After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the European nations went through a spell of intoxicating euphoria best described in the words of the Psalm: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (Psalm 126). Now we have awakened from the dream. The fleshpots of Egypt are as inaccessible as the sweet grapes of the promised land, and we are on our tiring and dangerous journey through the desert, where it is difficult to find one’s way.
”I am not sure I know what a miracle is,” said Vaclav Havel when he welcomed the Pope at Prague airport. But we have wearied of the miracle of freedom as the Israelites wearied of the bread that rained from the heavens. Enough of this meager food!
The prophets, where there are any, are bitterly disappointed by the people dancing round the golden calf. At such a time Moses, in anger and despair, broke the Tablets of the Commandments he had brought down from Sinai. Will the churches of the nations now going through their exodus succeed in defeating frustration and play their role as prophets and pastors?
In this new situation the churches, like Martha in the Bible, are “troubled by many things”: the restoration of their institutions, the restitution of their property, the repair of buildings, and, above all, the manning of the greatest possible number of parishes with priests to ensure Holy Services for the believers. All these things are “needful” indeed. But we must not lose sight of the unum necessarium, the essential: to give the people prophets and pastors. From a biblical viewpoint, the pastor is one who knows how to get to an oasis-who can find the way to the springs. The prophet is one who can read the signs of the times, who sets the trend, because he can reveal the deeper meaning of the events we experience.
It is certainly a good thing for Christians to participate in ecological work and feel responsible for the preservation of creation. But a no less important task is the “human or social ecology” that John Paul II describes in the encyclical Centesimus Annus: the responsibility for a world of values without which man cannot reach maturity and human civilization remains an unfinished structure, a place of confusion like the Tower of Babel. The pastor leads to the springs of values, and the prophet recognizes God’s voice in pandemonium. Both are the servants of hope or, as Paul says, “work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24).
The Czech writer and critic F. X. Salda called one of his books God’s Puppets and Workers. For Salda’s notion of “puppets” we would today probably use David Riesman’s sociological category, the other-directed, those who merely react to external stimuli, who are manipulated by social pressure or live under the constraint of material needs. God’s worker is one who works with a sense of responsibility for his task. “Real socialism,” like the consumer society, produced puppets. Will the Church help to educate God’s workers, creative and responsible people for a truly free society?
There is no longer any “first” or “second” world. There is only one Europe. While it may have seemed, immediately after the fall of the Berlin wall, that changes would simply occur in the East-with the West kindly greeting its liberated neighbors-it has now become obvious that what follows 1989 will radically alter both parts of our continent.
Compared to our own countries, the West has the big advantage of a longer experience of life in the kind of pluralistic democratic society that the new Europe will undoubtedly become. Thus the churches in post-
Communist countries expect Western Christians openly to share with them their positive as well as their negative experience of this society. From some representatives of Western churches we only hear lamentations and warnings that are not much help. Are we to understand that these people do not perceive the positive side of the world they live in, that they are incapable of fulfilling God’s gift and meeting the challenge of life in a free society? That they have understood this gift only as a threat and failed to accept it as a challenge and an opportunity?
On the other hand, Western Christians rightly expect the churches of the former Eastern bloc to share the fruit of their experience of persecution. If we try to play the part of martyrs who can redeem, or at least endlessly lecture and criticize, the “Godless West,” we shall be unconvincing and ridiculous. In 1991 the European Synod of Bishops in Rome urged the Eastern and Western Christians to maintain a dialogue and an “exchange of gifts.” The first condition for a fraternal dialogue is not to set ourselves up as an example, or let ourselves be set up as such by others, but to respect one another’s experience. I want to apologize to my Western brothers and sisters for those Christians of Eastern Europe who are obsessed with a martyrdom complex and grossly infringe this rule. We have, to be sure, had a number of martyrs, but they were far more humble.
