Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Tomáš Halík & Stefan Orth {*}

Searching with the Seekers

An Interview with the Czech Theologian Tomás Halík about Faith Today


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2/2013, P. 69-73
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The Czech intellectual Tomáš Halík is a theologian, philosopher and sociologist. For decades he has been committed to a serious dialogue with atheists about the question of God. We talked with him about the challenges to the Christian faith in today's Europe. The interview was conducted by Stefan Orth.


HK: Professor Halík, in the Catholic Church the "Year of Faith" has just begun. What is actually the core of religious experience in the various societies on the European continent?

Halík: Already more than hundred years ago William James wrote in his famous book on the diversity of religious experience. In our time, this diversity has become much greater. It is the characteristic of religious life today, not secularism. The most distinctive spiritual experience, however, is the hiddenness or even absence of God. In modern times one has known too much about God. Today we have to find more room for the silence of God, and our silence before the mystery of God. Despite all the excitement on the religious market, the true God is silent. The divine reality remains ambivalent. Blaise Pascal has rightly said that there is just enough light for those who want to believe, but not for those who reject especially this. Anyway, thanks to atheism and criticism of religion, the banal God of the modern age is dead.

HK: How did that come about?

Halík: Today, we know that not a god is working simply directly behind the scenery of nature or history. If God exists, he may be found in the profundity. Belief is today, more than in former times, a free act, a real decision. It takes courage to enter into the mystery. No proofs of God can help us at it.

HK: Are too banal notions of God also the reason for the continued progressive break with tradition within Christianity, due to which the Christian faith in Europe seems to become desolate?

Halík: At least partially. Although atheism has it brought about that a too simple understanding of God has become obsolete, some believers still cling to it. This includes of course also those concepts of God which emerged in the modern age and have made God a homeless man. In view of the separation between nature and supernature, the Enlightenment has defined nature as reality. Supernature then becomes the realm of the poltergeists and other fairy tale characters, in which you obviously cannot seriously believe. If one suspects that God in this society, it is just inevitable to say: There is no God. Thank God! Such a God does really not exist.

HK: Anyway, those ideas have moulded the history of Christianity on the continent. Will by their failure also the inculturation of Christianity in Europe be called into question?

Halík: This is somewhat sharply formulated. But these naive ideas of popular piety had their socio-cultural biosphere: the traditional village culture. In the modern age, this culture disappeared step by step, and also the older conceptions of God have thus become incredible. That's why today the Christian faith must be interpreted anew. But this has already previously been the case. Tradition is always the reinterpretation of previous things - whereas at this point traditionalists become disloyal to the purport of the tradition. The preservation of tradition is a creative act. Loyalty to the content of faith needs the creative reinterpretation. This is not just a superficial adaptation to the latest fashion, but a courageous dialogue with the intellectual challenges of contemporary culture. Those people who adhere to those ideas of God live in a kind of cultural schizophrenia, because in the final analysis they are, like the Church as a whole, part of our modern world. Not for nothing, fundamentalism is certainly basically a modern phenomenon.

HK: Is the required creative reinterpretation of faith in other places successful? What are your experiences in dealing with students and other young adults?

Halík: It is all in all increasingly difficult to pass on the faith to the younger generation, because they live in a completely different world. They expect that good arguments for the faith in God exist. Even though spiritual depth must go along with intellectual reflection, a nonreflective faith, which should be merely adopted as a legacy of the elders, is no longer accepted. The traditional people's church has therefore only very little chance surviving in Europe.


"Christian Fundamentalism and Militant Secularism are Twins"

HK: Do the weakening church structures increase the crisis of faith?

Halík: Every crisis is an opportunity. This crisis is supposed to show us that the institutional structures are admittedly necessary, but they are not the main thing. Here, I keep my distance both to the traditionalists and the reform-oriented, because both groups make the same mistake and overestimate the importance of structures. In both cases, the key question is whether we remain on the surface or enter into the depth.

HK: The crisis of Christianity is one thing. At the recent Synod of Bishops on New Evangelization in Rome, there were also complaints about the dedicated hostility against Christians in Europe.

Halík: These extremes exist: There is a fundamentalism on the Christian side, and there is the twin of this fundamentalism: the militant secularism. They are interdependent, and both need the respective enemy image that they create of the others. A third path is here more expedient.

HK: You dedicate yourself particularly to the discussion with non-believers, who individually have then very different attitudes to the topic of religion. What are the various forms of atheism today?

Halík: Behind the label atheism, there is actually hidden a wide spectrum. There are those who are completely apathetic with regard to religious issues. There is the religious illiteracy and the widespread Something-exists: I do not believe in God, but something above us probably exists. Many so-called atheists piece together their own ideas about God. These are usually very primitive ideas, which they have in part inherited. They are therefore right, if they negate them and no longer believe in this God. There is also the postulatory atheism of Friedrich Nietzsche: God must not be, because I cannot stand it that I'm not God. Although atheists like Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and even Nietzsche helped us to free us from naive ideas about God - their therapy proposals were often too generalizing. Where critics say that conceptions of God are mere human projections, it can also come to the deification of the human ego. This is then the beginning of modern narcissism and selfishness. But the real opposite to faith is idolatry: when you absolutize individual, ultimately relative values.

