitions.  That is why, fashion shows, bikini open, parades, and display of legs are feasted on and never end.  Wealth must likewise be displayed, even if this cannot be explained.  Of course, few people take delight in simply looking at their passbooks.  Most would derive pleasure from exhibiting their humongous wealth in their expensive villas, cars, condos, vacation houses and unique collections.

But more than the satisfaction in the display of wealth is the gratification you derive from living luxuriously.  In general, people who are materialistic are
essentially hedonistic.  Materialism always leads to hedonism.  What is hedonism?  Simply put, it is a philosophy that claims that the purpose of life is to maximize your net pleasure.  As the Hedonists would say, “eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”  I read years ago that for a founder of sex magazine, the purpose of life is above all to enjoy sexual pleasure.  Since materialistic pleasures are bodily, it is not surprising that those who have money put a good investment in drinks, food and sex.  It is difficult to go bankrupt if your business caters to these, because people want them.  Just yesterday, the American ambassador to the country stood by his statement that 40% of male tourists to the Philippines come here for sex.   The production of beer, wine, spirits and other alcoholic beverages goes merrily on.  In 1996, it was estimated that French citizens drank 60 liters per person.  And when you go the 5-star hotels, you will notice how gourmet caters to the palate of the wealthy—there you have recipes that correspond to high quality premium foods.  No wonder, entertainers do not go out of business.  Of course, hedonism has its own expensive cost.  Though it is paid for by HIV, gonorrhea, syphilis, liver and heart diseases, the Hedonist nevertheless consoles himself that he has enjoyed life to the maximum.  As SamareƱos are wont to say, “bisan mamatay, basta butnga hin kalamay.”

But make no mistake about it.  This is not to say that those who are known to have succumbed to our materialistic culture are only those who now belong to the upper crust of our society.  Not quite.  The poor are no less engulfed.  The signs of materialism and hedonism are written all over.  Unhappy that they are deprived of wealth, many of them want to have a bonanza of moolah without working for it.  Just look at how poor people troop to lotto outlets, dreaming to win the jackpot!  Every
day, people line up at the entrances of television stations with the hope that they could be the winner of the day in noontime shows!  Others rob banks, stage hold-ups, sale fake goods, purchase things with fake pesos or dollars, and even become prostitutes both literally and figuratively.  Thus, wealth without work, and wealth without morals are not a monopoly of the rich, but neither the poor nor the rich are bothered about wealth without work and morals.  Probably, the only difference is that, while the rich can bend or escape from the law, the poor wind up either in prison, or hospital, or in the cemetery.  There is thus much evidence to show that materialistic mentality has really swallowed up almost all of us.  But, since it is part of our culture, it is difficult to get away from it.  Indeed, every time I open the “Facebook”, I see traces of materialistic mentality and hedonistic attitude, uploaded and posted.  You can easily find them in what your friends want you to see in their own “Facebook” accounts.

Combating a Materialistic Culture

My dear graduates:  Our society is a morally damaged one.  Of course, there are a number of factors that help create it, but you cannot discount our materialistic mentality.  But, how do we combat such a mentality in our materialistic society?  O
f course, it is difficult to alter it, but you can contribute to its transformation.  My challenge to you—and this is essence of my graduation message—can be summed up in three verbs: think, act, and remember.  And with this, I conclude my address.

[1] First, THINK.  Impress it upon your minds that what you are, is more important than what you have.  People are always more important than things.  What defines you is not what you possess, but your character.  A good name is better than wealth.  Such an outlook is an important
beginning for understanding wealth and happiness.  Behind a great wealth, as the Russian writer Honore Balzac puts it, is a crime.  In a country where there are few who are rich, and many who are very poor, to be rich is scandalous.  To aspire to acquire enormous wealth is to become inhuman.   Nothing compares to a life characterized by integrity.  Those who think that wealth is everything have distorted values.  When values are distorted, orientation of life also becomes distorted.  Happiness in life does not come from distortions.  If you are a person of integrity, I know you will agree with me that happiness does not come from superfluity of goods.  Happiness lies within us.  It comes with tranquility of the soul and clear conscience.   If we admit that happiness lies within, then there is no reason for us to be enslaved to wealth.  A person who knows this has control of what he has.  He is able to survive and live within his means.  Such a person will not ever live under the illusion that wealth makes him. 

[2]Second, ACT.   Act on your needs, not on your wants.  Our needs are few, our wants cannot be counted.  Never confuse the two.  And, having known your needs, learn to prioritize them. What is beyond the necessities of life are not only superfluous; they are also unhealthy.  Too much power corrupts you; too much praise makes you conceited; too much bragging makes a big liar out of you; too much display makes you a hypocrite; too much cosmetics makes you ugly and phony; too much sex, food and drink destroys your body; too much merrymaking is dangerous
to your health.  Except for love, keep everything in moderation.  More than moderating your greed, learn to live simply.  For this reason, never give in to an insatiable appetite for possessions—that would make you greedy and avaricious.  What you do not need, are no longer yours; they belong to others.  So, be charitable, give them to the poor who need them.  Never have the desire to discard goods, simply because something novel is available in the market.  Know how to save, conserve, preserve, reuse and repair.  Do not go into debts.  That you have plenty of debts is not always a sign that you lack money or are poor.  No, many times, it is a sign of selfishness and greed.  There is no substitute for a simple life.  What is superfluous is evil.

[3]Finally, REMEMBER.   Remember that how God looks at you, is more important than how people look at you.  We come from God, and to him we shall return.  The purpose of life is not to get rich, or to maximize our bodily pleasure.  The purpose of life is to make it in accord with the plan of God.  As Jesus himself said, what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but suffers the loss of his own
soul?  Suppose, you are the richest person in Guiuan, or in Eastern Samar—so what?  Does that make you better than most people?  Does that improve your image before God?  Of course, how people regard us is important, but, always remember, the image they form about you does not last forever.  There is always an end to honor or fame.   Remember that on earth, life has an end, because it is meant for eternity.  You may be living a comfortable life right now, but it will not last—mapatay ka rin.  But after we die, when all of us face God at the last judgment, Christ will not ask how much wealth we have earned and accumulated, or how highly regarded we were by people because of our riches.  No, the ultimate question is how much we have loved other people.  Nothing compares to a life lived for others.  That is the kind of life that pleases God.  If there is any common denominator in the lives of Christ, Rizal, Lorenzo Ruiz, and Gandhi, it is that they are all men for others.  But for Christians, Christ’s life remains the ultimate model: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for all” (Matt 20:28).

I have spoken.  Thank you for listening.

1 comment:

  1. what wonderful words. As few people as there are that are not consumed with distorted values; it is good to see that there are at least others who share the true belief of what it is to be a real human. All the time there is this belief, there is hope.