Solzhenitsyn: The Disaster of the West

I’ve never read any of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels. His Gulag Archipelago has been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of decades at least. Yes, I’ve glanced at it a few times, but to my utter shame, I’ve not taken the time to digest it. My only excuse is the volume of other reading that has always been either more enticing or more needed at the time.

I do plan to read it, fitting it in somewhere between Dante’s Divine Comedy and Plato’s Republic, among others.

Yet this doesn’t mean I’m not familiar with Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who suffered in that very gulag he wrote about, who was then internally exiled for a number of years, who had to sneak his writings out of the USSR, and whose brilliance was recognized in the West by the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, and was then expelled from his native country for “treason” in 1974.

Solzhenitsyn lived in the US for many years during his expulsion, hibernating in small-town Vermont and rarely making public appearances. However, in 1978, he accepted an invitation to speak at Harvard’s commencement. The liberal intelligentsia didn’t know they were going to hear a speech about the spiritual vacuum of the West; they were appalled at his audacity. In fact, he was speaking truth.

I read that speech in the late 1980s and was deeply impressed by his willingness to say that hard things that needed to be said.

His second paragraph offered a preview of what the audience could expect to hear that day:

Harvard’s motto is “VERITAS.” Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.

When Harvard first came up with that motto, it knew what truth was. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, it had departed from God’s truth. Solzhenitsyn was prescient when he noted that when we leave aside truth, we still have “the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it.” That’s the status of a typical university in our day.

He went on to make a statement that undoubtedly caused his audience to squirm, as it seemed to be aimed right at them:

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, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations.

Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.

This was in 1978. The statement rings true still today.

Governments were meant to serve man, Solzhenitsyn noted, and America embedded that concept in its Declaration of Independence, but the pursuit of happiness of the eighteenth century has now resulted in the welfare state and a debased meaning of “happiness.”

If Solzhenitsyn were alive today, he might be amazed how another of his warnings has become the norm for our society:

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.

On the other hand, destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society has turned out to have scarce defense against the abyss of human decadence, for example against the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror.

This is all considered to be part of freedom and to be counterbalanced, in theory, by the young people’s right not to look and not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.

From his decidedly Christian worldview, he asserted,

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.

In other words, man is sinful.

Solzhenitsyn wanted to make sure his audience did not misunderstand his critique:

I hope that no one present will suspect me of expressing my partial criticism of the Western system in order to suggest socialism as an alternative. No; with the experience of a country where socialism has been realized, I shall not speak for such an alternative.

What then, is to be done? The rest of his speech is replete with memorable phrases that I will attempt to offer here in a coherent, logical order:

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Delivering His Harvard Commencement Address

The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive. You can feel their pressure, yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?

How has this unfavorable relation of forces come about? How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present debility? . . .

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. . . .

Subsequently, however, all such limitations were eroded everywhere in the West; a total emancipation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. . . .

Thus during the past centuries and especially in recent decades, as the process became more acute, the alignment of forces was as follows: Liberalism was inevitably pushed aside by radicalism, radicalism had to surrender to socialism, and socialism could not stand up to communism. . . .

I am not examining the case of a disaster brought on by a world war and the changes which it would produce in society. . . . Yet there is a disaster which is already very much with us. I am referring to the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.

It has made man the measure of all things on earth — imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. . . .

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.

There is so much more, but I will stop there. Read it all for yourself sometime. You can see why it was not enthusiastically received by the liberal elite. Yet it was truth delivered from the depths of personal experience.

Eligius: A Good & Faithful Servant

I receive daily stories from the Christian History Institute about the history of the Church and those who served Christ well in their lives. I particularly like the ones that go back in the very early years and inform me of great figures in church history that I had never heard of previously.

Here’s one of those, which I hope will be an inspiration as you begin your work week.

SAINT AND BISHOP Eligius from Aquitaine (in the area that is now modern France) was a deeply honorable and tenderhearted man. Given a donation of land for some monks to build on, he discovered he had taken a foot too much. He immediately went to the French king Dagobert, prostrated himself at his feet, and apologized with tears.

