The Bitter Truth That Prophets Bring: Part 1 of The Context for the Excalibur Affair

October 9, 2019

A little over forty years ago Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the most influential—and at the time most respected—Russian man of letters was invited to give the commencement address at Harvard University. He was sent out of Russia four years earlier by the Soviet regime as the best way they knew how to diminish his influence in the Soviet Union. Because his literary works were known and widely read outside of the USSR, the Soviet leaders deemed it better to send him into exile rather than imprison him (again) or attempt to execute him in secret.

 

The address Solzhenitsyn delivered in June of 1978 was not what many who attended expected. Nor was it what most of the American press and notable public figures were expecting or hoping to hear. To frame his message, the speaker made clear to his audience in the first few sentences that he was aware that Harvard’s motto was simply Veritas, and that “truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of bitter truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.”

 

As it turned out, many of the Americans who responded to the speech responded as if Solzhenitsyn was an adversary. The editorial page of the New York Times (June 13, 1978) is representative of published opinions that came forth over the next year from public intellectuals and politicians: “Yes, our laws are used by the rich and powerful to gain more wealth and power; our press is often irresponsible; television is a swamp of nonsense; pornography does flourish; and, yes, the nation is in thrall to material things. But given all that, Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s world view seems to us far more dangerous than the easygoing spirit which he finds so exasperating.”

 

The editors at the Times characterized the contrast between Solzhenitsyn’s world view and that of the elites of the 1970s America as the perennial battle in U.S. history “between the religious Enthusiasts, sure of their relationship to the Divine Will, and the men of the Enlightenment, trusting in the rationality of humankind.” (Allow me to diverge for a moment. One might wonder about the rationality of the Times’ editors since in the previous paragraph they openly admitted that the U.S. was plagued by laws that give the rich and powerful more wealth and power, that the press is irresponsible, that television [programming] is often nonsense, that pornography is rampant and materialism dominates the population. Is this evidence of the triumph of Enlightenment rationality? Is the American branch of humanity all the better for this?)

 

For the editors of the New York Times, the commencement speaker was bringing forth criticisms of American society based on his being a “religious Enthusiast”, the type of person who gets his judgments and opinion from religious dogma and not from rational scientific sources such as current academic consensus bolstered by general public opinion. But they, and many of the other critics, failed to see clearly and respond adequately that the Russian novelist was laying a charge against them that focused on the “anthropocentricity” of American institutions—government, legal system, education, media, etc.—and as a result had reshaped the American ethos in contrast to what it had been in earlier generations. The indictment that Solzhenitsyn brought that June day was that, in contrast to an earlier period, America and the West had suffered a decline in courage to act positively in the world, now was more concerned about material success and well-being, was replacing respect of traditions and customs and self-restraint in public and private life with legalism and regulation as government invented more and more rights without obligations, was allowing freedom of individuals to morph into license, and was allowing fashionable ideas (often superficial or misleading) to drive out or displace well-grounded (often traditional) values.

 

Solzhenitsyn traced the root of the problem to ideas and values the West had adopted at the beginning of the modern period. “I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was born in the Renaissance and has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment. It became the basis for political and social doctrine and could be called rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy; the proclaimed and practical autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of all.” Contrary to charges leveled by some of the critics of the address, the speaker was not attacking all dimensions of humanism and was aware of much Christian humanism in Renaissance thought. Rather he was highlighting the strain that based itself on human self-sufficiency, autonomy, and the possibilities of human self-creation.  The Enlightenment period in the West solidified these trends and made science—theoretical and applied—the essence of Western values into the 20th century. Harvard was a leading institution supporting and promoting these values and thus, one might expect, most of the audience did not take well to having those values challenged, especially by a “religious Enthusiast” or “Zealot”, as other critics described him.

 

(I must diverge again from my narrative to recognize an irony in the criticisms that routinely came from those who were defending the Enlightenment tradition against a foreigner motivated by religious zeal. In the late 1970s the waves of postmodernism were lapping onto the shores of most academic institutions in the U.S. bringing with them an incisive negative critique of the Enlightenment. The charge against the Enlightenment and the way it had been appropriated in the West was not that it had introduced human autonomy into the world but that it had blocked it with a science of defining, discriminating, categorizing, limiting, etc. Modernity under the flag of the Enlightenment had erected boundaries where there should be none, established limits, defined things by their differences, etc. This scientific enterprise and apparatus gave power to structures to use such for limiting and oppressing any and all who might wish to transcend the imposed limits. This attack on the Enlightenment which had been going on for decades before Solzhenitsyn addressed the audience that June day was even to be heard in the halls of the great University. But most of the critics of Solzhenitsyn’s speech had been educated a few decades earlier and were not privy to the new truth. They were shortly to find out that their precious Enlightenment ideology was on its death bed.)

 

As Solzhenitsyn continued to explain his critique of anthropocentricity he made a transition from historical analysis to ontological analysis, or, better, theological analysis. “The humanistic way of thinking which has proclaimed itself our guide, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man, nor did it see any task higher than the attainment of happiness on earth. It started modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend of worshipping man and his material needs.”

 

The title the Russian novelist gave to his address is “A World Split Apart.” What are the parts in the split? One might assume that he speaks of East and West since he contrasts many of the differences between realities in the West (mostly Western Europe and North America) and in the Soviet bloc of countries in the east. But I argue that as a literary artist he is always writing on more than one level, or, as a Russian under the Soviet regime, speaking in parables for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. Simply put, he is contrasting a world that perceives mankind as fundamentally and exclusively material beings and another world that conceives mankind as fundamentally spiritual beings with a material infrastructure. The “bitter truth” that Solzhenitsyn delivered to his audience that day was that the West has lost its way, gotten off of the path, because it has either forgotten or repudiated the God who put it on the path to begin with.

 

Many of the critics of Solzhenitsyn’s speech who were negative, especially about his Christian frame of reference for making evaluations of the West, could not grasp the concept of a world in which the human creature is a creature at all (i.e., created by a higher power) and is fundamentally a spiritual being. All they could do in response was dismiss such propositions as religious enthusiasm and suggest that, were people like the Russian Zealot in charge, we would be subjected to an oppressive theocracy that would severely limit our freedom and subject us to dogmas that we must accept or be punished. (Perhaps we are on the road toward such a dystopia but it is not a Christian theocracy that is herding us there.)

 

A little over a year and a half ago, a group of concerned members of faculty, staff, and students at Taylor University published anonymously an underground paper intended to put forth a set of concerns about directions the community was pursuing and inviting conversation about such issues as the nature and intent of marriage, theories of the origins of human life, the sanctity of human life, and relations among the races. They identified themselves as orthodox Christians and social and political conservatives. Many members of the Taylor community took the launch of this enterprise as a hostile act. Some reacted to the way the paper was distributed and others were disturbed by the anonymity of the writers. I am not going to address the procedures that gave rise to perceptions that this was an unwarranted action but to the substance of the issues addressed in the publication, Excalibur. Taylor is not Harvard nor are the authors of the publication of the stature of the great 20th century author but, whatever the differences, they function in the same world, the same Kingdom of God, and contribute in their own ways to shaping hearts and minds. It was concern about shaping the hearts and minds of the West that prompted Solzhenitsyn to speak as he did to the assembly at Harvard. It was concern about the shaping of the hearts and minds of an Evangelical Christian community that prompted the writers of Excalibur to write as they did. Many of the themes that Solzhenitsyn laid out in his address were implicit in the initial articles of Excalibur and subsequent articles appearing on the Res Publica website. It is worth noting that prophets bring hard truths that the people seem to have forgotten or allowed to slip away.

 

(Part 2 to follow)

 

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