Posts tagged with: alexander solzhenitsyn

In a special report, the American Spectator has published Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg’s new article on the “civilizational agenda” of Pope Benedict XVI. Special thanks also to RealClearReligion for linking the Gregg article.

Benedict XVI: In No One’s Shadow

By Samuel Gregg

It was inevitable. In the lead-up to John Paul II’s beatification, a number of publications decided it was time to opine about the direction of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. The Economist, for example, portrayed a pontificate adrift, “accident-prone,” and with a “less than stellar record” compared to Benedict’s dynamic predecessor (who, incidentally, didn’t meet with the Economist‘s approval either).

It need hardly be said that, like most British publications, the Economist‘s own record when it comes to informed commentary on Catholicism and religion more generally is itself less than stellar. And the problems remain the same as they have always been: an unwillingness to do the hard work of trying to understand a religion on its own terms, and a stubborn insistence upon shoving theological positions into secular political categories.

Have mistakes occurred under Benedict’s watch? Yes. Some sub-optimal appointments? Of course. That would be true of any leader of such a massive organization.

But the real difficulty with so much commentary on this papacy is the sheer narrowness of the perspective brought to the subject. If observers were willing to broaden their horizons, they might notice just how big are the stakes being pursued by Benedict.
This pope’s program, they may discover, goes beyond mere institutional politics. He’s pursuing a civilizational agenda.

And that program begins with the Catholic Church itself. Even its harshest critics find it difficult to deny Catholicism’s decisive influence on Western civilization’s development. It follows that a faltering in the Church’s confidence about its purpose has implications for the wider culture.

That’s one reason Benedict has been so proactive in rescuing Catholic liturgy from the banality into which it collapsed throughout much of the world (especially the English-speaking world) after Vatican II. Benedict’s objective here is not a reactionary “return to the past.” Rather, it’s about underscoring the need for liturgy to accurately reflect what the Church has always believed — lex orandi, lex credendi — rather than the predilections of an aging progressivist generation that reduced prayer to endless self-affirmation.

This attention to liturgy is, I suspect, one reason why another aspect of Benedict’s pontificate — his outreach to the Orthodox Christian churches — has been remarkably successful. As anyone who’s attended Orthodox services knows, the Orthodox truly understand liturgy. Certainly Benedict’s path here was paved by Vatican II, Paul VI, and John Paul II. Yet few doubt that Catholic-Orthodox relations have taken off since 2005.

That doesn’t mean the relationship is uncomplicated by unhappy historical memories, secular political influences, and important theological differences. Yet it’s striking how positively Orthodox churches have responded to the German pope’s overtures. They’ve also become increasingly vocal in echoing Benedict’s concerns about Western culture’s present trajectory.

But above all, Benedict has — from his pontificate’s very beginning — gone to the heart of the rot within the West, a disease which may be described as pathologies of faith and reason.

In this regard, Benedict’s famous 2006 Regensburg address may go down as one of the 21st century’s most important speeches, comparable to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Address in terms of its accuracy in identifying some of the West’s inner demons.

Most people think about the Regensburg lecture in terms of some Muslims’ reaction to Benedict’s citation of a 14th century Byzantine emperor. That, however, is to miss Regensburg’s essence. It was really about the West.

Christianity, Benedict argued at Regensburg, integrated Biblical faith, Greek philosophy, and Roman law, thereby creating the “foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.” This suggests that any weakening of this integration of faith and reason would mean the West would start losing its distinctive identity. In short, a West without a Christianity that integrates faith and reason is no longer the West.

Today, Benedict added, we see what happens when faith and reason are torn asunder. Reason is reduced to scientism and ideologies of progress, thereby rending reasoned discussion of anything beyond the empirical impossible. Faith dissolves into sentimental humanitarianism, an equally inadequate basis for rational reflection. Neither of these emaciated facsimiles of their originals can provide any coherent response to the great questions pondered by every human being: “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?”
“Where am I going?”

So what’s the way back? To Benedict’s mind, it involves affirming that what he recently called creative reason lies at the origin of everything.

As Benedict explained one week before he beatified his predecessor: “We are faced with the ultimate alternative that is at stake in the dispute between faith and unbelief: are irrationality, lack of freedom and pure chance the origin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being? Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everything hinges upon in the final analysis.”

It’s almost impossible to count the positions Benedict is politely assailing here. On the one hand, he’s taking on philosophical materialists and emotivists (i.e., most contemporary scholars). But it’s also a critique of those who diminish God to either a Divine Watchmaker or a being of Pure Will.

Of course none of this fits into sound-bites. “Pope Attacks Pathologies of Faith and Reason!” is unlikely to be a newspaper headline anytime soon. That, however, doesn’t nullify the accuracy of Benedict’s analysis. It just makes communicating it difficult in a world of diminished attention-spans and inclined to believe it has nothing to learn from history.

So while the Economist and others might gossip about the competence of various Vatican officials, they are, to their own detriment, largely missing the main game. Quietly but firmly Benedict is making his own distinct contribution to the battle of ideas upon which the fate of civilizations hang. His critics’ inability to engage his thought doesn’t just illustrate their ignorance. It also betrays a profound lack of imagination.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, banned in the Soviet Union until 1989, has been published in a new shorter, Russian-language edition aimed at schools. The book was included in the list of compulsory books in Russian schools only last year, according to a report in RIA Novosti.

The widow of Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn presented on Thursday an abridged edition of The Gulag Archipelago that publishers hope will eventually be read by every Russian student. “It is necessary that people know what has happened in our country when they finish school,” 71-year-old Natalya Solzhenitsyna told journalists at the presentation of the book in Moscow.

