The Fourth Sunday of Advent
A Prayer Request


Sunday Night Journal — December 21, 2008

I haven’t quite finished Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, but I’m ready to declare that it’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the 20th century and the spiritual battle being waged in the modern world generally—meaning, by “modern,” roughly “post-Enlightenment.” This will probably not be my only post on the subject, but there’s one aspect of Chambers’ story as seen from the early 21st century that I want to note especially.

(If you aren’t familiar with Chambers and the controversies in which he was involved ca. 1948-51, this 1961 obituary of him in Time gives an excellent overview and what seems to me a fair assessment of Chambers’ character. A very brief summary is that Chambers was a communist who left the party and actively worked against it, to the extent of exposing communists within the government, which embroiled him in considerable public controversy and legal difficulty.)

At the end of The Lord of the Rings Sauron is defeated and destroyed. But we are given to understand—I can’t remember whether it’s in the book or in some remark of Tolkien’s elsewhere—that his evil does not cease to exist, but rather spreads as a sort of vapor, dispersing itself throughout the world; from this time on, evil will not be so concentrated and easy to identify, but will work subtly and obscurely.

Something like that is the situation we’re in after the fall of the great totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century, communism and fascism. Of the two, the evil of fascism has generally been easier to recognize, or at any rate more widely recognized, principally because of the Holocaust but also because its mythos is in general less appealing, especially to those who set the terms and tone of opinion in our society. Communism had a deeper and wider appeal, in part because it spoke, superficially at least, to more benevolent motives. But if it’s possible to say that one is worse than the other, I would say that communism takes the prize, in part because it was more successful and thus able to murder more people, and partly because it was more consciously and systematically an assault on God. Communism involved a cold intention to remove from the universe any moral authority external to man, to seize that authority for man—for the handful of men worthy of it, on behalf of all the rest—and to exercise it for the purpose of creating heaven in the only place where it could possibly exist, in this life. (Fascism, in contrast, seems to have been less coherent.)

This is what Chambers makes vividly clear. He did not simply repudiate communism; he also found faith. From my point of view it’s more than a little strange that the mode of Christianity he adopted was Quakerism, because Quakerism as I have encountered it seems as secularized as Unitarianism, but never mind that at the moment: it’s certain that Chambers came to a deep and strong belief in God. And it was this belief that showed him with more clarity than most ex-communists—Solzhenitsyn also comes to mind—that the argument between communism and Christendom was not about economic and social conditions, but about God, and that there could be no permanent compromise between them any more than there can be compromise between those who say that two and two make four and those who believe the sum is five. There are some disagreements on which compromise is intrinsically impossible, because they’re based on mutually exclusive propositions.

Like the cloud that was Sauron, communism as an all-explanatory philosophy and an all-encompassing program of action, both directed against God, has been dispersed. There is no single ideology or mass movement with both its coherence and its popularity at work today. But the basic idea—there is no God, and we’re glad there isn’t, because now we can get on with the business of solving our problems without interference from superstition—is everywhere. The intellectual and spiritual presuppositions of much of our political and social discourse are the same as those of communism.

For many intellectuals, evolution has replaced communism as the all-explanatory philosophy (see Daniel Dennett, It hasn’t yet become a program of action for very many, but you can see the impulse at work. Utilitarianism is the program of action: whatever works is right, and in this context “works” means maximizing comfort and pleasure. There is really no need for me to make a list of every moral question in which these views are aggressively at war with Christianity; anyone reading this is likely to know. Some are straightforward and involve specific acts, like euthanasia; some are more subtle and involve a general disposition, like hedonism.

Whittaker Chambers thought communism would win, and probably would have been surprised by the fall of the Soviet Union and the general eclipse of communism as an ideology. He thought what remained of Christian society was too weak and compromised to resist communism. He might have been surprised by the fall of the Soviet Union and the general eclipse of communism as an ideology. But he would not have been at all surprised by the persistence of the drive to destroy the metaphysical restraints on human appetites. And probably would have been just as pessimistic about the prospects of Western society resisting it:

It is part of the failure of the West to understand that it is at grips with an enemy having no moral viewpoint in common with itself, that two irreconcilable viewpoints and standards of judgment, two irreconcilable moralities, proceeding from two irreconcilable readings of man’s fate and future are involved, and, hence, their conflict is irrepressible.

Though it is no longer a question of “the West” against something external, this passage ought to be noted by Christians who still haven’t grasped the nature of their situation. The visible empire may have been defeated, but the evil lives on.



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Finally got around to reading this...amazing book, amazing man. As you say, essential reading for anyone who cares about Christendom. I plan to read more of him -- I have his book of letters to W.F. Buckley, and there are a couple collections of essays/journalism available.

Glad to hear it, Rob. Yes, he was indeed amazing, and so is his story. I was thinking about him the other day, about how we shouldn't forget the conditions that made him a communist in the first place.

I was especially struck by his statement that all collectivist forms have an inherent fascist streak. This rings true with the idea that modernism/liberalism is inherently tyrannical, even if its tyranny will end up being a "soft" version.

While he would have been surprised by the fall of Communism, Chambers wouldn't have found our slow totalitarian creep surprising. Actually, one might say that Chambers was right about the course of the West towards defeat -- it's just taking longer than he anticipated.

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