The Religious Thought of José Rizal

by Dr. Eugene A. Hessel

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The Religious Thought of José Rizal: Chapter 12, “Summary and Conclusions” *

by Dr. Eugene A. Hessel

THE intelligent references to religious views throughout many of Rizal’s writings show that he was not a theological dilettante but rather one who thought seriously about theological questions.  These views when taken together represent a quite consistent whole, suggesting that his religious thought at least from the time of the writing of Noli me tángere was mature and systematic.

I.  Summary

       The main points in Rizal’s thought may be summarized in a kind of creed which for the reader’s convenience will be repeated in the same form as it appeared in Chapter VIII.

I believe in God upon whom the cosmos and history are dependent and who even now is guiding history’s development to fulfillment according to his purpose.

Though essentially Inscrutable, I believe that God is nonetheless a Good, but Merciful Father.

I believe that man, made in God’s image, has been endowed with reason by which he may know God through nature and history, and that he is also possessed of a conscience to guide him towards his perfection.

I believe that man thus possessed of an innate dignity and worth has an inherent right to life, liberty, and happiness.

I believe that Jesus Christ is one of the greatest founders of religion, teaching by word and example God’s purpose of love.

I believe that a follower of Christ should show respect for the dignity of every other man, treating him as a brother, and seeking his welfare.

I believe, further, that a man’s concern should take in the whole of society, in particular, devotion to his own country, to the end that society and government may contribute to the well-being of every man.

I believe that a repentant heart and good deeds are more important than ritual acts, and that worship should be simple but above all else sincere.

I believe that evil men and evil deeds reap their own judgment in due time in the course of history wherein God is working out his ultimate purpose.

I believe that if there is a life after death the good man need not fear, for God desires happiness for all man and the eternal destruction of none.

       It has been noted that Rizal’s views taken in their entirety are not in full harmony with any particular theological system whether orthodox or unorthodox, within or without the circle of organized Christianity.  It is a mistake, then, to label him as Roman Catholic or Protestant, liberal or modernist, rationalist or what not. “Christian,” interpreted broadly, would be the nearest label to accuracy.

        There is closer affinity to be sure between his thought and the liberalism of the nineteenth century than with orthodoxy.  In fact, there are clear indications of points of contact with a number of particular movements, trends, ideas, and thinkers of that century, but it would seem that Rizal appropriated only such views as harmonized with his own independent thinking.

       There is nothing especially unique about any of his views, yet the expression of them (with a few possible exceptions) and the relating of some of them one with the other seem to be his own.  On the one hand, particular views may have been products of his own rethinking of traditional Christian views which he had learned during his youth in home church, or Roman Catholic schools; on the other hand, some were surely picked up here and there from his reading or by contract with various intellectuals.  The fact that similar views are found from writing to writing of his mature years and that they made a quite consistent whole suggest that such theology as he had was fully his own, molded by the genius of his own mind.

       Rizal quoted or referred to the Bible frequently to illustrate and enforce his points, being conversant with several versions, especially the Latin Vulgate and one or more Roman Catholic Spanish translations.  On occasion he also referred to the Greek New Testament and a translation of this Testament into Hebrew.  He was fairly well acquainted with the Gospels, but the relative scarcity of quotations from the remainder of the Bible indicates meagerness of knowledge of the Bible as a whole.  He could hardly be called a thoroughgoing student of the Scriptures.

II.  The Continuing Significance of Rizal’s Struggle with Religious Thought

       What can be said of Rizal’s permanent contribution to religious thought as a whole?

       Rizal made no unique contribution to the content of theology as such.  The total evidence which has been presented indicates that there is nothing particularly new in what Rizal had to say.  Also, though the particular ideas which he selected for emphasis make up a fairly consistent whole, there is nothing startlingly different in their systematic presentation.  That Rizal was aware of his system of thought is partly a gratuitous conclusion in view of the fact that most of his religious views are presented independently one of the other.  However, the total picture points to the deduction that he held his different views in a systematic thought not unique whole.

