Dear Mr. Vallée,
I am very taken with your article, and would like to respond to something in it or perhaps something left out of it. Having spent the past 40 years or so in the system, which has been calling itself “church” for the past two thousand years, I would like to make an application of your article to authoritarianism in that arena. While both your remarks and the remarks of Vaclav Havel are very profound, my impression is that we can see the truth of things best from the inside. In that sense, you might say that I am an insider to “church” just as Havel was to Communism, and Kafka to existentialism. Perhaps enough said by way of introduction, what I would like to do here is paraphrase or make the application to the system, which has been calling itself “church,” not to be confused with what God calls Church in the Bible. I will insert my observations in BOLD.
SATURDAY, 24 DECEMBER, 2011
Vaclav Havel – A Reflection
In an extraordinary address at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem made soon after the Velvet Revolution, the first elected post Communist President of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, declared his profound affinity with Franz Kafka.
“I want to take this opportunity to confess my long and intimate affinity with one of the great sons of the Jewish people, the Prague writer Franz Kafka. I’m not an expert on Kafka, and I’m not eager to read the secondary literature on him. I can’t even say that I’ve read everything Kafka has written. I do, however, have a rather special reason for my indifference to Kafka studies: I sometimes feel that I’m the only one who really understands Kafka, and that no one else has any business trying to make his work more accessible to me. And my somewhat desultory attitude to studying his works comes from my vague feeling that I don’t need to read and reread everything Kafka has written because I already know what’s there. I’m even secretly persuaded that if Kafka did not exist, and if I were a better writer than I am, I could have written his works myself.”
In that speech (and in many others afterward) this legendary dissident who, as much as any other individual, brought down the Soviet Union and Communism in his own country through rare courage in speaking truth to power and risking the severest of consequences, shocked his audience by expressing deep existential doubts about himself, in terms that clearly resonate with Kafka. In applying this to “church,” for me it brings to mind what Jesus said to the religious experts of his days in the flesh, and that with an attitude not completely unlike that expressed by Havel here: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, …” Philippians 2:5-7 NIV
“I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my Presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to a quarry to break rocks… Nor would I be surprised if I were to suddenly hear the reveille and wake up in my prison cell, and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow-prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months. The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am the stronger my suspicion is that there has been some mistake.” The Day Jesus died He had the best view on the hill.
Virtually all of Havel’s literary output –his plays, his political tracts, his letters from prison and his memoirs – have at their core a theme of the alienation of the individual from his fellow man and from his environment. He writes about his ostracism as a chubby scion of wealthy family that set him apart from the other children at school and then his pariah status as a teenage son of a bourgeois family under Communism. The heroes of his plays (at least those few I’ve read) are somewhat confused by, and disconnected from, the world around them, but they achieve a penetrating insight into its absurd dimensions. His iconic Greengrocer, the subject of his most influential political essay, is a frightened man who places a sign in his shop window with the slogan “workers of the world unite!” that neither he, nor anybody, remotely believes to be true, in order effectuate a hollow and false conformity – to a lie that is the underpinning of the entire, monstrous and oppressive Communist order. What has been calling itself “church” is full of these kind of religious slogans, which in that context also “effectuate a hollow and false conformity.”
Havel was exquisitely sensitive to the pseudo- legitimacy Communism manufactured from slogans and enforced modes of discourse congruent to a falsified reality, which he recognized to be its soft underbelly, and he ultimately undermined the system with a relentless deployment of language and emotion rooted in reality and moral truth. He diagnosed that, in order to survive, communism had to enforce a universal conformity to its lies, even and especially its trivial and pedestrian distortions like the Greengrocer’s sign – what Havel called its ‘panorama’ – and any dissent threatened to bring down the charade by revealing to everyone, together and at once, that they had acquiesced in their debasement before an Emperor who has no clothes; to a system that served no human purpose; that no one ever believed in. He understood he was only a catalyst and it was the receptiveness of other people to the undeniably of truth that made the revolution. In Jesus case, He Himself was/is the TRUTH, and his “speaking truth to power and risking the severest of consequences” is perhaps best seen in Matthew 23:1-37.
This was “the power of the powerless”. In Jesus case, this was the power that came into the world in a manger.
Havel was an agnostic, but he was no enemy of religion. He attributes the descent into totalitarianism in 20th century Europe to the decline in traditional religion and the belief in a transcendent God to whom all men are subservient and responsible, without its replacement by a new belief in something transcendent to which man stands beneath or is integrally related. He traces this downward moral trajectory to the success of the modern scientific outlook, with its faith that all of reality can be explained by, and subsumed under, impersonal universal laws which have no place for morality, spirituality or human responsibility.
This shows very little understanding of the God of The Bible, and the Church of the Bible. It is not the loss of “traditional religion” that brought on the dark ages, but the replacement of the Church of The Bible by what has become known as “traditional religion” that brought on the Dark Ages. Spiritually they are still with us, and have morphed their way through a number of historical seasons.
