Peter C. Phan

Night of the Confessor cannot be fully appreciated without knowing something of Tomas Halik’s personal background. Though not yet a household theological name in the United States, in his native country, the Czech Republic and in Europe, however, Halik is a much-celebrated writer and a public intellectual. Born in Prague in 1948, Halik was first trained in sociology, philosophy and clinical psychology at Charles University, in Prague, and later in theology.

During the Communist period, he was banned from university teaching and was persecuted by the police as “an enemy of the regime.” In 1978 he was secretly ordained a priest in Germany and then returned to his own country. Currently he holds a professorship in sociology at Charles University and continues to be active in pastoral ministry. Halik was also involved in Czech politics, serving as advisor to President Václav Havel, who made it publicly known that Halik was qualified to be his successor.

The book is born of Halik’s manifold competencies and experiences, but primarily of his weekly work hearing confessions. Hence Confessor in the title. Night serves as a metaphor for the darkness, or as the subtitle puts it, the “uncertainty” of our age. The “signs of the times” that prompt this bleak assessment, in Halik’s view, are not those widely lamented by both conservatives and liberals. Contrary to the former’s romantic nostalgia for an imagined glorious past and the latter’s naïve optimism about an illusory future, Halik urges that our thinking be rooted in the “core of Christianity,” that is, the “enigmatic Easter story—that great paradox of victory through defeat.”

Christianity, for Halik, is founded on two paradoxical affirmations: Jesus’ assurance that “for human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26) and Paul’s confession that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). In the footsteps of “theologians of paradox,” Halik proposes a “theology and spirituality of paradox” based on the “Easter paradox.”

In this paradoxical vein Halik suggests that we pray not for the “great faith”—more precisely, credulity—of fundamentalist and fanatic easy certainties but for the “little faith” the size of a mustard seed that is tempered in the fire of inner doubts and crises. In light of this “little faith,” the kingdom of God that is ushered in by Jesus should be understood as “the kingdom of the Impossible,” the kingdom of “unselfishness, nonviolence, and generous love.” In Halik’s “logic of paradox,” God is not so much present as absent: God’s existence cannot be rationally proved but only “intimated.” Believers will be “allowed to feel the absent God of those who do not pray, in order that the latter may catch an intimation of the God who is present.

Having come to faith slowly through a process of doubt, Halik confesses to a deep uneasiness with religious enthusiasm of left and right, which he characterizes as “religious clownery.” For him, matters of faith are not self-evident; an atheistic interpretation of the world is as logically possible as a theistic one. In place of superficial religious enthusiasm, Halik recommends a “discreet faith,” with “a touch of skepticism, irony, and commitment to critical reason as a permanent corrective.” This kind of faith is particularly necessary, Halik argues, in dialogue with scientists, in which Christians are severely tempted to prove the act of divine creation on biblical grounds. Citing Augustine’s “si comprehendis, non est Deus” (“If you comprehend god, that god is not God”), Halik reminds us that a scientifically proven God is nothing but an idol and unworthy of our belief.

While Halik’s sober reflections on the possibility of faith in the “age of uncertainty” are all thought-provoking for U.S. readers, the most interesting chapters are those containing his assessment of the Czech Catholic Church and his critique of contemporary media in the United States and post-9/11 addiction to violence. There are, of course, vast differences between the Czech Catholic Church and the Catholic Church in the United States that require extreme caution when comparing them. Halik’s warnings about the irreversible decline of the church as a public “religion” and the urgent need for a deep spirituality for church renewal are highly relevant.

Halik directs his most fiery attacks at the so-called reality shows, which in his eyes as a confessor represent a kind of totalitarianism and pervert the very meaning of the sacrament of reconciliation. No less acerbic is his condemnation of violence, especially when depicted for religious causes, as in Mel Gibson’s film about the Passion, which, ironically, conservative church leaders enthusiastically endorsed as an evangelistic opportunity for conversion but which is in fact “a regression to the orgiastic goings-on in the Roman arena or a reversion to a world of blood sacrifice,” glorifying violence as a means to redemption.

Other themes dealt with in Halik’s book include dialogue with non-Christian, especially Asian, religions. Halik’s openness toward the religious other is sincere and edifying. But I find his treatment of this theme disappointing. Halik recounts the story of a Czech young man who had rediscovered Christianity, grown disillusioned with it, joined Buddhism and then returned to Christianity. His use of the parable of the prodigal son to refer to those who have left Christianity for other faiths and now return is hardly illuminating of their spiritual condition.

Though he urges us to study the phenomenon of “multiple religious identity” “carefully, soberly, and without bias,” he has not delved deeply into it as a theological phenomenon but rather restricts himself to considering their “return,” “albeit now different, changed, transformed, and capable of seeing differently and more fully.” But what if “our homegrown Buddhists” never come back to Christianity; what if instead, like Paul Knitter, they go forward and become bona fide Buddhists, while never ceasing to be Christians? Is this multiple religious belonging not an ideal and even a necessity for the well-being of religions and the world today?

Night of the Confessor should not be read at one sitting from beginning to end. In fact, the chapters can be perused in any order, several times, slowly, meditatively. And the book, of course, should not be restricted to “confessors.” No doubt Halik’s “second-wind Christianity” will appear too postmodern and unorthodox to conservatives. Liberals will find his vision of the church too ethereal to forge effective church reforms. Whatever the case, his book will provoke an urgent conversation about what it means to be a Christian today, in our “age of uncertainty.”

Rev. Peter C. Phan holds the Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.