       One might commend Rizal simply for giving emphasis to certain new thoughts which others were setting forth.  Some would say that theology as taught in orthodox circles in Rizal’s day was in a rut.  That Rizal felt this is evidenced by his criticism of the sterility of scholastic theology in particular, and by his personal acceptance of some of the newer theological teachings.

       He was not to be sure a mere iconoclast; he also gave fresh expression to certain historic Christian views.  This in itself is of value from a Christian believer’s standpoint.  Whereas the erroneous and superficial needed to be questioned, Rizal also saw fit to cherish and proclaim the true and the good.  His readers could not have helped but catch his positive emphasis on such historic Christian truths as: (1) the reality of God; (2) God’s redemptive concern for history (3) the worth of the individual man; (4) the importance of righteousness, especially the view that faith and worship must express themselves in deeds; and (5) that God requires of man responsible living, expecting him to concern himself with the needs of his fellows and society.

       Likewise, some of the new emphases to which Rizal also gave expression have permanent value.  In setting forth in his own way some of the theological discoveries of rediscoveries of his century, he was adding to the impetus towards a fuller understanding of the Christian faith. By way of illustration reference may be made to such views as the following: (1) that God, though just, always acts out of love and is never merely a vindictive tyrant; (2) that God works within history and not simply by occasional miraculous intrusions; (3) that the Bible has the stamp of man upon it as well as being the Word of God; (4) that Jesus was fully human whatever else may be said about him.

       This last view concerning the humanity of Christ needed special emphasis in the Philippines because of the extremely distorted picture of Jesus characteristic of Spanish culture.  In Rizal’s day every church had its gruesomely fashioned crucifix, its sculptured kneeling figures, or reclining Christs in their coffin-like boxes.  Christ was chiefly important to the masses as one who by his death guarantees man’s immortality.  His image was treated as a sort of fetish to bring this about.  Writes Unamuno, commenting on an image in the Inglesia de la Cruz of Palencia:

This Spanish Christ who has never lived, black as the mantle of the earth, lies horizontal and stretched out like a plane, without soul and without hope, with closed eyes facing heaven….  For he, the Christ of my land, is only earth, earth, earth, earth . . . flesh, which does not palpitate, earth, earth, earth . . . clots of blood which does not flow. . . (01)

In substitution for such a view of Christ Rizal placed his emphasis upon the Jesus of vigorous manhood who taught and lived ethical truths of permanent value.

On the other hand, there is much in the content of Rizal’s thought which is clearly dated and deficient.  Modern theologians of all faiths might in general agree that: (1) Rizal failed to comprehend that the “otherness” of God makes revelation necessary; God makes himself known in history to be sure, but most present-day theologians would agree that one must hear him through faith; reason alone is inadequate to bring man to God, because the study of the natural world can never lift man’s discovery beyond the phenomenal; (2) his doctrine of Christ, corrective though it may have been of another more distorted view, nonetheless failed to demonstrate adequate appreciation for the sense in which he is divine as well as human; (3) his view of man, especially in his earliest writings, tended to be overly optimistic without due recognition of the “demonic” dimensions of human nature; (4) his theological “system” was completely lacking in a developed doctrine of sin and grace; (5) finally, Rizal seemed to have had no appreciation of the important place of a doctrine of the Church in a complete Christian theology.

To summarize: the content of Rizal’s religious views had some distinct values for his age; but on the other hand it has marked deficiencies for our own, to say nothing of its many unorthodox elements.  His thought is in part a sample of the nineteenth century.  Thus, if one is forced to disagree with some of its aspects, the judgment should be upon the age as well as upon the man.  One should not read Rizal just to criticize, for it is the conviction of the writer that the deeper theological thinking of the twentieth century had perforce to build on the shaking of the foundations which took place in the nineteenth century.

