Today is Reformation Day and many Protestants around the world already have or will celebrate the roots of their churches. But there is also a crisis going on in the West that needs our attention. Whittaker Chambers put it well in Witness , when he declared, “The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God.”
Secularism, but beyond that a general doctrinal disinterest, is not serving Protestants well. Many churchgoers seek out churches according to their ability to entertain. Many are often much more interested in the facilities, its programs, or seeker-friendly style of worship over what the churches actually believe and teach. The Reformers were prepared to die or be martyred for what they believed and taught. It was of primary importance to them. It would certainly seem that especially today, the West, and especially Protestants, have much to learn from these great thinkers and leaders in the Church.
“Western Civilization has begun to doubt its own credentials,” brooded the French novelist, André Malraux (1901-1976). It was men and women of faith who were responsible for a resurgence of Western Civilization. Reformation Day powerfully reminds us that if there is going to be another resurgence of the principles of freedom, liberty, and truth in our society and culture, it will have to come by way of revival and through people of faith. It is the only cure more powerful than the disease of indifference and secularism that is ushering in our demise as a people and culture.
New York magazine’s fascinating interview with Justice Antonin Scalia offers much to enjoy, and as Joe Carter has already pointed out, one of the more striking exchanges centers on the existence of the Devil.
When asked whether he has “seen evidence of the Devil lately,” Scalia offers the following:
You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore…What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.
As my friend Irene Switzer kindly reminded me, Whittaker Chambers set forth a similar hypothesis in an elegantly written essay for Life magazine in 1948. “When the Age of Reason began,” the sub-head begins, “the Devil went ‘underground,'” his strategy being “to make men think he doesn’t exist.”
Setting the scene at a New Year’s party in “Manhattan’s swank Hotel Nineveh & Tyre,” Chambers constructs a fanciful conversation between the Devil and a “pessimist” — a Modern Man what-have-you, who exhibits familiarity with Reinhold Niebuhr and C.S. Lewis (an indication of rejection over ignorance, no doubt). (more…)
We humans have a pesky tendency toward earthbound thinking. The natural world comes more easily to us, for obvious reasons, and thus, even when we aim to overcome our disposition and contemplate ways to improve things beyond the immediate, it’s hard for us to break out of the box.
Much like Judas Iscariot, who reacted harshly to Mary’s outpouring of expensive ointment on Jesus’s feet, we are prone to react only to the material implications, ignoring altogether whether God might prefer us to do something so peculiar as “keep it for the day of [Jesus’s] burial,” as was the case for Mary.
It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul urged us to present our bodies as a “living sacrifice” — to not be “conformed to this world,” but be “transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Such a life, Paul explains, demands a transcendent perspective made up by constant “testing” of the world as we naturally see it, that we might “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This is a life consisting of far more than surface-level observations of the physical world, requiring us to submit our reasoning about everything from material prosperity to human happiness to the ultimate will of the Supreme Creator.
This call to active and continuous spiritual discernment reaches into every dusty corner of our day-to-day lives, and it involves plenty of overlap with what we might call the “natural realm” (unhealthy dualism in the other direction is, of course, a competing temptation). Thus, in exploring something as overarching and all-encompassing as our social and economic thought, we should be wary of allowing these natural tendencies and earthly values to serve as the dominating inputs, legitimate and valuable though many of these features may be when properly ordered (e.g. “happiness”).
When we attempt to subvert God’s transcendent reality, the problem can play out in a variety of ways and in varying degrees. Most clear, perhaps, at least in recent memory, is the example of Soviet Communism — an orientation that Whittaker Chambers once described as “man’s second oldest faith,” whose “promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”:
[Communism] 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, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.
But although the glaring errors of atheism help illuminate where things can turn sour, the trickier questions lie with the rest of us who do seek to place God at the center of all things, yet still find ourselves persistently struggling with how that should look in our day-to-day endeavors. (more…)
For myself, Reformation study was critical to my own spiritual formation. Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand is just one book that has had a lasting impact in my life.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Witness by Whittaker Chambers. We have a superb article by Richard Reinsch on the deep influence of Witness and its relevance today. Reinsch authored the exceptional Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary in 2010. I reviewed the book in a past issue of R&L.
James Franko contributed an essay from a classically liberal perspective on “A Case for Limiting Caesar.” I’ve contributed a review of Mark Tooley’s new book Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century.
The “In the Liberal Tradition” figure is Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson, of course, would do much to shape the notion of rights in the American colonies.
