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Revisiting Solzhenitsyn After September 11

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

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Almost twenty-five years ago, Russian Orthodox author Alexander Solzhenitsyn offered a critique of Western culture that rings as true today as when he first gave it. Called "A World Split Apart," Solzhenitsyn warned that Western countries were drifting from their moral foundation and misusing their liberties in ways that will render the West powerless in the face of evil.

Solzhenitsyn had the moral authority to criticize Western culture because of the imprisonment he endured at the hands of his Soviet Russian oppressors. He had experienced first-hand the brutality that Communism unleashes in its totalitarian effort to bring all human affairs under the reign of the state.

Communism used Marxist philosophy as a governing creed. Marxism is a materialistic. It denies the existence of God. Anything that is not matter - not material - does not exist in the Marxist view. But if God does not exist, then no higher moral law can exist either. As a result, Communist regimes were some of the most cruel and repressive ever established. In Russia alone, thirty to sixty million died under the boot of those trying to impose this utopian madness. Millions more suffered. 

Solzhenitsyn warned that the West was drifting towards a philosophical materialism of its own. Western man had "forgotten God." By forgetting God, the West faced a "calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness" that weakened it towards external military threats and made it vulnerable to decay and collapse from within. Only by turning back to God from the self-centered humanism where "man is the touchstone in judging and evaluating everything on earth" would the West be able to escape the destruction toward which it inexorably moves.

Soviet Russia was the external threat that Solzhenitsyn had in mind at the time. Almost fifteen years after his address, Soviet Russia collapsed in on itself, crippled by an inertia that was fostered by the terror used to subjugate the Russian people to the state. Its fall was hastened by Reagan administration policies that viewed totalitarian ideology as evil and Soviet Russia as an evil empire. Solzhenitsyn's writings helped shape this view particularly the Gulag Archipelago series published in the decade before his address.

Today the West in general and America in particular faces a different threat. The ideology of the Islamic terrorists is a new form of the old totalitarian dream but with a new twist: where the old totalitarian sought a political utopia, the new totalitarian seeks an Islamic theocracy.

So it is time to read Solzhenitsyn again, not as the prophet who warned against the Communist threat, but as the prophet who warned the West that any struggle for freedom is a struggle of the human spirit.

Solzhenitsyn said that the threat to freedom arises from the inability to see that freedom and liberty have their foundation and source in God. When the awareness of God is lost, when man becomes the "touchstone" of all that true, then freedom will devolve into a defense of an expanding state that exists solely to ensure the unrestrained enjoyment of life. Security and pleasure become the focus and goal of human existence. The moral clarity and courage required for defending freedom wanes, often under the guise of defending it.

Today the West has weakened. The weakness, however, is not the legacy of two thousand years of Christianity with its strong reserves of "mercy and sacrifice," said Solzhenitsyn. Rather, because the West finds itself weak so suddenly indicates that a mistake must lie "at the root, at the very basis of human thinking of the past centuries" alone.

Solzhenitsyn locates the point between the Middle Ages which "had come to a natural end by exhaustion, becoming an intolerable despotic repression of man's physical nature in favor of a spiritual one," and the Renaissance where "everything beyond physical well-being and accumulation of material goods were left outside of the attention of state and social systems as if human life did not have any superior sense."

America was different, Solzhenitsyn said. He honors the work of the American Founding Fathers, particularly their emphasis that freedom is a condition of the individual's moral awareness and obligation. "Yet in the early democracies, as in the 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."

Solzhenitsyn decried the moral decay of modern America but asserted that American foundations have a transcendent character that, when renewed, can stop the materialist drift of American culture and restore the courage needed to confront the threats to liberty and freedom.

The moral kinship between Solzhenitsyn and the Founding Fathers is clarified when reading the Founders concerning the dependence of freedom on morality. "We've staked the whole future of American civilization not on the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us...to govern ourselves according to commandments of God. The future and success of America is not in this Constitution, but in the laws of God upon which the Constitution is founded," wrote James Madison.

This theme is found throughout the writings of the Founders. John Adams said, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Samuel Adams wrote, "He who is void of virtuous attachments in private life is, or very soon will be, void of all regard for his country." Patrick Henry wrote, "...virtue, morality, and religion...is the armor that renders us invincible...if we lose these, we are conquered, fallen indeed...so long as our manners and principles remain sound, there is no danger."

Religion is an uncomfortable subject for many Americans but since the September attack religion is on everyone's mind. Religion is hard to ignore when aggressors decide that God wants your nation subjugated and then kill almost 3000 people to drive the point home. The nation searches for more enduring truth when faced with this kind of catastrophe.

So we go back to beginnings. Patrick Henry argued "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians, not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason people of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here." Henry's statement, easily misread as triumphal bluster, affirms the Christian teaching of the toleration of other faiths and creeds and posits the Christian religion as the source from where American religious freedom is drawn.

Christians sometimes fail the moral mandate that they are to live peaceably with all people, especially with those that hold a faith other than their own. At other times they excelled. America shows it can work.

Imperfectly and not without conflict, the American experience of integrating religious faiths other than Christianity has been successful. Most of the immigrants, when embracing the freedom they found in America reached deep into their religion to cultivate the virtue that was necessary to preserve freedom. They understood that moral virtue is the bedrock of the freedom. Even those immigrants who were not Christian but still taught and practiced virtue contributed to this freedom and remained free to practice their faith.

America finds itself confronted once again with a Long Twilight Struggle that requires a moral courage and resolve that only a virtuous people can marshal. The totalitarian threat is real. So is the threat caused by moral decline at home.

Fr. Jacobse is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Copyright 2002 Rev Johannes L. Jacobse



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