In the long run, materialism of any sort is a faith impossible to sustain.

Schoolchildren of the future will be challenged to remember 1989 as one of the revolutionary years that changed the world—right up there with 1776, 1789, and 1848. Last year saw almost the whole of Eastern Europe rise up in revolt against a system of dialectical materialism imposed on it by force of arms since 1948.

Communism had promised to build a materialistic paradise, making systematic war on every form of religion. It imposed atheism upon society through every means at its disposal. It promised to make religious man obsolete. And it promised to inspire a new race in the image of the New Socialist Man: proud, prosperous, collectivized, ordered, and atheistic.

But something was wrong with this vision: It fundamentally misconceived the depths of the human spirit. Even in the prisons, even in the gulag, men and women found in their souls the strength and courage to resist oppression. Prison guards could torture and threaten, but they could not steal their prisoners’ inner liberty to say yes or no. In prison, men like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Natan Scharansky and women like Irina Ratushinskaya discovered that their own souls were made in the image of God. They found themselves driven to union with God—and thereby stronger than their guards and oppressors.

As Solzhenitsyn remarked even two decades ago, the burden of living as a thoroughgoing materialist was too great even for members of the Communist party: Serious men and women could not hear the words “Marxist-Leninist” without suppressing a sardonic grin. How could a man hold his granddaughter in his arms, caress the tiny curves of her ear, and continue to believe that she was nothing but so many bits of matter? Materialism is in the long run a faith impossible to sustain.

From the beginning of his pontificate in 1978, Pope John Paul II, the first Eastern European in modern times to be elected pope, made “the primacy of the spirit” the central theme of his papacy. He knew well the ravages of systemic materialism—and knew the inner force that would overcome them.

And what a miracle we have seen! Anyone who would have predicted it five years ago—or even a year ago—would have been thought to be quite dotty. Yet in nation after nation, communism has been emphatically rejected.

All those professors (and even clergy) who for four decades came back from Eastern Europe with words of admiration for that awful system now stand embarrassed. For decades, many sophisticates refused to utter the phrase “captive nations”; they were ashamed to be called “anti-Communist.” Yet today, what Ronald Reagan suggested about “the evil empire” has been amplified in vivid detail by those who endured its depredations over the years.

Article continues below
An Impossible Hybrid

These amazing events in Eastern Europe lead us to ask: What will become of the liberation theologians of Latin America and elsewhere who have so long praised the ideals of Marxist-Leninism, but now must see how hollow they are? What does Father Leonardo Boff now say, after having returned to Brazil from the USSR just two years ago to say that he found the Holy Spirit “building community” there as nowhere else on earth? What does Father Miguel D’Escoto, Nicaraguan recipient of the Lenin Prize, say after having called the USSR’s Communist party the conscience of the world?

To be sure, there remains something true and valid in the work of “liberation” in Latin America. The poor do suffer too much and unnecessarily; major structural changes really are needed in the political economies. Latin America does need to liberate the poor at the bottom of society.

But it has always been a mistake to root this dream of liberation in an ideology hostile to Christianity. Some liberation theologians thought they could separate “Marxist analysis” from materialism and atheism—keeping the social analysis, but supplanting its spiritual emptiness with Christian truth.

Perhaps they now see that even this hybrid cannot work. It will not liberate. There is nothing in Marxist analysis that shows citizens how to develop in themselves the creative capacities endowed in them by their Creator.

The root of all economic and political development, as Pope John Paul II has noted, is the doctrine of Creation. God made every person to be (in the sense proper to humans) creators: to develop and to use their unalienable right to “personal economic initiative.” This right, the Pope says, has the same root as the right to religious liberty: the image of the Creator endowed in their very being.

Because of this doctrine, it is no accident that Jewish and Christian lands are among the world’s most developed and economically creative nations—and that those largely non-Christian lands such as Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea that have learned the secrets of the West have developed most quickly. The image of the Creator is implanted in every single human creature; what is lacking in most places is a system of institutions that respects this dynamic image and allows it to flourish.

Article continues below

Moreover, an important practical key to the new systems that do allow this image to flourish is the Jewish-Christian doctrine of sin. The world does not need a system based upon a utopian “new man,” but rather systems based on checks and balances to deal realistically with the “old man,” with human nature in its flawed and fallen state.

The Eastern Europeans are in an ideal situation to grasp this last point, for they understand quite well the horrors of allowing unchecked power to be gathered in the hands of a single party. They have learned from harsh experience that every human power must be checked, that no person or group can be trusted with too much authority. The theological expression of this point is the doctrine of original sin.

Every human being, this doctrine tells us, is flawed and sometimes sins. True, many people are good, decent, generous, creative, cooperative most of the time—but not always. This leads to two assumptions. First, because all people sin, checks and balances are necessary. But because they also act from the good within them, a second assumption is also true: A system based on checks and balances has a chance of being successful—within, that is, the limits possible to fallen beings amid the struggles of history. Guarded optimism is possible, but there is not, nor will there be, a paradise on earth. The struggle with sin will go on until the end times, as will the need for transformation.

