Chambers' Witness: faith and reason (and the screams), Christianity and Communism, fooling oneself and others
After an introduction to the book in part 1 of this blog posting, I finished part 2 with a discussion of Chambers’ witness against Communism—which he sees primarily as a witness for Christianity.
Along those lines, here’s a great excerpt from a passage cited by Chambers (p. 505-506) in his now-amazing 1948 essay on Reinhold Niebuhr in Time (hat tip: Brothers Judd blog)…
Under the bland influence of the idea of progress, man, supposing himself more & more to be the measure of all things, achieved a singularly easy conscience and an almost hermetically smug optimism. The idea that man is sinful and needs redemption was subtly changed into the idea that man is by nature good and hence capable of indefinite perfectibility. This perfectibility is being achieved through technology, science, politics, social reform, education. Man is essentially good, says 20th Century liberalism, because he is rational, and his rationality is (if the speaker happens to be a liberal Protestant) divine, or (if he happens to be religiously unattached) at least benign. Thus the reason-defying paradoxes of Christian faith are happily bypassed.
And yet, as 20th Century civilization reaches a climax, its own paradoxes grow catastrophic. The incomparable technological achievement is more & more dedicated to the task of destruction. Man's marvelous conquest of space has made total war a household experience and, over vast reaches of the world, the commonest of childhood memories. The more abundance increases, the more resentment becomes the characteristic new look on 20th Century faces. The more production multiplies, the more scarcities become endemic. The faster science gains on disease (which, ultimately, seems always to elude it), the more the human race dies at the hands of living men. Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world.
In that powerful passage (can you believe that was published in Time?!), Chambers deals with some of the competing faiths in modernism—most notably, progressivism, Statism, Christianity, and so on.
As with any faith, beliefs can be absorbed gradually and subconsciously—or there can be a Damascus-Road-type conversion. Chambers experienced the latter—twice…as he moved into and then out of Communism. He describes the conversions in eschatological terms—that history had shown the democratic market system to be a fatal failure. And then later, that whatever the fate of the status quo, that Communism was an unethical means to whatever ends.
In describing the conversion—and the choice to make oneself open to the opportunities for conversion and awakening that are available to all—Chambers starts by citing one man who said “one night he had screams” (p. 14). From there (p. 14-15), Chambers says:
“What Communist has not heard those screams? They come from [an array of social evils perpetrated by Communism]…Those are not the screams of man in agony. Those are the screams of a soul in agony….a soul in extremity has communicated with that which alone can hear it—another human soul. Why does the Communist hear them? Because in the end there persists in every man, however he may deny it, a scrap of soul. The Communist who suffers this singular experience then says to himself: ‘What is happening to me? I must be sick.’ If he does not instantly stifle that scrap of soul, he is lost. If he admits it for a moment, he has admitted that there is something greater than Reason…he has betrayed that which alone justifies faith [in Communism]—the vision of Almighty Man. He has brushed the only vision that has force against the vision of Almighty Mind. He stands before the fact of God.”
Chambers charts his conversion to and then from Communism through two interesting aspects. First, Victor Hugo’s book, Les Miserables (p. 134-135):
In its pages can be found the play of forces that carried me into the Communist Party, and [those] that carried me out...It taught me two seemingly irreconcilable things: Christianity and revolution…It taught me justice and compassion…It taught me revolution, not as others were to teach me—as a political or historical fact—but as a reflex of human suffering and desperation, a perpetual insurgence of that instinct for justice and truth that lay within the human soul…
And second, abortion (p. 325-327; see also: this interesting quote about abortion and “hearing screams”):
One extreme group among the Communists held that it was morally wrong for a professional revolutionist to have children at all. This could only hamper or distract his work…Abortion was a commonplace of party life. There were Communist doctors who rendered that service for a small fee…Abortion, which now fills me with physical horror, I then regarded, like all communists, as a mere physical manipulation.
One day in 1933, my wife told me that she believed she had conceived. No man can hear from his wife, especially for the first time, that she is carrying his child, without a physical jolt of joy and pride. I felt it. But so sunk were we in that life that it was only a passing joy, and was succeeded by a merely momentary sadness that we would not have the child. We discussed the matter, and my wife said that she must go at once for a physical check and to arrange for the abortion.
[After visiting the doctor] My wife came over to me, took my hands and burst into tears. "Dear heart," she said in a pleading voice, "we couldn't do that awful thing to a little baby, not to a little baby, dear heart." A wild joy swept me. Reason, the agony of my family, the Communist party and its theories, the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century, crumbled at the touch of a child…If the points on the long course of my break with Communism could be retraced, that is probably one of them- not at the level of the conscious mind, but at the level of the unconscious life.
When embraced seriously, Communism also compares to Christianity (and other religions) in terms of some degree of sacrifice or even asceticism (see: children above), the need for evangelism, and the implications for “worldview”. On worldview, it’s interesting that all religions (broadly defined) see the world in some type of crisis—and have their own versions of Creation, Fall, and Redemption/Eschatology.
During the Hiss trial, interpretations of the available evidences were interpreted through a religious/faith lens. Although Chambers was questioned and doubted at every turn, faith in Hiss’ story was nearly universal early-on—and then more interestingly, continued on for many people, despite the mounting evidences. They knew Hiss—or thought they did—and just could not imagine the Truth.
As Chambers asks rhetorically (p. 673):
“...how was it possible that any man of honest mind and plain intelligence, following Hiss’ testimony and behavior closely, observing the tireless twists and turns of his calculated equivocation varied with flashes of calculated insolence—how could such a plain man fail to know after the evidence of the Ford roadster?...Not to know, a man must not have heard or read the testimony, not have understood it, or not have wanted to understand it.”
As an aside, Chambers seems unsure whether Hiss had even fooled himself or was just stuck in a corner from the lies he had uttered. At the very end of the hearing, Hiss asserts that Chambers must have broken into his house to use his typewriter (p. 783-784). By that time, his credibility was shot and the response of the jurors was laughter.
Finally, one must be struck by the Communist assertion that the means justify the ends. Given the crisis—and their perceived enemies, Chambers sympathizes with this view. He notes that:
“...espionage never presents itself to them as a problem of conscience, but as a problem of operations…the act will not appear to him in terms of betrayal at all. It will, on the contrary, appear to him as a moral act…committed in the name of faith on which, he believes, hinges the hope and future of mankind…” (p. 420)
But it is still staggering and sobering to those who have not considered the ethics of the means they use to pursue ends they believe to be godly or at least goodly. And Chambers bore the brunt of those means—specifically, through a wide variety of nasty ad hominem attacks and slanderous accusations against himself and his wife.