March 21, 2015


Witness (A Book Review by Father John McCloskey, February 2015, National Catholic Reporter)

His break with communism came in stages. At one point in his journey he realized, "Economics is not the central problem of this century. It is a relative problem which can be solved in relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age." Interestingly enough, when Chambers finally broke completely with communism he did not immediately denounce the agents with whom he had worked, the best-known being Harvard blueblood Alger Hiss, a lawyer who worked for the State Department and was a member of the circle advising President Roosevelt on foreign affairs.

Would that Hiss had likewise seen the light and confessed, but evidently he never repented. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, government records unearthed there showed clearly that Hiss had, indeed, functioned as a communist spy for many years, receiving orders ultimately from Moscow.

However, perhaps more important than the role Chambers played in revealing the communist underground in the U.S. of the '30s and '40s is his expose of the unsatisfactory character of all the 20th century's attempts to derive an explanation for life apart from God. As Chambers put it, "The communist vision is the vision of man without God."

Chambers was one of the best prose writers of his time and was also fluent in several European languages. As a writer for TIME and later for Bill Buckley's National Review, he was recognized as one of the best journalists of his time. Chambers had the unique gift of being able to write about truth in a simple, direct, and memorable way:

"Communism is the central experience of the first half of the 20th century and may be its final experience--will be, unless the free world in the agony of its struggle with communism overcomes its crises by discovering, in suffering and pain, a power of faith which will provide man's mind, at the same time intensity, with the same two certainties: a reason to live and a reason to die."

Though most of his major journalistic writing has been anthologized, Witness, without question, was his masterpiece, an autobiography on a par with Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, written just a few years before Witness. Both men experienced religious conversions: Merton converted to Catholicism and Chambers became a Quaker, though not the kind that substitutes causes for God. Both saw that the West was in decline and only an earnestly lived Christianity could save it. "The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God," Chambers wrote in Witness.

Posted by at March 21, 2015 7:29 AM

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