Solzhenitsyn: The Courage to be a Christian

In these dark days in which the power of secular fundamentalism appears to be on the rise and in which religious freedom seems to be imperiled, it is easy for Christians to become despondent. The clouds of radical relativism seem to obscure the light of objective truth and it can be difficult to discern any silver lining to help us illumine the future with hope.

In such gloomy times the example of the martyrs can be encouraging. Those who laid down their lives for Christ and His Church in worse times than ours are beacons of light, dispelling the darkness with their baptism of blood. “Upon such sacrifices,” King Lear tells his soon to be martyred daughter Cordelia, “The gods themselves throw incense.”

It is said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church and, if this is so, more bloody seed has been sown in the past century than in any of the bloody centuries that preceded it. Tens of millions have been slaughtered on the blood-soaked altars of national and international socialism in Europe, China, Cambodia and elsewhere. Today, in many parts of the world, millions upon millions are being slaughtered in the womb in the name of “reproductive rights.”

In such a meretricious age the giant figure of Alexander Solzhenitsyn emerges as a colossus of courage. Born in Russia in 1918, only months after the secular fundamentalists had swept to power in the Bolshevik Revolution, Solzhenitsyn was brainwashed by a state education system which taught him that socialism was just and that religion was the enemy of the people. Like most of his school friends, he enslaved himself to the zeitgeist, became an atheist and joined the communist party.

Serving in the Soviet army on the Eastern Front during the Second World War he witnessed cold blooded murder and the raping of women and children as the Red Army took its “revenge” on the Germans. Disillusioned, he committed the indiscretion of criticizing the Soviet leader Josef Stalin and was imprisoned for eight years as a political dissident.

While in prison, he resolved to expose the horrors of the Soviet system. Shortly after his release, during a period of compulsory exile in Kazakhstan, he was diagnosed with a malignant cancer in its advanced stages and was not expected to live. In the face of what appeared to be impending death, he converted to Christianity and was astonished by what he considered to be a miraculous recovery.

Throughout the 1960s Solzhenitsyn published three novels exposing the secularist tyranny of the Soviet Union and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Following the publication in 1973 of his seminal work, The Gulag Archipelago, an exposé of the treatment of political dissidents in the Soviet prison system, he was arrested and expelled from the Soviet Union, thereafter living the life of an exile in Switzerland and the United States. He finally returned to Russia in 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet system.

In 1978, Solzhenitsyn caused great controversy when he criticized the secularism and hedonism of the West in his famous commencement address at Harvard University. Condemning the nations of the so-called free West for being morally bankrupt, he urged that it was time “to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”

The emphasis on rights instead of responsibilities was leading to “the abyss of human decadence” and to the committing of “moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror.” At the root of the modern malaise was the modern philosophy of “rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy,” which declared the “autonomy of man from any higher authority above him.” Such a view “could also be called anthropocentrity, with man seen as the centre of all.”

It is ultimately of little matter whether the sickness that is slowly poisoning the West is given the labels that Solzhenitsyn affixed to it, or whether we prefer to give it the name of secular fundamentalism. The disease by any other name would be as deadly.

Furthermore, this disease is not merely destructive but self-destructive. It has no long-term future. Although secular fundamentalist “progressives” might believe in a future “golden age,” such an age does not exist. The future that they herald is merely one of gathering gloom and ever darkening clouds. This fate has ever been so for those who proclaim their “Pride.” They have nothing to expect in the future but their fall.

As for the Christian, he has nothing to fear but his falling into the pride of despair. If he avoids becoming despondent and retains his humility, he will receive the gift of hope which is its fruit.  Where there is hope there is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

As we await the fall of the latest manifestation of secular fundamentalism, we need to remember that the culture of death is a parasite. It does not give life; it only destroys or corrupts it. Like all successful parasites it kills itself when it kills the host culture on which it feeds. It is not merely deadly but suicidal. It is unsustainable. It cannot survive.

