Solzhenitsyn: “Men Have Forgotten God”

The Templeton Prize, established in 1972 by philanthropist Sir John Templeton, is awarded each year to a person “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” The monetary award for this prize is continually revised upward to ensure it exceeds the award given to Nobel winners. Why? It is “to underscore Templeton’s belief that benefits from discoveries that illuminate spiritual questions can be quantifiably more vast than those from other worthy human endeavors.”

I like that.

The Templeton Prize, back in 1983, was awarded to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I like that, too. Yesterday, I highlighted Solzhenitsyn’s challenging Harvard commencement address in 1978, an address that pointedly accused the West of abandoning its spiritual heritage.

His Templeton Address, entitled “Men Have Forgotten God,” builds on his comments at Harvard. The first three paragraphs set the tone for this sobering look at the demise of our Christian heritage:

More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.

Solzhenitsyn lived under the Communist regime in the USSR; he was persecuted by it and understood its underpinnings:

Within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin, and at the heart of their psychology, hatred of God is the principal driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions. Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy; it is not a side effect, but the central pivot.

But this address is not merely a jeremiad, lamenting the sad state of affairs. Solzhenitsyn reveals that beneath all the persecution, all the hatred of Christianity, the Communist state could not wipe it out.

But there is something they did not expect: that in a land where churches have been leveled, where a triumphant atheism has rampaged uncontrolled for two-thirds of a century, where the clergy is utterly humiliated and deprived of all independence, where what remains of the Church as an institution is tolerated only for the sake of propaganda directed at the West, where even today people are sent to the labor camps for their faith, and where, within the camps themselves, those who gather to pray at Easter are clapped in punishment cells–they could not suppose that beneath this Communist steamroller the Christian tradition would survive in Russia.

In fact, he declared, “It is here that we see the dawn of hope: for no matter how formidably Communism bristles with tanks and rockets, no matter what successes it attains in seizing the planet, it is doomed never to vanquish Christianity.”

From the depths of his own Christian faith, Solzhenitsyn rightly diagnoses the problem: it’s not some external force that makes evil occur; rather, it comes from within.

All attempts to find a way out of the plight of today’s world are fruitless unless we redirect our consciousness, in repentance, to the Creator of all: without this, no exit will be illumined, and we shall seek it in vain. . . .

We must first recognize the horror perpetrated not by some outside force, not by class or national enemies, but within each of us individually, and within every society. This is especially true of a free and highly developed society, for here in particular we have surely brought everything upon ourselves, of our own free will. We ourselves, in our daily unthinking selfishness, are pulling tight that noose.

Some might wonder why this sudden interest on my part in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, enough to warrant two posts this week. I give credit to a book I’m currently reading by Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know. Glaspey’s essay on Solzhenitsyn revived my remembrance of how he inspired me during the 1980s when I was reading Whittaker Chambers’s Witness (which conveys the same spirit as Solzhenitsyn’s writings).

I was also quite taken by a quote Glaspey included in his essay. When asked shortly before his death in 2008 what he thought about dying, Solzhenitsyn expressed confidence that it would be “a peaceful transition.” He concluded,

As a Christian, I believe there is life after death, and so I understand that this is not the end of life. The soul has a continuation, the soul lives on. Death is only a stage, some would even say a liberation. In any case, I have no fear of death.

May the writings and the character of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn continue to inspire us to be faithful to the truth.

The Lincoln Tragedy

On this morning, April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died in a house across the street from Ford’s Theater. The pandemonium of the night before still resonated through Washington, DC, and the news would soon spread throughout the country, both North and South.

John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary, recalls hearing these words from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:

The nation mourned, and it wasn’t just the North that did so. Many in the South knew this was a tragedy for them as well. Lincoln had mapped out a policy of forgiveness and reconciliation with the transgressing states. His main hope was a peaceful reunification without rancor. He stated his position eloquently in his Second Inaugural Address.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The portrait painted by some today, that Lincoln was a tyrant who trampled on the Constitution and abused his office, is inaccurate. I won’t go into all the details in this post, but suffice to say that I was one who leaned in that direction early in my career. I don’t believe that now. Why the change? Let’s just say that more historical research proved to me the opposite.

Lincoln was a man who was drawn steadily back to the Christian faith after years of agnosticism. The trial of the Civil War deeply affected him and forced him to turn his eyes Heavenward.

His speeches and letters during that awful war reveal a man who is in the throes of a great spiritual introspection—an introspection that exhibited itself in both his Gettysburg Address and in that Second Inaugural.

