April 2003 Archives

I received a recommendation of Whittaker Chambers' foreword to Witness as "a powerful piece of writing," and I had some thoughts after reading it. About the kindest comment I can muster for Chambers' writing is that my reaction is rather different. I found the sections about his children, especially the passages about Beethoven and Shakespeare, to be quite moving; his political opinions are in a different class entirely. (Not that I expected evenhandedness from an anti-communist of such notoriety, but I had trouble even locating his arguments under the deafening sound of grinding axes.)

I can understand what it is like to have an awakening that reorients your view of the world, but I've always had trouble relating to religious epiphanies because of the numerous unsupported leaps of faith made along the way. Chambers wrote about how "one communist conversion sounds much like another...impersonal and repetitious, awesome and tiresome," and that is precisely how religious conversions sound to me: exchanging one set of tinted glasses for another, finding another dogma to revere and another master to obey.

Chambers was obviously not a biologist - or, at the very least, he was not very knowledgeable about evolution. While I can relate to his "aha" moment regarding the structure of his daughter's ear, calling the process of evolution a "chance coming together of atoms" is a vast oversimplification bordering on deliberate misrepresentation. (Even if his description were accurate, natural selection is a well-established scientific theory - not a "communist view.") I have never understood other people's desire to anthropomorphize the wondrous, or to twist mysteries into miracles. Structures as complex as eyes have evolved independently dozens of times; ears - as miraculous as they seem in one's children - are much less intricate than that. Things such as language acquisition and consciousness astound me more than cartilage folds, but I don't want to unnecessarily disparage someone else's epiphany.

My larger point relates to Chambers' position on what is sometimes called the theory [sic] of intelligent design. He was correct in stating that "[a belief in] design presupposes [a belief in] god," but belief in design (the universe's profound mystery requires a deliberate creation) leads to a logical conundrum: If a god is the necessary first cause behind the universe, then something else (another god?) must have caused this god, and so on in an infinite regression. Attempting to evade this conundrum by supposing that a god exists without being created is the infamous uncaused first cause fallacy.

Unfortunately, Chambers' political presuppositions are just as poorly supported, starting with his apocalyptic vision of a "total crisis" between "the two irreconcilable faiths of our time--Communism and Freedom" that led him to attempt the conflation of freedom and religion:

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.

Seeking a Biblical basis for our freedoms is a fruitless endeavor, as they instead have their roots in our Greco-Roman heritage. Not only does the Bible leave unmentioned such things as written constitutions and representative government, it also commands obedience and submission rather than liberty:

"...the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation." (Romans 13:1-2)

"...be subject to principalities and powers...obey magistrates" (Titus 3:1)

"Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers..." (I Peter 2:13-14)

His dichotomous division of the world into a "communist sector" and a "free sector" also fails. A more accurate comparison would be totalitarianism to democracy - or communism to capitalism - but that would quench much of his rhetorical fire. His myriad statements about communism being "the focus of the concentrated evil of our time" and being the "irreconcilable opposite" of freedom spring from the same source. The alleged communist-religious incompatibility surprises me even more since Jesus was not exactly a free-marketeer. I'll skip the usual anti-capitalist passages about camels going through the eye of a needle and throwing the money-changers out of the temple in favor of Acts 4:34-35:

"There was not a needy person among them [the disciples], for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need."

That sounds a great deal like Karl Marx ("from each according to his ability, to each according to his need") to me, although I'm sure that some market fundamentalist has explained it away in a fit of textual torture. Capitalism doesn't require religion (just ask Libertarians or Objectivists) and the converse is also true: communism does not require atheism. I haven't seen any evidence that communism and religion are truly incompatible, although I wouldn't be at all surprised if some communists' disdain for religion is based in their envy at a potential rival for people's devotion.

Those who slander communism as responsible for 100 million deaths (as does the infamous Black Book of Communism) must be willing to tally every death (starvation, insufficient housing, inadequate medical care, etc.) under capitalism in the interest of a fair comparison. One can make the argument that a communist economy somehow requires a totalitarian political system; Mao and Stalin might have agreed, but Marx and Engels would not have. Unbiased observers can reasonably disagree over whether a truly communist economy has ever been instituted on a national level, and there is much more grey to reality than Chambers here insists. In fact, Chambers repudiated this sort of oversimplification in his National Review piece on Atlas Shrugged:

In this fiction everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly. This kind of simplifying pattern, of course, gives charm to most primitive story known as: The War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. In modern dress, it is a class war. Both sides to it are caricatures.

[...]

Their archetypes are Left-Liberals, New Dealers, Welfare Statists, One Worlders, or, at any rate, such ogreish semblances of these as may stalk the nightmares of those who think little about people as people, but tend to think a great deal in labels and effigies.

If only his foreword to Witness had been as thoughtful and nuanced as this.

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