Monday, January 30, 2012

Havel's New God

Fifteen years ago, in a Prague castle, a former theatre critic for the Village Voice sat across the table from a former playwright, well-regarded in downtown circles. They spoke of Joe Biden, NATO, real estate and God.

Paul Berman had gone on to write for the Times, and Vaclav Havel, of course, to lead the Velvet Revolution and become the first president of the post-communist Czech Republic. In a New Republic essay, Berman reflects on their interview. It's a magnificent read for many reasons: the portrait of Havel; the snapshot of Biden undiplomatic bluster; Berman's voice, as he describes his beer-soaked realization that Biden may have done some genuine good. But the essay's principal value is that it lays out and tries to make sense of Havel's ides about the role of God -- or a god, some god, a transcendent reality -- in the modern world.

Havel borrowed from Heidegger, whose disciples, as Berman notes, tend to veer off toward the extreme right to the extreme left. Yet at first, Havel sounds almost Tea-Party-friendly:
He granted that, in modern times, it has become unfashionable to speak about democracy in connection to anything above us or beyond our understanding. ... He stood in a grand tradition, though. He invoked the American Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers spoke about a Creator. Why, after all, does man have a right to freedom and a right to dignity? Who has bestowed these rights? They do not come from treaties. They are not human inventions. They are gifts of the Creator. The rights also imply a duty to the Creator. Havel cited the Declaration of Independence—all of which seemed to me rather stirring, given that, unlike a lot of people who natter on about the Founding Fathers and Thomas Jefferson, Havel meant what he was saying, and the Czech Republic was there to prove it. He was Thomas Jefferson. Without slaves!
But of course there is more to it:
His proposed new god, for instance, did not have an Enlightenment look. Havel paused to reflect on the god. A new god, he told me, would most likely be abstract and multicultural —- a god who brought together Allah, Buddha, Christ, and so on.
Berman rightly catches the Romantic heritage behind this idea. He also sees why this sort of speculation, useful enough for an artist, might not have been helpful to a statesman:
... Of course I could see why he was in no rush to be quoted. One of his closest advisers had confessed to me that even his inner team rolled their eyes over Havel’s screwy ideas. A multicultural god -— “multicultural” was his word -— might upset the various mono-cultural churches. There was no reason to start up pointless controversies over theological musings of a kind that might, in fact, have been enhanced by beer.
Havel was not entirely clear about any of these ideas, so interpretation is needed; Berman does a fine job, one we expect that PhD candidates will spend debating. The whole article is well worth a read.

It is especially interesting because, although Berman does not go into this, the Czech Republic is often pointed to by apologists for atheism. It is, to judge from poll numbers, the least theistic nation in the world; roughly 30% of its residents say that they believe in no god, spirit or transcendent "life force." And yet its citizens are decent, law-abiding folk, possessed of ethical standards comparable or superior to those of their neighbors (except perhaps in the realm of human trafficking, in which the Czech Republic plays a role disproportionate to its size).

In this connection, we may consider Berman's observation that:
Havel was frightened by atheism. In his eyes, communism was atheism’s apotheosis. Communism led everyone to focus on material circumstances and to dream of improving the circumstances, and to dream of nothing else. For why should anyone dream of anything more than material improvements? More does not exist. Such was atheism’s message. To pine for a new automobile made sense, but there was no point in contemplating the state of your soul.
In the same way, Havel wrote about the danger of Western materialism. Berman quotes a 1994 lecture in which Havel explained that people in many parts of the world admired Western values -- democracy, human rights, open markets -- but at the same time feared
... what many cultural societies see as the inevitable product or by-product of these values: moral relativism, materialism, the denial of any kind of spirituality, a proud disdain for everything suprapersonal, a profound crisis of authority and the resulting general decay of order, a frenzied consumerism, a lack of solidarity, a selfish cult of material success, the absence of faith in a higher order of things or simply in eternity, an expansionist mentality that holds in contempt everything that in any way resists the dreary standardization and rationalism of technical civilization.
Havel sounds not entirely unlike another Eastern European dissident, John Paul II, who in his visit to Cuba warned against the materialisms of both the East and West.

Was Havel's tentative religiosity merely a reaction against Communism and a fear of what might replace it? Or did it spring from a genuine appreciation of the role that faith can play in the life of a nation and, especially, the life of an individual? It's hard to be sure, although Berman suggests in his conclusion that the latter is true:
If you think there is something more, a Being or transcendental something-or-other that goes beyond your own material existence, your own life is bound to end up seeming, by way of comparison, humbler, therefore easier to put at risk. Havel seems to have understood pretty clearly that his own life was not the greatest of all possible values. ... He was one of the greatest and most heroic figures of modern times, or maybe of all time, but he was a great and heroic figure because his own thinking gave him the courage to risk not being anything at all.

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