This may be an appropriate place to add a parenthesis concerning Rizal’s supposed “death-bed” retraction.  On the one hand, the validity of Rizal’s beliefs must be tested by their intrinsic worth, regardless of his alleged later retraction of part of all of them.  On the other hand, to point out similarities between some of his views and those which were and are still regarded heretical by the Roman Catholic Church fail to deal with the crucial question, namely, why he held them.  The most obvious answer to this last question is that he held certain beliefs because they seemed reasonable to him  (02) At the time of his mature writing they apparently represented for him a formulation of his sincere religious conviction.  Now, theology is the attempt to “formulate” or “systematize” one’s faith.  We have noted the unity, in general, of Rizal’s thoughts.  That he continued to cling tenaciously to that faith until near the very end of his life is testified to even by those who assert that he finally retracted.

It is the conviction of the writer that the beliefs summarized in this thesis represent Rizal’s real conviction, his genuine faith, his very own theology.  Whether he retracted or not, is then, from the standpoint of his thought, irrelevant.  For Rizal, himself, the faith which he had believed and proclaimed for more than ten years seemed adequate.  It is very possible to be sure, that in another age his faith would have been modified, corrected, and enlarged.  But it is doubtful that he would have returned to the total substance of his old one.  Rizal’s thinking always faced forward!

Even if Rizal had recanted at the last moment, the man who made a difference in Philippine history was the “free-believer.”  It was his “free belief,” his courage to challenge accepted thoughts and procedures, which made him a great reformer and patriot.  Only one possessed of “freedom of thought” would have dared raise a persistent cry against the oppression of Spain, for in doing so he was forced to challenge long held ideas of Church and State.  The historically significant Rizal is not Rizal the conformist but Rizal the “fire-bringer” whom we shall ever honor.

Thus, whatever one may think of the content of Rizal’s mature faith, one should give more consideration to the very fact of his tackling in intelligent fashion the question of religious belief.  Perhaps this very struggle to find an adequate personal theology is, religiously speaking, his lasting contribution to succeeding generations.  One cannot help but admire a man who dared to challenge the status quo.  Were new ground not broken from time to time mankind would soon find its mental vigor grown old along with its outworn theological structures.  God is too big for one ever to be content with giving permanence to propositional descriptions of his nature or his ways.

Let us then, finally, seek to enumerate some aspects of that spirit which seemed to animate Rizal’s desire to formulate his own theological system.

First of all there was in Rizal a passionate yearning for the truth which he identified with the very nature of God. (03)  Austin Coates in his superb biography of Dr. Rizal points out that truth was stressed in the Rizal family:

Rizal was brought up in a home which was completely devoid of deception. . . .  This bred in the whole family a respect for the truth which in José’s case was exceptional, becoming the underlining guideline of his political career, as also of his personal life.

Rizal had known those who professed loudly a faith based on ignorance, and he condemned such an attitude at every opportunity.  It has been said that popular religious faith in Spain had always been that which in Spanish is known as la fe del Carbonero (the coalman’s faith), “Well, what do you believe,” a Spanish peasant was asked.  “I believe what the Church believes.”  “And what does the Church believe?”  “The Church believes what I believe.” (04)  Rizal, on the other hand, felt that in religion as in other matters man has no higher duty than to keep one’s mind open for fresh understanding of truth.  As late as May, 1895, Rizal wrote to Blumentritt concerning the death of Don Anacleto del Rosario as follows: “El era catolico, creyente ciego y ferviente, y no discutia nada; yo lo discutia todo y dudaba.”  (“He was a Catholic and believer, blind and ardent, and questioned nothing; I doubted and questioned everything.”) (05) Does this mean that Rizal was an agnostic?  Rather, in the light of his prevailing attitude it would seem to be an expression of his perpetual search after the truth.

The spirit of Rizal might well be regarded as similar to the life-quality of his great Spanish contemporary Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), a few quotations from whom may be used to summarize Rizal’s own attitude towards the quest for truth:

My religion is to seek truth in life and life in truth, even though knowing full well that I shall never find them so long as I live; my religion is to wrestle unceasingly and unwearyingly with mystery; my religion is to wrestle with God from nightfall to the breaking of the day, as Jacob is said to have wrestled with him. . . .

