Some Summer Light
IT has been a very hot and muggy summer all over the planet, and the news has not been especially enlightening. With Rwanda, Bosnia, Haiti, the Caucasus, and tensions in Korea and Nigeria - not to mention the assassination of a Florida doctor - one looks more closely for evidence of light, not heat, in the news.
Perhaps the best evidence of such light is the speech given in Philadelphia on July 4, American Independence Day, by Czech President Vaclav Havel, who argues that a genuine spiritual rebirth is needed if post-cold-war civilization is to survive and progress.
For Mr. Havel, the modern age with its confident linear assumptions of technology and science as the answer to all problems is over. We are in a period of enormous transition and uncertainty, and with a dangerous trend toward brutal tribalism and culture wars. Hence, it is not enough to merely affirm human rights and universal values; they must be discovered in a profound understanding of Deity. ``... [T]he Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.''
Today it is politically correct for both liberals and conservatives to love and admire Havel, and the poet-turned-president certainly deserves it. Yet there is a tendency in the West to think of Havel as some exotic, intellectual bird living in a Czech castle whose main purpose is to validate the West's cold war victory and make abstract philosophical pronouncements. Actually, Havel has adapted to new circumstances, and his message is fresh. He has changed from writing in a Czech prison about totalitarian propaganda and control, to speaking directly to the Rwandas and Bosnias of the post-cold-war age. ``Politicians at international forums may reiterate 1,000 times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights. But it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being,'' he says.
What other state leader argues that comfortable religious rhetoric is not enough; that a breakthrough to genuine spiritual experience is needed? In an intellectually fractured and post-modern age, Havel has not lost the belief that people can live and think in a manner that is healthy and whole.
In America, conservatives claim Havel because his respect for God attracts the religious right. Yet Havel doesn't buy traditional literalism. The New Age left wants Havel because he is open to theories of transcendence, such as Gaia. Yet Havel prefers a spirituality found directly in the work of, in Christian terms, bearing the cross and dealing with suffering.
Havel isn't the past; he's the future.