"We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. It is trampled by the party mob in the East, by the commercial one in the West."

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke those words in his commencement address to Harvard University three decades ago, on June 8, 1978. The world was a very different place then. We were still deep in the Cold War. No one imagined the fall of the Soviet empire. We were in the middle of the Carter administration, where President Carter himself described the prevailing mood as one of "malaise." Americans were absorbed by domestic economic woes, struggling with the "misery index," a combination of historically high interest rates and inflation.

Just a few years earlier, in 1974, the Ford administration was so deeply committed to a policy of detente that under the influence of Henry Kissinger, President Ford refused to entertain Solzhenitsyn at the White House. Solzhenitsyn had just been exiled from the Soviet Union and had recently received the Nobel Prize for Literature that had been awarded to him in 1970. Ronald Reagan made a large point of Ford's ill treatment of Solzhenitsyn in his 1976 campaign against Ford.

Solzhenitsyn's speech was given the title "A World Split Apart." While part of his talk addressed the split in the world between the East and the West, the heart of his talk was addressed to a more fundamental alienation: the wrestle between the materialist life and the spiritual life. Solzhenitsyn traces the beginnings of this cleavage to the Enlightenment. This "disaster" is a result of "the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness (that) has made man the measure of all things on the Earth." As a consequence of what Solzhenitsyn calls "the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment ... we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity, which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility."

That we are in a secular age has become more and more clear since Solzhenitsyn's speech. Some argue about the origins of this age. For example, Charles Taylor, in his majesterial new book, "A Secular Age," says, "We might be tempted to say that modern unbelief starts (in the Romantic Age) and not really in the Age of the Enlightenment. The 19th century would be the moment when 'the Modern Schism' occurred."

Numerous scholars date the beginning of the modern age to the early part of the 19th century. Paul Johnson, a noted British historian, has written a book called "The Birth of the Modern, World Society, 1815-1830." He presents these years "as those during which the matrix of the modern world was largely formed." Other historians describe "the half-decade from 1828 to 1833 — and even more specifically the period immediately surrounding Tocqueville's brief stay in 1831 — as a turning point in American history."

These same authors conclude "probably no subsequent rearrangements of values or transformations in modes of thought and feeling could compare in magnitude to those that occurred in the 15 years or so prior to 1830."

Secularization and relativism are the twin children of the Enlightenment and the handmaidens of modernity. Secularization is the abandonment of the belief in a power external to mankind, which is the first cause of man's creation and existence. It is the abandonment of the belief in permanent principles and ultimate truths that govern man's behavior.

As Solzhenitsyn says, "Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him?" While the "world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history ... it will demand from us a spiritual blaze; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision ... no one on Earth has any other way left but upward."

Much has changed since that 1978 speech. The communist empire did fall. In the war of ideas, the ideas of freedom and liberty prevailed. Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn is still right. Political freedom is not in and of itself an antidote to secular materialism. The struggle between the spiritual and the material still overwhelms us. The real antidote is to choose between belief and unbelief. For, as historian John Lukacs tells us in "At the End of an Age," "The materialist view of the world is both insufficient and misleading. We cannot scientifically — or logically — 'prove' that God exists. But we cannot prove the impossibility of God's existence either. We do not have ideas; we choose them."


Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News. E-mail: Cannon@desnews.com