A world devoid of the concept of responsibility – and guilt – and in which there are no limits to what man can do to his fellow men and to his environment, is a dystopia and the very opposite of a free and humane order. That is the central crisis of our civilization. Yet Havel is firm in his conviction that democracy is the only political arrangement in which responsibility can flourish.
Before we can seek first the Kingdom of God, we must first be free to make that choice. In short, we must be self-governed. We must be free to make the choice between being under external government, or being governed internally by the Spirit of God.
“The present crisis of authority is only one of a thousand consequences of the general crisis of spirituality in the world at present.
Humankind, having lots its respect for a higher authority, has inevitably lost respect for earthly authority as well. Consequently, people also lose respect for their fellow humans and eventually even for themselves. This loss of a transcendent perspective, to which everything on this Earth relates, inevitably leads to a collapse of earthly value systems as well.
From a Biblical perspective, “earthly value systems” are not all that they are cracked up to be!
Humanity has lost what I once privately described as the absolute horizon;…
That would be the plumb line of Amos: “This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD asked me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ ‘A plumb line,’ I replied. Then the Lord said, ‘Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer. The high places of Isaac will be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.” Amos 7:7-9 NIV
…and as a result, everything in life has become relative. All sense of responsibility disintegrates, including responsibility for the human community and its authorities. This is a philosophical, not a political problem.
At the end of even the philosophical day, it is a Spiritual problem not resolvable by any systematic approach.
However, even a decaying or diminishing democratic authority is a thousand times better than the thoroughly artificial authority of a dictator imposed through violence or brainwashing.
Including the inquisition and having to sit under the wisdom of men. “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.” 1 John 2:27 NIV
Democracy is an open system, and thus it is capable of improvement. Among other things, freedom provides room for responsibility. If that room is not sufficiently used, the fault does not lie with democracy, but it does present democracy today with a challenge. Dictatorship leaves no room for responsibility, and thus it can generate no genuine authority. Instead, it fills all the available space with the pseudo-authority of a dictator.
The hallmark attitude of a dictator is that of entitlement, which is measured at an impoverished level in the attitude of entitlement among the slaves.
Potential dictators are well aware of the crisis of authority in democracy. The less that atheistic people today heed the challenge that democracy presents, the less they succeed in filling the room it offers by taking genuine and unquestioned responsibility, the faster a dictator, posing as the bearer of universal responsibility, will proceed to occupy that room until finally he will occupy it entirely. Hitler, Lenin, and Mao were typical examples of this species. Filling all the available room with a completely false authority, they closed it off, destroyed it, and eventually destroyed democracy itself. We all know where this leads: to the tombs of the dead, the tortured, and the humiliated. In a word, while democracy paves the way for the creation of real authority, an authoritarian regime blocks that path with a terrible barrier, with the caricature of authority.
Potential dictators who are intent on getting even with the injustices of the past may be more dangerous – more insidious than those “posing as the bearers of universal responsibility.” The best remedy for the past, it seems to me is Biblical repentance – the Baptism of John, “Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” Acts 19:4 NIV As Peter put it, “… to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.[a] It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” 1 Peter 3:20-22 NIV
The chances for a successful existential revolution — as I once metaphorically described the awakening of a deeper human responsibility — are far better under freedom and democracy than under a dictatorship, where the only room offered to anyone who wishes to take responsibility is a prison cell.”
This “democracy” is the governmental place between antichrist, and Christ.
Because “communism was the perverse extreme” of this modern world-view, Havel sees life under communism as “a kind of warning to the West, revealing to it its own latent tendencies”. But the West shows “unwillingness to hear the warning voices coming from our part of the world.” So, it misses the real significance of “the end of communism,” which is “a signal that the era of arrogant, absolutist reason is drawing to a close.”
Sad to say, this observation may have been very premature.
And so Havel deduces there can be no social order with meaningful or lasting liberty or equality without an acknowledgement of a transcendent and moral “Creator”.
The challenge of today, upon which the continued existence of the human race may well depend, is to develop a sense of spirituality in an increasingly integrated multicultural world. How can the inhabitants of our increasingly integrated planet live decently? This interdependence includes, increasingly, elements of the natural environment on which our survival depends and which can be threatened by our activities. Havel looks for inspiration to antiquity.
Better to look toward Heaven whence commeth The Spirit of True Liberty. “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 NIV
The religions of antiquity proclaim in common what modern humanity has lost: “The certainty that the Universe, nature, existence, and our lives are the work of creation guided by a definite intention, that it has a definite meaning and follows a definite purpose.” Despite our superior information about the universe, our ancestors “knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us.” They knew that “people should revere God as a phenomenon that transcends them.” They knew that “true goodness, true responsibility, true justice, a true sense of things–all these grow from roots that go much deeper than the world of our transitory earthly schemes. This is a message that speaks to us from the very heart of human religiosity.”