On another occasion, Dagobert demanded Eligius take an oath before entrusting him with some important task. Eligius, who took seriously Christ’s admonition against swearing, begged to be excused. Dagobert insisted. Eligius burst into tears. Acknowledging the saint’s integrity, the king yielded.

During the Middle Ages, Eligius (known as Eloy, or Loy, in England) was a well-known and much-loved saint. Because of a miracle he supposedly worked with a horse and horseshoe, he became the patron of blacksmiths and farriers. His image appeared in English churches.

Before becoming a bishop, Eligius was a goldsmith and operated the royal mint. Even as a layman, he was noted for his love of godly things. He kept his Bible open on his desk while he worked, bought slaves to free them, buried the bodies of criminals, and gave large sums of money to charity and for building monasteries.

When Bishop Acarius of Noyon-Tournai died on 27 November 639, King Clovis II, who had replaced Dagobert on the throne, asked Eligius to fill the vacant place. Eligius, with his deep sense of responsibility, asked for time to prepare himself. In his second year of study, after first having been ordained as a priest, he assumed his new duties. He was consecrated bishop on Sunday 13 May 641.

Noyon is in the vicinity of Belgium. Much of Eligius’s see (the area overseen by a bishop) was unevangelized, and he engaged in mission work among the Flemings, Suevi, and others. By his exemplary life and by tending the sick among his pagan enemies, he eventually converted many to Christianity.

Over his years as bishop, Eligius preached many sermons, believing God would hold him accountable if he neglected souls. One that has come down to us centers on obedience to Christ:  “For he who will be a true Christian must needs keep these commandments; because if he does not keep them, he deceives himself. He, therefore, is a good Christian who puts faith in no charms or diabolical inventions, but places all his hope in Christ alone.”

Eligius died of fever at about seventy years of age on the first day of December. The year is uncertain, and may have been as early as 659 or as late as 665.

The Unnaturalness of Death

Death is something we all have to face. For most of us, it is faced first in the loss of someone we know and love. Ultimately, we have to face it in our own lives, recognizing that it is inevitable, not something we can avoid forever, although in Christ we know it isn’t final, that there is an unfathomably wonderful forever on the other side of that fearful doorway.

Yet death was never meant to be. It is an intruder in the world God created, brought into that world by rebellion. That rebellion destroyed God’s intent for relationship with all the humans that were to follow our first parents.

Death hurts. We shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t. C. S. Lewis, in his essay, “Some Thoughts,” notes that “we follow One who stood and wept at the grave of Lazarus . . . because death, the punishment of sin, is even more horrible in His eyes than in ours.”

Maybe we don’t stop and think about that. We loath death, but God loathes it even more since it mars His perfect creation. Lewis continues in his thought experiment about Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus:

The nature which He had created as God, the nature which He had assumed as Man, lay there before Him in its ignominy; a foul smell, food for worms. Though He was to revive it a moment later, He wept at the shame; if I may here quote a writer of my own communion, “I am not so much afraid of death as ashamed of it.”

Why shame? Because death is unnatural. It never should have been. “We know that we were not made for it,” Lewis comments. “We know how it crept into our destiny as an intruder; and we know Who has defeated it.”

And therein lies the hope for mankind—at least for those who will come to the Cross and receive the New and Eternal Life promised there.

There are some who say “death ought not to be final, that there ought to be a second chance,” Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain. But he offers his own brand of response to that objection:

I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given. But a master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again. Finality must come sometime, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when.

The risen Christ has “already disarmed” the enemy of our souls, Lewis asserts in the essay mentioned above.

But because we know that the natural level also is God’s creation we cannot cease to fight against the death which mars it, as against all those other blemishes upon it, against pain and poverty, barbarism and ignorance.

Because we love something else more than this world we love even this world better than those who know no other.

We must always remember:

Iran & North Korea: Good Developments

The deal Obama and the Democrats forged with Iran over its nuclear program was supposedly going to spare us from a major nuclear conflagration. I didn’t believe it then, and I still don’t believe it now. That deal was no better than the phony deals people have foisted on the gullible throughout history.

