Documentation: An Interview with Rev. Jozef Tischner

Known as the “Philosopher of Solidarity,” Rev. Jozef Tischner is a leading Polish philosopher and theologian. Rev. Tischner is currently director of the Institute of Philosophy at the Papal Theology Faculty in Krakow (in which position he is a successor to John Paul II, and he remains a close adviser to the Holy Father). He was interviewed by Thadeusz Witkowski for Studium Papers (Box 4391, Ann Arbor, MI 48106). What follows is a shortened version of that interview.

SP: We propose to discuss the conflict between Christianity and Communism. Before we get to the heart of the conflict, however, I would like to request a brief definition of both concepts. Is it possible to indicate the limits of both formations? Are they radically opposed, or is there common ground between the two?

Tischner: In order to have a good understanding of Communism, one must understand the word not just in its lexical sense as it appears in dictionaries of philosophical or foreign terms. It is important to understand this word in its social context; one should ask what is understood by this word in practical terms. Well, in practical terms, in terms of social consciousness, Communism entered Polish reality as the denial of private ownership. This is how it was experienced by people from the very beginning. It is possible that in dictionaries of foreign terms one might find a different definition, but if one takes a close look at the social reality, it turns out that it was not important that Communism meant totalitarianism or that it meant atheism, or materialism but that it was understood as a frontal attack on private ownership.

There is, however, one basic difference: Communism strives to distribute property which it does not possess. Christianity, on the other hand, stipulates that in order to give, one must first have. You have received freely, now give freely. But first you have received: that is, one cannot give what one does not have.

Now, as for the definition of Christianity: Well, Christianity is an extraordinary, multifaceted reality. One can extract various contents from it, depending on one’s needs. It seems that in the course of these past forty years, the most distinct reply to the challenge of Communism has been made by the Church’s emphasis on man’s dignity. The philosophy of human dignity has become central to Christian philosophy not just in books but also in everyday life. Here it expressed itself in the unusual role accorded the concept of the person. The concept of the person became the key concept in the lexical apparatus of Polish Christianity.

SP: Is this then how you would define the essence of the conflict between Communism and Christianity? Was this a conflict over the person?

Tischner: Yes. I would say that this was not a conflict over God as much as it was a conflict over man.

SP: Let us move on to what you call the theoretical level of the conflict, to the alternative styles of thinking. In this regard, is Communism a special case?

Tischner: Communism is, among other things, the raising of political thought to the central principle, and political thinking begins with the question, “Who is with us, and who is against us?” All else derives from this: the conviction that the world is divided into two sides, good and evil, the theory of the class struggle. But the most fundamental assumptions of political thinking are as follows: all that exists at the present moment is merely preparation for a better future, for a Communist future. In relation to this, all that is, here and now, is not yet real. This is only the road to that which will be. And truth is in the process of being born. In other words, that which does not exist is more real than that which does.

This kind of political thinking has its ramifications, such as rigged elections, for example. He who thinks traditionally says: you have rigged the elections. He who thinks in the Communist mode says: no, we have lent the elections a higher semblance of truth. Because the whole world is headed for Communism and we have shown, by rigging the elections, that this is how it should be, that this is what it is all about. Hence, you have in Communism something like the highest legitimization of lying. In Communism the truth is divided into truth for the simple folk—ordinary truth and political truth. Ordinary truth is for the people, while political truth is for the select few, the military commanders or political leaders.

SP: What was the attitude taken by Christian society toward this communist manipulation of the theory of truth? Was there a means of defending “common” truth?

Tischner: Right from the very beginning in Poland certain works appeared which defended the classic understanding of truth. These were written by Thomists. I think that the Lublin School played a very significant role in this period. Klusak also played an important role with his articles, even though they were written rather badly. But this defense was not too convincing to Marxists. It became convincing when legions of learned as well as simple people decided that they would have nothing to do with the ideas of Communism. The task assigned to political thought in Communism is to win supporters, but when political thinking repels rather than attracts people, then it becomes a problem for Communism. That is why the response on the part of scholars, radio listeners, television viewers is not to improve this or that detail but to refuse to cooperate. When more and more scholars, publicists, writers say, “We want nothing to do with this,” an alternate society and an alternate way of thinking spring up. In one sense, the Communists are right; a new reality is created, but it is a reality that is the opposite of the one they would like to see.

