It is one mark of the prophet that they are hated in their time for the message they are given to carry. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, if he was not a prophet nonetheless carried a prophetic message. Born in 1917 Russia, he came of age in the earliest years of the USSR. One might call him a child of the Revolution, as it was in a fortuitous fit of youthful ignorance that he would buy the Marxist-Leninist ideology. After criticizing the war planning of the Stalinist regime he was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually exiled. It was during his imprisonment that Solzhenitsyn came to understand, by way of personal experience, the full evil of his once beloved ideology, whereupon he began his conversion back to the Orthodox Christiany of his childhood. He went on to write numerous plays and novels exposing the horrible truth surrounding not only the Soviet prison system but more generally everyday life under the Soviet regime.
In 1983, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Templeton Prize for his prophetic work as a Christian humanist, made all the more significant given his status as a communist-turned-Orthodox Christian-in-exile. As tradition dictates, he delivered the customary Templeton Lecture, in which he chose to speak about a controversial topic then as now, namely why the social and political trend lines of the world were moving downward rather than upward. Titled “Godlessness, the First Step to the Gulag,” Solzhenitsyn contended that all the great calamities of the modern world – from Peter the Great in the 17th century through the Cold War – can be attributed to one simple fact: “Man has forgotten God,” he said, “That’s why all this has happened.” So it was and so it is, and in the place of God man has attempted to place the various philosophical trappings of idolatrous, prideful, secular materialism.
About the first World War, he claims, “The only possible explanation for this war is mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them. Only a godless embitterment could have moved ostensibly Christian states to employ poison gas.” Regarding the onset of the nuclear age, he remarks: “The same… flaw of a consciousness of all divine dimension, was manifested… when the West yielded to the satanic temptation of the “nuclear umbrella.”
Then as now, such a contention as this may seem radical and reactionary. It may violate the fashionable public opinion in the liberalized West, but fashionable opinion would be characteristically wrong. Solzhenitsyn addresses this when he said,
“Today’s world has reached a stage in which, if it had been described to proceeding centuries, would have called forth the cry: ‘This is the Apocalypse!’ Yet we have grown used to this kind of world; we even feel at home in it.”
He then goes on to point out that a greater threat than invasion from without is the creeping influence of secularism from within, a cancer that has been growing slowly in the West for generations, leading to “a drying up of religious consciousness.” Without the benefit of a moral imagination, particularly that of a Christian bent, society will continue to evolve into its more base and primal instincts. “The gradual sapping of strength from within,” resulting from schisms, war, rancor, and the tide of secularism, “is a threat to faith perhaps even more dangerous than any attempt to assault religion violently from without.”
But this is not a piece about Solzhenitsyn only.
Indeed, it does seem as if we are living during the Apocalypse. Wars and rumors of wars, fracturing societies, and a distinct environment of moral malaise all serve to characterize the day, as they have increasingly so for much of the last century. As Solzhenitsyn argued 34 years ago: men have forgotten God. That is why all of this is happening.
At the founding of the American experiment, power rested with the individual. The founders had faith in the people to govern themselves in their hamlets, towns, and cities. Government had faith in the people, and the people by-and-large had faith in God. Such was the hierarchy, with man comfortably and rightly situated higher than his government and lower than his Lord. The system was not perfect, because man is not perfect, but when God is followed, providence is found in His wake. Today, to the contrary, man has forgotten God, and has chosen instead to serve the government that is supposed to be their servant . Cable news is the daily – indeed, the hourly – mass, and ones time and spirit the weekly offering. This is entirely attributable to the very same creeping secularism warned of by Solzhenitsyn; the same that empowered the French to kill their King; the same that gave rise to Communism; the same that allowed the great and terrible dictators of the 20th century to come to power; the same that has made the modern West a darkened, empty wasteland, a spiritual void lit only by the glow of tiny, pocket-sized screens. This blue-hued light illumines a cold soul.
Man has forgotten God, and so he has in a very real sense forgotten how to solve problems. The solution always resides above the problem itself, and man has chosen no longer to look up, instead casting his glance from side to side and occasionally to his feet. I debated with a good friend of mine prior to last year’s election about the continued racial strife in America. It was his contention that the government must enforce ever greater restrictions and regulations on law enforcement, that police must be held to tighter account for their every action, because this strangulation will surely prohibit these events from coming to pass. His solution, which is indeed far and away the most common and easily reached conclusion, looks down, rather than up. Respectfully, I disagreed, arguing that this was both a coercive and bureaucratic answer to a spiritual problem.
What, then, is the answer to these tensions of our time? The author humbly admits that he does not know, however, the answer must lie in the people. Despite all insistence to the contrary, ours is a spiritual time, albeit one that masquerades as political. Americans demand that the state, those invertebrate mice of men, must intervene only because they have lost their moral imagination. They have eschewed what is above for what is below, choosing mudpies over holidays by the sea. This is nothing but an abdication of responsibility. Perhaps it is because Americans have allowed their morality to be defined by legislation that they have lost their spiritual imagination and reason. Again one may turn to Solzhenitsyn, this time in his infamous Harvard Address. Here, he speaks of the cowardice of political and intellectual elites, i.e., those from whom so many demand solutions:
“Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements… Should one point out that from ancient times declining courage has been considered the beginning of the end? When the modern Western states were created, the principle was proclaimed that governments are meant to serve man and man lives to be free and to pursue happiness… Now, at last, during past decades technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state.”
The welfare state, the state in which man is dependent on the offerings of the government once supposed to serve him, rather than the abilities of his soul, his mind, and his own hands. A few moments later he makes a most controversial point:
“People in the West have acquired considerable skill in interpreting and manipulating law. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required… But a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure… It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”
The irony that we demand a solution from the very same authority that is being protested is difficult to overlook, and yet that is precisely what is happening. If Solzhenitsyn is correct, and I believe that he is, then man is doomed so long as he neglects Divine direction. He has grown overly dependent on the law, gradually as all evil tends to be, to the point that the law now determines his moral direction. There is a relationship between the law and morality, it is true, but that relationship is one whereby the law creates conditions in which the moral imagination may flourish, not in which the moral imagination is tied inextricably to the law itself. Man has replaced God with the state, and Divine moral direction with legalism. He decries the very same moral mediocrity he has so readily embraced, and thus his noblest impulses have indeed been paralyzed. Yet, man does indeed have “human obligations” – the obligation to be a good neighbor, a good child or parent, and so on. But here again he has deferred such personal duties to the state to tell him what he should and should not do, what he can and cannot do, and now he reaps the fruits of his labor.
Man did not wake up one morning and consciously forget God. It is the slow and steady work of our great Enemy that has woven this secular evil into the modern social fabric. It is now up to man to see this, and to turn back to the God he has forgotten.