No body can be all-inclusive, and that includes the body of Christ. This was made apparent to me during a recent talk given by Czech philosopher-priest Tomáš Halík at Boston University. The Templeton Prize winner is widely admired for his tireless efforts to bring peace through interfaith dialogue, beginning with his courageous role in the Soviet-era “underground church.” In response to the resurgence of tribal values seen across the globe, his lecture was entitled Making the World Think Again: Reason, Hope, and Faith in an Age of Populism.
Likening our times to the 1930s, Halík confronted the grave dilemmas facing the United States and Europe: the breakdown of social trust, the self-isolating groups created by social media, the disorienting forces of “fake news,” the popular rage toward “migrants” and “elites,” and the rise of demagogues who claim to speak for the people.
Halík described the Church’s replacement by entertainment and the subsequent “sacralization of politics.” He depicted the current move toward populism as malevolent and dangerous. Especially persuasive was his assessment that our conflicts stems from the group mentality. As we all know from experience, groups tend toward an arrogant sense of superiority over others.
Throughout his lecture, Halík employed clever scientific analogies. Elements of the social collective were compared to the organs of a single entity. In a lovely, yet subtly violent metaphor, the priest described the role of our moral and cultural institutions as an immune system that protects the social body from pathological cells. This system, he lamented, is failing. The ambiguity of this image prompted me to challenge him with a distressing question during the follow-up.
As I was choosing my words, a stout man just in front of me stood up and covered much of the ground I’d been preparing to stomp across. He referred back to a story Halík had told during the lecture, about his surreal experience at Oxford University on the day of the Brexit vote. The Oxford professors were sure the motion would fail, but two working class Brits whom Halík had spoken to—a taxi driver and a maid—knew otherwise, and expressed their full support for national independence.
After this preface, the stout man graciously stated his disagreement with Halík’s immune system metaphor. The populist sentiments held by maids and taxi drivers, he argued, should not be thought of “as something that needs to be attacked like some sort of disease.”
The lecture’s host, Igor Lukes, offering his own interpretation:
I actually understood [Halík’s] parable of pathological cells as not referring to other people, but rather referring to the capacity for evil in us. So it wasn’t really a reference to the cab driver [who] chooses a different candidate from those of us who actually are not on the losing side of history.
Halík agreed with Lukes, and expounded in an ever-thickening East Euro accent:
I think it’s a very important notion that everyone has his dark side, his shadow, and sometimes we are projecting our shadows on the others…We should always ask if that person is not a mirror for us, and he’s showing us our own dark side, our own shadows…It is something very important to the spiritual life to struggle with our own demons and not to project things to the others and then to, to kill it.
A moderator finally handed me the microphone. I brought the conversation back to “the mirror” of populism, anti-immigrant sentiments, and the fury voiced by conservatives in America, Britain, and Germany toward their rulers. Then I said to the priest:
I’m curious—when they hold that mirror to you, what do you see? What should the intellectual elites of the world, really, be seeing in this mirror? Or, at least, what do you see when looking into that mirror?
The crowd tensed up.
“Good question,” Halík said, then looked at the ground and laughed nervously. “And difficult question.” He pondered for a moment, then looked up at me. “I’m afraid I’m not able to, to, to answer it so shortly.”
A familiar chill ran through my veins, flushing out the adrenaline and slowing my pulse with cold disappointment. Shouldn’t every one in that room “not on the losing side of history” have that answer ready to go by now?
Ah well. At least there’d be free wine at the reception.
Personally, I find Halík’s “immune system” metaphor to be apt on multiple levels. It’s a fitting description of the transnational Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis. From Vatican City—whose borders are marked by the remains of walls built in the 9th century to defend against the Saracens—the Pope has consistently argued against the calls for stronger borders heard across the globe. Within the Church’s moral boundaries, a dominant national identity is the wrong identity. But the metaphor goes even deeper.
Igor Lukes gave us the most penetrating interpretation. The “immune system” attacks what is within. An intense social conscience should eat away at the divisions that calcify the human heart. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs us to take the plank out of our own eye before picking at specks in another’s. I wonder, how would the world appear to our intellectual and cultural elites if the planks were removed? What would they see if they looked into that dismal mirror held up by the rabble?
Given his prominent role in the religion and science dialogue, Halík naturally exhibits a deep knowledge of biology. Surely he knows the immune system evolved to protect genetically distinct organisms from microbial invaders and cancerous aberrations. Once given a foothold, malevolent cells will reproduce continually, sometimes hijacking their host’s own cellular machinery in the process, until a critical point is reached in which the original organism is overcome and ceases to be itself.
A properly functioning immune system correctly identifies dangerous elements and destroys them. The body must distinguish between self and other.
Throughout his lecture, Halík made reference to the tragic loss of identity which drives ordinary people to embrace demagogues and nationalist movements. Has he considered the possibility that Western cultural identities—the English, the German, the French, the Swedish, and the ever-evolving American body—might possess their own individual “immune systems”? Might the rise of populism be a healthy reaction to legitimate existential threats?
This interpretation becomes even more complicated the further we take it. An overactive immune system will turn against its own cells and destroy the very organism it was intended to defend.
There is also the principle of symbiosis. We now know that trillions of cells in the human body—perhaps over half of our mass—are comprised of commensal microbiota who don’t share our DNA, and yet spend their lives serving and protecting us. Our diligent mitochondria, the so-called “powerhouses” driving metabolic reactions in every cell, have completely independent genetic identities. All of these supposedly foreign agents comprise a multicultural environment that’s essential for our survival as complex organisms. An absolute monoculture would make human life impossible.
Nevertheless, modern medicine has taught us that our corporeal elements aren’t simply interchangeable. When a mismatched blood type is transfused, or an incompatible organ is transplanted, the body’s defenses kick into action to destroy the discordant entity, sometimes at the expense of the host itself. A healthy body must make wise decisions about who does and does not enter.
In 2014 Tomáš Halík won the Templeton Prize for his extraordinary contributions to the conversation between science and religion. In his statement to the Templeton Foundation, he challenged the status quo:
Answers without questions are like trees without roots. But how often are “Christian truths” presented to us like felled, lifeless trees in which birds can no longer find a nest? Only the confrontation of questions and answers can return a real meaning and dynamic to our statements. Truth happens in the course of dialogue.
Amen, brother. I’m waiting patiently for my answer. But I can’t speak for the rest of the world.