SP: The communists’ departure from the classic definition of truth has led to deep conflict not only between the communists and the Church, but also between the communists and the rest of society. This has become the basis for something of an alliance between the Church and intellectuals.

Tischner: Yes, this is the case in Poland. The Church became a magnet for people. I saw how the Church drew people in the Krakow area; and especially those who were sensitive to reality as it was. Typical of this phenomenon is that students of departments such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, engineering—not humanists but representatives of the hard sciences—were the first to reflect Karol (now Pope John Paul II) Wojtyla’s influence. When, years later, these young people grew up, it turned out that entire departments of natural sciences at the Jagiellonian University were in the hands of believers. Students of the humanities were second in line.

SP: Could you say a bit more about the reasons for the alliance between the Church and the Polish intelligentsia and for the integration of the remainder of society within the Church? Were there other communist miscalculations that prompted this integration?

Tischner: One could name a few issues, connected to a single idea, the idea of patriotism, the idea of the nation.

Communism proposed the interpretation of history as a class struggle which begins only with the Great October Revolution. Out of a dim past, Communism drew obscure figures which practically did not exist in normal historiography; they simply had not been considered very significant. Communism discarded, on the other hand, important Polish historical figures from the times of Mieszko, Chrobry, the Jagiellonians, and Sobieski. More than anything else, Communism somehow questioned the value of Poland’s baptism. And this became another bone of contention between Communism and intellectuals. Suddenly it turned out that the Church was scrupulously observing various anniversaries in Polish history. I am not just speaking about the anniversary of Poland’s baptism, but even occasions such as the birthdate of Father Piotr Skarga, the anniversary of the great battle at Warsaw’s gates [the defeat of the Bolsheviks in 1920], or that of Poland’s repulsion of the Swedes. The Church made it possible to recover Polish history.

I believe that these two matters—that of patriotism and the defense of truth—were extremely important issues to which the election of a Polish Pope added enormous weight. Why? Because suddenly it popularized the Pope’s texts, his way of speaking, his way of thinking. This way of thinking is very engaging and very, I would say, infectious. Suddenly, the Pope’s sermons were widely known. The Pope introduced discourse—a new way of talking about religion (as if religion had suddenly revealed a new face)—which was the product of profound reflection. I would say that the Pope taught Poles what religious thinking means.

SP: And what does it mean?

Tischner: This kind of thinking is serious and calm. It is thinking which attacks and belittles no one; thinking which strives to see some good in man’s every defeat. This is hermeneutics which assumes that all are good but some are weak. And one must help the weak get stronger and help the bewildered find their way. This is an entirely different style of speaking. There is none of that talking against, which is so pronounced in Marxism.

SP: You were personally committed to Solidarity as a trade union and also as an idea of universal community. I understand that the latter could be seen in terms of a confrontation between Christianity and Communism.

Tischner: At the beginning of our conversation, I mentioned the illusion to which certain Catholics had succumbed in the matter of questioning private ownership. Well, similar illusions existed in regard to the concept of community. People said that the Church offers man a community, a religious bond. People said, too, that communists are also for a community and therefore there is new common ground between Communism and the Church. As it turns out, the ideas of community were radically different. A communist community is in stark contrast to the community proposed by the Church.

SP: How would you describe the difference?

Tischner: The key to a communist community is always power. Communists are fascinated with power.

In order for their community to have power, it must have one leader, one idea and many adherents to that one idea. In sum, a communist community always strives to bypass the individual in favor of the masses. The fact that the people in China or in the Soviet Union dressed in identical clothes was not a coincidence. It resulted from the idea of community which Communism carried with it. A Christian community has a different character. This is a community which is formed among people because of the Word. First, the Word of God and then because of the human word. This is a community of people who talk to and trust each other and who, in the end, love one another.

SP: The conflict between the two ideas, therefore, was unavoidable?

Tischner: This was already evident during the observance of the Polish millennium. From one side came masses herded into the street for the May Day parade and from the other multitudes which were not masses, who came to meetings with bishops because they wanted to and not because someone forced them. An item of interest: when in 1966 the Episcopate drove from Gniezno to Poznan, people holding candles lined up along both sides of the road: there was one great lane of people from Gniezno to Poznan. People from nearby villages stood with candles to greet the passing bishops. No one knows whose idea it was. It came from nowhere. The people themselves wanted to manifest with light that they were close by. And this was a beautiful symbol because light was next to light, but there was no conflagration. Here, on the other hand, the candles were a beautiful symbol. For the Church is this community of individual lights.