Let me also say something about the expansion of Rev. Robert Sirico’s column for this issue. We have excerpted a passage from his new book Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. It will be available from Regnery in May of this year. Anybody who is an admirer or feels they can learn something from Rev. Sirico will cherish this publication. It really serves to remind us all just how much the Acton Institute and its mission makes sense.
There is more in this issue. Check out the editor’s notes for all the details.
Over at the Liberty Law Blog, there is an excellent post titled “Ronald Reagan, Whittaker Chambers, and the Dialogue of Liberty” by Alan Snyder. Snyder delves into the influence Chambers had on Reagan and how their worldviews differed as well.
Many conservatives and scholars felt Chambers’ prediction that the West was on the losing side of history in the battle against Marxism collapsed after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union. For many, the ideas of Chambers and his pessimism about the future of freedom seemed dated. Snyder elaborates on the relevance of Chambers and that the testimony of his witness still stands:
One of Chambers’s closest friends, Ralph de Toledano, noted that when the “evil empire” collapsed, people asked him: “Would Whittaker Chambers still believe that he had left the winning side for the losing side?” He replied that Chambers, long before the collapse, had already seen “that the struggle was no longer between Communism and Western civilization, but one in which Western civilization was destroying itself by betraying its heritage.” In essence, “Communism had triumphed, not in its Marxist tenet but in its concept of man—a concept which the West has accepted.” It goes back to Chambers’s insistence that there are two faiths and the West must make a decision: God or man? As he wrote in Witness:
God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom. …
… There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.
For more on Chambers and the impact of his witness, read my review of Richard Richard Reinsch’s Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary. This exceptional book is a must read.
Richard Reinsch II has an excellent condensed summary of his book Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary over at the Heritage Foundation. I really cannot praise Reinsch’s account enough. It is perhaps the best book I read in 2010.
I reviewed the book on the PowerBlog and in Religion & Liberty. We also featured Whittaker Chambers as the “In The Liberal Tradition” figure in the last issue of Religion & Liberty. In the write up, we included the citation to the 1984 Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously awarded to Chambers by President Ronald Reagan. The citation reads:
At a critical moment in our Nation’s history, Whittaker Chambers stood alone against the brooding terrors of our age. Consummate intellectual, writer of moving majestic prose, and witness to the truth, he became the focus of a momentous controversy in American history that symbolized our century’s epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, a controversy in which the solitary figure of Whittaker Chambers personified the mystery of human redemption in the face of evil and suffering. As long as humanity speaks of virtue and dreams of freedom, the life and writings of Whittaker Chambers will ennoble and inspire. The words of Arthur Koestler are his epitaph: ‘The witness is gone; the testimony will stand.’
I encourage you to read Reinch’s summary. It is a fitting and informative tribute to one of the great minds of the 20th century.
Religion & Liberty’s winter issue featuring an interview with patristics scholar Thomas C. Oden is now available online. Oden, who is a Methodist, recalls for us the great quote by Methodist founder John Wesley on the Church Fathers: “The Fathers are the most authentic commentators on Scripture, for they were nearest the fountain and were eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given.”
Oden reminds us of the relevancy of patristics today, he says “You can hardly find any contemporary political issue that has not been dealt with, in some form, in a previous cultural and linguistics situation by the early Christian writers.” We hope you will enjoy the interview and the portion of this interview that was previewed on the PowerBlog in January.
The logic of social leveling applies to more than property. Indeed, socialism and secularism are closely related to one another. While socialism seeks to erase the economic distinctions between human beings by taking individual choices about property out of people’s hands, secularism seeks to erase the religious differences between people by making religion irrelevant to the life of the community.
John Kelly, a financial advisor, has written an essay called “The Rich Young Man: The Law Versus Privilege.”
Whittaker Chambers is the “In The Liberal Tradition” figure for this issue. For further Chambers reference, I reviewed Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary by Richard M. Reinsch II last issue. Chambers words and witness have been an inspiration to me.
There is more in the issue so please check out the entire publication online and feel free to offer us feedback and ideas for future content in Religion & Liberty. The spring issue will feature an interview with theologian and author Wayne Grudem.