Stalking “Spiritual” Values

A touching moment in modern history occurred when President Mikhail Gorbachev humbly visited the Vatican in early December 1989. Gorbachev spoke of “spiritual” values and, in effect, asked the Pope for help, the spiritual help that Gorbachev said is necessary if perestroika (systemic reform) is going to work. Presumably, what Gorbachev meant is that the energy of reform must come from the spiritual capacities of citizens to reflect and to choose—using their minds, wills, and hearts.

When Gorbachev speaks of the “spiritual,” of course, he does not mean “the new life of Jesus Christ.” But what he means is a long step away from materialism. The Communists have discovered that what moves people is neither collectivistic nor materialistic, but the inner resources of insight and choice. We should not disdain this small beginning. To save their collapsing system from death and decay, the Soviets must produce a quickening of the spirit in millions of citizens quickly. They seem to know this.

Article continues below

Christmas Day 1989 provided another sign of the Soviets’ growing awareness. They gave American television preacher Robert Schuller a television audience of 200 million for a sermon to the Soviet people. All over the Soviet Union, it was explained to him, people are seeking amid the ruins of communism a meaning to life. As the first state in history based rigorously on systematic atheism, their experiment has not worked very well, neither in producing social vitality nor in promoting personal peace.

Recognizing this, Schuller spoke simply and plainly about human dignity and its source in the God who made us. For many, this unprecedented talk fell like water in the desert.

After it was agreed that Schuller should speak, one of the Soviets who made the decision approached him with narrowed, cold eyes and, blowing out a cloud of cigarette smoke, said, “Very good. But what if there is no God?” Schuller was inspired to reply, “Oh, but there is, and you have experienced him. You just didn’t know it. He’s in your thoughts. He’s in your life, but you haven’t recognized him.” The man’s eyes widened, moistened over, and he embraced Schuller with a powerful hug.

Hunger In A Moral Wilderness

When millions have for 70 years been taught that there is no God—or, worse, that to hold on to belief in God is a backward, socially destructive act—how will they ever find their way out of the wasteland in which they now find themselves?

People deprived of God who begin seeking him need to be told how to find him—where to look, what to do. There is in Eastern Europe a great hunger that must be met—less so in areas where religious faith, despite everything, has remained strong, more so where religious literacy is virtually nil.

Indeed, in places where religious faith is strong, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, many newly liberated citizens encounter the culture of the free nations for the first time only to be appalled by the moral abominations they see in television, movies, and magazines. They want freedom, not a moral desert. They have just emerged from one wasteland; they do not want to exchange it for another.

A close reading of the Latin American theologians suggests that they, too (at least some of them), have begun to worry that they earlier invested too much credence in the social science they picked up from the universities. As one chronicler of liberation theology, Philip Berryman, puts it, “If their social theory is fundamentally wrong, their whole enterprise is in jeopardy.” If socialist experiments around the world continue to fail, that seems to be prima facie evidence that something about Marxist analysis is wrong.

Article continues below

For this reason, perhaps, liberation theologians in the last few years have become much less hopeful about social structures, and increasingly concerned with issues of spirituality. They seem to be turning less to politics, and more to faith. So, at least, argues Arthur McGovern, S.J., in his new book, Liberation Theology and Its Critics (Paulist).

In this worldwide ferment, I discern three lessons. First, in those regions of the world where atheism and materialism have been officially imposed by the state, there is now a deep hunger for the things of the Spirit. These fields are ripe for an intelligent presentation of the roots of human dignity in the grace of God.

Second, in those regions where liberation theology has been cast in terms of socialist revolution, the collapse of existing socialist states, on the one hand, and the economic success of Third World countries that have tried capitalist methods (such as Taiwan and South Korea), on the other hand, is bound to cause a certain rethinking. Indeed, the conspicuous success in both politics and economics of the growing numbers of evangelical Protestants in Latin America is also attracting notice. Roman Catholic populations are on notice that they have been missing something. They are now turning with renewed attention to the acts of personal conversion that bear such remarkable fruits in popular religion.

Third, in the United States and Western Europe, there is (or ought to be) a growing embarrassment about the picture of ourselves portrayed on television, in movies, and in magazines. Much that Eastern Europeans and others see in our worldwide media repulses them. As George Urban, a Hungarian by birth and longtime observer of Eastern Europe from Britain, writes in Encounter: “The more thoughtful members of the East-Central European intelligentsia are appalled by what they see and hear, and do not hesitate to say so. Their first reaction was disbelief that the sleazy junk culture of the West is quite so pervasive and bestrides our world with so little shame.” They are puzzled by “the strength and apparent aimlessness of Western materialism.”

The next battle in our midst will therefore be to launch a revolution against the main institutions of our bankrupt culture. For this revolution to bring our culture—television, movies, art, music, magazines—to its senses, it will need to be intelligent, discerning, and exact. A mere spasm of revulsion will not do.

In the name of the primacy of the spirit—human and divine—we have a huge agenda to meet here at home, even while we celebrate the events in Eastern Europe that began to revolutionize the spiritual shape of the world in that amazing year of our Lord, 1989.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.