Why? Because the whole is different. For example, the Pope visited Tarnow—enormous crowds of people. He began his speech with, “I am happy to see you, I want to take a good look at all of you. I want to take a very close look.” As if he had wanted to take their picture back with him. One simple peasant stood somewhere in the back and after this was over he said, suddenly: “He wanted to see me, he was happy to see me.” No one felt part of a mass, each felt himself to be an individual in all this. And many of these kinds of communities are created around the Church, oasis communities, study groups, etc. And this is where you begin to really see what these two societies are, what this proposal is, what Solidarity meant. Solidarity had many flaws, but that was because it was inspired by the ideal of a different society, of a dialogic community, a community in which each is recognized for what he is worth.

SP: You are the author of the book The Spirit of Solidarity. This and many of your popular philosophical works are devoted to matters of ethics. How would you characterize the nature of the conflict between Christianity and Communism on an ethical plane?

Tischner: I must first state a few obvious points. The concept of ethics means something quite different here than it does in Eastern Europe. Here, at least in principle, significant portions of ethics have become a part of the lawmaking process. Law transformed ethical principles into legal norms. And that is why in the West ethics does not play an especially significant role in everyday life. The greater part of Western life outside of the home is regulated by law. Ethics is restricted to relations at home, among family members, direct interhuman relations. It is different in totalitarian countries where the law serves to strengthen the hand of the authorities, to consolidate force. And ethics often appears not as a part of the law or in support of the law but as its contradiction. In the name of ethics, people behave lawlessly

In Poland it is thus: no matter how many times a woman comes to a doctor to ask for an abortion, a doctor must do it, regardless of whether he is a Catholic or not. And if he doesn’t do it, he will lose his job. The law operates against ethics here. That is why ethics has taken on enormous significance in postwar Poland. One could say that it has become one of the chief weapons in the struggle with coercion. Drawing on ethics, on a traditional moral code, is central to our polemics with force.

If we had believed in the Marxist tenet of class struggle, we would have killed one another long ago. But because we did not believe in it, but did believe in ethics, we did not kill one another in spite of acute social tensions. Communists, in carrying out their principles, drove tens of millions of people to their ruin in Russia and tens of thousands to their ruin in Poland. We owe the fact that things went differently in Poland to a profound ethical bond among the majority of society.

SP: Do you use the word “ethics” here in some sort of special Evangelical sense?

Tischner: We often associate ethics with dictates and prohibitions: “Ethics dictates this or ethics prohibits that.” Yet this is not ethics at all. The primary role of ethics is to reveal reality to us and that is its main task. For example, in the Gospels, the main tenets of ethics are revealed with the aid of nine blessings: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…. Blessed are the meek….” There is nothing in them about what you are supposed to do or what you are not supposed to do. All they say is who is blessed. During these past forty years in Poland, our understanding of ethics as a discipline which deepens a given experience of reality has matured. And the key to this experience is the dignity of the person. In other words, in ethics it is important that man be convinced of his own dignity and that because of it, he not do certain things because they are incompatible with his sense of self-esteem.

For example, do not lie. Why not? Because it is unworthy of you, it does not suit your dignity. Do not steal. Why not? After all, there are so many good reasons to steal. Only because it contradicts your sense of dignity. This was the source of the maturing of that ethics. On the opposite side, we were constantly being urged to do battle, with real or imaginary foes, with landowners or the bourgeoisie, with Zionism, imperialism, revisionism, and so on. The word “struggle”. sprang up at our every step, while the Gospels taught, not struggle but persuasion, testimony. One must exclude struggle, one must create completely different interhuman relations. Because it was turning out that ethics is experiencing another man. Ethics decides how I see that man and what I see in him. The Church taught us to see man in man, it taught us to see realities to which Marxism turned a blind eye.

SP: What does the Church propose in place of communist retaliation, instead of the exchange of “lie for lie”?

Tischner: Father Popieluszko’s life precept: “Repay evil with good.” Just this one rule.

SP: Nothing beyond the Gospels?

Tischner: Nothing. As a wellspring of hope, this will suffice.

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