The heart of the Second Inaugural—and the heart of Lincoln himself—can be found in this short excerpt:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.

It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

The loss of Lincoln at that critical point in American history was huge. Reconciliation did not prevail at that time; it took far longer to heal the brokenness and the racial attitudes than it should have.

We still bear those scars today.

The Question of the Dishonest Question

“Can’t I lead a good life without believing in Christianity?” That’s the question posed by many people. Is it an honest question or one that simply seeks to avoid truth? C. S. Lewis deals with it in his short, yet insightful, essay, “Man or Rabbit?” It can be found in God in the Dock.

Lewis clears away the unhelpful underbrush of the query and reveals the path such a person asking the question is attempting to follow. As he does so, he sheds light on the essential dishonesty in what at first appears to be an honest question.

Anyone who asks this question already knows about Christianity and is really saying, “Need I bother about it? Mayn’t I just evade the issue, just let sleeping dogs lie, and get on with being ‘good’? Aren’t good intentions enough to keep me safe and blameless without knocking at that dreadful door and making sure whether there is, or isn’t someone inside?”

Lewis is blunt: “The man is shirking. He is deliberately trying not to know whether Christianity is true or false, because he foresees endless trouble if it should turn out to be true.”

Pulling no punches, Lewis continues,

He is like the man who deliberately “forgets” to look at the notice board because, if he did, he might find his name down for some unpleasant duty.

He is like the man who won’t look at his bank account because he’s afraid of what he might find there.

He is like the man who won’t go to the doctor when he first feels a mysterious pain, because he is afraid of what the doctor may tell him.

This avoidance of truth gets to the heart of what is behind the question of whether one must be a Christian to be good. Someone who asks that may be looking for an “out.” At bottom, it’s not genuine honesty at all; the question is not a real question but a hope that one doesn’t have to hear the actual answer.

The man who remains an unbeliever for such reasons is not in a state of honest error. He is in a state of dishonest error, and that dishonesty will spread through all his thoughts and actions: a certain shiftiness, a vague worry in the background, a blunting of his whole mental edge, will result.

He has lost his intellectual virginity.

Lewis knows that God will forgive anyone who has mistakenly rejected Christ and then repents of that rejection. But that’s not the kind of person he is addressing here.

But to evade the Son of Man, to look the other way, to pretend you haven’t noticed, to become suddenly absorbed in something on the other side of the street, to leave the receiver off the telephone because it might be He who was ringing up, to leave unopened certain letters in a strange handwriting because they might be from Him—this is a different matter.

You may not be certain yet whether you ought to be a Christian; but you do know you ought to be a Man, not an ostrich, hiding its head in the sand.

Even if you can get a person to acknowledge his avoidance of finding the truth, there is another issue that Lewis says is an indication of the lowering of intellectual honor: the plaintive cry of “Will it help me? Will it make me happy?” Lewis challenges that approach with more bluntness:

Here is a door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you. Either that’s true, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal “sell” on record.

Isn’t it obviously the job of every man (that is a man and not a rabbit) to try to find out which, and then to devote his full energies either to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug?

Faced with such an issue, can you really remain wholly absorbed in your own blessed “moral development”?

What’s needed, Lewis explains, is the realization that we can’t ever be “good” in the sense that God intends for us. “Mere morality is not the end of life. You were made for something quite different from that.”

What, then, is that “something quite different”?

We are to be re-made. All the rabbit in us is to disappear. . . . We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy. . . .

Morality is a mountain which we cannot climb by our own efforts; and if we could we should only perish in the ice and unbreathable air of the summit, lacking those wings with which the rest of the journey has to be accomplished.

For it is from there that the real ascent begins. The ropes and axes are “done away” and the rest is a matter of flying.

I don’t know about you, but I would like to fly.

A Stunning “Paul, Apostle of Christ”

The apostle Paul has come alive to me now in a way he never did before. Yesterday, I saw the new film Paul, Apostle of Christ, and left the theater stunned at the power of cinema when used for God’s glory.

How do I begin to describe what I witnessed? I’ve seen many powerful films with messages from the heart of God, but none I’ve ever seen made me consider so deeply what it was really like for Christians facing intense persecution and the testing of their faith unto death.

Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, takes on the role of Luke, companion of Paul, who risks his own life to visit him in prison as he awaits execution. The Emperor Nero, to cover his own sin of setting fire to Rome, has accused the Christians of the act, and fingered Paul as the chief instigator.

