In my last posting, I simply included some lengthy quotes from Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 commencement address at Harvard. Today I want to comment on Solzhenitsyn’s ideas. If you haven’t read my prior posting you might want to do that before you read this one.
Solzhenitsyn sees the West as paying a price for its long-held attitude of superiority. Now we are weak and, far from being colonizers and dominators, we are losing whatever leadership might have remained from our colonizing days. We still have the “persisting blindness of superiority” and it causes us to think that everyone should be and wants to be like us.
Here we are, nearly 40 years after Solzhenitsyns chiding, still operating on the assumption that our way is right and is desirable for everyone. We cannot grasp that not everyone likes what they see in the West. President bush and many others explained 9/11 as the fruit of Muslim envy of our freedom. He was quite wrong. They do not envy our freedom so much as despise what we’ve done with it. We’ve come to approve of greed so much that we’ve even elected an incredibly selfish and greedy man to be our president!
Solzhenitsyn goes on to say that “a decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage . . .” Can you imagine what he would say about our refusal to help the millions of refugees and our president’s commitment to building a wall to protect ourselves from those people south of the border? We make such hypocrites of ourselves these days when we sing that we are “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
In part, Solzhenitsyn argues, our loss of courage has come from one of our greatest strengths: our love of the law. It has gone to an extreme by which we have supplanted the right, the good, and the true with mere legality. I recall that elsewhere Solzhenitssyn said we have devolved to a “loop-hole morality,” thinking anything is okay so long as it is either legal or can be excused by some loophole we find in the law.. Trump’s lawyers are specialists in this loophole morality. “Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.”
Solzhenitsyn sees the Renaissance/Enlightenment era as coming to an end and he bids it good riddance. “The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.
“This tilt of freedom toward evil has come about gradually, but it evidently stems from a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which man the master of the world does not bear any evil within himself, and all the defects of life are caused by misguided social systems, which must therefore be corrected. Yet strangely enough, though the best social conditions have been achieved in the West, there still remains a great deal of crime; there even is considerably more of it than in the destitute and lawless Soviet society.”
These are damning words but accurate. We have fostered selfishness and greed while denying much opportunity for the poor and granting incredible freedom for the wealthy. The gulf between the wealthy and the rest of us is greater than at any time in American history. This builds great frustration and deep sense of powerlessness in those who want but do not have the benefits of wealth.
“There are,” says Solzhenitsyn, “telltale symptoms by which history gives warning to a threatened or perishing society. Such are, for instance, a decline of the arts or a lack of great statesmen.” And he adds, “The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.”
Reaching still deeper for an explanation of how we have become so weak morally and spiritually, he speaks of the “rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of all.” Solzhenitsyn sees that what we have lost is a sense of accountability to our Creator. We have come to see freedom as a release from obligation, duty, responsibility.
He reminds us of our own history: “And yet in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted on the ground that man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding one thousand years. Two hundred or even fifty years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual be granted boundless freedom with no purpose, simply for the satisfaction of his whims.”
He is not saying America was once a Christian nation. Who knows what in the world that would mean? Rather,he is affirming that there were certain fundamental Christian convictions that formed the foundation of the American idea. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Human rights, in other words, are not granted by a government but by our Creator.
Humanism is not inherently bad. It can mean nothing more than respect for humanity. But humanism “which has lost its Christian heritage” cannot prevail in a world bent toward selfishness and greed. “We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. It is trampled by the party mob in the East, by the commercial one in the West.”
The West, he is arguing, needs a spiritual reformation, a renewal of our sense of accountability to the Righteous Judge of all the Universe. As I read the stories of the founding of our nation, I see again and again that most of our “founding fathers” had little use for the church but had a strong three-part faith in God as Creator, in the Providence of God, and in the final Judgment of human life.
Now we are again in need of “a spiritual blaze” to ignite a new and higher vision of the meaning of life. Are you ready and eager to be set ablaze? Then ask God to light it in you. No kidding. Pause right now and ask to be set on fire.