Mind Renewal in a Mindless Age, Part 1Romans 12:1-2Theme: The Christian mind.This week’s lessons teach us how Christians should think. LessonThe best critique of Western materialism that I know of is from a former citizen of the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, now exiled. It is in an address he gave to the graduating class of Harvard University in 1978.
Solzhenitsyn declared, “Should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively…. Through intense suffering our own country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.” He maintained that “after the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor and by intolerable music.”1
According to Solzhenitsyn, the West has pursued physical well-being and the acquiring material goods to the exclusion of almost everything spiritual. In 1989 Westerners were astounded by the political changes in Eastern Europe. Country after country repudiated its seventy-two-year Communist heritage and replaced its leaders with democratically elected officials. We rejoiced in these changes, rightly. But, though the American media with its blindness to things spiritual will not tell us, the changes in the Eastern bloc have not come about by the will of one person, Mikhail Gorbachev or any other, but by the spiritual vitality of the people.
The strength of the Polish Solidarity movement, where the breakthrough first came, is that of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II has been a strong supporter of the people’s faith and dreams.
In Romania, where President Nicolae Ceausescu just weeks before had declared that apple trees would bear pears before socialism should be endangered in Romania, the end began in the house of a Protestant pastor whose parishioners surrounded him, declaring that they were willing to die rather than let him be arrested by the state police.2
Willing to die? Ah, that is the only ultimately valid test of whether one is a practical materialist at heart or whether one believes in something greater and more important than things. Do we? No doubt there are Westerners who are willing to die for things intangible. The blacks (and others) who were willing to die for civil rights during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s are examples. But today the masses of individuals in America no longer share this high standard of commitment and sacrifice. In 1978, during President Jimmy Carter’s abortive attempt to reinstate draft registration for the young, newspapers carried a photograph of a Princeton University student defiantly waving a poster marked with the words: “Nothing is worth dying for.”
“But if nothing is worth dying for, is anything worth living for?” asks Charles Colson, who comments on that photograph in Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages.3
Solzhenitsyn summarizes our weak thinking at this point when he says of today’s Americans, “Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the morally inferior sense which has come into being during [these last] decades… So who should now renounce all this? Why and for what should one risk one’s precious life in defense of common values?”4
Christianity has an answer to that, and Christians in past ages have known it. It is to “gain a better resurrection” (Heb. 11:35), which means to do what is right because what is right pleases God and that is what ultimately matters. But those who do that must be thinking Christians.
1 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “A World Split Apart,” The 1978 Commencement Address at Harvard University, Harvard Gazette, June 8, 1978, pp. 17-19.2 The generally neglected story of the role of the church in the changes that have come to Eastern Europe is told in part in the January 22, 1990, issue of National Review, “How the East Was Won: Reports on the Rebirth of Christianity under Communism,” pp. 22-28.3 Charles Colson, Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Publications, 1989), p. 33.4 Solzhenitsyn, “A World Split Apart,” p. 17.
How does a Christian see pain and death in a different way than a non-Christian?
Why is the spiritual climate in the West inferior to that of Eastern Europe?
What are the ultimate values of many Westerners?
Why is a willingness to die a test of whether or not we are practical materialists?