It is a work of supreme mercy to awaken the sleeper and to shake the sluggard, and it is work of supreme religious piety to seek truth in everything and to expose fraud, stupidity and ignorance wherever they are to be found. (06)

Again, one may sense in Rizal an appreciation for the “existential” element in all true religion.  Though all beliefs have traditional relationships which cannot be lightly discarded, nevertheless all genuine religion has in it an element of personal consent.  As Burrows has well said:

… what is ultimately authoritative for us is that which commands the assent of our own best judgment, accepted as the witness of the Spirit within us.  The only ultimate basis of assurance is the witness of the Spirit with the believer’s own spirit.  And only the individual can decide whether or not the assurance he feels is the witness of the divine Spirit of truth. . . .  If God does not speak to us in our own minds and consciences, he does not speak to us at all.  (07)

That Rizal had this approach to theology is indicated both by the witness he bore to those views which had personal meaning for him and the respect which he showed for the sincere convictions of others.

Rizal’s insistence upon sincerity in religion is a third contribution of permanent value.  He taught that pretense should be shunned as the sin of sins.  According to his own testimony, it was his chief aim to expose hypocrisy in religion and to demonstrate sincerity in his own.  Who was the better Christian, Elias or Capitán Tiago, Fray Salvi or Padre Florentino, Maria Clara or the quarreling women of the Hermandad, -- yes, who was the better Christian, Rizal or the men and women who lined the Luneta to rejoice at his death?  Is it not possible that one who denies certain religious beliefs but denies them passionately out of conviction may be a better Christian in the eyes of God than the one who merely observes rituals and mouths the words of others?  Did not Jesus rebuke his disciples for condemning the man who did miracles but happened not to be among the formal company of Jesus’ followers? (08)  Be this as it may, Rizal himself placed sincerity close to the top of his scale of values.  In a letter written to the Filipino residents in Madrid on April 2, 1889, Rizal said:

Perhaps you wonder at the Calambana who makes fun of many beliefs and superstitions that he still believes firmly in providence.  That Calainos has more faith in God than all the friars put together and judges that God watches over his creatures and aids those that have courage and good will. (09)

Another way of expressing this emphasis is to say that Rizal felt that one must have the courage to be oneself.  “To thy own self be true and thou canst not then be false to any man.” (10) All his life Rizal refused merely to conform.  He did not scoff at others’ religion when it was genuinely held.  In fact, he admired sincere faith wherever he found it, whether it was present in the Protestant pastor of Heidelberg or in Father Pastells.  But above all, he required of himself that which he demanded of others, that one have the courage to affirm aloud one’s own deep convictions.  The only other choice is to be a nobody.

Some are afraid that the reading of Rizal will promote a feeling against a particular faith.  For this to happen one would have to become entangled with his ideas rather than caught up in his spirit.  Rizal did not bid men to be anti-Catholic.  He only called them to be free.

Rizal never interpreted freedom as license.  He felt forever constrained by a high calling, the voice of God as it spoke to his own soul.  He was prepared to bet his life on the convictions which were most real to him. (11)  And in fulfillment of his pledge he gave his “uttermost for the highest.”

There is no doubt in the writer’s mind that Rizal felt himself to be a Christian, perhaps even a Catholic. (12)  The writer would add that he believes that Rizal, had he lived, would have pressed on to a more adequate understanding of the Christian faith, whether within or without the church’s fold.  But his abiding contribution to religion is not his ideas but rather his continuing call to all men to reach for the best.  He was an awakener of sleeping souls.  We can do no better than conclude with another quotation from Unamuno:

What, then, is the new mission of Don Quixote in the world of today?  To cry aloud, to cry aloud in the wilderness.  But the wilderness hears, though men do not hear, and one day it will be transformed into a sounding forest and this solitary voice that falls upon the wilderness like seed, will yield a gigantic cedar, which with its hundred tongues will sing an eternal hosanna to the Lord of life and of death. (13)

To such a mission Rizal himself was dedicated and to its realization Rizal would summon those with youthful spirits in our day and every day:

Donde estáis . . . que habéis de encarnar en vosotros el vigor de la vida . . . la pureza de las ideas . . . el fuego del entusiasmo . . . .  Os esperamos . . . venid que os esperamos! (Where are you . . .who will incarnate the vigor of life . . . the purity of ideas . . . the fire of enthusiasm?  We await you . . . we await you!) (14)


* Eugene Hessel, The Religious thought of José Rizal, rev. edition.  (11 Lands Street, Project 6, Quezon City, 3008 Philippines: New Age Publishing, 1983) pp. 295-304.

