The faculty of Harvard University admired Alexandr Solzhenitsyn for his literary achievements, so they were thrilled that he agreed to deliver the university’s 1978 commencement address. But almost as soon as he began to speak, the professors changed their minds: too late. As I wrote this month in Christianity Today, they realized that Solzhenitsyn was charging them with complicity in the West’s surrender to liberal secularism, the abandonment of its Christian heritage, and of all the moral horrors that followed.
For example, describing the Western worldview as “rationalistic humanism,” Solzhenitsyn decried the loss of “our concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.” Man has become “the master of this world . . . who bears no evil within himself,” he announced. “So all the defects of life” are attributed to “wrong social systems.”
Solzhenitsyn argued that this moral impoverishment had led to a debased definition of freedom, which makes no distinction between “freedoms for good” or “freedoms for evil.” Our founders, he reminded us, would scarcely have countenanced “all this freedom with no purpose” but for the “satisfaction of one’s whims;” they demanded freedom be granted conditionally upon the individual’s constant exercise of his religious responsibilities.
Solzhenitsyn could hardly have imagined that, just 14 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court would enshrine this radical definition of freedom: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Solzhenitsyn also foresaw the rise of political correctness. “Fashionable trends of thoughts and ideas,” he said, “are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable.” He predicted this would lead to “strong mass prejudices” with people being “hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad.”
Could even Solzhenitsyn have imagined that sexual rights would in 30 years triumph over free expression, that academia would impose rigid speech codes, or that churches would be threatened with the loss of their tax-exempt status for opposing the homosexual agenda?
On that June day, 30 years ago, Solzhenistsyn predicted that, in time, we would become more concerned with the civil rights of terrorists than with our own national security. Could he have imagined that 30 years later to the week, the Supreme Court, in the case of Boumediene v. Bush, would uphold the civil rights of enemy combatants held at Guantanamo Bay?
Solzhenitsyn also charged the West with losing its “civic courage . . . particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites.” After all, he said, with “unlimited freedom on the choice of pleasures,” why should one risk one’s precious life in defense of the common good?
Three decades after Solzhenitsyn’s speech, Americans find themselves in the grip of violent and pornographic “entertainment,” growing censorship of unfashionable ideas, a new wave of isolationism, and a spiritually exhausted citizenry.
The solution Solzhenitsyn offered at the Harvard commencement was for a “spiritual blaze.” The question is, have we listened? Do we see signs of awakening? And is there still time to renew ourselves out of our “spiritual exhaustion”?