BreakPoint: Solzhenitsyn’s Graduation Speech Revisited


John Stonestreet

In 1978, at Harvard, America heard from a prophetic voice. His comments have proven true and are worth revisiting.

Few college commencement speakers these days dare challenge our culture’s rampant political correctness and secularism.

But a generation ago, on June 8, 1978, the renowned Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave a stunning address at Harvard University that not only made those assembled there uncomfortable; it provoked many to boo.

Why would the audience boo this moral giant, who had stared down a brutal communist dictatorship’s Gulags and won the Nobel Prize in literature? Because people expected him to celebrate the West and condemn communism, but he came over and condemned communism and the West. Not only this, but Solzhenitsyn had the gall to speak of something reviled at the time by the elites on both sides of the Atlantic: truth.

“[T]ruth,” Solzhenitsyn said at the start, “eludes us if we do not concentrate our attention totally on its pursuit. But even while it eludes us, the illusion of knowing it still lingers and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”

In a classic analysis of our prevailing worldview, Solzhenitsyn said the West had exchanged belief in unchanging truth for a relentless legalism. The most tragic and significant result, he said, was the absence of “civil courage.” And he pointed to three lines of evidence: First, “destructive and irresponsible freedom had been granted boundless space.”

How a culture understands freedom – whether to virtue or for immediate gratification – determines its stability. As Os Guinness wrote in his recent book “A Free People’s Suicide,” the greatest enemy of freedom, ironically, is freedom. I would tweak that a bit—the greatest enemy of freedom is poorly defined freedom, what Chuck Colson called freedom without virtue.

Second, Solzhenitsyn pointed to the decadence of art and a lack of great statesmen. That line makes me think of the Rothko painting called “Untitled, (Yellow and Blue),” which basically is a blue stripe on a yellow background. That’s it… and it just sold at a New York auction for $46.5 million.

And the lack of great statesmen? While there are certainly many courageous individuals worthy of our respect, consider how our society has defined greatness down. This is evidenced by the fact that the Arthur Ashe Courage Award by ESPN, once awarded to Nelson Mandela, will this year be awarded to Bruce Jenner – not for his Olympic feats but for his announcement that he was a woman, a year after they awarded it to Michael Sam for announcing his sexual orientation.

And we’ve long struggled with who to call heroes in the West: confusing celebrities and athletes with heroes. As Dr. Bill Brown, a mentor and co-author of mine, says: in other countries, heroes make history. In our country, they make CDs and touchdowns.

And Solzhenitsyn’s final warning referred to the 1977 New York City blackout when, as he said, “all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.” If that reminds you of recent events, you’re not alone.

Can anything be done about the loss of civil courage? Well, our friend Eric Metaxas has written about two individuals who found themselves in fragile cultural moments not dissimilar to ours: William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

While Wilberforce was able, by God’s grace, to see a cultural and spiritual recovery, Bonhoeffer was not. And yet, neither man was a failure. Like them, we don’t know the future of our culture, but that’s not up to us. What is up to us it to courageously commit ourselves to truth and virtue, love God and our neighbor, and care for the victims of the bad ideas our culture is promoting.

As Father Richard John Neuhaus wisely said, paraphrasing T. S. Eliot, “For us, there is only the trying . . .  the rest is God’s business.”

(This commentary originally aired June 9, 2015.)

Solzhenitsyn's Graduation Speech Revisited: Speaking Truth to Culture
A few boos at a commencement speech could not deter a man like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who survived the Soviet Gulag. Will we have Solzhenitsyn-like courage when the crowd turns on us for our faith? Read Solzhenitsyn's Harvard commencement speech and Chuck Colson's take on it. They're both linked in the Resources section.



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