Many in the West dismissed him as a forlorn critic. They caricatured him as a writer who had literary venom flowing through his veins. Besides condemning Russia for its slave labor camps, he hurled invectives at the collapse of Christianity in the West. His bearded face and fiery eyes made onlookers think of a biblical prophet judging sinful nations.
Many at Harvard in 1978 regarded Solzhenitsyn’s commencement address as a jeremiad, a word originating in the Bible. It means judgment bristling with complaint and doleful accusation. When he began, the graduation crowd greeted him with fitful applause. Then the hands turned clammy with sweat because Solzhenitsyn offended listeners in Harvard Yard.
He condemned the faculty for selling out on God and investing in their own moral weaknesses. Bare reason, he asserted, had replaced the Divine. Nothing was regarded as true, he charged, because Harvard professors spoke from perspectives watered down by relativism. They dismissed historically revealed moral absolutes in the Bible as relics of a pre-scientific past.
Watch out, thundered Solzhenitsyn, when God no longer resides in our intellectual universe. Life then becomes a barren where brutes banish enemies to prison camps. Solzhenitsyn lamented the eviction of “our concept of a Supreme Complete Entity [God] which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.” Our diabolical cockiness has become “the master of this world … who bears no evil within himself. So all the defects of life are attributed to wrong social systems.”
God is lost. Morals are lost. Human responsibility is lost. Individual freedom is lost. Western civilization is jailed in a gulag of its own making, Solzhenitsyn asserted at Harvard.
Combine his prickly personality with these unrelenting jeremiads and the impression left is that Solzhenitsyn majored in brooding despair.
Discerning readers of Solzhenitsyn find that despair isn’t the final word in his vocabulary. Defiant hope is.
Edward E. Ericson Jr., professor emeritus of English Literature at my alma mater — Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. — struck up a friendship with Solzhenitsyn. He’s written extensively about this Russian’s defiant spirit grounded in Christian faith.
In “Solzhenitsyn, Optimist” Ericson exposes the soul of this writer (The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 8-9, 2008, p. W 12). Solzhenitsyn didn’t regard himself as a curmudgeon. He labeled his spirit that of “an unshakable optimist.”
Writes Ericson, “On a dark day when one of his helpers had been arrested and interrogated and ended up dead (who knows how?), he could raise a defiant battled cry: ‘Victory is ours! With God’s aid we shall yet prevail!’ Virtually every one of Solzhenitsyn’s works, of whatever type or length, ends on the note of hope.”
Biblical hope isn’t idle whistling in the dark. It’s not wishful thinking. Hope stands convicted that, even when evil gains the upper hand, goodness will still prevail. Holiness trumps hooliganism. God’s providence, given time, helps us cope with wicked pestilence.
The prophet Jeremiah exercised such Biblical hope in despairing days. The Babylonian army laid siege to Jerusalem. Food vanished. Residents succumbed to cannibalism. Death stalked the streets. A jailed Jeremiah, in these pitiless and gloomy days, made a ridiculous investment. He bought the field of Hanamel, my uncle’s son, that was in the city of Anathoth … ”(Jeremiah 32:9). This seemed like an absurd real estate deal. Why buy land when despair surrounds life like a thick fog, choking out hope for a better future?
This Biblical prophecy reads like a script Solzhenitsyn survived in Soviet death camps. In the worst of times, despair doesn’t have to command the last laugh. Be defiant against the odds. Cash in on hope, even when a deed Jeremiah held is sealed when doom prevails.
Sounding like Jeremiah, presidential candidate Barack Obama beats back despair in The Audacity of Hope. He wrote this book in 2004, shortly after being elected to the Senate from Illinois. He could have invited readers to a pity party, dwelling on a nomadic childhood or venting frustration as a community organizer in tough Southside Chicago. Instead, Obama challenges the odds, using hope to put despair on the run.
He rallies the human spirit, much like Theodore Roosevelt excited defiant citizens. When meeting Roosevelt for the first time in 1897, Kansas journalist William Allen White exclaimed, “He sounded in my heart the first trumpet call of the new time that was to be. … [H]e poured into my heart such visions, such ideals, such hopes, such a new attitude toward life and patriotism and the meaning of things, as I had never dreamed men had.”
Not buckling to despair but audaciously hoping against the odds is a trait Obama shares with Solzhenitsyn, Jeremiah, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Jack Van Ens is executive director of Creative Growth Inc., Arvada, Colo.