HK: At the beginning of one of your books it says, I agree with the atheists on many things, on almost everything - except their belief that God does not exist. Where is the greatest proximity to the non-believers?

Halík: There is agnosticism, which is very close to the tradition of negative theology. There is anti-clericalism, which harbors already an implicit faith. If someone is very critical of the Church, he has often actually high expectations of the church, which have been frustrated. When you come to think of it, atheism is often also a protest against poverty, violence, war and the evil in the world.


"God Loves Those Who Struggle With Him"

HK: Not for nothing in the history of criticism of religion theodicy was known as the rock of atheism …

Halík: The evil and the wounds of the world are a challenge to seek God. If the world were perfect, it would be God. And it would be superfluous to enquire after God. In view of Auschwitz, the question must not read: Where has God been? We must ask about the role of man. God was present there. Namely, in his commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." I want to show that we have to bear our historical responsibility. If we project this responsibility onto God, also God himself becomes a projection. In this point, the dialogue with atheists is readily possible.

HK: But is not the actual problem that the indifferent people are the largest group, and only relatively few people are truly seekers - or even willing to argue about God?

Halík: Many of those who struggle with God are nearer to him than the indifferent people. Already the Old Testament bears witness that God loves those who struggle with him. Karl Rahner has repeatedly pointed out that God has his history with every human being. Of course, there is needed also sensibility for it. Here, the cultural milieu and the respective zeitgeist are also of importance. I try to show that in the depth of human experience something sacred is found. After all, there are few people to whom nothing is sacred. On what, for instance, is human confidence based? In the depths of all human hope, there is something that goes beyond the human being. This is a trace of transcendence. Also in our relationship to beauty, there are traces of the sacred in human life. Many people today are sensitive to these traces, even if they do not express it in a religious language. In this broad sense, many people are religious. But the Church's offer is often too narrow, and so those people turn to other offers.

HK: And how should we respond in conversation to those who do not miss God? God cannot be 'enforced by demonstration' on those who display a great indifference …

Halík: Of course, it is a problem when people are very sated. Jesus said that he has come to those who are hungry and thirsty. What might you do with the sated, if they have no feeling of gratitude in view of creation, and see the reality as a banal fact? If people stay on the mere surface of life, this is really difficult. However that may be, the disciples of Jesus are not simply satisfied with the world as it is. Faith begins with asking questions - and with the feeling of gratitude. If someone understands his/her life as a gift and a task, even without explicit religious terminology, she is also close to the faith.

HK: This is fully comprehensible from the perspective of faith. But do not atheists feel quickly monopolized also here? Is here not something foisted upon them?

Halík: Of course, the same experience can be interpreted from different perspectives. It is also possible to interpret atheistically the silence of God and say that God is dead, but we as believers have the right and duty to point out our view.

HK: And how compelling is the reference to the decidedly Christian faith when others show themselves sensitive to traces of the sacred? Is not a long way to go yet from there to the as Triune conceived God of the Christian tradition with all its catches, including today's church practice?

Halík: The deepest paradox is the connection between the divine and human reality - already in the understanding of Scripture. Without transcendence the human being is not complete. The Divine without the human element would be a pure projection. The way in which God and human being are connected is the distinctive Christian view. Outside of Christianity it cannot be found in this way.

HK: What does that mean precisely for today's so virulent question of God?

Halík: To my mind, God is the context, so to speak, the horizon of everything, whereas our world consists always only of fragments. In order to understand it better, we must take the context into account. Notwithstanding that we do so, God can therefore also not simply be understood. Paul has rightly said that we see God in a mirror - and he therefore remains for us also a mystery. We need therefore an eschatological patience. This applies especially in view of those who respond with enthusiasm and ecstasy to the silence of God. This must be rejected in the same way as the traditionalists' attitude; they ignore God's silence and simply repeat their old formulas. A mature faith must also endure God's hiddenness, and with faith, hope and love enter into this mystery.


"Doubt and Faith Should Correct Each Other"

HK: What follows from it for the Christian faith? What is here the role of doubt?

Halík: Doubt and faith are like siblings. They need each other. They should correct each other. Faith without doubt can lead to fanaticism, but also the doubt that disregards the own doubts may lead to cynicism and bitterness. The last two popes, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have in this sense emphasized that faith and reason go together. The faculty of reason is a very important partner for faith. But already Blaise Pascal and then also Immanuel Kant have said that it was the most important task of reason to take seriously its own limits. Ultimately, faith is like a fire, and reason like the fireplace. A faith without the faculty of reason may become dangerous. But theologians should not just sit in a comfortable chair by the fire. They must also watch out for the sparks that jump out the fireplace: the mystical tradition and the negative theology sometimes break up the boundaries. A rationalism without the spiritual impulses from the world of faith is just as one-sided and can also become dangerous.