The answer to the question of what is, in fact, the fruit of the time of persecution that the East should bring as a dowry to the European house is hard to formulate. We still don’t know how to convey this experience, because it has not yet been sufficiently understood and articulated. We lack an essential instrument-theology. Sometimes in our countries theology is considered to be an almost superfluous luxury, or the occasion for dangerous squabbling. This is a bad mistake. Prophetic and pastoral service-if it is to be wise and responsible, if it is to lean on Scripture and tradition and remain free of human limitations, stereotypes, and prejudice-must include theology. Anti-intellectualism is non-catholic. Shallow “practicism” is the greatest snare. We need original, active, and honest theology, derived from our experience of faith and capable of communicating it.
A great witness of Christ, Czech theologian Joseph Zverina, who was jailed both under Nazism and communism and who laid the foundation of such a theology in our country, wrote: “Our repentance and prayers will give birth to a new theology which will not be merely teacher or tutor but will help to enhance the life of the community and bear witness. Its merit will be to enrich the believers’ devotion and prayers.” Elsewhere Zverina wrote that in his view the Church is not an ossified organization but is reborn again in every baptism and every community, and constantly grows and develops. To be the Church means to reach out for God’s offer. To be the Church means to get people to recognize what they can and should be, to invite them to family, brotherhood, and the community of God.
This post-Gulag theology has been preserved in fragments and precious intuitions but has not yet been systematically worked through. Texts published as samizdat reveal its spirit. It is a dynamic ecclesiology that asserts confidence in a Church which, though weakened by persecution at the institutional level, is deeply experienced as communio. It did not become a self-pitying, closed-in ghetto, nor did it accept compromise and adaptation to the surrounding world and its power in order to survive. It endeavored to continue as a living and fraternal community and to offer an effective alternative not only to a political system based on an atheistic ideology but also to a world of superficial consumerism and escape from the great moral and spiritual battles of our time. It also rejected the shelter of the isolated garden of private piety.
Theologians of this trend-Zverina and Medr, as well as Tischner in Poland and many others-demonstrated in their thinking and attitude that “living in the truth” required of the Church a profound solidarity with all those who “seek truth and love freedom.” In these words John Paul II praised this trend in the Czech Church and urged it to preserve this solidarity, and its close ties with the nation and its culture, in the new context of a free and pluralist society. Developments in the churches of post-Communist countries over the last few years confirm that this appeal is urgently needed.
A contemporary Western theologian maintains that the Second Vatican Council’s “deepest intuition” was its recognition that the true renewal of the Christian presence in the contemporary world was not merely a renewal of piety, but a standing by the people and listening seriously to their joys and hopes, their woes and concerns. This is no facile aggiornamento, the loss of critical distance from the modern world and the denial of the vertical and spiritual dimension of life. On the contrary. The defense of these “marginalized values” belongs precisely to the “human ecology” that is an indispensable part of the prophetic and pastoral service of the Church in the world.
I am convinced that the fruit of the period of persecution of the Church under communism is not merely that the Christians have retained their faith. On the basis of their own historical experience of tribulation they were led to discover the importance of the solidarity advocated by the Council. In Poland the Church became a warm and open house in which the arts and free intellectual life could flourish, a meeting place in which intellectuals and workers were able to kindle the powerful Solidarity movement. In Bohemia the Church participated, though far more modestly, in the “parallel culture,” the struggle for human rights and civic freedoms, and thus it gained the sympathy of at least some part of the intelligentsia and youth. In Russia, in an environment of dissident youth groups and samizdat, there grew up a spontaneous ecumene of Christians of different denominations.
It is crucial, therefore, to analyze seriously, critically, and without bitterness the real causes of the latter-day loss of these achievements. For the Church cannot live only by reference to its past successes. If the churches in post-Communist countries were now to react to the postmodern world-the world that the Central and East European countries joined in 1989-with the same pastoral strategy and psychology of resistance that they learned in their confrontation with communism, they would soon be marginalized and lose the opportunity to become the “yeast and salt” of society.
