Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Witness by Whittaker Chambers

I read The Witness by Whittaker Chambers after seeing so many people whom I respect sing its praises. 

I can see why it was a life changer for so many. 

Unfortunately, I am largely unfamiliar with the period under consideration. Whittaker Chambers gained national attention in the 1950s when he testified against Communist spy, Alger Hiss and his fellow co-conspirators. He goes into a lot of detail and offers names, dates, and locations as if his reader is familiar with these events. But as I am not, I found myself getting bogged down in the details at times. 

But those details are not what I found fascinating about this book. While it was written to convince a skeptical public of his veracity, he also referred to himself as a witness to history. He believed the world was divided into two competing ideologies. One side believed in God. The other side believed in man. In the course of his lifetime, he found himself switching from what he called the winning side to the losing side. He always believed that the godless ideology would eventually win. It is simply too attractive to believe that man and his reason are the way to a perfect world.

What made the part of the book that concerned itself with philosophy so engrossing was his level of clarity and introspection. He felt chosen by the grace of God to be a witness, to testify to the truth, to report on what he had seen and learned. He saw the ultimate struggle between Communism and freedom, but he knew the struggle had taken many names and would take others in the future. 

He described Communism thusly, “It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation.” Communism denies God, denies the soul, and as such, denies humanity.

Today, we would call the struggle the fight between right and left. Obviously leftism is not on the level of Communism as to the amount of bloodshed, but the left does have blood on its hands. When the hero du jour is Wendy Davis fighting for the right to kill a baby after 20 weeks gestation, we can wonder, “Where is your soul?”

One very telling anecdote told by Chambers involves the decision of another to leave the Communist Party. The man’s embarrassed daughter could not really explain it except to say, “One day, he heard the screams.” Whittaker knew exactly what this meant. The Communists denied that humans were more than animals, that they had a soul. So the torture and murder of fellow humans became simple collateral damage in the journey to create utopia. As Stalin famously said, “You cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”

Yet one day, this man, “heard the screams.” He suddenly realized the screams of pain and torture were the screams of a soul being denied its right to live and to create a meaningful life for itself. Suddenly he heard a human being, of infinite and eternal worth, being put to death and killed. He heard the sound of a soul, extinguished. 

It is the same “sound” a person who is pro-choice hears when she sees a sonogram of a fully formed baby in the womb sucking her thumb. This accident, this “product of conception”, this amorphous mass, is a soul.

Whittaker Chambers realized that without God, there is no soul. Without a soul, murder and destruction become means to an end. There is no other conclusion. Without the soul, we are animals, and we will act like animals. But in our reason and intelligence, we become and justify being beastlier than any beast. For him, there must be a God.

He sums up his thinking about man and God in his testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Commission, “Under the bland influence of the idea of progress, man, supposing himself more and more to be the measure of all things, has achieved a singularly easy conscience and an almost hermetically smug optimism. The idea that man is sinful and needs redemption has been subtly changed into the idea that man is by nature good and hence capable of indefinite perfectibility. ... Man is essentially good... And yet, as 20th century civilization reaches a climax, its own paradoxes grow catastrophic. The incomparable technological achievement is more and more dedicated to the task of destruction. Man’s marvelous conquest of space has made total war a household experience ... The more abundance increases, the more resentment becomes the characteristic new look on 20th century faces... Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world.” He goes on to quote from Dostoyevsky about the eternal necessity of the soul to be itself, but once indulged to the point of freedom from God, tragedy, evil, and often the exact opposite of what was intended results. 

I love his wisdom and insight. He is truly brilliant and one of the deepest thinkers I have ever encountered. He writes beautifully and almost poetically. Obviously each word is carefully chosen. For a good summary of his philosophy without the details of his everyday life, the opening preface, called Letter to My Children, is exceptional. (And only 20 pages out of the 800-page tome.)

1 comment:

  1. Michelle: You summarized well the more literary and human qualities of my grandfather's memoirs, which resonate outside their own times. However, as readers like you ponder his meanings, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to hash through those historical details. His life was recent enough that many of those details are in fact accessible and can still make much more sense that details from centuries ago... The website WhittakerChambers.org includes as its mission an effort to discuss that history. And I am willing to address questions, if you have them, through that site.
    Regards - David Chambers http://www.whittakerchambers.org/