HK: But who is God, strictly speaking, when he ultimately is a mystery?

Halík: Meister Eckhart has already pointed out: it is impossible to find God in this world. He does not belong to the world of things and objects. We must free ourselves from the fixation about the things of this world. The one who is inwardly free is also open to the mystery of God and is able to meet him. Only in such a context of silence we are really able to accept God's self-revelation. The decisive question is not whether we believe in him but whether we love him. Only in the depth of the experience of love, we are able to discover anew the meaning of the word "God." The problem is that many of the faithful, but also many atheists think that they know a lot about God, and that it was easy to speak of God.

HK: Must not the Church - as e.g. in preaching - speak more affirmatively about God, because otherwise the addressees get the impression that she, too, does not so precisely know it?

Halík: Of course we need also an affirmative language. Christianity is the religion of Incarnation. It is incarnated both in the community of believers and in society. That's why also intelligible words, gestures and rites are needed for communication. But we must constantly be aware that all of these things point to God - quite in the sense of metaphors; they are not God. We must not take those auxiliaries too seriously.

HK: What does that mean in concrete terms?

Halík: We Christians meet God in the humanness of Jesus. It is one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith that on the one hand Jesus has pointed out himself as the sole way to God. On the other hand we are, according to him, able to encounter God in the humanness of every human being. Jesus' wounds are the wounds of our world. However, if we ignore the wounds of this world, we have no right to say with the Apostle Thomas "My Lord and my God." From it also follows that a God without wounds, a faith without wounds, and a church without wounds are not authentic. This is the decisive feature of Christianity. And it is therefore necessary, contrary to every kind of triumphalism, to rediscover the theology of the cross, a kenotic Christology, and an ecclesiology that corresponds to it.

HK: What does in this context your claim mean that we should primarily and decisively understand Christianity as a lifestyle?

Halík: Faith is primarily not the work of an institution or a doctrine. It's about life stories which can be very different, and in which faith is embodied. In this way you may incidentally give Protestants an understanding of the veneration of saints in the Catholic Church. In their veneration it is of course not only about the canonized saints but all authentic witnesses of the Christian faith. God has probably quite a few of those saints so deeply taken into his heart that he does not reveal their names to the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints. There are many of these anonymous saints. Each of their life story is a creative, to date unprecedented interpretation of the faith in view of the signs of the times.

HK: At present, the Catholic Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. The call to pay attention to the signs of the times is closely linked with it. Has Vaticanum II dealt at all with those issues that are substantial for today's faith?

Halík: The first sentence of Gaudium et Spes is particularly important for me. It is the core of this Council: the solidarity with the people. This sentence is like a marriage vow, by which the Church has bound herself to the people of today and has promised love, respect and loyalty to them. However, we must honestly ask whether the Church remained faithful to this promise. Are we able today to celebrate with a clear conscience the golden wedding anniversary? In addition, there are of course a number of challenges that are still open.

HK: May you mention some of them?

Halík: After fifty years, there are new signs of the times. At that time, the secular humanism was the main interlocutor of the church, but today the church has to prove her worth also in the colorful market of religious offerings. The opening to modernity, in order to get from a Catholic counter-culture to a true catholicity, is not yet complete. It is good that Benedict XVI now wants also to cultivate more intensively the dialogue with the seekers. With the so-called Courtyard of the Gentiles project he has created a specific forum for this. Does not this correspond integrally to the architectural plan of St. Peter's Square? Its colonnades belong admittedly to the basilica, but they are not yet church interior. Even those who do not go into the basilica move within these already outstretched arms like in a protected space that has a share in the Sacred.

HK: Should not this also have consequences for the internal structure of the church?

Halík: A religious community that only reckons with the hundred-percenters is a sect. The church must increasingly be open to the seekers and take their questions seriously. We must be looking for truth with the seekers, otherwise faith becomes an ideology. But necessary is a path that leads into the depth.


    {*} Tomáš Halík (born in 1948) is Professor of Sociology at the Faculty of Arts at the Charles University in Prague, President of the University Church and president of the Czech Christian Academy. During communism, he worked as a psychotherapist, in 1978 he was secretly ordained a priest, and was an advisor to Cardinal František Tomášek and Václav Havel. Among his recent publications in German translation are: Geduld mit Gott. Leidenschaft und Geduld in Zeiten des Glaubens und des Unglaubens (Freiburg 2010), Nachtgedanken eines Beichtvaters. Glaube in Zeiten der Ungewissheit (Freiburg 2012), Berühre die Wunden. Über Leiden, Vertrauen und die Kunst der Verwandlung (Freiburg 2013, forthcoming).


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'