“A Single, Common Crisis”1
Václav Havel, Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala, translated from the Czech and with an introduction by Paul Wilson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).2
It has been two millennia since the birth of Jesus. For 2,000 years Christians have said that Christ’s purpose was to redeem and restore the world. Yet in every generation countless individuals have wondered why his mission has not been fulfilled. If there is no redemption, no final fulfillment, what is the purpose and meaning of human existence? Generations have passed to their graves without answers. In 1946 Alice B. Toklas sat quietly beside Gertrude Stein at her deathbed. Stein spoke and asked, “What is the answer?” Toklas remained silent. Then Stein uttered the words, “In that case, what is the question?”3
Like Gertrude Stein, we also ask, What is the answer? What is the question? Even further, we ask, Who has the final question? Who has the final answer? Or to rephrase our query, Who is the final authority? Who is the ultimate author(ity)?
Transcendence versus Immanence
For over 1,500 years the Christian church claimed that ultimate authority resided with the unapproachable, immovable, impassible God in heaven. The church believed that all power resided in this God and that he ruled the universe and mankind (male and female) by law. But this God could not be approached. He could not be moved. In his impassibility he could not suffer with mankind. As Jaroslav Pelikan maintains, “The impassibility of God was a basic presupposition of all Christological doctrine.”4 Even Thomas Aquinas insisted that “in God there are no real relations to creatures.”5 Such is the all-powerful and transcendent Christian God, who exists entirely above and independent of the material universe, the One who interacts with the universe and mankind solely through the agency of law.
After over 1,500 years it is not surprising that mankind — particularly in the Christian world — became frustrated with this indifferent God. For several centuries there has been a remarkable turn from transcendence — the God outside us and above us — to immanence — the God within us. By the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, man had come to believe that human reason “could perceive the underlying truth of the world, it could delve into the mysteries of reality.”6 This worldview “claims to have discovered absolute knowledge and certitude.”7 If God could abandon the universe to impersonal laws, then man could abandon God and become his own God. Man could learn those laws and control his own destiny. Therefore, that age and those views led to the emergence of secular humanism, world socialism, Marxism and communism.
Theologians also have tried to escape the focus on God’s impersonal transcendence and on a God who has abandoned the universe to law. They too have largely been captured by the dream that divine authority resides within man. They variously but similarly have concluded that man can or does possess the indwelling God, that man is becoming God, or that man already is God.
We thus are confronted with two apparently opposing camps. On one side there is secular humanism, which has rejected the transcendent God and his authority. On the other side there is contemporary religion, including Christianity, which has rejected the impassible God for the indwelling God and his authority. Both camps locate final authority directly or indirectly in the mind of man. This brings us to the life and times of Václav Havel.
Václav Havel and “A Single, Common Crisis”
In December 1989 Václav Havel, the celebrated playwright and defender of human rights, was elected president of Czechoslovakia. With the separation of Slovakia from Czechoslovakia, he remained president of the Czech republic.
Havel’s book, Disturbing the Peace, is his memoir. It derives from months of long-distance conversation — conducted by letter and tape recorder in 1986 — with Karel Hvizdala, a Czech journalist living in West Germany. Havel, who was then approaching his fiftieth birthday, gives a wonderfully open and engaging account of himself. He looks back on his Prague childhood — at once privileged and isolated — and contemplates its effect on his life, both as a writer and as a rebel — “one of the truly dangerous ones,” as Heinrich Boll called him, “the gentle and courteous sort.” He talks about his life in the theater, particularly the “theater of the absurd,” where he feels art has most directly addressed the spiritual predicament of modern man. He recalls the literary and political battles of his early years, his involvement in the Prague Spring of 1968, and the hopeless stagnation that followed the Soviet invasion. He talks about his part in the long struggle to bring moral and civic responsibility back into his country’s public life. Without bitterness, he describes the constant surveillance to which he was subjected, the harassment by police, the years in prison, and the banning, for more than two decades, of his plays, essays and books. Throughout, Havel speaks with candor and wit, fully attuned to the abundant ironies of his paradoxical life: a diffident, introspective intellectual indicted for crimes of subversion and “hooliganism”; a lover of order drawing meaning from absurdity; a “mercilessly skeptical” playwright whose life embodies the politics of hope.
