Posted by: davidlarkin | September 3, 2008

A Prayer from Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died last month on August 3, 2008, wrote about the horrors of the Soviet Gulag in his most famous work, the Gulag Archipelago. I read his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich when I was in high school. My only memories of the book are from my imagination: images of gray skies, snow, prison barracks, and Soviet prison guards with guns. I remember the cold horror I felt reading the story (and also that the book was not too long, something I appreciated in my busy high school years). He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. I was reading last week in A Pocket Book of Prayers for Busy People, published by Christian Art Gifts, and found the following prayer authored by him:

How simple for me to live with You, O Lord
How easy for me to believe in You!
When my mind parts on bewilderment or falters,
when the most intelligent people see no further than this day’s end
and do not know what must be done tomorrow,
You grant me the serene certitude that You exist
and that you will take care that not all the paths of good be closed.
Atop the ridge of earthly fame, I look back in wonder at the path
which I alone could never have found,
a wondrous path through despair to this point
from which I too could transmit to mankind a reflection of Your rays.
And as much as I must still reflect You will give me.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Christopher Hitchens wrote a eulogy for Solzhenitsyn in Hitchens begins his eulogy:

Every now and then it happens. The state or the system encounters an individual who, bafflingly, maddeningly, absurdly, cannot be broken.

Hitchens avoids connecting Solzhenitsyn’s Christian faith with the inability of the Soviet bullies to break him. As a current prophet of atheism, this is understandable, but ironic. He writes further:

To have fought his way into Hitler’s East Prussia as a proud Red Army soldier in the harshest war on record, to have been arrested and incarcerated for a chance indiscretion, to have served a full sentence of servitude and been released on the very day that Stalin died, and then to have developed cancer and known the whole rigor and misery of a Soviet-era isolation hospital—what could you fear after that? The bullying of Leonid Brezhnev’s KGB and the hate campaigns of the hack-ridden Soviet press must have seemed like contemptible fleabites by comparison. But it seems that Solzhenitsyn did have a worry or a dread, not that he himself would be harmed but that none of his work would ever see print. Nonetheless—and this is the point to which I call your attention—he kept on writing. The Communist Party’s goons could have torn it up or confiscated or burned it—as they did sometimes—but he continued putting it down on paper and keeping a bottom drawer filled for posterity. This is a kind of fortitude for which we do not have any facile name. The simplest way of phrasing it is to say that Solzhenitsyn lived “as if.” Barely deigning to notice the sniggering, pick-nose bullies who followed him and harassed him, he carried on “as if” he were a free citizen, “as if” he had the right to study his own country’s history, “as if” there were such a thing as human dignity.

Someone other than Hitchens, even an atheist, might have written respectfully of the source of Solzhenitsyn’s ability to live “as if” there were such a thing as human dignity. Hitchens ignores it as if he was unaware. Maybe he is, but I doubt it.

As a Christian, Solzhenitsyn accepted as a matter of faith that humans were created in God’s image, as the Scripture reveals, and derive their dignity from Him, as God’s beloved. Coral Ridge Ministries highlighted the irony of Christopher Hitchen’s eulogy in a video available here.

The irony here is that modern atheism has no rational source for lofty ideals of human dignity and freedom. As Richard Dawkins bluntly puts it:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: ‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither care nor know.’ DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

River out of Eden (1995) p.133.

As an atheist, with nothing but “blind pitiless indifference” in the universe, where did Christopher Hitchens find the source of his admiration for Solzhenitsyn acting “as if” there was human dignity? According to the scientific materialist view of human life, the source must be an accumulation of neuronal connections in his limbic system of the brain that ties memory, emotion and human action together to be presented to the soul or mind, or rather, consciousness (whatever that is, the “hard problem“, as philosopher of consciousness David Chalmers has referred to the problem of explaining the biological source of our qualitative experience of consciousness).

Surely, there is nothing inherently immoral about believing you have chosen your moral system that gives you the feeling of admiration for classic higher human values, because those higher human values are ultimately God-given and good. However, it is supremely ironic that a materialist like Hitchens could write “as if” he admires and takes human pride in moral concepts and values like “human dignity” and “freedom,” that apparently make him feel good, but are, from an atheistic point of view, purely fantasy. For the atheist, norms must be arbitrarily given as evolved from random and gradual natural selection, rather than standing timelessly apart from our time-bound natural reality as ideals which are discovered rationally and discursively over time. That there would be any higher purpose to humanity from which dignity might arise, other than mere survival, would be contrary to the core contemporary atheist belief in a universe that is blind, pitiless and indifferent.

Hitchens has since died from esophageal cancer.  When he was facing death in his universe that was for him a universe without hope. I posted this prayer for Christopher Hitchens here that he may be given godly sorrow for sin and the hope of eternal life.


  1. Dave — I think you might now like Solzhenitsyn’s longer novel, The Cancer Ward. I read Solzhenitsyn’s religion as somewhat darker. He believed tat suffering is essential to redemption. He surprised a lot of people by denouncing the US pretty quickly on arrival here. He was not in any way a libertarian.

    • In fact, you are correct, Mark Zanger. He would regards modern, western liberal democracy as irrelevant to his point, which is that “Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’ Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.'” In other words, libertarianism depends upon religious faith, not the other way round.

      • thanks for your response….was grumpy that day….just finished reading Gerhard Forde’s commentary on Luther’s Theology of the Cross.
        A. S. has long been a hero of mine, from before I was a Christian and now been one for almost 40 years, I appreciate A. S. even more and love that prayer, too.

  2. […] I have written about Hitchens, and his remarks about the virtue of Alexander Solzhenitsyn before on this blog here. […]

  3. I cannot believe someone thinks true Christianity is absent suffering for redemptive purpose. ? The Cross?

    • Thank you for your comment. While I can believe that “someone” incorrectly thinks true Christianity “is absent suffering for redemptive purposes” and the atonement of Christ, I do not. If you are referring to Solzhenitsyn, whether he believes this I wouldn’t know. This short prayer does not address redemption and the Cross, but that does not mean he did not believe in the atonement since it is a prayer and not a statement of faith. Maybe you know more.

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