The Iran deal was only a ten-year moratorium (again supposedly) on developing nuclear material and allowed Iran itself to do its own inspection on whether it was keeping to the agreement.

Huh?

That’s a long way from the Reagan approach called “trust but verify.” In fact, it’s downright foolish. How many people who still use their brains actually believe that Iran is keeping its word? Well, Obama and John Kerry are prime examples, in spite of how Israel’s top-notch spy service tries to enlighten us.

Then there’s the very nature of the deal. Whenever nations enter into these types of agreements, they’re called treaties. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of a treaty is as follows:

An agreement or arrangement made by negotiation; a contract in writing between two or more political authorities (such as states or sovereigns) formally signed by representatives duly authorized and usually ratified by the lawmaking authority of the state.

There’s a reason I highlighted that last portion of the definition. The Constitution of the United States (that document largely ignored by the previous administration) requires that agreements such as this Iran deal should be brought to the Senate for ratification. Obama chose not to go that route (which is called “constitutional”) and simply declared it a “done deal.”

He was always very good at just doing things whenever he wanted. Remember his “I’ve got a pen and a phone” comment? He’s a little upset at the moment now that President Trump has pulled out of the deal.

I’m going to give Trump credit here for following through on this. I’m sure he was emboldened by the addition of John Bolton to his team, but his was the final decision, and it was the correct one.

One of the things he has done well has been the reversal of a number of Obama’s executive orders.

We need to face reality, though. Pulling out of a phony deal is one thing; finding a way to stop Iran’s march toward nuclear proliferation and carrying out its evil desire to wipe Israel off the face of the Middle East map is another matter. Much hard work remains.

Immediately after this welcome decision to call Iran out for its deviousness, there was other good news as the Trump administration secured the release of three Americans who had been imprisoned by the unstable North Korean government.

To Trump’s credit, he greeted those three in person at 3 a.m., which showed how important he considered the release to be.

Yet, even when something good happens, he has a tendency to detract from the moment. First, he declared that they had received “excellent” treatment from the North Korean dictator. He is slavishly devoted to using every superlative imaginable in the English language. I would not have lavished that kind of praise on the monster in charge of that nation.

Second, he just had to say something about TV ratings, commenting that this event was probably the highest-rated one ever for anything broadcast at 3 a.m. His inflated ego and desire for popularity stepped on this significant moment.

Please, Mr. President, consider that not everything is about you. Just savor moments like these as a plus for the American people and let it go at that. I pray there are those in his inner circle who are trying to make that same point.

Overall, though, these developments are reasons for encouragement. May there be more of them.

Teaching the Generations

Many of you know how you can read a Scripture passage and something jumps out at you that you never saw before. I attribute that to the leading of the Holy Spirit. A few days ago, I was reading in Psalm 71 when my mind (and spirit?) was arrested by just a few words—verses 9 and 18—separated from the rest of the text but united in thought.

Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone. . . .

Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.

What did this mean to me? Well, first of all, although I am certainly getting old-er, I don’t yet consider myself old in the classic sense. My strength is not yet gone, I am not yet seriously contemplating retirement, and I don’t feel forsaken of God.

I am gray; I’ll grant that one. But if none of the rest is totally applicable to me, why was I affected by these words?

One never knows when one’s strength will ebb more quickly, and I believe I have a lot to do still in my life and in the ministry God has given me. Perhaps it was the fact that I was grading students in finals week, another semester nearing its end.

It was those final words that meant the most to me, especially when coupled with the potential onset of older age: I teach the next generation; I want those students to know of God’s power, His mighty acts, and His abiding presence that He wants to implant within each one of them.

I began my university teaching career rather late. I didn’t receive my doctorate until I was 38, which was the time I got my first fulltime position. My 30th year of teaching will begin this upcoming fall, and I am now seeing, via Facebook, some of my former students beginning to send their children to college.

That is stunning to me. How can this be, I ask myself? The old cliché about time marching on is rearing its head. If any of my former students were to send their children to Southeastern to study under me, I would be teaching a second generation. Astounding. Why? Because in my mind, I’m not that old.

