Solzhenitsyn on Our Consumer Society

Sermon audio (10-12-08): Your Experience Matches Jesus I believe there are two problems in American spirituality today.

First, each person now has permission to be selfish. Our society encourages people to think, "Nothing is significant unless it matters to me." This selfishness has shrunk relationships, ethics, and even the worship of God to matters of convenience and preference, rather than leaving them as matters of right and wrong.

Second, our culture of conformity has suffocated individuality. A person seems to have no place in our society unless he lines himself up with a demographic profile. We are forced as never before to think in terms of self-presentation, whether on our Facebook page, in our professional attire, or in our speech patterns. How I appear is who I am -- no eccentricity allowed. This has meant the decline of personal uniqueness, a measure of how much we value the image of God.

The two problems are paradoxical. How can we see the growth of selfishness and the death of individuality at the same time?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer, was the greatest spokesman for individualism in the 20th century. He survived a term in the Soviet Gulag, writing the experiences of his fellow inmates on scraps of paper that he buried in bottles for later retrieval. In 1974, he was exiled from the Soviet Union and he moved to America. He gave a speech at Harvard on June 8, 1978 in which he described Western culture in America from an outsider's point of view.

He sketched the selfishness of the consumer society. "The majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about. It has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leaving them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money, and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment."

Yet Solzhenitsyn found the happiness of the selfish consumer shallow and even degrading. He spoke of the cold war against communism: "The forces of Evil have begun their offensive; you can feel their pressure, and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?"

American society, though it was wealthy, was not the model Solzhenitsyn prescribed for his own people. "After the suffering of many years 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."

There was a difference between the experiences of East and West. In contrast to the conformity produced by Western ease, the East, under the continual burden of oppression and death, produced deep individuality. "Life's complexity and mortal weight," he said, "have produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting characters than those generally [produced] by standardized Western well-being."

He saw conformity in all areas of American life, even in the most prestigious places in academia, like Harvard. "Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent-minded people giving their contribution to public life."

So how did Solzhenitsyn account for this paradox, the simultaneous growth of selfishness and death of individuality?

He said that the "prevailing Western view of the world" is "humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists."

The reason human beings become selfish and conformist is because they refuse to serve God.

Individuality in Christ, such as we are studying in John 9 with the example of the man born blind, allows a person's uniqueness to flower without allowing his selfishness to inflate. As we saw on Sunday (audio at the top), the man's sufferings after his healing began to match the sufferings of his Healer. In that fellowship of "life's complexity and mortal weight" with Jesus, the beggar showed a deep dissent from the authority of the world, and a deep submission to the authority of Jesus at the same time.

If we want to solve today's two spiritual problems, we have to strike at their common root, as Solzhenitsyn did thirty years ago in his speech that defied the groupthink at Harvard. We have to subvert the perspective that refuses to rise above the human.