About this blogger:
Ronda Chervin received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University and an MA in Religious Studies from Notre Dame Apostolic Institute. A widow, mother, and grandmother, she currently teaches philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. Write to her at chervinronda@gmail.com.
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“In all this mediaeval religious poetry there is much that we could not use now. Many of the hymns are quite bad, many are frigid compositions containing futile tricks, puns, misinterpreted quotations of Scripture, twisted concepts, whose only point is there twist. But there is an amazing amount of beautiful poetry that we could still use.”
— Rev. Adrian Fortescue (d. 1923)

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A Witness from the Past: Whittaker Chambers
published 28 October 2012 by Dr. Ronda Chervin

I am working on a book with Dr. Sebastian Mahfood, Director of Distance Learning at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, to probably be called Catholic Realism: Key to the Refutation of Atheism. One of my chapters will be about Atheists who became Theists. In the course of my research I came upon an old friend, Whittaker Chambers.

Chambers, 1901-196, was an undercover Communist Agent; after his defection, a Time Magazine Editor, and convert to the Quaker religion. He stunned the world when in 1948 he informed on his former Communist comrade, Alger Hiss, who worked high up in the Department of Justice as was an aid to President Roosevelt at the post World War II Yalta Conference. Some of you readers who are older will remember this well. Younger ones may not. I thought I would put here some of my notes for my book because I am so moved by his witness. I read his book Witness: Whittaker Chambers first as a teen. Reading it now as a convert myself from theism, I found many new wonderful aspects of his life.

Chambers was born in Philadelphia in 1901. His father was a graphic newspaper artist. His parents were not atheists but loose members of the Episcopal Church who did not practice their religion at all in terms of Church-going or even talking about religion in the home. The idea was that children should come to their own ideas about the meaning of the world. Open-mindedness, however, wasn’t open to God, their son, Whittaker, concluded. Yet he, himself, connected the beauty of nature and God. In fact he would often retreat into the woods around his home as a youth trying to get away from the roughness of school and his unhappy family with his father an alcoholic.

In spite of his superior intellect, instead of going to college he ran away to work and there made contact with the world of harsh conditions of manual labor. After work experiences that later led him to sympathize with the communist philosophy, he did go to Columbia University. Here he became a thorough atheist. His younger brother’s alcoholism and despair, leading to suicide, propelled him further into the belief that Communism was the only way to a better way of life. He thought that he had a fierceness to try to change things that his brother lacked. He thought that one must have the courage to be willing to fight to the death to make things better.

In 1925 he became a Communist. He began working for the party in minor ways, but then as a newspaper editor in NYC. There he married a woman who was not a member of the party but an anarchist. Abortion was common in the party because so many believed that it was a crime to bring children into such an evil world. When Chamber’s wife got pregnant he was joyful but still thought she should have an abortion. She said “We could not do that awful thing to a little baby.” It was through this child that he found God in this way: “My daughter was in her high chair. I was watching her eat. She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life. I liked to watch her even when she smeared porridge on her face or dropped it meditatively on the floor. My eyes came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear – those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: ‘No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design.’ The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind. But I never wholly forgot it or the occasion. I had to crowd it out of my mind. If I had completed it, I should have had to say: Design presupposes God. I did not then know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.”

Partly because of his knowledge of many languages, including Russian, Chambers was induced to become not only an American communist but part of the underground Communist party controlled from the Soviet Union. Then in 1934 he was sent to set up an underground spy group in DC. These were people infiltrating the U.S. government, especially in departments dealing with labor. It was here that he met Alger Hiss who was a lawyer working in a Senate Committee. Specifically Chambers and others were involved in stealing documents to photograph them, pass them on to the Soviet Union especially documents related to Fascist plans to invade the Soviet Union.

In the letter to his children that is the forward to his lengthy autobiography, he wrote: “Much more than Alger Hiss or Whittaker Chambers was on trial in the trials of Alger Hiss. Two faiths were on trial. Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies. At issue in the Hiss Case was the question whether this sick society, which we call Western civilization, could in its extremity still cast up a man whose faith in it was so great that he would voluntarily abandon those things which men hold good, including life, to defend it. At issue was the question whether this man’s faith could prevail against a man whose equal faith it was this society is sick beyond saving, and that mercy itself pleads for its swift extinction and replacement by another…the two irreconcilable faiths of our time – Communism and Freedom – came to grips in the persons of two conscious and resolute men…for with dark certitude, both knew, almost from the beginning, that the Great Case could end only in the destruction of one or both of the contending figures, just as the history of our times (both men had been taught) can end only in the destruction of one or both of the contending forces.”

