Recently, I ran across Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s commencement speech (“The Exhausted West”) delivered at Harvard in 1978 (you can find a pdf of it here.
It is an important document. Rather than the anti-Soviet diatribe graduates and dons must have been expecting (he’d only left the Soviet Union in 1974), Solzhenitsyn delivered a scathing indictment of America’s materialism and accompanying spiritual and moral impoverishment. His observations are disturbing as well as startling in their precision and eerie prescience. “The forces of Evil,” he wrote, “have begun their offensive—you can feel their pressure—and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?” I cannot help but transpose his question to our own cultural moment. “What?” indeed.
Reflecting on the Russian experience of the 20th century, Solzhenitsyn’s diagnosis comes down to one crucial point: “We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.” The same thing could (and should) be said for early 21st century America. But that would be too controversial. Materialism and self-centeredness, after all, have been institutionalized.
The call to spiritual regeneration is nothing new, of course. Every age, perhaps every culture, has its manifestations of this call. In 17th century England, for instance, as Cartesian materialism, Baconian empiricism, and a lengthy religiously-tainted Civil War worked together to displace the role of the spirit in human life, removing God to a purely transcendent sphere, some individuals fought back. Thomas Vaughan, an Anglican priest and alchemist, and his twin brother, the poet Henry, fought against all of these philosophically and poetically—and even militarily as officers in the Royalist army. Their most important call to arms, though, was for a spiritual regeneration of man and society. As Henry writes in his poem “The Sap”:
Such secret life, and virtue in it lies
It will exalt and rise
And actuate such spirits as are shed
Or ready to be dead,
And bring new too.
In early 20th century Germany, faced with the devastation of World War I, the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner tried single-handedly to regenerate culture through a spiritual worldview in a project that touched on education, medicine, agriculture, economics, and the arts. Unfortunately, after his death, many of his followers rejected the centerpiece of Steiner’s teaching: the revivifying effects of Christ’s death and resurrection not only on the human person, but on nature itself. Cut off from its source, his project for cultural renewal has been stuck in low gear for nearly a century.
And, perhaps the greatest example of spiritual and cultural regeneration (after the apostolic age) arrived with St. Francis of Assisi, who, by taking the Gospel as his rule, absolutely transformed late-medieval Western culture. He brought religion and culture into the light of pure joy.
By “spiritual regeneration” I by no means endorse the mamby-pamby pronouncements of those who claim to be “spiritual, not religious.” From what I’ve seen, those pushing this kind of ethos confuse spirituality for a kind of feel-good agnosticism, atheism without tears. I’m sorry, but having angel magnets on the fridge doesn’t make anyone spiritual. What I have in mind is a kind of pure creativity which can only be the product of a profound attention to the creation, a sacramental epistemology, and a deep familiarity with prayer.
Lately, I have witnessed much in the way of hostility for the spirit, confused by its perpetrators as hostility for religion. I’ve seen the memes on Facebook smacking their lips after the Democratic victory as they look forward to taxing churches (in the spirit of the President’s “vote for revenge”). I’m sure you’ve seen them, too. I even drove by a sign near the highway that read “THE DEATH OF RELIGION….THANK YOU!” But let’s not kid ourselves. These attacks are not on religion: they’re on the spirit.
So, don’t get too inspired to “take America back.” America is a country, and it’s not going anywhere. If anything, the spirit is what needs to be taken back. I must admit: I like the idea of “engaging the culture.” But first you need something to engage it with. Need I remind anyone that “our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places”?
It may be that the materialist re(de)generation we have witnessed over most of the last century can boast the numbers on its side. Big deal. As Thomas Vaughan wrote in a different cultural context, “the School-men have got the Day, not by Weight but by Number.” The material can ignore the spiritual, but can’t influence it. As history has shown, it’s not so the other way around.
Spero columnist Michael Martin is a professor of English at Marygrove College.