Disturbing the Peace is a meditation on the transcendent clarity of art, on human identity and responsibility, on the necessity of speaking the truth and on the necessity of laughter. It stands as an essential statement about Havel’s life and work, and about the power of an artist to awaken the national conscience — an awakening that has had a profound effect on the course of his country’s history and on the imagination of the world.8
In the course of his extensive taped interview, Havel answers the question posed by Hvizdala, “How would you describe your present ideas regarding a more meaningful way of organizing the world?” Havel replied:
I think that the reasons for the crisis in which the world now finds itself are lodged in something deeper than a particular way of organizing the economy or a particular political system. The West and the East, though different in so many ways, are going through a single, common crisis. Reflecting on that crisis should be the starting point for every attempt to think through a better alternative. Where does the cause of this crisis lie? Václav Belohradsky puts it very nicely when he writes about this late period as one of conflict between an impersonal, anonymous, irresponsible, and uncontrollable juggernaut of power (the power of “megamachinery”), and the elemental and original interests of man as a concrete individual.
I too feel that somewhere here there is a basic tension out of which the present global crisis has grown. At the same time, I’m persuaded that this conflict — and the increasingly hypertrophic impersonal power itself — is directly related to the spiritual condition of modern civilization. This condition is characterized by loss: the loss of metaphysical certainties, of an experience of the transcendental, of any superpersonal moral authority, and of any kind of higher horizon. It is strange but ultimately quite logical: as soon as man began considering himself the source of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, the world began to lose its human dimension, and man began to lose control of it.
We are going through a great departure from God which has no parallel in history. As far as I know, we are living in the middle of the first atheistic civilization. This departure has its own complex intellectual and cultural causes: it is related to the development of science, technology, and human knowledge, and to the whole modern upsurge of interest in the human intellect and the human spirit. I feel that this arrogant anthropocentrism of modern man, who is convinced he can know everything and bring everything under his control, is somewhere in the background of the present crisis. It seems to me that if the world is to change for the better it must start with a change in human consciousness, in the very humanness of modern man. . . .
It may seem like a paradox, but one I think will prove true, that only through directing ourselves toward the moral and the spiritual, based on respect for some “extramundane” authority — . . . can we arrive at a state in which life on this earth is no longer threatened . . . and has . . . a genuinely human dimension. This direction, and this direction alone, can lead to the creation of social structures in which a person can once more be a person, a specific human personality.9
Humanity has come to “a single, common crisis.” This crisis is a crisis of authority. The crisis has overtaken a humanity long convinced that final authority somehow resides in our own being — for example, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”10
Succeeding interpretive reviews will address the background, nature, dimensions and resolution of this crisis. We shall continue to ask, What is the question? What is the answer? In the next review11 we will begin by asking, How has the myth of religious neutrality contributed to the present crisis?
- See Václav Havel, Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala, translated from the Czech and with an introduction by Paul Wilson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), pp. 10-12. (go back)
- Havel, Disturbing the Peace, is available from Barnes & Noble at www.barnesandnoble.com/w/disturbing-the-peace-v-clav-havel/1111516521?ean=9780679734024. (go back)
- Alice B. Toklas, “What Is Remembered” (1963), quoted in Emily Morison Beck, ed., Familiar Quotations: John Bartlett (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1980), p. 752. (go back)
- Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 270, quoted in William C. Placher, “Narratives of a Vulnerable God,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 14, no. 2 (1993): 134-151. (go back)
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae la, q.13, a.7, quoted in Placher, “Narratives of a Vulnerable God,” pp. 134-151. (go back)
- Stanley J. Grenz , “Twentieth-Century Theology: The Quest for Balance in a Transitional Age,” Perspectives 8, no. 6 (June 1993): 10-13. (go back)
- Ibid. (go back)
- Havel, Disturbing the Peace, book jacket. (go back)
- Ibid., pp. 10-12. (go back)
- William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), “Invictus,” quoted in Beck, ed., Familiar Quotations, p. 663. (go back)
- See The Myth of Religious Neutrality, Outlook (Prolepsis 1993.3). (go back)
This article was originally published October 1993 under the Quest imprint.