Those of us who lament our current cultural and political climate can say a great deal about how bad and how unpleasant things have become. But we can’t say we weren’t warned.
Writing at The Catholic Thing, Michael Pakaluk notes that forty years ago Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave his “A World Split Apart” commencement address at Harvard. “We are used to commencement addresses that are left-wing stand-up comedy,” writes Pakaluk. “But Solzhenitsyn did not go to Harvard to tell jokes. He promised bitterness.”
Fifty years ago, recalls James H. Toner, Drew University sociologist of religion William Herberg published “The Moral Crisis of Our Time.” “As a college senior reading that essay,” comments Toner, “I was struck by its analytical and prophetic power.”
As I read Pakuluk and Solzhenitsyn, Toner and Herberg, I couldn’t help but think of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man delivered as lectures seventy-five years ago.
While hardly identical, Lewis, Solzhenitsyn and Herberg issued common warnings that we should have heeded.
The Warnings of Lewis
In 1943, Lewis painted a picture of life without recourse to Natural Law and fixed human nature, which he called “the Tao.” Leave the Tao behind, he argued, and you also leave behind reason, good, truth and beauty. Once that happens, everything is up for grabs. “The preservation of the species? But why should the species be preserved?” There is no reason to preserve or kill. For those who reject the Tao, “However far they go back, or down, they can find no ground to stand on. Every motive they try to act on becomes at once a petitio [begging the question]. … Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void.”
Yet humans will act nonetheless. But “all motives that claim any validity other than that of their felt emotional weight at a given moment have failed them. Everything except sic volo, sic jubeo [thus I will, thus I command] have been explained away.”
Lewis concludes, “My point is that those who stand outside all judgments of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.”
A Missing Moral Compass
Twenty-five years later, Herberg noted that while they differed on many things, “Greek philosopher and Hebrew prophet were at one at least on this, that the truth by which man lived was something ultimately independent of him, beyond and above him, expressing itself in norms and standards to which he must conform if he was to live a truly human life.”
By 1968, he observed, that had changed. “With these convictions so rapidly losing their appeal to the modern mind, nothing has been left but the indulgence of pleasure, the anarchy of power, and the chaos of ‘self-created values.’ The moral crisis of our time is, at bottom, a metaphysical and religious crisis.”
Ten years later, in 1978, Solzhenitsyn noted, “A decline of courage may be the most striking feature which an outsider notices in the West in our days.” With that decline in courage, he observed an increased reliance on laws. “Every conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the ultimate solution. If one is risen from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be right, and urge self-restraint or a renunciation of these rights, call for sacrifice and selfless risk: this would simply sound absurd. Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of: everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames.”
We bow to the system we have invented — while pushing its limits — rather than acknowledging any higher law (the Tao) to which we are all accountable. The result? “Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. … Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.”
The Spirit of Truth is Still With Us
If these analyses and warnings from Lewis, Herberg and Solzhenitsyn don’t sound like our politics, our neighbors, our colleagues, our families, our schools, and even, alas, many of our churches, either: (A) You haven’t been paying attention. Or, (B) You’ve been blinded by the fundamentally anti-Christian worldview described. And let’s be honest, that worldview affects us all.
Suppose the crisis is, as Herberg put it, “at bottom, a metaphysical and religious crisis.” (What Solzhenitsyn called “the calamity of a dispirited and irreligious humanistic consciousness.”) Then we need a metaphysical and religious solution that will restore a spirited and religious humanistic consciousness.
That begins with affirming the Tao. Christians must again insist on the objective Truth of the Gospel. And on biblical morality, independent of any human judgment. We must do so regardless of how it may affect our reputations and social status.
We were warned. The predictions came true. Now comes the hard work of re-evangalizing a hostile culture.
Can we do it? With church leaders selling out in alarming numbers to the errors Lewis, Herberg and Solzhenitsyn catalogued, it’s hard to predict except to say that it’s nearly Pentecost. The Spirit of Truth is with us still. And He will be with us until the end of the age. Proceed with faith and confidence.