He was secretly ordained a priest in East Germany in 1978. And even after the fall of communism Czech philosopher Tomas Halik found himself in a nation whose religious roots had been so shaken voices of faith still struggle to be heard in the public square.
Yet there was no sense of triumphalism when Halik was honored on the world stage in March. Instead, he turned to St. Augustine's meditation on the three paths that lead most surely to God to describe his reaction to winning the 2014 Templeton Prize.
"The first is humility, the second is humility and the third is humility," the 65-year-old monsignor said at a London press conference as he joined such luminaries as Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama as a recipient of the annual prize valued at $1.8 million. The prize honors individuals who have made major contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension.
Lifting up this virtue may seem anachronistic in an age that extols self-adulation. But it is this consistent message -- humility in the face of the great mysteries of faith -- that makes Halik's voice so compelling to a modern world often filled with deep mutual distrust among secular and religious individuals.
"We have to live together, and we have to learn from each other," Halik said in an interview. "We must learn to share public space."
The journey toward truth
The idea that there are different forms of belief and unbelief, and that many people are on a common journey to greater understanding, shines through Halik's writing and his work in promoting dialogue among religious and secular individuals.
"My heart is on the side of those who are seekers," Halik said in London. "Among believers there are many people whose faith is not a buttressed fortress but a path. They respond to the call to go deeper and deeper. And likewise, among those who do not consider themselves believers there are many who are not dwellers in the house of dogmatic atheism and who are not blind to life's spiritual dimension. They too are seekers."
What is needed now is more dialogue and less contentiousness.
"No one of us has a like position. We all look at the world from a perspective that is limited," Halik said in an interview. "We must respect the otherness of the other."
And that starts with looking past the extremist voices, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, that so often promote prejudice and division as they "demonize each other and whip up a sense of absolute threat within the ranks of their sympathizers," Halik has noted.
The faith of believers is not represented by one tiny church that pickets funerals of soldiers or by some prominent religious leaders who claim to have a full understanding of the mysteries of the divine, according to Halik.
"In such a God I don't believe either."
Pope Francis one sign of hope
The path of hostility does not appear to be a winning formula for anyone.
In a global study of religiously motivated violence, Pennsylvania State University researchers Roger Finke and Jaime Harris found that social restrictions on religion, even more than government restrictions, held the most direct and powerful relationship with conflict and violence.
Halik, for one, is not giving up.
"The very survival of Western society depends on the possibility of coexistence and mutual compatibility between Christianity and secularism," Halik wrote in his book, "Night of the Confessor: Christian Faith in an Age of Uncertainty."
Not that the path to understanding is an easy one.
One of his own moments of truth came in 1968 after Warsaw Pact troops crushed the freedoms that emerged from the Prague Spring. He spent a night praying and reflecting, then decided to return to Czechoslovakia from his studies abroad.
He earned the label of "an enemy of the regime" following a university speech in 1972 defending spiritual freedom and the principle that truth is greater than power. In 1978, Halik was secretly ordained a priest in Erfurt in what was then East Germany by Bishop Hugo Aufderbeck in his private chapel. Not even his mother, with whom he lived, was allowed to know.
He faced years of harassment and the threat of imprisonment working with both the underground church and a secret society of students and scholars to keep alive the ideals of religious and academic freedom until the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989 led to the end of communist rule.
In 1990, Pope John Paul II appointed him as an advisor to the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers, and up until the present day he has been a leading participant in international efforts to promote dialogue and understanding among religions and cultures.
"Tomas Halik has continually opened vistas that advance humankind," said Dr. John M. Templeton, Jr., president and chairman of the John Templeton Foundation, "Rising to these challenges, he inspires us all to break free of repression, whether it comes from a totalitarian government or our own blinkered world view."
For his part, Halik finds that creating a civil society where individuals of varying beliefs respect one another and work together to fulfill basic moral responsibilities will take more love than dogma.
"Sometimes, God is not so interested that we believe in him as that we love him," Halik says. "We experience him in love, in love of other people. ... Where there is love, there is God."
A sign of hope in that regard was the election of Pope Francis. The new Catholic pontiff, with his emphasis on the need to tone down the emphasis on rules and to walk beside people on their spiritual journeys, "is returning to the roots of Christianity about the love of people....
"He is the right man for our ethos," Halik said.
What it will also take, however, is some humility on all sides, from secular folk to believers in his tradition, according to Halik.
"Truth," the theologian maintains in his writings, "is a book that none of us has read to the end."
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