In memoriam: Vaclav Havel

A GetReligion reader wrote in with a special request for a look at the media coverage of Vaclav Havel. Havel is a hero of mine and I’d been intending to write something on the media coverage, sort of waiting for that perfect article. Which is never coming.

My own interest in Havel has been focused on his plays, his leadership in the revolution and his anti-Communism. I knew the Czech Republic was quite irreligious but had been intrigued with some religious language he’d used in more recent speeches.

The other day, I read a blog post on Forbes where the author described him as an atheist (he so quickly corrected this error when it was pointed out that I’m not even going to link). But where are the articles that do explain his religious views?

Part of the problem is the lack of articles. As Alan Jacobs tweeted recently about the disparity in remembrances for Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel:

I’m still tracking @slate: the Hitch-remembrance count is up to 25. Pieces on Havel: 1.

Slate might have a bit of an excuse but even other outlets are failing to give the man his due.

Mainstream obits have been silent on the religion angle. Here’s CNN:

The former dissident playwright helped topple communism in eastern Europe through the power of his words, insisting, “Truth and love triumph over lies and hate.”

His longtime friend and translator Paul Wilson remembered him as a “a very shy and gentle man with a will of steel, who was fearless when confronting a regime that tried, relentlessly, to crush his spirit.”

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page had a beautiful remembrance, but one that didn’t mention religion. Ditto the Los Angeles Times piece on the importance of his art.

The American Spectator suggested that Havel was a “man of God” in its remembrance:

Vaclav Havel was not just a man of politics and intellect, but a man of the arts, theater, literature — and, yes, of God. He exhorted the West and the wider post-modern world to seek “transcendence.” Hitchens might have figured God “the ultimate totalitarian,” but Havel saw God as the solution to totalitarianism, as tyranny’s antidote, as the fountainhead of freedom. This was something Havel deeply admired about America and its roots — its fusion of faith and freedom and the recognition that the latter cannot genuinely exist without the former. “The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty,” Havel concluded in his July 4, 1994 lecture at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, home of that very sentiment. “It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.”

Now-Reason editor Matt Welch noted that speech at the time, with a mention of some previous religious engagement:

In February 1990, only six weeks after being inaugurated as president, Havel invited the Dalai Lama to Prague and spent several hours in spiritual consultation and meditation with the Tibetan holy leader.

Havel has also taken great pleasure in speaking with Pope John Paul II, whom he met for a third time this March. “Once again, your wisdom, nobility, breadth of vision and personal charisma have irradiated me in a very special way, and I felt the sudden gift of renewed energy, the will to go on with my work, the faith that this work makes sense and the ability to delight in its outcome,” he told the pontiff.

The papal visit came on the heels of wider religious wanderings by the Czech president, who has never attended church regularly and claims to have never prayed. “I have recently visited the most holy places of different religions — Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism — and in the atmosphere of those places, I was made aware again that the basis of all religion lies in the idea of tolerance, of understanding for others, of helping one’s neighbor — in short, the idea of the good that God expects from mankind,” he said.


A visit to Havel’s web site shows quite a bit of activity with the Dalai Lama, even recently. Havel’s religious views might be a bit hard to nail down, but the one thing not in question is that he did not have high regard for atheism. The Acton Institute published a piece with some interesting thoughts on this many years ago:

As Havel presses this theme [of personal responsibility], he offers a particularly penetrating analysis of our times. What, would you say, is the distinctive character of the twentieth century? Many, perhaps most, would point out its amazing technological advances. Others call it the American century. Havel says that our century’s distinguishing mark is that “we are going through a great departure from God which has no parallel in history.” It is no coincidence that “the first atheistic civilization” has produced the bloodiest century in history. …

According to Havel, ordinary people everywhere can live in the truth only by embracing the “notion of human responsibility.” Responsibility is “that fundamental point from which all identity grows and by which it stands or falls; it is the foundation, the root, the center of gravity, the constructional principle or axis of identity.” Thus, Havel declares, “I am responsible for the state of the world,” and he means a “responsibility not only to the world but also ‘for the world,’ as though I myself were to be judged for how the world turns out.” Citing Dostoevsky’s spiritual dictum that all are responsible for all, he points to that “‘higher’ responsibility, which grows out of a conscious or subconscious certainty that our death ends nothing, because everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else, somewhere ‘above us,’ in … an integral aspect of the secret order of the cosmos, of nature, and of life, which believers call God and to whose judgment everything is liable.”

