If you have been paying attention (and I know that you all have) during the conversation we have been having here now for more than nineteen years, you might realize that there have been certain names that keep popping up. One, of course, is a certain rock singer from New Jersey. In more recent months, you have been treated to in depth analysis of the lives and legacy of the heroic members of the White Rose resistance group from Germany during the 1940s. There have also been numerous references to theologians and scholars like Matthew Fox and Joseph Campbell and even our own Ralph Waldo Emerson.
And, of course, there has been the Czech philosopher, playwright, and political leader, Vaclav Havel. My first book was a biography of President Havel; I even met him once. I think his life story is inspiring and exciting; his words have stirred me and moved me; they have found a deep place in my heart and mind. I remember the first time I heard him speak. He had me at “anthropocentrism”.
It was in an interview with Barbara Walters early in 1990, on the 20/20 television program, I believe, just a few weeks after Communism had been toppled in Czechoslovakia, and the unlikely Mr. Havel, dissident and playwright, former political prisoner, had become the country’s president.
“What is the most important issue the world faces?” Ms. Walters asked the new head of state.
I thought he would say the arms race, nuclear proliferation, war and peace, fixing the economy, something like that. But Havel—ever an unorthodox world leader-- responded that the most important problem in the world was anthropocentrism: that is, that humanity had lost its sense of humility toward the cosmos, and had put itself at the center of creation, rather than acknowledging those greater forces of which it was part.
His words reminded of those I had read from Solzhenitsyn some years before:
“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.”
They were words from the address Mr. Solzhenitsyn had given in May of 1983, on being awarded the Templeton Prize, a prestigious award (sometimes called “religion’s Nobel Prize”) conferred on people who have made “exceptional contribution[s] to affirming life's spiritual dimension.” Other recipients have included Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Rev. Billy Graham, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama.
It has been exactly thirty years since Solzhenitsyn received that award in 1983. So, I thought it a good time to get his address out of the files; quite literally (almost) dust it off; and take a look at how his words and insights reflect the landscape—religious, political, historical, even personal—that has developed in the years since. What has changed? What abides? Was Solzhenitsyn (and by extension, perhaps, Havel) a prophet, whose words ring more true than ever? Or was he a mere religious reactionary, clinging for dear life to the ideas and trappings of an age that was already dead and gone?
Certainly, Solzhenitsyn ranks as a prophetic voice in stripping away any illusions the West might have had about the allure of Communism and the superiority of the Leninist way of life. The heroic experience of dissidents throughout Eastern Europe (like Solzhenitsyn, and like Havel and Walesa and so many others) exposed the Bolshevik lie so clearly that, in the end, even its defenders and practitioners had to give up the ship—and, before our very eyes, overnight it seemed, the Empire fell, and the world was changed.
It’s hard to believe, sometimes, the inordinate power that the fear of Communism held throughout the childhoods and youths of many of us (of a certain age, at least). (For a few of us, even, the allure of radical Marxism was an all-too-powerful siren, as well.)
But now, with the exception of a bizarre place like North Korea (and perhaps Cuba), traditional Leninism no longer exists on the face of the planet (good riddance to it!). China is nominally Communist, but its rather strange hybrid economic system is really more state capitalist than socialist. (China does not even have universal health care any longer—in that and other respects China is even less “socialist” than France, or Germany for that matter!)
So, it’s getting hard to remember those days when the ideology and practice of Communism held sway over broad swatches of this world of ours. But not only that: this world changes so quickly that it’s even getting hard to remember those heady and dramatic days when Communism fell, and people’s revolutions won the day in one country after another—even in Solzhenitsyn’s own Soviet Union, for God’s sake.
It is as though we have lived through several successive generations of change in the mere thirty years since 1983, but that in spite of all that, the world has changed little (in essential ways, for the better at least) in the years since. Many of the great hopes that were kindled when Communism fell have been deferred. Economic injustice has not been vanquished. Economic inequality (in the industrialized world, at least) has actually grown. Political turmoil is still the rule of the day. The ideal of a “unified Europe” faces extreme pressures and is far from being a dream fulfilled.
The world has changed. And yet, it hasn’t. And we have grown much older in the last thirty years.
So what, then, are we to make of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s explanation for all of the world’s ills—“Men have forgotten God.”?
Certainly, his words had a certain veracity to them when the “enemy”—the chief cause of the world’s woes—was “Godless Communism”—a political system which denied the Almighty, and exalted human reason and human achievement as the pinnacle of all life.
But what of our world today?
Is it even possible to believe that the precipice this world stands at now—the dangers it faces; the threats that imperil it—have been caused because there is “not enough God” in people’s consciousness?
