The Future Past

man_at_bar

I forgot to bring my lunch with me to work yesterday and so I found myself sitting in a darkened pub on O Street in downtown Lincoln awaiting my order of a chicken sandwich with fries. As I sat I scanned the headlines with my Droid:

With each flick of my thumb to advance the screen I slumped further over the wooden bar. Glancing at my surroundings of other bentbacks sipping their cocktail lunch, I looked at the shelves of booze under the mirror in front of me and mused to myself that the only thing missing was a lone saxophone, wailing in a smoky haze. (Before the no-smoking ordinance, of course.)

We don’t just live in the sewer. We seem to have grown comfortable in it. I cannot get over the sense that we have not only lost our way as a nation, but as a people. Normally after an election in which a candidate or issue I support loses I am able to put it behind me pretty quickly and move on. Not this time. This time feels different.

I harbor no illusions or will make no grandiose statement in which I claim that the United States has suddenly changed overnight. Various historians have pointed to different stages of U.S. history where we stopped adhering to the original aims of the Constitution: the Civil War era, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt or Richard Nixon. As a historian I am well aware of all of these various stages. Yet I have remained an idealist with a naïve belief that America still had it in her and that those ideals were still shared across the board by her citizens and even government leaders. And here is why my funk with regards to my country remains a month later. It’s not just that candidates or issues I supported were defeated. It’s that at long last my blinders were knocked off of my head by a roundhouse right. Because I don’t believe those things anymore. I did as long as I believed that there was a choice…that there were two parties who represented a different viewpoint. This election and its aftermath have shown me once and for all that we have effectively one political party in America.

I know that many others see it too, but what’s maddening about a lot of them is that they refuse…at times vehemently…to acknowledge the One who is capable of solving the problems of which they lament. It all starts at the heart, they say…in the confines of the human heart. In this we agree, though the methods of mending or changing the heart is where we part company.

Some choose to fill the heart with stuff: material goods. Some, with celebrity and/or gossip. Or sports, gambling, sex or porn. Still others seek to fill it with feel-good quotes and mantras of pop-culture figureheads or ethereal mystics of the East. Few acknowledge that to change the heart you must fill it with Love. And who is the Source of all Love? Who provides us this hope?

For the answer to this question and how a nation’s people dealt with these questions I’ve pulled a few paragraphs from the address Aleksander Solzhenitsyn delivered when he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1983. I was introduced to this great thinker of the twentieth century when I was assigned the task of reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich for my History of Russia class by Professor Gleason. Since then I’ve read much of The Gulag Archipelago and think it’s a book that more Americans should read. Why? Because it can happen here. Consider this from Glenn Greenwald:

For the last four years, Barack Obama has not only asserted, but aggressively exercised, the power to target for execution anyone he wants, including US citizens, anywhere in the world. He has vigorously resisted not only legal limits on this assassination power, but even efforts to bring some minimal transparency to the execution orders he issues.

This claimed power has resulted in four straight years of air bombings in multiple Muslim countries in which no war has been declared – using drones, cruise missiles and cluster bombs – ending the lives of more than 2,500 people, almost always far away from any actual battlefield. They are typically targeted while riding in cars, at work, at home, and even while rescuing or attending funerals for others whom Obama has targeted. A substantial portion of those whom he has killed – at the very least – have been civilians, including dozens of children….

Substitute the name “George W. Bush” wherever you see Barack Obama. Can you hear the howling? The venom? Oh I can, and it would have been justified. Hell, a good part of the howling would have been coming from me. But this is their man. The great, the benevolent, the wise Obama. And like Lt. Frank Drebin they and the media tell us to ignore the firestorm behind them.

So what are you suggesting Jeff? I’m suggesting that it’s time for those who have elevated a mere mortal man, or a political ideology, as their idol…their God…to search their own hearts. It’s time they took a good, hard look at the One who can change hearts as He has for centuries. It’s time some pride was swallowed. Until then, it’s all just meaningless, blathering platitudes. Whining with no real change.

(Disclaimer: I’m not asking anyone to do anything I haven’t already done. Searched my heart? Check. Looked to God? Check. Swallowed a big heapin’ pitcherful of pride. Yeah.)

There are difficult lessons in Solzhenitsyn’s words. But there is also hope. The hope that existed in the hearts of the Russian people. The hope that no government could extinguish. And in this season of Advent, a time in which we look with hope towards the coming (Advent is from the Latin Adventus, which means “coming”) of the Son of God who is Love these lessons ring all the louder.

Those with hope will recognize the lessons. Those who desire hope will continue to read and grapple with the lessons. Those who prefer the blandness (and blindness) of platitudes haven’t read this far.

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:21)

Changing hearts. Letting the love of God enter said hearts. Now that’s change I can believe in.