In his wonderfully written book, Chambers, insists that the view of communists as simply evil, power-hungry men, is not accurate. Across the nations the leading motive of the leaders begins with the insistence that we must overcome the vast injustices in the world, if necessary, by force, even at the cost of the lives of others and of ourselves. The faith that we can man can, in a god-like fashion, create the world is as old as Adam and Eve trying to replace God as the center of creation. By denying the existence of God, communism replaces Him by man. Communism replaces the soul with the mind.

Chambers defected in 1948 when finally the “unheard” screams of the victims of Soviet Communism, such as those in gulags and massacred in purges, burst through his denial mechanisms. He thought he would be assassinated but he managed, instead, to be hired as an editor of Time Magazine. With special graces, he became a strongly believing Quaker living with his family on a farm in Maryland.

“I tried to pray…It was as if that spirit from my boyhood and youth took my hand and knelt and prayed beside me, so that in the act of seeing oneness with God, I became one with myself. The secret springs of my life, which has been lost so long in the desert of modernity, joined their impulses, broke fee and flowed unchecked. …I began to see that the mirage of Almighty Mind (of man) and its power to plan human civilization were illusions.

“The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialistic modern mind…denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul …I cannot say that I then believed in God. I sought God…(In the midst of walking down the stairs of his house one day, he heard a voice say “in perfect distinctness: ‘If you will fight for freedom, all will be well with you.” He felt God was holding him in peace. This peace carried him out of the party and through all the rest of his life.” I no longer groped for God; I felt God. The experience was absolute…I promised God my life, even, if it were His will, to death. This is my ultimate witness.” Ten years later, during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, he felt impelled to inform that US government of the exact nature of the Communist spy ring that could greatly weaken the US anti-Communist efforts world-wide. For example, such spies were influential in the agreements after WWII at Yalta that favored Communist growth.

The most influential spy he informed on had been a best friend of himself and his family in their Communist days, so this was a most painful decision. Alger Hiss, working for the Department of Justice, defended himself in a long, greatly publicized trial where he claimed that he had never even known Chambers and that Chambers was mentally unbalanced. Chambers won when he revealed documents long hidden proving the espionage of Hiss. An important micro-film he hid in a pumpkin at his farm. The film in the pumpkin became a famous moment in this tortuous case leading finally to the indictment and imprisonment of Hiss.

Here are some lines from his book I found especially striking.

“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…. The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree to which it is indifferent to God. It exists to the degree in which the Western world actually shares Communism’s materialist vision, is so dazzled by the logic of the materialist interpretation of history, politics and economics, that it fails to grasp that, for it, the only possible answer to the Communist challenge: Faith in God or Faith in Man? is the challenge: Faith in God.”

“…life is pain…each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman and child on earth, you will be wise.”

When he broke with the party: “One thing I knew: I was no longer a Communist. I had broken involuntarily with Communism at the moment when I first said to myself: “It is just as evil to kill the Tsar and his family and throw their bodies down a mine shaft as it is to starve two million peasants or slave laborers to death. More bodies are involved in one case than the other. But one is just as evil as the other….I did not know yet that there was something that made it wrong to justify evil by good expected consequences. I did not know that this Something is God… I asked if what was lacking in communism could be God. I asked it first as an acknowledged absurdity which is what the mind is reduced to after rejecting every other possibility. I asked it, astounded that I could ask it at all, and with aversion as if something old, cunning and fetid from the past had reached out unfairly to possess my mind in its moment of greatest weakness. I associated God with ill-ventilated vestries and ill-ventilated minds.”

“I do not know any way to explain why God’s grace touches a man who seems unworthy of it. But neither do I know any other way to explain how a man like myself – tarnished by life, unprespossessing, not brave – could prevail so far against the powers of the world arrayed almost solidly against him, to destroy (the communist spy ring in America) In this sense, I am a …witness to God’s grace and to the fortifying powers of faith.”

Read more blog entries by Dr. Ronda Chervin by visiting RondaView. Dr. Ronda Chervin has many free e-books and audios on her website, rondachervin.com. If you go to her website and read or listen and then want to correspond with her she will be available. Dr. Ronda’s newest project is spiritualityrunningtogod.com.

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