Quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn is not a typical cold open for an edgy Jewish comedian.
But the Russian-British Konstantin Kisin -- a self-avowed "politically non-binary satirist" -- wasn't joking during his recent speech to the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship in London's O2 Arena. He was describing what he sees as immediate threats to liberal Western culture.
Solzhenitsyn, who wrote "The Gulag Archipelago," noted: "The strength or weakness of a society depends more on the level of its spiritual life than on its level of industrialization. If a nation's spiritual energies have been exhausted, it will not be saved from collapse by the most perfect government structure or by any industrial development. A tree with a rotten core cannot stand."
That quote came to mind, Kisin said, while watching throngs around the world celebrate the Oct. 7 raids on civilian populations in Israel.
"I am starting to lose faith. I don't know how long our civilization will survive. For years now, many of us have been warning that the barbarians are at the gates. We were wrong. They're inside," said Kisin, who offered serious commentary and dark humor. "I'm not going to be all doom and gloom. There are positives as well. Say what you want about Hamas supporters, at least they know what a woman is."
The ARC co-founders -- British Baroness Philippa Claire Stroud and Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson -- urged the authors, business leaders, artists, scientists and others who spoke during the three-day gathering to focus on a positive vision of public life.
Thus, ARC circulated questions such as, "Can we find a unifying story that will guide us as we make our way forward?" and "How do we facilitate the development of a responsible and educated citizenry?" But, in a pre-conference paper, Peterson and the Canadian iconographer and YouTube maven Jonathan Pageau noted that future progress will require dealing with the past.
"We cannot have respect for ourselves, security or hope for the future while denigrating the past, because those who dwelled in the past are no different in essence from those who live now and who will live later," they said. "That does not mean we have no responsibility to redress the sins of those who came before us: deviations once made and then followed require course correction, but that atonement and repair should be in a spirit of humility, rather than pride."
That said, Pageau noted the presence of a specific "ghost" that ARC participants seemed hesitant to address. Scanning the audience, he whispered: "There are a lot of religious people in this room." Some speakers had gently mentioned "transcendence this and faith that," while a Catholic bishop came in "like a wrecking ball" openly discussing "God," "Jesus" and "Thomas Aquinas."
Many people today seem uncomfortable when discussing higher virtues such as "love," "beauty," "truth" and "faith," Pageau said. What they have mastered is "figuring out how stuff works. ... How to make stuff. How to accumulate stuff and how to constantly increase our capacity to get and make stuff."
However, modern culture is cracking and flying apart "precisely at the moment when we have the most stuff. The refusal of people to have children, the mental health crisis, the loneliness, the despair, the hopelessness, is happening precisely when and, to a large extent, because we have more stuff than at any visible time in history."
The bottom line, according to Kisin: Public leaders -- including ARC participants -- must understand that the clock is ticking.
Business leaders need to understand that "there is no greater return on your investments than to protect and preserve our civilization," he said. Media leaders must acknowledge that "truth matters" and that there is "more to life than clicks and downloads." Politicians must grasp that "we will not overcome woke nihilism as long as young people are locked out of the housing market, unable to pair up, unable to have children, unable to plan for the future."
At this tense moment, he concluded: "We are in the fight of our lives. If courage means anything at all it means doing the right thing and being willing to take the punishment. ... All death is certain. We do not get to choose whether to die or not. The only choice we have is whether we live before we do."
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.