James Faulkner, an actor I thought I’d never seen before, but have since discovered appeared in such dramas as Downton Abbey, is absolutely gripping as Paul. From now on, whenever I’m reading one of Paul’s letters, I will have the image of the Paul offered in this movie.

At the end, as Paul was beheaded and then awoke in eternal life to see all those he had persecuted before his salvation come to greet him, I couldn’t hold back tears. There are no over-the-top performances throughout this film; all are real and genuine.

Combined with an excellent supporting cast, superb cinematography, the truth of key Biblical passages, and a clear explanation of the Gospel, this film is of the highest quality.

Paul, Apostle of Christ, in an earlier time in American history, would be a candidate for many awards. Sadly, I believe the era of Ben Hur and Chariots of Fire may now be ended. Hollywood won’t want to reward, or even acknowledge, this positive portrayal of genuine Christianity.

But that’s okay. I’m convinced that Paul, Apostle of Christ, will be used by God for the ultimate reward—that of leading many people into relationship with Him. Helping sinners recognize their sin, showing them the meaning of repentance, and how the love of God has overcome the breach between God and man is a far greater accomplishment.

While a Best Film Oscar would be nice, faithfully proclaiming God’s truth is the ultimate reward.

A Holy Week Meditation

We’re about to enter into what the Christian church throughout the centuries has called Holy Week. Now, of course, if we really understand the faith, we realize every week is Holy Week, every day Holy Day, and every minute Holy Minute.

Yet we use this designation for the upcoming week because it makes us pay attention to the events approximately two thousand years ago that have made possible the Great Restoration, the Great Redemption of our souls.

As wonderful and inspirational as the Nativity is, this week announces the essence of Christian faith: the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of God that we might become children of God ourselves.

This week is awash in the supernatural, culminating in the Resurrection, without which we would have no hope.

We believe in the God who is above nature—super-natural—and in the miracle of the New Birth.

As C. S. Lewis reminds us in his essay “Christian Apologetics,”

Do not attempt to water Christianity down. There must be no pretence that you can have it with the Supernatural left out. So far as I can see Christianity is precisely the one religion from which the miraculous cannot be separated. You must frankly argue for supernaturalism from the very outset.

So many over the years have stripped the faith of its faith. Follow the moral guidelines, we are told, but reject those silly stories about miracles; some early Christians surely added those in later to augment/falsify the story of Jesus.

We even have a group of scholars—I use the term loosely—called the Jesus Seminar who periodically meet and decide whether certain passages of Scripture are genuine or if they are spurious. Then they make their grand public proclamation about which parts they now consider phony.

Well, that which is phony is found within themselves, not in God’s Revelation.

“The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle,” Lewis writes in another essay with that exact name: “The Grand Miracle.” He continues,

The Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him.

It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.

The reality of God becoming man—growing up in a human family, working at a human occupation, walking the dusty roads with humans, suffering for them, dying for them—is the story of the entire reason of Creation.

Then there was Resurrection on the third day.

One of Lewis’s most-often quoted lines—indeed the one emblazoned on his commemorative stone in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey—is a fitting conclusion to this Holy Week meditation:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

The Horror of the Same Old Thing

Every Wednesday evening since early January, I’ve had the joy of teaching a class on C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. A local Episcopal church invited me to do so, and I accepted the offer with relish. A group of eager learners comprises this class (approximately fifty each week), which has made it one of the highlights of this new year for me.

I’d read Screwtape a number of times over the years. Lewis himself famously commented that a really good book should never be read only once. Yet I’ve never had to dissect Screwtape in this manner before. If I’m going to explain anything to a class, I need to go beyond an outline and provide depth of understanding.

Along with a deeper understanding of a book such as this one comes the conviction of the Holy Spirit, as He shows me areas in my life that need to be solidified in righteousness.

One caution for all Christians occurs in Letter 25, which I will be teaching about in a couple of weeks. It deals with the concepts of “Christianity And . . .” and “The Same Old Thing.”

Screwtape—the senior devil—instructs junior tempter Wormwood to lead his “patient” away from mere Christianity (where he will flourish) into something else:

What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity And.” You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform.

If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian coloring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.

How often do we take our natural interest in something else, link it with our Christian faith, and then allow that other thing to become more important than the faith itself?

In American history, one example I can use is the very worthy cause, prior to the Civil War, of abolishing slavery. The cause was good. Many prosecuted it in the name of Christian faith, as they should have. Yet I am aware of some abolitionists for which the cause of abolition became primary and the faith merely a vehicle for attaining it.

