Saturday 14 May 2016

One of the greatest speeches in the history of civilization? Peter Kreeft on Solzhenitsyn at Harvard, 1978 - Reflections on its implications for the future of Christianity in Russia versus the West

Peter Kreeft was present when Solzhenitsyn gave his speech at Harvard in 1978, which he calls one of the greatest speeches in the history of civilization. Here he analyzes the impact it made upon him by going through the text and interjecting the impact it made at the time.
The full text is here:


I also find this a great speech, an extremely deep analysis and diagnosis; and I also regard Solzhenitsyn as a genuine prophet.

But when it comes to the matter of moving from diagnosis to treatment - Solzhenitsyn's focus is naturally and rightly on Russia, where seventy years of vicious repression (falling not far short of attempted extermination) failed to suppress devout Orthodox Christianity among the masses - such that Russian governments still need the cooperation and assistance of the church in order to govern. On top of this, there has been a powerful revival of Christianity among the intellectual ruling elites - whose abandonment of the church from the latter 19th century was what had enabled the Russian Revolution to happen. These elites have since 1989 to a significant (although partial) extent embraced Christianity to the point that it has been fashionable and prestigious enough for people to profess faith insincerely.

The contrast with the West is striking. Here we also experienced the intellectual elites turning against Christianity - although that happened much earlier, from the 18th century - but there is no sign of a Christian revival in this group. Furthermore the Western masses are now also very thoroughly de-Christianized - (except in the middle regions of the USA, to some diminishing extent) the West utterly lacks the groundswell of mass piety which has proved ineradicable in Russia, even in the absence of priests or (worse) the presence of anti-Christian/ atheist/ informer/ KGB 'priests'.

Such serious Christianity as survives in the West is mostly among the lower middling kind of people, and is not focused on a single denomination or church but spread across many independent and often mutually-hostile groups - including Pentecostalists and ultra-Protestant home churches and the recently-founded US Christian churches from the 1800s such as Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists.

Spiritually speaking, therefore, the West is in far worse shape than Russia - just as Solzhenitsyn categorically stated even forty years ago and while the USSR was still in place. And while a revival of Orthodoxy as the unified state religion is clearly the right and best thing for Russia - and is actually happening with the distinct possibility (not likelihood, so far; but a definite possibility) that the Tsardom may be restored in the medium term.

But there is no equivalent single answer for the West. If the West puts all its eggs into one basket (one Christian church, one denomination) then that basket would necessarily be pitifully small and weak because it lacks both elite and mass support.

So what could be done in the West - what might be a basis for Christian hope, which we feel but cannot realistically articulate?

1. We need to recognize that it has never been easier to be a Christian than now, here, in the West! Matters are clearer than ever before: it’s a no brainer! Suddenly, this fact may become very obvious to very many people. Let’s be ready if it does.

2. At present, in the West, we need to think of Christianity at the individual level - not in terms of organizations.

3. Serious Christians must stop quibbling over definitions and differences. This should be easy - if they really are Christian and not legalistic Philistines. Those who really love Jesus and are themselves loving will not have trouble setting aside their differences and getting along with each other.

4. Christians therefore should minimally be 'defined' as people who are religious and Christ-centred in their aspirations; serious Christians as those believe that Christianity should be the primary factor in the conduct of life - including the organization of society.

In other words, I suggest that serious Christians are those who regard Christianity as more important than politics, economics, personal or sexual freedom, national prestige - or anything else. This is not to say that 'nothing else matters' - everything needs to be balanced - but when two aspects need to be fitted-together it is the politics/ economics/ sexuality which is fitted-to Christianity, and not vice versa

This has nothing to do with forcing people to be Christian - which is impossible by definition. But serious Christians are those who recognize that nothing is more important than Christianity - and therefore laws, attitudes and social practices should ultimately be consistent with Christianity.

5. So if, by great good luck and some abrupt and widespread recognition of the truth of Christianity, there is a mass and massive Christian revival in the West; then our attention will be on individual souls, and not on the organizations.


Leo said...

Speaking of prophetic statements:

"If ever the Church and the Constitution of England should fall in these islands, it is not Presbyterian discipline nor Popish hierarchy that will rise upon their ruins....It is the new fanatical religion, now in the hear of its first ferment...which rejects all establishments, all discipline, all ecclesiastical, and in truth all civil order, which will triumph."

--Edmund Burke, 1793

Sean Cory said...

I must confess that the 5 points made are all clear to me save #1 (which you label a "no brainer" - and where does that place me?). How is it easier to be a Christian today in the west than ever before? I believe it is easier to identify actual Christians than ever before due to the rather vivid contrasts that now exist between the faithful and the rest of the world. But I don't see how it is easier to become or remain Christian. Though I do see how with the choice to be or not to be Christian now so stark that those who choose Jesus are likely to be pretty strong in their faith having arrived at it in the teeth of truly scornful, dismissive and often vicious opposition.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Leo - Hadn't seen that - very good. 'Triumph' is the word, because it is what people 'want'... sort of.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Sean - Sorry about the 'no brainer' comment! - really it is almost the opposite - mired in confusion but then it suddenly struck me that the alternatives are getting so clearly demarcated, so far apart - and the insanity of the secular world is getting so very extreme... That it is possible to see life in terms of two clearly opposed choices, one is ever-more-clearly evil, so the decision becomes simple. It is only the increasing mass media usage and addiction which holds thing together, but there is a limit to that (a much higher limit than I used to suppose, but its influence is finite at a personal level) - the increasingly extreme insanity is built-in. Christianity can be very simple and powerful as a source of courage and love, if only people will allow it to be - and will regard it in a personal and mythic fashion instead of as complex, abstract propositions and debates. As secular Leftism burns-off more and more of people's false knowledge about Christianity or awareness of it, it will create the perfect virgin terrain for rapid spread - and I think a covert awareness of this fact lies behind the palpable fear of the secular Left which lends zeal to their oppression and extremism to their lies. I am not saying that I expect this will probably happen - I don't; but it could happen potentially, and that is the basis of my hope.

Sean Cory said...

I believe it is far more likely that a resurgence of faith will come about as the result of some calamity or series of such. I remember the stories of how churches were suddenly filled in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack. Those stories disappeared after about two weeks. Had a series of such attacks occurred perhaps the churches would have remained full? Or perhaps those who had discovered (or rediscovered) their faith would become numb to the repeated shocks and slowly fallen away. I suspect we will be finding out sooner rather than later.