Good Grief! By now we have had two thousand plus years of “human religiosity” and look where it has brought us! The Book of Romans, perhaps more than any other contains the metaphysics of God the creator. In it we are told: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” Romans 8:18-21 All our “human religiosity” seems to have missed the point: What was the Creator hoping for when He frustrated His own creation? (I would be more than glad to talk about that if you are interested.)
“To this day, the point of departure has been present in all our archetypal notions and in our long-lost knowledge, despite the obvious estrangement from these values that modern civilization has brought with it. Yet, even as our respect for the mysteries of the world dwindles, we can see for ourselves again and again that such a lack of respect leads to ruin. All this clearly suggests where we should look for what united us: in an awareness of the transcendent.”
Got that right, and it is not in the direction of “human religiosity.” That has only succeeded in leaving Europe littered with empty cathedrals.
Havel could not work out how to effectuate this transformation because, I think, he embodied the essential contradiction. He was a product of Western civilization and could not bring himself to believe in any ancient religion-he was too alienated and too modern for that. This was a man who counted Frank Zappa and the Rolling Stones among his first invited guests to the Prague Castle after becoming President.
Case in point!
But he grasped the crux of the problem.
At least, he certainly seems to have flirted with it.
“Dostoevsky wrote that if there were no God everything would be permitted. To put it simply, it seems to me that our present civilization, having lost the awareness that the world has a spirit, believes that anything is permitted. The only spirit that we recognize is our own.
By now even human decency is no longer politically correct.
However different the paths followed by different civilizations, we can find the same basic message at the core of most religions and cultures throughout history: people should revere God as a phenomenon that transcends them; they should revere one another; and they should not harm their fellow humans.
Now getting all this from religious sloganeering to spiritual reality is the crux of our present challenge! Truth is still lying in the streets!
To my mind, reflecting on this message is the only way out of the crisis the world finds itself in today”.
AMEN and AMEN!
Havel lived with massive guilt and doubt.
From a Biblical perspective, that is what the Old Testament – the Law was intended to accomplish, so he was half way to the truth.
He doubted because so often he just didn’t “get it” about what everyone around him seemed to know or to believe and like Kafka, his questioning led him to discern and dissect the sources of hypocrisy and false convention that made it so difficult for a person in search of truth to make sense of the world around him.
To say nothing of the religion around him!
He discovered, like Kafka, that his society was a system designed to restrict and degrade human relations to lies; an institutionalized system of systematic lying.
Great phrase and observation here!!! It applies equally well to systemized – institutionalized – programatized religion. The New Testament is not of the letter or any form of system, it is of The Spirit.
It must have been at least in part because of his feelings of alienation – of beginning life as an ‘outsider’ –that he was able to penetrate to the rotten stinking core of the debased society Communism had created and required to perpetuate itself.
By now The United States has also become a “debased, (even a debauched) society.”
“All that I encounter, reveals to me, first and foremost, its absurd dimensions. As if I were pursuing a group of strong and confident men, which I am unable to reach or overtake. I think I am an annoying person, worthy only of mockery…
“… He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” Isaiah 53:2, 3 NIV
… there is a feeling of deep guilt. As if my very existence were a sin. Furthermore, I sense a feeling of non-belonging – concerning myself and all that which has developed around me. A feeling of deep claustrophobia and the constant need to explain and defend myself. In this, there is a search and aspiration for a higher order”
“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53:4, 5
But unlike his hero Kafka, Havel proceeded to the Public Square –what little still remained of it – and did battle with the Castle. At first in the theatre, where he mastered the craft of orchestrating effects that elicited from a community of actors and audience a shared spontaneous outpouring of true emotion that helped affirm– if only for the moment – that a common bond still existed between them; And then in the political realm, where he wrote and spoke out against the government’s violation of basic rules of human decency – and earned himself years in prison; And finally to Wenceslas Square in Prague where he played midwife to a new birth of freedom in Central Europe.
“On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” John 7:36-39 NIV
“A person, whose idealism has brought him to lead his country. I admit, that from the outside, I appear the complete opposite of Joseph K. and other characters, even Franz Kafka. Nonetheless, I will not retract what I said previously. I think that the feeling of non-belonging is an intelligent feeling, and it is the underlying factor which motivates my efforts. Moreover, [I think] that it is my desperate search for a higher order which has dragged me into unlikely adventures. I would even go so far as to say, that whenever I have achieved something good, my actions were probably the result of the need to overcome the metaphysical feeling of guilt. It appears as if I create, organize or fight, only to defend my dubious right to exist.”
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” Hebrews 11:13 NIV
Havel understood that speaking truth to power could undermine a system, no matter how powerful, that was built on lies. He spoke the truth about everything, including himself. He had the eloquence, the opportunity and the courage to do it.
He was in VERY GOOD Company – even that of Christ!
And the evil system collapsed.
He was the leading European of his generation.
“You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” John 4:22 Perhaps “the Holocaust” was an even bigger statement concerning the problem. That would make the Jews “the leading Europeans of his generation.” If only we could hear a little better!