“If we lose God in the world, we also lose meaning and purpose, accountability and responsibility.”
When I first read Vaclav Havel arguing this stark thesis, I was intrigued— more than that, I was dumbstruck —having read enough of him to know that he made no profession of faith, a theist of sorts perhaps, but more intellectually than religiously. The Czech playwright who became a prisoner who became a president seemed to me an unusually honest man, someone willing to see where the lines-in-the-sand are; in a profound sense, to look into the abyss of a godless universe, and not flinch.
In the years since then, I have read and reread him, even walking the streets of Prague to see what he saw, to ponder the place where he lived and moved and had his being. I have talked with students on the city’s streets, with waiters in its hotels, even with journalists, artists and scientists who in their very different ways have had some knowledge of Havel and his meaning for the Czech people, and the meaning of his thinking for all the rest of us.
For the most important reasons, Havel’s vision runs through mine, forming the contours of my moral imagination, affecting what I think and the way that I teach. It cannot not be.
We have now come to the end of the year for my teaching the Fellows who come to Washington for a year of post-graduate learning, nine months given to a very rich curriculum focused on the formation of vocation. Each week we take up a book together, the assignment being that they come to our three-hour Monday morning seminar with an essay explaining their response to what they have read. We range the intellectual and cultural universe, as I want them to learn to read the Word and the world at the same time, to learn the habits of heart required to honestly live in the world but not be of it.
Our last book was Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, wanting at semester’s end for them to think through why and how a coherent life is possible. A Russian Orthodox theologian of the 20th-century, Schmemann begins his book reflecting on the sacramental character of what we eat, and why we eat. That he enters into his work in such an ordinary way is his best gift, making the point from the first pages on that everything in life can either be seen as glory or ruin— and if we see the glory it is because we see it as sacramental, as one more way that heaven touches earth… if we have eyes to see, that is.
It is not a long book, and before he is done, Schmemann writes about all of life, allowing us to see that our ordinary experience of life as human beings can be seen seemlessly, as the sacramental twining together of heaven and earth. Food, yes, but sexuality too— all of life, every square inch of the whole of reality.
As we sat around the long table that morning, thinking through the possibility of seamlessness in a fragmented world, we then listened to each other as paper-by-paper was read, each Fellow in his or her own way telling us what they thought about Schmemann’s argument. What have I read? What does it mean? There is a pedagogical richness here, one that draws both student and professor together, wrestling with the heart of learning to live in the world, coming to see that ideas must have legs, that belief must become behavior.
To see sacramentally is born of a world with windows, because it understands that the very point of life is to see as God sees. It is by necessity a way of making sense of our senses as gifts from God— to see and to hear and to feel both the wonder and the wound of life, the glory and the ruin of the world, believing for the best reasons that they are not the same as pantheisms of every sort argue. One is the truest truth of the universe— if we have eyes to see —and the other is a skewing of sight, a twisting of heaven and therefore of earth as well, bringing hurt and sorrow wherever it goes.
Before we were done, I remembered again Havel’s insight. It is an audacious argument for a secular age, a world which formally insists that there are no windows to transcendence, that moral meaning is an impossibility, that at the end of the day we are “wired” by the impersonal forces of a materialist universe and therefore neither accountable nor responsible.
Through a glass darkly, Havel saw the forlornness of that, the human despair that becomes a despair of history, knowing that there was no future for his people in that world with that worldview. I want my students to see that too… to have eyes that see the sacramental character of all of life, all of learning, all of labor, all of love, finding their way into lives of meaning and purpose, accountability and responsibility. That is why I teach.