Whittaker Chambers began Witness, the classic account of his time in the American Communist underground, with the declaration: “In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return.” The line was most of all a deep recognition of the power of God to redeem what was once dead. Witness was a landmark account of the evils of Communism but most importantly a description of the bankruptcy of freedom outside of the sacred. “For Chambers, God was always the prime mover in the war between Communism and freedom. If God exists then Communism cannot,” says Richard Reinsch II. And it is Reinsch who reintroduces us to Chambers, the brilliant intellectual, anti-communist, and man of faith in Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.
After his exodus from the Soviet Communist spy network in Washington, Chambers then outed U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss as a communist, setting up a dramatic espionage trial played out before the nation. Chambers became a household name thanks to a trial that was wrapped in intrigue, treachery, and Cold War drama. Chambers would become a hero for many in the conservative movement. William F. Buckley, Jr. called him the greatest figure who defected out of communism. But Chambers’ pessimism about the future of the West led him to be dismissed by many others, conservatives too.
This pessimist view of the survival of the West against Marxism stems from Chambers’ understanding that the West was abandoning its sacred heritage of Christian thought, and within it, the proper understanding of man. A supposedly free but rampant secular and materialistic society still leads to the same ending as Marxism, outside of God, and unable to explain its reason and purpose for life.
One of the chief takeaways from this book is that there must be more to conservatism than free-markets and limited government. For liberty to be prosperous it must be oriented toward greater truths. Reinsch points out that Chambers understood that the “West must reject Communism in the name of something other than modern liberalism and its foundation in the principles of Enlightenment rationalism.”
Reinsch delves into Chambers prediction of the eventual collapse of the West and his belief that there was a lack of moral fortitude to combat the communist surge. The apparent unwillingness of the free world to sacrifice and suffer for freedom troubled Chambers. He also surmised that the intellectual class possessed a waning ability to articulate a meaningful defense of the ideas and value of the free society.
The United States did indeed emerge as the leader of the free world after the Second World War, rebuilding its former enemies with the Marshall Plan and other programs. Early on, the United States and Western Europe showed a stoic and moral resistance throughout the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949. Future presidential administrations would pledge support for free people who toiled anywhere across the globe. President Ronald Reagan emerged in the latter half of the 20th Century, unveiling his own crusade against communism, making many of the deeper spiritual contrasts with the Soviet system first articulated by Chambers.
Reinsch also notes that while Chambers perhaps underestimated some of the spiritual will and capital to resist and overcome the Marxist onslaught, most of Chambers’s identification of the sickness of the West remained true. Reinsch declares of an America in the 1960s and 1970s:
Racked by mindless violence, strikes, rampant inflation, economic torpidity, and the rapid unfolding of sexual liberation, liberal democracy seemed to display, in acute form, the crisis of a material progress that had been severed from faith and freedom. Thus, the spirit of Chambers’s brooding over the fate of the West retained relevance.
This is evidenced in part by the immense suffering of Hanoi Hilton POWs like Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who in his captivity memoir When Hell Was in Session, described the disconnect of a man who sacrificed so much for freedom and who came out of the dark night with a deep sense of spiritual renewal only to come home to unearth an increasingly secular nation that was also retreating in its ability to defend and define its greatness.
Reinsch even points to further evidence that Chambers was right about the dangerous trajectory of the West when he cites the victory of the Cold War and how that surge of freedom did not posit any great change or realization of a higher transcendent understanding and purpose. While the superiority of markets was temporarily buoyed by the events, socialism has shown a staying power in the West.
Reisnch has crafted an important and essential book for anybody fatigued with the daily grind of hyper-partisan politics. By reintroducing conservatives to a deep thinker like Chambers, he reminds us of the limits of politics as well as the frustrating shallowness it can embody.
Just as markets and small government offer little ability in offering peace and happiness, though they certainly create greater space for a working towards that end, this account is a reminder that the best of conservatism is at its core within the ancient truths that tower above the vain materialism and individualism of secular Western democracy.
Believers can see this clearly when they look at the vanity of a society that prods, primps, and chases after meaning outside of God. Thus, as Reinsch adds, Chambers so wholly understood that “man’s problem was the problem of understanding himself in light of his fundamental incompleteness.” And that problem exists under communism just as it does in democratic capitalism, with its temptations to consumerism and selfishness.
The Marxist Utopian dream was man’s attempt at trying to fulfill its incompleteness with all the wonders and technology of modernity and materialism. The free world still is unable to relocate itself in the proper order. And, as Reinsch declares, this is a great warning to us all. Chambers so thoroughly understood and knew that “man was never more beastly than in his attempts to organize his life, individually and collectively, without God.”