(01) John A. Mackay, The Other Spanish Christ (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1932), p. 98 citing Manuel de Unamuno, Andanzas y Visiones Españolas.

(02) Cf. the testimony of Father Vicente Balaguer Llacer, S. J., the priest who declared that he received Rizal’s retraction.  Father Llacer declared that a couple of hours before his retraction he strongly insisted that “he was guided by the reason God had given him. . . that he was going to appear thus before the tribunal of God, with a clear conscience for having fulfilled his duty as a rational man.”  -- quoted by Jesus M. Cavanna y Manso, C. M., Rizal’s Unfading Glory (Manila: Cacho Hermons, Inc., 1956), p. 7.

(03) Cf. ante, p. 97.

(04) Cf., Mackay, op. cit., p. 100.  Mackay has been of great help to the writer in interpreting Spanish religious thought.

(05) Epistolario Rizalino, Tomo Quinto, Segunda parte, p. 678.

(06) Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life in Man and in Peoples, trans. J. E. Crawford Flitch (New York: MacMillan Co.,, 1921), pp. 156ff.

(07) Millar Burrows, An Outline of Biblical Theology, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1946), p. 50.

(08) Mark 9:38ff.

(09) Epistolario Rizalino, Tomo Segundo, p. 158, No. 250.

(10) William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3 (Polonius gives advice to Laertes)

(11) The day before Rizal left Hong Kong for Manila where he was to forever lose his freedom and then his life, he left behind a letter of farewell addressed to his family, presumably to be opened should death overtake him.  He said in part:

“Parto gustoso á exponerme al peligro, no como expiación de mis faltas . . . sino para coronar mi obra y attestiguar con mi ejemplo lo que siempre he predicado.  El hombre debe morir por su deber y sus convicciones.” (“I am parting happily to expose myself to danger, not as expiation for my faults… but to crown my work and testify with my example what I have always preached.  A man should die for his duties and his convictions.”) Epistolario Rizalino (Book Three), Tomo Tercerno, p. 346, No. 550.

Later, while in exile at Dapitan he wrote to his sister: “yo estoy en las manos de Diós y hasta el presente no tengo motives para decir que me ha baandonado: hagamos siempre nuestro deber, lo que es bueno y dejémosle que arregle lo demás.”  (“I am in the hands of the Lord and until now I have no motive to say that He has abandoned me.  Let’s always do our duty, what is good, and let Him arrange the rest.”) ­Epistolario Rizalino (Book Four), Tomo Cuarto, p. 251, No. 661.

(12) At the period when Rizal was most critical of Roman Catholicism he began his lengthy correspondence with Dr. Blumentritt, a devout Catholic.  Early in their acquaintance he endeavors to enlighten Dr. Blumentritt as to the abuses and excesses he experienced in the Philippines, writing as follows: "If you had grown up in our villages as I had and had seen the sufferings of our country folk, you would have a very different idea of Catholicism in the Philippines.  I have had an opportunity to study the religions in Europe.  There I found Christianity beautiful, sublime, divine; Catholicism attractive, poetic, the same Christianity, poetized and beautiful, more beautiful than the insipid Protestantism.  Our country folk do not know these differences. (The Rizal-Blumentritt Correspondence, Part One, Manila: National Heroes Commission, 1961, p. 13, 8/22/1886).  It is a pity that Rizal did not also have acquaintance with Protestantism at its best. 

(13) Unamuno, op cit., p. 124.

(14) El Filibusterismo, op. cit., p. 292.

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