Posted by: gmscan | April 20, 2011

Christianity and Capitalism, Part Two

Whittaker Chambers is remembered mostly for his political conversion from a Communist Party member and Soviet spy to an anti-Communist and exposer of Communist infiltration of the U.S. Government. Not many remember that what converted him was an awakening to Christianity.

A new reflection of Chamber’s career and conversion by Richard M. Reinsch has recently been published by the Heritage Foundation, “Still Witnessing: The Enduring Relevance of Whittaker Chambers.”

Chambers had been a well-respected writer for Time Magazine before 1948 when he testified before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. His testimony sent Alger Hiss to jail and made the career of Richard Nixon, then a young member of Congress.

Chambers became a fervent Communist in his youth, as he was looking for something bigger then himself to give his life meaning. Eventually he was recruited as a minor spy by the Soviet Union until 1938 when he left the Party. Reinsch writes:

Providing the crucial moment of transcendence for Chambers was the Christian gospel. From it, Chambers finally grasped that Communist revolutionary ideology lied about the nature of man and the source of his being. Chambers movingly noted that it was the shape of his daughter’s ears and the screams silently heard by all Communists from their victims that made him face the presence of God.

The title of his autobiography, “Witness,” refers to more than just his appearance before the House committee, but also about his Witnessing for Christ.

Reinsch finds that Chamber’s whole journey in life was a search for meaning, and he encountered two opposing models. The first was as a political and cultural revolutionary, but he found that such a model elevates Mankind at the expense of the man. Individuals don’t matter much when one is dealing with the historic sweep of events.

The second was bourgeois materialism, which elevates individual men but ignores Mankind. Plus it provided little inspiration. Reinsch writes:

The arc of its frenzied activity over time devalued the less productive but sublime achievements that the West in former periods had understood and lived. Money could not really become the measure of all things if man was to flourish.

Finally, Chambers found a third way:

Chambers put forward a third possibility that spoke to the exceptionalism of man. This was the life of religious and moral desire marked by the awareness of man’s profound incompleteness. These experiences of religion and morality were the only ones capable of giving “men the heart to suffer the ordeal of a life that perpetually rends them between its beauty and its terror”…. The heroic effort of the man of desire could have these exemplary consequences only if men recovered the quest for the truth about God and man.

Reinsch goes on to explain:

Chambers’ understanding of politics and power was rooted in his understanding of man’s liberty and its foundation in God. Chambers recovered the premodern understanding of freedom as something intimately related to the discovery of truth because both are grounded in God. The implication of this freedom is that man is able, however incompletely, to know the truth about his being. As Chambers wrote:

Freedom is a need of the soul and nothing else. It is in striving toward God that the soul strives continually after a condition of freedom. God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom.

Chambers’ essential revelation was that progressive ideology offers a false promise – that science and economics can perfect man and his institutions and establish a utopian society, really a paradise on Earth, when in fact, man’s limitations and original sin make that impossible.  It is another lie whispered by Satan to diminish man’s relationship with and dependence on God.

Chambers’ greatest concern at the time of his writing was that the only rival to Communism, the Western democracies, had also bought into Satan’s lie of man-made perfection. Faith had largely been dropped from the traditional Western combination of faith, democracy and capitalism, at least in intellectual circles, leaving a hollow materialism in its place. He longed for a dynamic capitalism that was grounded in Christ and the knowledge that Paradise is a gift from God.

Reinsch tells us that Chambers met a chaplain when he was hospitalized after a heart attack. He asked the chaplain, a Passionist monk, if his vision of the dismal future of the West was “too foreboding.”

The monk’s response was quite revealing: “Who says that the West deserves to be saved?”

Implicit in this response is the notion that nothing was guaranteed to the West if it persisted in jettisoning its foundational truths. To deserve to be saved would entail fidelity and responsibility to the ideas and habits of being that had lifted the West into the civilization of liberty and mercy it had formerly been. At this point, Father Alan suggested, the West’s distinctiveness was almost lost.

The West’s humanism, its commitment to the dignity of the person, formerly grounded in the doctrine of the Incarnation, had been relocated in the autonomy of will. Unlike any other teaching on man’s connection with God, it was the Incarnation that thundered the beauty of the world and of being. What did exist, even in its fallen condition, was good, and the Creator had attempted to redeem it through His own sacrifice.

So Chambers’ hope, and he was not optimistic that it would be realized, was that individual liberty and capitalism would regain the moral grounding and sense of humble fellowship with God that enabled the West to advance intellectually and spiritually as well as materially.

This is still the question for our time – can we accept that The World is, and will always be corrupt and that mankind is inherently sinful? Or will we continue to fool ourselves that mankind’s efforts alone can bring about peace and justice? One would think that the evidence from the 20th Century is unmistakable. All of our material striving, our efforts to reorganize global institutions, our technological progress, have failed to reduce our pain and our sin. Quite the opposite: Today we can err on a scale undreamed of in the past. Babylon is no longer just a city, it is spread across the globe.

Our only hope is to lay down our pride and realize that we barely have a clue about life’s mysteries.  Only God can save us. And in accepting that salvation, we will try not to disappoint our Savior. We will avoid doing things that dishonor Him, so we will be honest and ethical in all our affairs. Capitalism will be leavened with love, love of our families, our brethren, and our Lord.

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Responses

  1. This is a great post. Thank you Greg. Great history to remember. Chamber’s Third Way is the only way. It’s also the only way out of the mess we’re in as a country which is only getting deeper by the minute.

  2. Well said! I loved “Witness” in college, probably because it provided a counterbalance to the liberal tripe I was being fed in class.

  3. Freedom is the need of a soul and nothing else. It is in striving toward God that the soul strives continually after a condition of freedom.

    This week I attended 2 Passover seders, one at my mother’s home and one at the Chabad.
    It was this year I learned the words that follow the famous song we sing at the seder, “Let my People Go.”
    Six times in Exodus Moses asks Pharoah to let the Jews go free.
    The words that follow are powerful, “so that we may worship Him.”
    The Jews wanted freedom, not to simply get away from slavery, or retire at some Mediterranean resort.
    They wanted freedom in order to worship and serve God.
    Now, that’s real freedom!
    Shalom,
    Don Levit


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