Czech society and the Czech Church were already preparing to “return to Europe” from the captivity of Communist totalitarianism a quarter of a century ago, with the “premature perestroika” of the Prague spring. “Democratic socialism,” the unborn child of the Prague spring, was brutally aborted by the Soviet occupation. It is pointless to speculate about whether it might have lived, and if so, to what extent it could have carried the genetic mismatch between Marxism and freedom. In the words of Vaclav Havel, Czech society fell out of history for twenty years. During those years tremendous political, but mainly spiritual, changes were taking place.
It seems that 1968, the year of the Prague spring and of the French students’ revolt, was the swan song of Marxism, its last and vain attempt to survive in some form other than that of soulless and cynical regimes. Marxism was obviously the ultimate version of modernism, with its ambition to control both nature and history by means of reason, science, and technology.
As it was, shortly afterward the “modern era”-as had been predicted by authors as different as Nietzsche, Toynbee, Heidegger, and Guardini-
truly came to an end. Czech thinker Radim Palous considers 1969, the year that witnessed man’s landing on the moon and of the birth of the microprocessor, to have been the symbolic end of modernism. Others think it was the shock of the oil crisis in the 1970s, which killed the general trust in the inexhaustibility of natural resources and technological progress. The “postmodern” period began. Some see the present period as “super-modern”-with its “deconstruction” of the efforts to achieve a uniform perception of the world-while others see it rather as “transmodern,” transcending the anthropocentric and rationalistic Age of Reason with a new openness to spiritual values.
Indeed, the new era brings a new religious awareness, but this religiosity does not mark an automatic return to tradition and Church. After many defeats on the chessboard of modern civilization, the Catholic Church of the 1960s learned to bring this dragged-out competition to a draw with the post-Council dialogue. But very soon afterward it lost its old playing partner and found itself instead, like Paul at the Aeropagus, face to face with the Pantheon of new Gods and a market of philosophies. Will it turn its back on this environment or will it find it, as Paul did the altar to the unknown God, a new starting point for its revelation?
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the churches of Central and Eastern Europe have entered the stage a generation behind. It remains to be seen if their “falling out of history” was a period of sleep, or rather a “moratorium” in the same sense as Erik Erickson once found that the postponement represented by, say, military service was an important phase in a young man’s development. “You were called a silent Church,” John Paul II said to the Catholics in Prague. “But your silence was not the silence of sleep or of death. In the realm of the spirit the greatest values are born in silence. Now build the temple of the free life of your Church, not by returning to what there was before, before you were robbed of your freedom, but build it in the strength of the maturity you have reached in the years of persecution.”
I have tried to express my conviction that the most precious fruit of the period of persecution was the courage of the Church in extending solidarity to all those who opted for non-conformism, for a “life in truth.” In this “solidarity of the weakened” (Jan Patocka), there were meetings and dialogue with people of other convictions (namely the “critical humanism” represented by Vaclav Havel), and the spiritual content of this dialogue is still to be articulated. Havel brilliantly described the experience of the “power of the helpless” from the viewpoint of humanism. But the power of the helpless was also the Christian faith, the power of the Gospel to create a living community of people who thought and lived “differently” in the midst of a demoralized society.
The new era and the new social and cultural mentality of the postmodern period again bring new incentives and new challenges. Christians should not lose their spiritual creativity based on the courage not to conform and their readiness for dialogue. Even in the Aeropagus of today the Church must patiently look for the “altar to the unknown God,” and, by remaining close to contemporary human beings and their questioning, proclaim the closeness of the Lord.
Tomas Halik is a Catholic priest and writer living in the Czech Republic. He was secretly ordained a priest in 1978 and was active in the “Underground Church.” More recently, he has served as General Secretary of the Czech Bishops Conference. He is now President of the Czech Christian Academy and teaches philosophy and sociology of religion at Charles University in Prague.