Saturday, March 17, 2012

Pericope for the Week: Vaclav Havel+

Earlier this month The Economist's "Lexington" warned readers "to be sceptical when politicians speechify on religion" (March 3, 2012, p. 44). Given the low level of public discourse on religion, it is rather easy to agree with this advice. The article, "One Nation under gods," provides some historical-critical exegesis of a 1960 campaign speech by John F. Kennedy, in which the Democratic Catholic (or Catholic Democrat) explained his understanding of the separation between "state and church" to a group of Protestants who, it is safe to say, were rather skeptical about Catholic politicians. In that speech Candidate Kennedy argued that the state should never favor one religion over another: "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all."

While the article does not refer to how those words, particularly the second to the last clause, might have been understood by those religious groups and individuals who were protesting unjust civil laws in America and who were working toward the creation of better civil rights legislation (one thinks immediately of MLK Jr.), the article does refer to the two principal, conflicting philosophical traditions on the place of "religion" in American public life that have been present since the republic's founding: (1) the Enlightenment "secular," "rational" tradition that tends to personalize/privatize/de-value "religion"; and (2) the Puritan "Christian" tradition that seeks to subsume all "publics" under the Sovereignty of God.

The immediate references for Lexington's reflections were, of course, the flap over contraception and insurance in Catholic institutions in relation to a health policy of the current U.S. President and "the noisy religiosity" of one of the Republican presidential hopefuls who has attacked Kennedy's speech and Mr. Obama's attempt to reconcile the above traditions.

All of this got me to thinking about another politician, one who didn't really want to become one but who was nonetheless thrust into that calling by circumstance in his native country: Vaclav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, two of whose books have been beside my bed for the past week. The first, Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala, trans. Paul Wilson (Random House, 1990) is a set of extended interviews that Havel gave in the 1980s. The other, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice, trans. Paul Wilson et al (Fromm International, 1994), is a collection of speeches. Both books reveal that, in his own way, Havel also wrestled with the tensions and contradictions between that same Enlightenment tradition and the broader, western Christian tradition. As a poet and dramatist and philosopher, Havel, who died on December 18 last year, lived in the wake of the Enlightenment's critique of "religion," metaphysics, and the transcendent, and yet, as one who suffered political oppression because of how that same tradition had contributed to the formation of an officially-atheistic state that he and so many others saw as inhumane and stifling, he came to appreciate the critical and creative spirit of those who saw beyond this world to "something" that gave them realistic, creative hope. Unlike the kind of "noisy religiosity" that pervades contemporary American public life, Havel's was a quieter, more nuanced, cautious, even "surprised-by-grace" public piety. But piety it was.

This week's pericope comes from the first book:

Question to Havel: Do you see a grain of hope anywhere in the 1980s?

Havel: I should probably say first that the kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don't; it is a dimension of the soul, and it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. I don't think you can explain it as a mere derivative of something here, of some movement, or of some favorable signs in the world. I feel its deepest roots are in the transcendental, just as the roots of human responsibility are, though of course I can't--unlike Christians, for instance--say anything concrete about the transcendental. An individual may affirm or deny that his hope is so rooted, but this does nothing to change my conviction (which is more than just a conviction; it's an inner experience). The most convinced materialist and atheist may have more of this genuine, transcendentally rooted inner hope (this is my view, not his) than ten meta-physicians together.

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed... In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from "elsewhere." It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. (Disturbing the Peace, 181-82).