Hmmmmm… A cursory glance at the news of the day would indicate that we can hardly lay the threat of international terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism on the “lack of God” in its practitioners worldview. No, there seems to be “too much God” there, and not “not enough”.
Atheistic Communism in the Soviet Union killed millions (60 million Solzhenitsyn says, though I haven’t checked where he gets that figure from). The Communist Chinese regime may have killed as many as 70 million. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia killed over 2 million men, women, and children (in a total population of about 7 million).
Horrifying figures certainly. But what of the countless dead killed by marauding and crusading armies who marched “with the cross of Jesus going on before”? What of the blood-soaked land created by Columbus and those who came after him through the genocide of the native peoples of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries? All coming to the New World with the blessing of their Church, to spread their Faith far and wide, at the tip of a sword, if need be.
Technology has allowed 20th century tyrants to kill more efficiently, to be sure. But men of faith have hardly stood blameless in this ongoing mayhem we call human history.
Too often, “Men have forgotten God” and the result has been tragedy and evil. But all too often, too—as the world’s current experience with Islamic terrorism would seem to indicate—it has been men (and women) “of God”—those who ostensibly shout God’s name—Allah’s name—the most loudly, who have forgotten God most profoundly. It is they who have turned their backs on the deepest ideals of their faiths. It is they now who are pulling the world forcibly into the whirlwind of terror and depravity.
“Remembering God” is not the same as remembering all the teachings of this or that Church or Faith; or being able to quote whole chapters of your holy scripture from memory; or always being able to find the perfect Bible verse—or the perfect verse of the Koran, or the Torah—to beat your opponent into submission.
Not turning one’s back on God means remembering the deepest ideals of your faith, and striving to live them out, every day of your life. Not turning your back on God means not turning your back on all of God’s creatures—on all of your brothers and sisters in this great human family. If you truly believe in a Divine Creator, then how can you not see all people as all God’s children? And if we are all God’s children, then how can you knowingly hurt or harm or even kill one of your very own brothers and sisters?
Not to forget God means not forgetting the fundamental reality that on this, God’s world, we are all One. That in the ways of the world, we should strive to take care of one another, especially of the weakest and most vulnerable among us. That, along the way of the world, we should strive to walk together, just as far as we can. Never forgetting the one who made us, never turning our back on the holy, never closing our ears to the monitions of the Spirit, and God’s voice in our souls.
But always striving for ways that weave the web of life, and strengthen its fibers, and reinforce its connections. Always striving for ways to unite with those most different from us—even if that means putting aside the particular preferences and practices of our chosen faiths for a little while, and finding ways to work together and make the world better.
We were not put on this Earth in order to win a theological argument and score points for our religious team. We were put here to practice acts of mercy and to further the cause of justice. That is how we who are people of faith glorify the one who made us, and repay the debt we owe, pennies on the dollar, but the best we can.
The choice that the West faces (that the world faces) is not just narrow fundamentalism on the one hand or cold and strident atheism on the other.
In many ways, I think that Solzhenitsyn—stern judge of the weak and dissolute Western world-- was quite right back in 1983. His words still speak to our times. It may well be that we are immersed today in an age of unparalleled callousness and selfishness. In the name of “freedom” and “libertarianism”, our culture worships at the altar of Ayn Rand, and our material possessions have become our gods. In banishing the evil spirit of collectivism, we have forgotten the debt we owe to one another. In our love for freedom, we have allowed ourselves at times to be tempted by false gods of license and decadence.
But freedom and reason—those dear offspring of the oft’ derided Enlightenment-- still stand as the West’s greatest defense against the whirlwind of history. If we each just cling stubbornly to our own self-imposed, man-made orthodoxies, then we face a Dark Age even deeper than that from which the civilization of the West once emerged. But to accept the truth that our ideas can change, that the forms and rituals of faith must be transformed in the light of new experience, is to embrace wholeheartedly the power of a Spirit which makes all things new.
In our purely human reckonings, we have forgotten God all too often. We have failed to heed that infinite voice which speaks to each individual heart and conscience. “Only a God can save us now,” the German philosopher Heidegger once wrote. Or perhaps only being attuned to the deepest and fullest that is within us can give this world hope.
There are forces of evil alive in this world, which only the most naive can deny. May we strive to join with men and women of goodwill everywhere—whatever their faith, and even if they profess no faith-- to stand in opposition to these forces. May we act bravely and boldly in the face of the challenges ahead of us.
But may we also stand humbly and quietly and listen for the voice of God within. Then, deeply immersed in a spirit of love, let us resolve to build for those who will come after us a world dedicated to justice and to peace.