Four years ago today one of the most important literary figures of recent history passed from the pages of time into the pages of history. In his earlier life Alexander Solzhenitsyn (December 11, 1918 – August 3, 2008) had been raised in a family of faith, but fell under the influence of the Pioneers, Soviet Communism’s version of the Boy Scouts. He became a fanatical communist and began “prospering” in that role. It would seem that the accepted definition of prospering was that one was reaping the rewards of favors and standing in the party. He prospered, that is, until something he had written years before critical of Josef Stalin was discovered. On February 9, 1945, while serving in the army, he was arrested and sentenced to years of brutal imprisonment.
While in a prison hospital following cancer surgery, Dr. Boris Kornfeld, a Jewish convert to Christianity, told him of his conversion. Solzhenitsyn was impressed by the goodness and kindness of this man who had not left the hospital for over two months, obviously for fear for his life. The very night after talking with Solzhenitsyn, the doctor was brutally murdered in his sleep. From this, Solzhenitsyn began to question the meaning of such brutality and the system that had spawned it. How could evil people like this “prosper?”
“And yet it is the innocent who are punished most zealously. And what would one then have to say about our torturers? Why does fate not punish them? Why do they prosper?”
“The only solution to this would be that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul. From that point of view our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: they are turning into swine; they are departing downward from humanity. From that point of view punishment is inflicted on those whose development . . . holds out hope.”
When I read these lines I am reminded of the description Paul gave of the people in ancient times who in departing from the living God became fools – and even more than fools. (Romans 1:18-32).
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools,” (Romans 1:21).
We read the apostle’s words about the progressive degeneration of people who lived long ago and we think, “Well, that may have happened ‘way back then, but it couldn’t happen today.” We think we are so far removed from those days of paganism and barbarism and being educated, scientific and sophisticated we cannot follow the same course as they.
What did they do? To begin with, they…
“…exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (v. 25)
Man who was made in the image of God for the purpose of being the visible representation of God’s glory to the world deliberately turned his back on God the creator and began worshiping images of lesser creatures. Once having abandoned his purpose for being, there was no limit to the level to which he would stoop. Morally, ethically, spiritually, socially – all areas of life become corrupted. Paul describes it this way…
“For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” (vs. 26-27).
When man leaves God he becomes less than human. Everything listed in vs. 29-31 of Romans 1 proves that. Paul says that people were…
“…filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”
According to Solzhenitsyn, in the old Soviet Union the reasoning would have been that if any of these things “prospered” you they were acceptable. Isn’t that much the same attitude people in our own country today have? We have a pragmatic, situational kind of morality that says whatever works and whatever “feels right” to you is the basis to be used in deciding one’s course of action.
Once God is abandoned, there is no objective standard of conduct. Man without God will always descend into this kind of moral morass. The Communist system officially dismissed God and the horrors of that system are a matter of history. That system eventually crumbled, in part at least, because of its own corruption. Man was not intended to live that way and will not forever tolerate it.
Solzhenitsyn was right. When people begin to prey on others, accusing, abusing and in general taking advantage of their fellow men for their own “prosperity,” they have become something less than human. It matters not that it is in the name of some “noble” ideology, there is no sensible rationale that permits one person causing suffering and anguish to another human being.
In 1972 Solzhenitsyn went public with an open confession of Christianity, and was roundly denounced. In Solzhenitsyn’s own words:
“I was received with ‘hurrahs’ as long as I appeared to be against Stalinist abuses only…[but] the time had come to speak more precisely, to go even deeper. And in doing so I should inevitably lose the reading public, lose my contemporaries in the hope of winning posterity.”
One of the most important writers of the 20th century was expelled from the Soviet Union after publication of his most famous book, “The Gulag Archipelago”. He eventually lived in the United States for a time before the fall of the Soviet system.
In 1978 Solzhenitsyn delivered the commencement address at Harvard University. In his uncompromising speech, he condemned the Western world as being morally bankrupt. Many in the West had loved Solzhenitsyn, but only as long as he was trashing the Soviet empire, not them. In this speech, he offered a most interesting and controversial criticism of Western civilization as being organized on the basis of legalism.
“I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is also less than worthy of man. A society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.”
Once God is dismissed from consideration as the basis for civilization, the only reasonable foundation man can offer is human law. But even God’s law was never intended to be the basis of society. Law has its function, but it also has its limits. Law alone can never do for man or for civilization what faith in God and love for one’s fellow man can. Law can only somewhat govern the actions of a society, but only faith that works by love can govern the heart.
“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient…” (1 Timothy 1:8-11).