I recently read “The Power of the Powerless” by Vaclav Havel after I read about it in The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. It was my second time through The Benedict Option, but for whatever reason I decided to find a copy of this essay this time. I am so glad I did.
It struck me that even though this essay was written for those who suffered under the oppressive regime of communism in Czechoslovakia, it has remarkable implications for Christians in our world today. I am not at all comparing our situation to the atrocities that people like Havel had to endure. That would be an inappropriate comparison to say the least. However, I do think that the strategies that Havel suggests for political dissidents in Czechoslovakia can be applied to Christians in our culture who want to stand against the way our culture is going. The application of these strategies and his culture brought down communism. I think that applying these strategies in our culture can bring down secularism.
First, we have to start with Havel’s shopkeeper. He is just an average guy, and he puts a sign in his window that says, “Workers of the World, Unite!” Havel suggests that our shopkeeper very well might not really believe that the workers of the world need to unite or even want to put that sign in his window, but “he does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life ‘in harmony with society,’ as they say.”
How easy is that for us as Christians? How many times do we just go along with what the crowd says because it keeps everyone happy? We don’t want to make waves or ruffle anyone’s feathers, so we compromise. After all, we know that we don’t believe these things, but we are happy enough to just blend in and not get ourselves in trouble.
This thing is that just going with the flow and tacit acceptance of ideology is exactly what the post-totalitarian state wanted the people Czechoslovakia to do. Havel explains, “The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.”
That’s the trick. Slowly, this ideology infects people’s minds. They see propaganda everywhere that tells them that the workers of the world must unite. They may not care very much about it, but it shows up everywhere. This ideology is reiterated on the storefront of every indifferent shopkeeper, and soon the illusion of harmony is perfected. This system is supposed to lead to a “blind automatism” that simply keeps people where they belong. Everything is the way it is, and they are soon dominated by the ruling powers and accept the fact that the way it is is the way it should be. In fact, Havel points out that people do not even have to believe in the system at all, “but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them.”
This silence and the lack of action to call out the shortcomings of this system is what ensures the continuance of the system. “This metaphysical order guarantees the inner coherence of the totalitarian power structure. It is the glue holding it together, its binding principle, the instrument of its discipline. Without this glue the structure as a totalitarian structure would vanish.” The metaphysical order does not need to be true; it only needs to provide all the answers and prevent people from asking questions. It needs to provide satisfactory answers for the blind automation that it creates, and if anyone strays outside of his or her boundaries, they need to be put back in their place. That way, those in power and the system itself, which Havel suggests even constrains the people in power once the system is active, create a cohesive worldview. They can deal with anything that people throw out them, as long as what people throw at them comes from the approved list of questions that their worldview is able to satisfactorily answer.
The vital thing to keep in mind about this entire system though is that it is entirely false. It is a bunch of people who have been lulled into complacency, and they want to go along just to get along. It is an effective strategy, but this entire reliance on ideology “works only as long as people are willing to live within the lie.”
Here is where the hope lies because some people will get sick of living within the lie. Our shopkeeper might stir up enough courage to not put up the sign that he is supposed to put in his shop window. He isn’t even taking an active step to do anything about the political system in place, but even his refusal to do what the government wants is nevertheless an action. “In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.”
I cannot emphasize this point enough, and if you remember nothing else from this post, think about this. When we take a stand for that which is right and that which is true, we are in actively revolt against the post-totalitarian state. They want to create a system where we go along blindly and only ask the appropriate questions. By saying that we are going to do something different, ask different questions, or not blindly accept what we are told to accept, we are in revolt even if we don’t necessarily feel like we did very much. We haven’t done anything other than say, “No!” to the lie around us, but that is what it takes to begin to break the enchantment of the system. Once people realize that it is possible to do something other than go with the flow, the power of the system has been demolished. Havel goes on to explain what this looks like and how cultural institutions and substructures are built to support this community built around the rejection of the status quo, but I am not going to take us to that point today. Rather, we are going to camp on this point.
By simply being willing to dispute the lie, our shopkeeper “has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system.” And beyond that, he has brought himself back to humanity and the dignity that his humanity entails. “Living within the truth, as humanity’s revolt against an enforced position, is, on the contrary, an attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility.”
I promised at the outset that we were going to talk about how Christians can apply this methodology in our world of secularism. How we can be the people who expose secularism as a world of appearances?
First, secularism severs dignity from humanity. I know that many are going to dispute this point vehemently, but it matters. Christians believe that humans have inherent dignity because we are created in the image of God. Therefore, like Havel assumes, Christians believe it is good for us to live within the truth and have that sense of dignity and responsibility for our own lives. We are created with free will for a reason, and we are not meant to be blind automatons.
From a secular perspective, there is nothing inherently valuable about humanity. Perhaps we are valuable because we are alive, but there is not much difference between us and other life forms. We may be more advanced, more complex, and more intelligent, but we are looking at a difference of degree rather than a difference of kind. The Christian perspective supposes that humans are a different and special kind of life. That makes this valuable and provides us with dignity. The secular worldview does not provide that dignity beyond the dignity that applies to any kind of life form by virtue of being alive.
This desire for dignity that Havel recognizes is something that we can affirm from a Christian worldview, and I think that we need to keep that in mind as we proceed. We offer something to culture that secularism cannot.
Second, secularism proposes to deposit a coherent worldview that can answer all of our questions just like communism tried to do in Czechoslovakia. The difference is that secularism often times hedges its bets in the possibility of scientific advancement. It is a worldview based on progressive discovery which is a good thing. After all, we want to understand this world as accurately as we can, and our opinions should be formed by the best evidence we have in front of us. Where secularism goes off the rails is when they argue that this type of hope in the progress of science can answer every question.
This type of secularism has been termed by some as scientism, and it is almost a religion in and of itself (although sociologists would disagree with this claim because of the absence of any type of supernatural belief). It certainly has the capability to answer questions about our physical world, but when the scientific method strays into the philosophical realm, it really does not have very much useful to say. Therefore, the quest for a purely secular worldview that can answer every question is really a tall order, and I would argue it is not possible. Some would dispute this, but that puts the burden of proof on them, and they need to provide satisfactory answers for the philosophical questions that surround us here on earth.
Because of that crack in the foundation, just like communism in Czechoslovakia, secularism does not live up to its promise. It cannot present a comprehensive worldview.
Finally, Havel focused a powerful light on the power of groupthink. So many people believe that secularism is valid because they have been told that so many people believe secularism is valid. Just like the sign in every shop window might make it feel like everyone supports communism, when we hear all of these smart people write books about how secularism is true, we just follow along. When they tell us that all the smart people are rejecting God, we just assume they are right. We go with the flow. As Christians, we can’t have that. We need to stand up to that challenge. First, we need to do what I suggested first and argue for human dignity. We have a unique case as Christians to argue, and we can resonate with that truth. We can break people out of living in the lie and bring them into living within the truth of human dignity. Second, we can show that the secular worldview simply is not coherent. With the crack in the foundation, it will be obvious that secularism cannot live up to its promise. When it cannot live up to its promise, then the myth has been broken. That is what we want to do as Christians. We need to bring people out of the lie and into the truth.