Anytime we subordinate the faith to the cause it inspired, we miss the mark.

Lewis, through Screwtape, is asserting that we are drawn to this error through our desire to spice up, shall we say, the basic Christian faith, as if it is not enough inherently. Hell loves this attitude, as Screwtape explains:

The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.

Man’s quest for novelty, which is not a bad thing, can become a very bad thing indeed when novelty takes on an exalted status: it must be “new” and “fresh” or it will be boring. And boredom must be a sin, right?

Change is not synonymous with progress. It depends what that change actually is.

Screwtape again:

Once they [the humans] knew that some changes were for the better, and others for the worse, and others again indifferent. We have largely removed this knowledge. For the descriptive adjective “unchanged” we have substituted the emotional adjective “stagnant.”

There are some things that never should change—eternal right and wrong, for instance—and Someone who never will. Change is not always good. Yet if those who seek change that isn’t for the better can win the semantic war—“let’s call it stagnant instead”—the perceptions of an entire society can be altered.

I’ll leave it for you to make application to the culture in which we live today.

Parkland Solutions–Real & Imagined

For out of the heart come evil thoughts–murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. Matthew 15:19

After watching many news reports and reading many commentaries about the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that resulted in seventeen deaths, nothing I’ve seen or read has changed my mind about the basic issue that leads to such atrocities: the sinfulness of man.

We hear many loud voices calling for new legislation against gun ownership, as if that’s some kind of final solution for the problem of sin. Yet we have had gun ownership in this country since its founding. Many lives have been spared by the proper use of guns as a means of self-defense against sinful men.

Guns are not the problem. People are. And our culture, which drifts steadily away from the fear of God and from His truth, only makes that problem worse.

Then we get a CNN Townhall that allows grieving young people to display their angst and try to set public policy via emotion rather than principle and sound reflection. Some may think they are the source of wisdom, but I don’t, especially if they are merely spouting a distorted worldview they have received through our perverted culture.

The Biblical admonition about how a little child shall lead them is part of a prophecy of Isaiah in reference to when God will set up His kingdom on earth in the last days. It’s when the lion will lie down with the lamb.

We’re not there yet. We shouldn’t let the immature be our policymakers.

Those who think that legislation is the answer are seeking a utopia—a word that basically translates as “no such place.”

Yes, laws can help, if they are the right kind, based on a realistic view of man’s sinfulness. But any law that takes away the means for law-abiding citizens to defend themselves is a law that will lead to even greater atrocities.

We are told by some that if we turn in all the guns, we can be confident that our law enforcement agencies will be able to defend us. Trust them, we are told.

How did that work out in this case?

The FBI received numerous calls about the potential for Nikolas Cruz to go off the deep end. It did nothing. The Broward County police responded to numerous incidents with Cruz over the past years. They did nothing.

The Broward County deputy who was assigned to protect the school hid outside, never even attempting to confront the shooter. The county’s sheriff is making a fool of himself in interviews after the fact. He is arrogant, defending himself, and blaming everyone else.

Let me also say something here about the organization that is getting pilloried over this, as it always does after a shooting. The NRA (for the record, I’m not a member) is a respectable organization devoted to gun safety. The one time I went to an NRA firing range, I was tested first, then instructed carefully on how to use the weapons.

The NRA is not the enemy of the people.

Politicians like to get their names in the headlines after these terrible incidents. The one who stands out to me this time is California Senator Kamala Harris, who responded to Parkland with this:

This cannot be a political issue. We have to have smart gun safety laws – our babies are being slaughtered.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Yet Kamala Harris promotes the slaughter of babies all the time, as she is a vocal supporter of Planned Parenthood and abortion on demand.

She is not a serious voice, and should be ignored, as should all politicians who wrap themselves in the cloak of protecting our children while simultaneously applauding the killing of the most innocent.

So are we a “sick” society? Wrong word. We are a sinful, depraved society. Scripture also informs us that the problem goes much deeper even than human sinfulness.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Ephesians 6:12

The solution, also found in the larger context of that chapter, is to put on God’s full armor: truth, righteousness, the spreading of the Gospel message to “extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”

There is an evil one out there, even though our society doesn’t want to believe that. Neither does the society want to believe that there is One who has overcome the evil one, and that we need to place our full confidence in Him:

Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be sober-minded and alert. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in your faith and in the knowledge that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. I Peter 5:7-9

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. James 4:7-8

These Scriptures need to be our guide.