Lifting the Iron Curtain of the Spirit
And yet, even though we are aware of these dangers, we do almost nothing to avert them. It's fascinating to me how preoccupied people are today with catastrophic prognoses, how books containing evidence of impending disasters become best-sellers, but how very little account we take of these threats in our everyday activities. Doesn't every schoolchild know that the resources of this planet are limited and that if they are expended faster than they are recovered, we are doomed? And still we continue in our wasteful ways and don't even seem perturbed. Quite the contrary: Rising production is considered to be the main sign of national success, not only in poor states where such a position could be justified, but also in wealthy ones, which are cutting the branch on which they sit with their ideology of indefinitely prolonged and senseless growth.
The most important thing we can do today is to study the reasons why humankind does little to address these threats and why it allows itself to be carried onward by some kind of perpetual motion, unaffected by self-awareness or a sense of future options. It would be unfair to ignore the existence of numerous projects for averting these dangers, or to deny that a lot already has been done. However, all attempts of this kind have one thing in common: They do not touch the seed from which the threats I'm speaking of sprout, but merely try to diminish their impact. (A typical example is the list of legal acts, ordinances, and international treaties stipulating how much toxic matter this or that plant may discharge into the environment.) I'm not criticizing these safeguards; I'm only saying that they are technical tricks that have no real effect on the substance of the matter.
What, then, is the substance of the matter? What could change the direction of today's civilization?
It is my deep conviction that the only option is a change in the sphere of the spirit, in the sphere of human conscience. It's not enough to invent new machines, new regulations, new institutions. We must develop a new understanding of the true purpose of our existence on this earth. Only by making such a fundamental shift will we be able to create new models of behavior and a new set of values for the planet. In short, it appears to me that it would be better to start from the head rather than the tail.
Whenever I've gotten involved in a major global problemóóthe logging of rainforests, ethnic or religious intolerance, the brutal destruction of indigenous culturesóóI've always discovered somewhere in the long chain of events that gave rise to it a basic lack of responsibility for the planet.
There are countless types of responsibilityóómore or less pressing depending on the individual. We feel responsible for our personal welfare, our families, our companies, our communities, our nations. And somewhere in the background there is, in every one of us, a small feeling of responsibility for the planet and its future. It seems to me that this last and deepest responsibility has become a very low priorityóódangerously low, considering that the world today is more interlinked than ever before and that we areóófor all intents and purposesóóliving one global destiny.At the same time, our world is dominated by several great religious systems, whose differences seem to be coming to the fore with increasing sharpness and setting the stage for innumerable political and armed conflicts. In my opinion, this factóówhich is attracting, understandably, a great deal of media attentionóópartly conceals a more important fact: that the civilization within which this religious tension is taking place is, in essence, a deeply atheistic one. Indeed, it is the first atheistic civilization in the history of humankind.
Perhaps the real issue is a crisis of respect for the moral order extended to us from above, or simply a crisis of respect for any kind of authority higher than our own earthly being, with its material and thoroughly ephemeral interests. Perhaps our lack of responsibility for the planet is only the logical consequence of the modern conception of the universe as a complex of phenomena controlled by certain scientifically identifiable laws, formulated for God-knows-what purpose. This is a conception that does not inquire into the meaning of existence and renounces any kind of metaphysics, including its own metaphysical roots.
In the process, we've lost our certainty that the universe, nature, existence, our own livesóóare works of creation that have a definite meaning and purpose. This loss is accompanied by loss of the feeling that whatever we do must be seen in the light of a higher order of which we are part and whose authority we must respect.
In recent years the great religions have been playing an increasingly important role in global politics. Since the fall of Communism, the world has become multipolar instead of bipolar, and many countries outside the hitherto dominant Euro-American cultural sphere have grown in self-confidence and influence. But the more closely tied we are by the bonds of a single global civilization, the more the various religious groups emphasize all the ways in which they differ from each other. This is an epoch of accentuated spiritual, religious, and cultural 'otherness.'
How can we restore in the human mind a shared attitude to what is above if people everywhere feel the need to stress their otherness? Is there any sense in trying to turn the human mind to the heavens when such a turn would only aggravate the conflict among our various deities?
I'm not, of course, an expert on religion, but it seems to me that the major faiths have much more in common than they are willing to admit. They share a basic point of departureóóthat this world and our existence are not freaks of chance but rather part of a mysterious, yet integral, act whose sources, direction, and purpose are difficult for us to perceive in their entirety. And they share a large complex of moral imperatives that mysterious act implies. In my view, whatever differences there might be are not as important as these fundamental similarities.
Perhaps the way out of our current bleak situation could be found by searching for what unites the various religionsóóa purposeful search for common principles. Then, applying means adequate to the needs of our time, we could cultivate human coexistence while, at the same time, cultivating the planet on which it is our destiny to live, suffusing it with the spirit of this religious and ethical common groundóówhat I would call the common spiritual and moral minimum.
Could this be a way to stop the blind perpetual motion dragging us toward hell? Can the persuasive words of the wise be enough to achieve what must be done, or will it take an unprecedented disaster to provoke this kind of existential revolutionóóa universal recovery of the human spirit and renewed responsibility for the world?
Vaclav Havel is president of the Czech Republic. Reprinted from Civilization (April/May 1998). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues) from Box 420235, Palm Coast, FL 32142-0235.