Difference and Conversation: The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World


132532-VaclavHavelVåclav Havel, who died a little over a year ago, was one of the most remarkable individuals of the last century, or perhaps any century. We (myself–Frank Richardson, Steve Kinney, and several other trouble-making Front Porchers) can’t think any better writings to inaugurate the Front Porch blog library than these two little essays of Havel, “The need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World” and “Forgetting we are not God.” Havel evinced a religious spirit that appealed to thinking Christians and Jews. But he also impressed and intrigued many less religious inclined modern souls with his ideas, perhaps because of his evident deep sincerity, plainspoken prose, and entirely non- dogmatic cast of mind. Here is how I summarized a few of his ideas in a recent article.

The distinguished artist, author, and statesman Václav Havel asserts a “need for transcendence in the postmodern world.” He argues that the institutions of liberal democracy, in some form, the enterprise of modern science, and our modern liberal conception of human rights and dignity are truly indispensible, but that by themselves are “only half a recipe” for human survival and flourishing in a new, post-cold war cultural situation. With them alone, we slide inexorably into a “selfish cult of material success,” a “frenzied consumerism,” a “profound crisis of authority,” a “proud disdain for [spirituality],” and other manifestations of a “demoralizing and destructive spirit.” Needed is an “experience of transcendence in the broadest sense of the word”—a postmodern sense in that any “new doctrine” or “collection of dogmas and rituals” would be entirely counterproductive, and any authentic renaissance of spirituality would “likely be a multileveled and multicultural reflection, with a new political ethos, spirit or style.”

I have no reason to think that the distinguished journalist Paul Berman harbors any particular religious belief or convictions. Perhaps he is an open-minded skeptic. But an essay he published in The New Republic recently, I think, illustrates the impact Havel had on so many people and the great respect he elicited from them. Berman concludes,

Religious ideas are usually said to be an argument against what is called “relativism,” or the idea that nothing in particular should be regarded as absolutely important. In one respect, though, the ideas that Havel liked to entertain did promote a kind of relativism, and this was in regard to his own life. If you think there is something more, a Being or transcendental something-or-other that goes beyond your own material existence, your own life is bound to end up seeming, by way of comparison, humbler, therefore easier to put at risk. Havel seems to have understood pretty clearly that his own life was not the greatest of all possible values. In 1983, when they carried him off in handcuffs to the prison hospital because he had refused to request a pardon—at that particular moment his lungs had trouble breathing but his brain seems to have had no trouble recognizing that his own continued place on earth was not his highest goal. If he had come to a different recognition, would the rest of his life have spoken to us as eloquently as it does? He was one of the greatest and most heroic figures of modern times, or maybe of all time, but he was a great and heroic figure because his own thinking gave him the courage to risk not being anything at all.



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