The Divine Revolution

Humankind today is well aware of the spectrum of threats looming
over its head. We know that the number of people living on our
planet is growing at a soaring rate and that within a relatively
short time we can expect it to total in the tens of billions. We
know that the already-deep abyss separating the planet’s poor and
rich could deepen further, and more and more dangerously, because
of this rapid population growth. We also know that we’ve been
destroying the environment on which our existence depends and that
we are headed for danger by producing weapons of mass destruction
and allowing them to proliferate.

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

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).
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