Mar 14, 2014

Czech Catholic priest Tomas Halik wins $1.83 million Templeton Prize

Well, there is much rejoicing in the Czech Catholic Church today (and yesterday when the news first broke).

Father Tomas Halik, ordained a Catholic priest secretly by the underground Church during the Communist years, has been awarded the prestigious (and quite lucrative) Templeton Prize "for his work affirming the spiritual dimension of life." He joins company with the likes of the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Not bad company indeed. 

I find it interesting that Reuter's report on this bestowal includes a photo of Father Halik in clerical collar, but we in the Czech lands rarely see him so clothed, since he prefers secular garb. In fact he looks far more like an existential philosopher than a cleric and his writings reflect a distinctly non clerical embrace of currents of religious - and atheistic - though far removed from the churchly mentality. For Father Halik, atheism in its current twenty-first century form is to be embraced as the locus of the 'hidden God,' who calls us to discover his Face in the dark places of doubt and unknowing. The unknowable God is not to be found among the smug certitudes of ideologues, whether of the religious right or the atheistic left. Rather the Hidden God is discovered within the anguish of sincere doubters and searchers, who struggle to find the light and for whom the organized institutions of religion obfuscate more than illuminate this search. The secular 'atheist' criticism of organized religion should be seen as a valuable resource in the dialogue over faith, not as an adversary.

Here is a nice short theological summary of his work at FAITH AND THEOLOGY. 

I think Tomáš Halík has produced one of the best and most beautiful responses to the new atheism, in his recent book Patience with God(Doubleday 2009). His argument is that the real difference between faith and atheism is patience. Atheists are not wrong, only impatient. They want to resolve doubt instead of enduring it. Their insistence that the natural world doesn't point to God (or to any necessary meaning) is correct. Their experience of God's absence is a truthful experience, shared also by believers. Faith is not a denial of all this: it is a patient endurance of the ambiguity of the world and the experience of God's absence. Faith is patience with God. Or as Adel Bestavros puts it (in the book's epigraph): patience with others is love, patience with self is hope, patience with God is faith. 

There are currently two of Father Halik's books available in English translation at the moment, Patience with God being his first and Night of the Confessor its successor. Both are profound and inspiring reads, and their intended readership are those in the shadows on the edge of faith, living more in doubt than in certitude and suffering heartache and confusion over the darkness of institutional religion - which Father Halik describes as one of the paradoxical masks that conceal the 'Hidden God,' the God who hides his face from us in those places where we would most hope to find him.

A few of his most salient remarks, which speak for themselves:

Faith - unlike 'natural religiosity' and 'happy-go-lucky' religiosity - is resurrected faith, faith that has to die on the cross, be buried, and rise again - in a new form. This faith is a process - and it is possible for people to find themselves at different phases of this process at different moments of their lives. 

What atheism, religious fundamentalism, and the enthusiasm of a too-facile faith have in common is how quickly they can ride roughshod over the mystery we call God - and that is why I find all three approaches equally unacceptable. 

But there are also people - and the author of this book is one of them - for whom the experience of God's silence and God's hiddenness in this world is the starting point and one of the basic factors of faith itself. (And God seems to be most hidden these days by the crimes and sins of the institutional church, which has become - on the surface at least - far more of an obstacle to be overcome than a conduit of grace or a  facilitator of a living faith.)

We should not ask for the body of Christianity to be freed from the thorn of atheism. That thorn should instead constantly awaken our faith from the complacency of false certainties.

At the very moment of "rift," at that moment of shaken and collapsing certainties, at the very moment of more and more questions and doubts, he showed me his face more clearly than ever before.

If we can understand those who are confronted with a silent, hidden, or distant God - including those who have been led to reject religion because of that experience - it can help us achieve a more mature form of faith than the naive and vulgar theism that is rightly criticized by atheists.

To show atheism not as a lie, but as an incomplete truth? To show living faith not as a set of dusty precepts, but as a path of maturation that even includes valleys of "the silence of God" - but that, unlike the purveyors of "certainties," does not circumvent them or abandon any further research but patiently moves on. 

Faith and atheism are two views of that reality - the hiddenness of God, His transcendence, and His impenetrable mystery; they are two possible interpretations of the same reality, seen from two opposite sides.

When I reflect on the Czech culture of the past two centuries, I find that what is most lively and interesting exists beyond the traditional, official, and institutional ambit of the church. It is possible - particularly among the poets - to find individuals with a considerable spiritual sensibility, but even that tends to have only a tenuous connection with a classical religious tradition. 

The reasons for that detachment (of his Czech culture from traditional religiosity) are clearly deeply rooted in the religious history of our country....The old confession (traditional Catholicism before the advent of the reformist 'protestant, Christianity of Jan Hus) was replanted by means of enthusiastic missionaries, the educational activity of the Jesuits, and the allure of Baroque culture, but also by violence, oppression, and the merciless banishment of those who refused to subscribe to the faith of the victors. (Not to mention the burning at the stake of prominent reformists, the most saintly of whom was the charismatic Jan Has, a man living the Spirit within his being in a manor that rivals Catholicism's greatest heroic saints. To believe in peace and joy - even to the point of being destroyed by the leaders of one's own faith. Much like Joan of Arc. Yet he has yet to receive his due recognition, though John Paul II took a small step in his apology.)

Human pain, even when it is clothed in the armor of militant atheism, is something that Christians must take seriously and treat with respect, because it is "hallowed ground."

And my favorite quote of all:

Many people these days, as we mentioned earlier, try to foist responsibility for the weakness of their own faith onto the church (i.e., the hierarchy, the institution) and become its bitterest critics or frantic reformers of its institutional structures, or alternatively, withdraw from it in frustration. I have already devoted an entire chapter to the church - I really do not underrate it. But I get the impression that its radical critics and its equally agitated apologists resemble each other insofar as they somewhat overrate its importance, particularly of its visible, institutional aspect. If someone "wearies of the church" - which I fully understand sometimes - must this weariness develop into weariness with their faith?

In contraposition to this (the legalized framework of dogmatic systems) are the theologians, mystics, and saints, who demonstrate that following Christ and fulfilling God's will as was illustrated in Christ is not a matter of observing a system of commandments and proscriptions but of the foolishness of love. And they, of course, "collide," as Jesus did, with the defenders of the Law and as Paul did with the founding generation of Christian conservatives and Pharisees. 

In short, God's logic is different from human logic, and people have to experience it as paradox - and paradoxes abound in Jesus' parables and Paul's theology of the cross, faith, and grace. The first will be last and last first; whoever loses his life will find it, to anyone who has more will be given, and from anyone who has not even what he has will be taken away....But there were also many who found  the wide-open door of love and the spirit that wafted through it too risky, and they slowly started to close it by means of legal thinking.