Shayne Looper: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 20th century prophet
Forty-six years ago, the Nobel Prize winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Solzhenitsyn was born the year after the Russian Revolution. He served in the Russian military during World War II and was a decorated combat veteran. While still in the military, he was arrested for making derogatory remarks about Joseph Stalin in a letter to a friend. He spent the final months of the war in a prison cell.
Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp. After serving his sentence, he was sent into exile in Kazakhstan. It was during his time there that he rethought his Marxist philosophy, abandoned it, and became an Orthodox Christian. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union expelled Solzhenitsyn.
The speech he gave when he was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1983 became known as the “Men Have Forgotten God” speech. In it he blamed “the ruinous Russian Revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people” on the fact that “men have forgotten God.” We Christians in the west nodded our heads in agreement: “Yes, the Soviets have forgotten God.”
But Solzhenitsyn was not finished. He went on the say that “the principal trait of the entire 20th century” is that “men have forgotten God.” Not just in Communist Russia, but around the world, even in “ostensibly Christian states.” The “leaders of Europe … lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them.”
The Nobel Prize winner broadened the scope even further. The West “too is experiencing a drying up of religious consciousness … replaced by political or class considerations of short-lived value.” He went on to say, with prophetic insight, that the “eager fanning of the flames of hatred is becoming the mark of today’s free world.”
He widened the net still further, refusing to let any nation escape: “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.”
What can put a stop to this worldwide process, if not Christians? But Solzhenitsyn looked at the church and found it “disunited and frequently bewildered.” The “fragmented” church “has taken steps toward reconciliation. But these measures are far too slow; the world is perishing a hundred times more quickly.”
He noted that there is an organized movement to unify the Church, “The World Council of Churches” but it is little help since it “seems to care more for the success of revolutionary movements in the Third World, all the while remaining blind and deaf to the persecution of religion.”
The Russian prophet believed the Church itself had forgotten God at times. And indeed, this is the Church’s great danger at all times and, when it falls into sin, its great shame. The World Council of Churches was, in Solzhenitsyn’s day, trying to do good, but he perceived they were doing it without God - they had forgotten him.
But this is just as much a danger for conservative churches as for their liberal counterparts in the World Council of Churches. In its passion for biblical orthodoxy, Evangelicals sometimes think that the highest calling is to get doctrine right. But when getting it right becomes the de facto saving power, God is left waiting in the wings. In Solzhenitsyn’s words, people forget God.
When some churches and denominations try to use governments to bring God’s kingdom to earth through the establishment of social justice - as their generation understands it - they must make sure they remember the just God. When other churches are trying to make sure they are getting people to heaven by helping them believe truth, they must make sure they do not forget the true God.
It seems unbelievable, but even in worship people are in danger of forgetting God. Worshipers can focus so intently on the music they sing or the liturgy they use or the worship experience they have that they forget who it is they have come to worship.
Solzhenitsyn believed the only hope for the world and the church was “a determined quest for the warm hand of God, which we have so rashly and self-confidently spurned.” That was never more true than it is today.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.