On June 8, 1978, Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn ascended to the podium at Harvard University and delivered a commencement address that was the perfect antithesis of political correctness. Being aware that his words might not be well received by all, he stressed that he came not as an adversary, but as a friend.
He began by pointing out that Harvard’s motto is “Veritas” (Truth) and acknowledging that truth often eludes us. When it does not elude us, he went on to say, “truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.” Ralph Waldo Emerson had said to his fellow Americans many years earlier that “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please — you can never have both.” Truth may be noble, but it often exacts a terrible price in the form of struggle, hardship and rejection. Repose may be attractive, but it does not bring out the best in human beings.
It is because of the great sacrifices that truth often demands that its pursuit requires courage. Speaking with courage, in the interest of truth, Solzhenitsyn dared to state, “A decline in courage may be the most striking thing which an outside observer notices in the West in our days.” He argued that human freedom needs sturdier foundations than those provided by an “anthropocentric humanism” that refuses to defer to a “Superior Spirit” above man: “Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him?” Solzhenitsyn underscored his faith in a civilization that is still capable of drawing intellectual and spiritual sustenance from “the moral heritage of Christian centuries, with their rich reserves of mercy and sacrifice.”
Solzhenitsyn’s address was the most controversial and commented upon public speech that he gave during his 20-year exile in the West. Some commentators declared that it downgraded his political status to a “nonperson.” For art and politics are often at bitter odds with each other. “It is the artist,” Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “who realizes that there is a supreme force above him and works gladly away as a small apprentice under God.” He also said, “A great writer is, so to speak, a second government in his country. And for that reason, no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.”
To be able to serve “as a small apprentice under God,” to reiterate Solzhenitsyn’s inspirational words, is a lofty achievement for any Christian. Solzhenitsyn and Israel Zolli had witnessed the mutilation of truth under different totalitarian regimes: communism in Russia, fascism in Germany. Zolli, the former chief rabbi of Rome, took the name Eugenio when he entered the Church in honor of Pope Eugenio Pacelli and his courageous work in helping innumerable Jewish people during the Holocaust. In the preface to his book Why I Became a Catholic, he expressed his love for truth and how the figure of Christ on the cross is a powerful reminder of how “truth is crucified.” “With a heart filled with sadness,” he wrote, “I rise and follow in the footsteps of Christ.” The words of the poet James Russell Lowell also come to mind: “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown. Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
Pontius Pilate’s deathless words, “What is truth?” represent an underlying lack of courage. Truth demands obligation. Obligations can be stressful and inconvenient. Even an obligation in justice can be dangerous. It was so much easier for Pilate to “wash his hands” than deal with an irate crowd. Pilate was a politician. But if truth is relative or shadowy or unattainable, its uncertainty promises to make life easy. And so, by denying that truth can be known, many excuse themselves from the need to summon courage. But a life without either courage or truth is, indeed, an impoverished one, and certainly not a Christian ideal.
We need new Solzhenitsyns bold enough to face political elites and inform them about today’s decline in respect for life, for marriage, for honesty and for God. Who will these spokespersons be? Their need is acute.
“I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6): Christ is the source of truth and communicates truth for the salvation of all people. He is the fountain of truth that contains no admixture of falsity. In Christ there is never any concession to political correctness. He invites us to follow him on a most reliable path, but one that is “narrow” and requires great courage.
The need for courage is answered in the form of the Holy Spirit. “I have much more to tell you,” Christ told his apostles, “but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you all to truth” (John 16:12). “Enough for you that the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and you will receive strength from him” (Acts 1:8).
The descent of the Holy Spirit took place on Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection of Christ. It was understandable that the apostles, given the enormity of their mission, were frightened. Their task seemed impossible. Yet it was impossible only in human terms. Hence the need for the Holy Spirit, whose supernatural Power is the correlative of their human weaknesses. The Power would arrive in the form of seven gifts:
Wisdom: the desire for the things of God and to direct our whole life and all our actions to his honor and glory;
Understanding: enabling us to know more clearly the mysteries of faith;
Counsel: warning us of the deceits of the devil and of the dangers to salvation;
Courage: strengthening us to do the will of God in all things;
Knowledge: enabling us to discover the will of God in all things;
Piety: loving God as a Father and obeying him because of our love for him; and
Fear of the Lord: having a dread of sin and fear of offending God.
The secular world does not believe in the courage to seek the truth as much as it believes in self-esteem and individual autonomy. This is the very problem that Solzhenitsyn described in his Harvard address. We overestimate man and underestimate God. We cannot lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. The evident result of a belief in man and a loss of God is a very confused world that hungers desperately for solutions.
Perhaps the most well-known prayer to the Holy Spirit is “Come Holy Spirit.” It serves as a good daily prayer to recite privately or with others:
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful
and kindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created.
And you shall renew the face of the earth.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit,
did instruct the hearts of the faithful,
grant that by the same Holy Spirit
we may be truly wise and ever enjoy his consolations,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Donald DeMarco is a senior
fellow of HLI America,
an initiative of Human