I am grateful for the many years the Lord has given me to teach those who will carry His light into this sad parody of a society we live in today. I look forward to continuing that quest. My health is still good; my strength is not gone; the vision remains vivid in my spirit.

And to all of my former students, I offer this word: send your children to me and I promise to give them all I can, everything the Lord has placed in me to pass on to the next generation.

Far Side’s Fractured History

I like to spice up my classroom presentations with appropriate cartoons. In my post yesterday, I mentioned some of my favorite comic/cartoon sources: “Peanuts,” “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Mallard Fillmore.” I failed to mention another one that deserves recognition—Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.”

Larson’s humor is often zany, but so much the better when he chooses to rewrite history. Now, normally I’m not a fan of revising history without solid evidence, but for the sake of humor, I can laugh along with certain comic revisions. It’s like being able to enjoy a National Treasure movie even though all of the history is pure bunk.

Sometimes Larson’s humor is subtle, and you have to know some of the history yourself to appreciate it. For instance, we know Manhattan Island was sold for what we now consider a mere pittance. Here’s how Larson envisions the native chief explaining that decision:

Then there’s Patrick Henry’s iconic “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. Larson imagines he practiced it first:

“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” cautioned an American officer at the Battle of Bunker Hill. That advice was not welcomed by one particular British soldier:

Then there is the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. Perhaps he crossed other things as well:

And haven’t you always heard of this famous expedition being called “Lewis and Clark,” never “Clark and Lewis”? If only Clark had listened to his mother:

No, Lincoln didn’t throw together his Gettysburg Address as a last-minute jotting on the train to Gettysburg, but if he had, he might have gotten some help with it:

Everyone’s heard of Custer’s Last Stand, but why do we focus on that one? His parents were probably more interested in this instead:

For the more literary among us, here’s a take on the problems that can overcome a writer:

And if you’re a military man not used to writing as much as someone of Poe’s stature, the wording may be even more difficult. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was looking for just the right words to inspire the Filipinos that he would one day come back and free the islands from the Japanese invaders:

I’m glad he came up with something better.

Hope you enjoyed this little foray into fractured history. In our day of cultural and political polarization, we need to be able to step back once in a while and simply smile.

Comics Commentary

I’ve been an aficionado of clever comic strips all my life. My favorite, throughout my childhood and into high school, was Charles Schulz’s wonderful “Peanuts” strip with all the memorable characters: Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, etc. The strip was a cultural phenomenon back in the 1960s, in particular.

Schulz used his strip to communicate his Christian faith as well as offer commentary on cultural changes and the meaning of life. He never preached stridently; he allowed the message to come at you indirectly, making one stop and think a bit about what he was saying.

Later, I became a great fan of the “Calvin and Hobbes” strip. My students sometimes must feel they are awash in the insights from that one.

When Bill Watterson, the brilliant artist of the strip, brought  “Calvin and Hobbes” to an end in the 1990s, I was deeply saddened, but later some of my students presented me with the entire collection, from which I have helped “instruct” students ever since.

Nowadays, one of my favorite comics that touches on the foolishness/silliness of our modern cultural trends is “Mallard Fillmore,” a title with a nice touch for an American historian like me. The artist, Bruce Tinsley, is a conservative in politics and, based on what I’ve seen in his strip, a committed Christian. He takes on political correctness in a poignant way.

Lately, Tinsley has been on target with some of the most egregious modern trends and/or practices based on wrong ideas, one of which is that people really aren’t accountable for their actions:

In the wake of the Parkland shootings, Tinsley offered this commentary on the drift of society:

Just the right amount of sarcasm, in my opinion, in the pursuit of communicating truth.

He often pokes fun at education trends and the issue of free speech. Sometimes, he can combine them rather easily, as universities have become a haven for the stifling of speech that the prevailing “wisdom” decries:

While I am a devotee of expounding Biblical principles and trying to explain how they apply to each one of us individually and to our society as a whole, I appreciate the ability of comics such as these to help me make my points. Regular readers of this blog know that I punctuate many of my posts with what I believe are appropriate comics and political cartoons to aid in my explanations.

That will never stop as long as there are talented artists (and I do believe that is the correct term) who can highlight the concepts I want to expound upon.