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Jeremiah at Harvard

Three decades after Solzhenitsyn's speech, where do we find ourselves?

Thirty years ago this summer, a 59-year-old bearded dissident, whose writings helped expose and eventually bring down Soviet tyranny, stood facing rows of robed faculty and graduates at Harvard's historic Yard for its 327th commencement. Expectations ran high. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was admired for his literary achievements and lionized by the faculty, if not for his outspoken views on Communism, at least for the fact that he was an oppressed intellectual.

Solzhenitsyn delivered each line in his high-pitched voice in Russian. The translation blunted the impact somewhat—in fact, there were even sporadic bursts of applause. But soon enough, outraged professors realized that Solzhenitsyn was charging them with complicity in the West's surrender to liberal secularism, the abandonment of its Christian heritage, and with all the moral horrors that followed.

As it happened, this summer I was reading a tattered copy of Solzhenitsyn's speech at the same time I was studying Jeremiah in my devotions. I was struck by the chilling parallels between the dissident's words and Jeremiah's warning to the Israelites.

For example, describing the Western worldview as "rationalistic humanism," Solzhenitsyn decried the loss of "our concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility." Man has become "the master of this world … who bears no evil within himself," he announced. "So all the defects of life" are attributed to "wrong social systems."

Solzhenitsyn also argued that this moral impoverishment had led to a debased definition of freedom that makes no distinction between "freedoms for good" and "freedoms for evil." Our founders, he reminded us, would scarcely have countenanced "all this ...

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