The Gulag Archipelago vividly describes the mass arrests of innocent people and their deportation to labor camps during the Soviet era and Solzhenitsyna said people should know that they “were not just individual episodes, but a round-the-clock mowing down of people.”

The new edition gets an endorsement from the top:

At a meeting with Solzhenitsyna on Tuesday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – a former KGB agent – said the book was essential reading for students to have a full understanding of Russia.

In the current Religion & Liberty, we interviewed scholar Edward E. Ericson Jr. about the publication of the “restored” edition of the Solzhenitsyn novel, In the First Circle. Because of space limitations, we had to cut a section of the interview, published as “Literature and the Realm of Moral Values,” that dealt with the almost total ignorance of American students about the Cold War period. Maybe the Gulag Archipelago should be mandatory reading in U.S. schools today. Here’s the Ericson “outtake” from the R&L interview published for the first time:

How do American students today understand Solzhenitsyn and the history of the Soviet Gulag?

I’ll tell you how they react when they read The Gulag Archipelago. Incidentally, we have 100 pages of it as an abridgment in The Solzhenitsyn Reader (ISI Books, 2006). I have taught selections from Gulag many times. In short January-term classes where students keep journals, the same refrain about Gulag will come from them over and over. “Why didn’t they tell us this in school? I never heard this from my teachers. I thought I was getting a good high school education. We studied history. We studied World War II and the Holocaust. We studied the Cold War. I never heard about the Gulag.”

How do you study the Cold War and miss the Gulag?

Good question. I don’t know. And that’s what these students wanted to know. I used to ask students, when the subject of the Holocaust came up, does a number of those who died in the Holocaust come to your mind? This is isn’t a trick question, I tell them. For many of you, I say, I think a number has come to your mind. Never mind if it’s a right number or a wrong number. And someone will finally say, “Six million?” And heads will start nodding; yeah, that the number. When I ask if anyone else has heard that number, the hands go up all over. After they have found out what the Gulag is, I ask, “Does any number come to your mind?” No. “What would you say if I said 66 million?” The looks say, “Really?” And then you have to explain. Well, it’s over a longer period, and as for efficiency on a per-day basis, the Germans had better technology for eliminating humans. All the Soviets had were guns and big trenches and they’d line up the people, let the shot bodies topple over into the trenches, and throw dirt over them. And the number Solzhenitsyn learned and used is probably too high, but it’s a number calculated by a demographer who did statistical analysis of birth and death records and the like, and he came up with 66 million. Maybe that’s double what it should be. Since we’ll never know, let’s just agree to say so. But still …

Estelle Snyder makes an excellent case that Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jesse Helms had similar humble backgrounds and beliefs that helped form a deep bond between the two men, despite being separated by language, culture, geography, and an Iron Curtain.

In a paper published by the North Carolina History Project titled “Champions of Freedom: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jesse Helms,” Snyder argues that their relationship was an important one in terms of confronting the evils of Communism with a more aggressive posture, aimed at expanding human freedom.

Some may forget that at the time the two figures met in the United States in 1975, the United States government was moving even further towards easing relations with the Soviet Union and advocating long term coexistence and mutual understanding. Some conservative leaders, most notably Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms, decided to aggressively attack that policy. Solzhenitsyn was instrumental in reinforcing and helping Helms and other conservative leaders argue that the United States was not properly confronting the Communist advance. Snyder notes:

Senator Helms was moved by Solzhenitsyn’s boldness in exposing the brutal truth about Communism that Helms had suspected and warned against for decades. It did not surprise him at all to learn that the Soviet government was intent on discrediting both Solzhenitsyn’s work and his personal integrity. He recognized the courage that Solzhenitsyn had shown in first daring to tell his story and then to risk re-imprisonment or worse by first making the decision to publish and now to speak out publically calling for his country to put aside their repression of personal freedom.

Senator Helms wrote Solzhenitsyn to express his admiration and appreciation for the author’s commitment to the pursuit of liberty in spite of the personal cost to himself and his family. Soon the two men had established a friendship through their regular correspondence that was fueled by their mutual commitment to the principle that every human being should be free from the control of tyrants.

Helms also invited Solzhenitsyn to the United States where the two first met in Helms’s Washington home. Despite the different worship styles of the Russion Orthodox and Southern Baptist traditions, Snyder points out in her paper their faith was an invaluable bond between the two. Soon after the meeting, Helms delivered a speech in which he said, “The news accounts have failed, I fear, to emphasize the real source of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s courage and strength, which is his faith in God.”

Snyder’s paper is a treasure trove of information on the relationship between Helms and Solzhenitsyn and their battle with Communism. It also chronicles the infamous stand off between Helms and fellow conservatives against President Gerald Ford after he snubbed Solzhenitsyn, by refusing to meet with him. The administration was afraid of angering the Soviets and did not want to threaten diplomatic agreements.

Solzhenitsyn and Helms’s confrontation with Communism was primarily a spiritual one that exposed the evils of a system that tried to erase man’s relationship with his Creator and limit his potential. Helms also said of Solzhenitsyn: “His testimony, I would reiterate, is that no man is inadequate if he has true faith in God.”

We have published a lot of work and analysis on Solzhenitsyn at Acton. This is something we are proud of and will continue. For the latest, check out the interview in Religion & Liberty with Solzhenitsyn scholar and editor Edward J. Ericson. I published a review of Righteous Warrior, a recent Helms biography. The review was also republished by the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, North Carolina.