Let’s not forget that Hitler’s promise of a Thousand Year Reich lasted only twelve years. In similar vein, the communist revolution which according to Marx would usher in the end of history, is itself a ruined remnant of history. Little could Solzhenitsyn have known when he languished as one of the many millions in the Soviet prison system that he would outlive the Soviet system and, furthermore, that his own courage would play an important part in that very system’s collapse.

Returning to the imagery of gloom-laden skies with which we began, we should remind ourselves that clouds and the shadows they cast are transient. Evil is nihilistic, which is another way of saying that it is ultimately nothing. It is only a temporary blocking of the light. “Above all shadows rides the Sun,” as the ever-humble Samwise Gamgee proclaims in The Lord of the Rings. Even in these dark days, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us, every cloud has a silver lining.

This essay first appeared December 10, 2012 on the Truth and Charity Forum website, sponsored by Human Life International and is reprinted with permission.

Joseph Pearce


Joseph Pearce is Writer-in-Residence and Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, TN. He is also the co-editor of the St. Austin Review, executive director of Catholic Courses and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. His book on Alexander Solzhenitsyn received the prestigious Pollock Award for Christian Biography.

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  • ruthsdaughter

    thank you. A much-needed shot of fortitude.

  • mono

    socialism does not have to include abortions,gay marriages,outlawing religion and sacrificing seems like some people just dont like the idea of fair and especially equal life styles or accommodations…remember,abortions and gay marriages are optional..and maybe they wii always be with us…..also, in heaven there may be equality in eternal-style.

  • crakpot

    Despair comes of pride, hope comes of humility – that does ring true.

    I wish people would not malign ‘rights’ by its leftist redefinition. There is no such thing as a right to do a wrong, such as pornography. Rights and responsibilities are not opposites – conscience has rights because it has responsibilities.

    The American founding was about freedom from unjust power to do as one ought, protecting the right to do so. If you read the 1st Amendment, you’ll find no mention of a God-given right to say or believe in whatever you want – only a prohibition on the use of government power in the matter. The responsibility is ours.

  • Jeff

    Why are these times dark? I see them as beautiful and optimistic. Secular humanism? I don’t think so. Our right to practice our religion is stronger than ever, and there is no danger of any of us being driven into the catacombs. What is being asserted is the right of others — people of equal ability and goodness — not to have our religion forced on them. We cannot tell others they may not be gay, who they can marry, whether or they can use contraception, whether they should be housewives or working women, etc. As “mono” says in these comments, “people just don’t like the idea of fair and especially equal life styles or accommodations.” What I think we’re really seeing is not moral disintegration, but a reaction to change and the growing equality of previously marginalized groups that are now asserting themselves — minorities, women, liberal Christians, non-Christians, and LGBTs. That these people are now the equal of our former dominant cohort of conservative Christian white men is no disgrace to any group, not even conservative Christian white men (who are simply being asked to accept equality.) This is being called “privilege distress” or “aggrieved entitlement” and is getting a closer look in the wake of the Connecticut shootings and the realization that most of these rampage killers are white men — angry white men. There are a couple of interesting articles on the subject that some might enjoy at:

    The gist of these sob stories about the present times that I see on Crisis magazine — mostly bewailing the passing of an allegedly better time — really boil down to mourning the loss of privilege of a particular group. Nearly all these articles on Crisis are written by conservative Christian white men. While that’s OK, it’s clear that their perspective is much more sociological than theological. They want their power back the way a baby wants its rattle.

    • crakpot

      Right. “Angry white conservative Christian males” (like Solzhenitsyn) are just a bunch of babies – and prejudiced too!

      • Ib

        I’m not concerned with individuals like Jeff. As with any large group of people, some lump on the left, seeking to impose irrational Orwellian plans to “liberate” humanity. No one trumpeted equality more than the Soviet dictators, but what that amounted to was slavery to the state for both men and women. Of these type of “Jeffs,” there shall be no end. Lemmings of the left, eventually they end up over a cliff of their own making …

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  • paladin712

    This is just what we need right now, thank you.

  • I am sorry but the Third Reich is alive and well, growing in strength and vitality in the USA today. Believing otherwise is a mistake.