Despite his Roman Catholic rearing, Havel does not number himself among the believers. He admits to “an affinity for Christian sentiment,” and he tries “to live in the spirit of Christian morality.” Yet, when queried about a rumor that he had become a Christian, he began ambivalently–“It depends on how we understand conversion”–then said no. No, because “genuine conversion, as I understand it, would mean replacing an uncertain ‘something’ with a completely unambiguous personal God, and fully, inwardly, to accept Christ as the Son of God.… And I have not taken that step.”

And here I’m intrigued, because Czech news is reporting that the funeral will be held on Friday at St. Vitus (Roman Catholic) Cathedral.

Catholic News Service reports that Archbishop Dominik Duka of Prague, who was imprisoned with Havel by the Communists, will celebrate the funeral Mass. The report also mentions that Havel met Pope Benedict during his trip to Prague in 2009 and met with Pope John Paul II at least five times. John Paul II and Havel were quite close in their shared battle “for freedom, human rights, human dignity and respect for the cultures of Eastern Europe,” the report says. Quoting Havel:

“His language, constantly stressing human dignity and recalling the rights of man, has been a novelty in the papacy’s history. If the pope had been someone else, from another part of the world, without the historical experience of Poland, he probably wouldn’t have had such a clear attitude to totalitarianism. John Paul II’s services in this area are undeniable,” he said.

He also told the interviewer that in April 1990 he made his confession to Pope John Paul during the pope’s first Czech pilgrimage while under the spell of the pope’s “charismatic personality.”

“I suddenly realized I was in fact confessing in front of him, even though I’m not accustomed to going to confession, since I’m not a practicing Catholic. I felt the need because of the great will to understand the other person that emanates from the person of the pope,” Havel said.

L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, noted that Havel attended a Mass of thanksgiving in St. Vitus Cathedral immediately after his inauguration in 1989, restoring a practice Czech leaders had followed for centuries until the communists came to power.

Within a matter of days, we learned of the deaths of Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il (Josh Trevino tweeted: “I’d like to think God let Havel and Hitchens pick the third.”). Atheism plays a significant part in each of their stories, it turns out. Hitchens was a prominent advocate of atheism. Kim Jong Il enforced atheism under threat of death (as well as allegiance to the state and himself as its ruler). And Havel survived an atheistic totalitarian regime he lived to critique. But only in one was it even mentioned in remembrances and obits. It’s interesting.

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  • Jerry

    I wondered about Havel’s beliefs so I’m glad to see this review. I do also wish that the media had probed more deeply into his religious and spiritual thoughts.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    WOW.

    Fewer comments than the number of emails telling us that we needed to address the coverage of his death!

  • Julia

    Everybody was out doing Christmas shopping.

    Too bad there was not more mention in the mainstream media about his heroes and belief system.

    Havel seemed to be one of those agnostics who valued the underpinning Christianity and other thoughtful religions provide to civilization in giving it a center of strength and ethics other than the state. I know a few agnostics like that who actually hope that somehow Christianity is true, but are not fully convinced.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I was glad to see the information you have given about Havel’s beliefs and funeral. I sort of wonder what those Christians who consign to Hell those decent–even heroic–people who have not publicly accepted Jesus as their personal saviour make of the Catholic Church embracing Havel with love and prayer for the repose of his soul. I can still remember years ago turning on my TV to find a TV preacher ranting that Mother Teresa was on her way to Hell because she had apparently never used the formulaic words about “accepting Jesus as her personal saviour.”
    It would be interesting to see an article somewhere in the media about how various non-Catholic churches would handle a similar situation.

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen

    I have seen several Facebook postings of a memorial to Havel at Prague Castle with two Tibetan flags and the white khata from his meeting with the Dalai Lama.

    Would certainly like to read more about his spiritual leanings.


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