*****

The 1920’s in the USSR witnessed an uninterrupted procession of victims and martyrs amongst the Orthodox clergy. Two metropolitans were shot, one of whom, Veniamin of Petrograd, had been elected by the popular vote of his diocese. Patriarch Tikhon himself passed through the hands of the Cheka-GPU and then died under suspicious circumstances. Scores of archbishops and bishops perished. Tens of thousands of priests, monks, and nuns, pressured by the Chekists to renounce the Word of God, were tortured, shot in cellars, sent to camps, exiled to the desolate tundra of the far North, or turned out into the streets in their old age without food or shelter. All these Christian martyrs went unswervingly to their deaths for the faith; instances of apostasy were few and far between. For tens of millions of laymen access to the Church was blocked, and they were forbidden to bring up their children in the Faith: religious parents were wrenched from their children and thrown into prison, while the children were turned from the faith by threats and lies…

[snip]

SolzhenitsynBut there is something they did not expect: that in a land where churches have been leveled, where a triumphant atheism has rampaged uncontrolled for two-thirds of a century, where the clergy is utterly humiliated and deprived of all independence, where what remains of the Church as an institution is tolerated only for the sake of propaganda directed at the West, where even today people are sent to the labor camps for their faith, and where, within the camps themselves, those who gather to pray at Easter are clapped in punishment cells—they could not suppose that beneath this Communist steamroller the Christian tradition would survive in Russia. It is true that millions of our countrymen have been corrupted and spiritually devastated by an officially imposed atheism, yet there remain many millions of believers: it is only external pressures that keep them from speaking out, but, as is always the case in times of persecution and suffering, the awareness of God in my country has attained great acuteness and profundity.

It is here that we see the dawn of hope: for no matter how formidably Communism bristles with tanks and rockets, no matter what successes it attains in seizing the planet, it is doomed never to vanquish Christianity.

[snip]

Imperceptibly, through decades of gradual erosion, the meaning of life in the West has ceased to be seen as anything more lofty than the “pursuit of happiness, “a goal that has even been solemnly guaranteed by constitutions. The concepts of good and evil have been ridiculed for several centuries; banished from common use, they have been replaced by political or class considerations of short lived value. It has become embarrassing to state that evil makes its home in the individual human heart before it enters a political system. Yet it is not considered shameful to make daily concessions to an integral evil. Judging by the continuing landslide of concessions made before the eyes of our very own generation, the West is ineluctably slipping toward the abyss. Western societies are losing more and more of their religious essence as they thoughtlessly yield up their younger generation to atheism. If a blasphemous film about Jesus is shown throughout the United States, reputedly one of the most religious countries in the world, or a major newspaper publishes a shameless caricature of the Virgin Mary, what further evidence of godlessness does one need? When external rights are completely unrestricted, why should one make an inner effort to restrain oneself from ignoble acts?

Or why should one refrain from burning hatred, whatever its basis—race, class, or ideology? Such hatred is in fact corroding many hearts today. … This eager fanning of the flames of hatred is becoming the mark of today’s free world. Indeed, the broader the personal freedoms are, the higher the level of prosperity or even of abundance—the more vehement, paradoxically, does this blind hatred become. The contemporary developed West thus demonstrates by its own example that human salvation can be found neither in the profusion of material goods nor in merely making money.

This deliberately nurtured hatred then spreads to all that is alive, to life itself, to the world with its colors, sounds, and shapes, to the human body. The embittered art of the twentieth century is perishing as a result of this ugly hate, for art is fruitless without love. In the East art has collapsed because it has been knocked down and trampled upon, but in the West the fall has been voluntary, a decline into a contrived and pretentious quest where the artist, instead of attempting to reveal the divine plan, tries to put himself in the place of God.

Here again we witness the single outcome of a worldwide process, with East and West yielding the same results, and once again for the same reason: Men have forgotten God.

With such global events looming over us like mountains, nay, like entire mountain ranges, it may seem incongruous and inappropriate to recall that the primary key to our being or non-being resides in each individual human heart, in the heart’s preference for specific good or evil. Yet this remains true even today, and it is, in fact, the most reliable key we have. The social theories that promised so much have demonstrated their bankruptcy, leaving us at a dead end. The free people of the West could reasonably have been expected to realize that they are beset by numerous freely nurtured falsehoods, and not to allow lies to be foisted upon them so easily. All attempts to find a way out of the plight of today’s world are fruitless unless we redirect our consciousness, in repentance, to the Creator of all: without this, no exit will be illumined, and we shall seek it in vain. The resources we have set aside for ourselves are too impoverished for the task. We must first recognize the horror perpetrated not by some outside force, not by class or national enemies, but within each of us individually, and within every society. This is especially true of a free and highly developed society, for here in particular we have surely brought everything upon ourselves, of our own free will. We ourselves, in our daily unthinking selfishness, are pulling tight that noose…

Our life consists not in the pursuit of material success but in the quest for worthy spiritual growth. Our entire earthly existence is but a transitional stage in the movement toward something higher, and we must not stumble and fall, nor must we linger fruitlessly on one rung of the ladder. Material laws alone do not explain our life or give it direction. The laws of physics and physiology will never reveal the indisputable manner in which the Creator constantly, day in and day out, participates in the life of each of us, unfailingly granting us the energy of existence; when this assistance leaves us, we die. And in the life of our entire planet, the Divine Spirit surely moves with no less force: this we must grasp in our dark and terrible hour.

Excerpts pulled from “Men Have Forgotten God” – The Templeton Address by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, ©1983.

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