Friday, February 04, 2011

Whittaker Chambers

I thought I would add to s short series of faith-as-a-type-of-sense posts with the example Whittaker Chambers own experience of it.  Chambers was an intelligent man and gifted writer, eventually ending up as one of the editors on Time magazine, earning the then astronomical sum of $30,000 dollars a year. He was communist in his young adulthood, working actively in the support of the Stalinist Soviet Union, both as a spy and as an agent of influence.

As a result of his conversion, he gave up his job, his friends and reputation, to "rat" out on his former communist buddies, particularly Alger Hiss. The Hiss trial was America's version of the Dreyfuss affair and polarised the nation.  Although Hiss was convicted, one certainly gets the impression reading American history that "polite society" was on the side of Hiss. It was glamorous left v's stodgy right. Chambers may have been right but he was boring, Hiss evil, but stylish. American society preferred the stylish.

I've not done much reading on Chambers but from what I have, he and I seem on the same "wavelength". I've just ordered a couple of his books and hope to have something intelligent to say about him in the near future but his own description of his "turn from the Left" is a clear example of the faith-sense in action.
But I date my break from a very casual happening. I was sitting in our apartment on St. Paul Street in Baltimore. It was shortly before we moved to Alger Hiss's apartment in Washington. 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 eye 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. 
(My bold typing)
Once again, as in C. S. Lewis's conversion, an involuntary conviction took residence in his mind. A thought which he had not willed and a though which he actively tried to suppress.  Many who fail to understand religion rationalise that the religious experience is created in order to satiate some type  of psychic need. Clearly, in this instance, Chambers had none and in fact was surprised by the ideation;  his psychic needs tended in the opposite direction. The proposition with regard to his child's ear was not some form of rational construction, rather the thought, "popped" into his head the same way the vision of the coffee cup in front of me "pops" into my mind: it was sensed.

The atheist has no idea how unsettling to the mind the experience is, how unwilled, and how "out the blue" it. And how sometimes the sensing individual will do all he can to "rationalise" the experience away. I was tired, bad onions, too much to drink, etc and I suppose with enough effort a man can suppress it. But more often than not, it forms a vague conviction.

As a result of his experience, Chambers became a Christian, but he never did settle on one denomination. It appears that he did not really care all that much about the theology of God, only the reality(and the implications) of His existence. Communism, and its parent atheism, were incompatible with that view.


JMSmith said...

Several years ago I bought Whittaker Chamber's book Witness in a used bookstore for no particular reason. It's a long book, and certainly tedious in places, but it absolutely stunned me for this reason. The man who wrote the book bore no resemblance to the man my high school and university history teachers had told me about. He was intelligent, highly literate, ethical, sensitive, and complex. I'd been given the impression he was some grubby little rat. That's when I began to look into some of the other certainties I'd been taught. Oh Dear!

As I recall, Chambers was descended from Quaker stock. His parents were doomed bohemians, but a grandfather with whom he spent time was still a Quaker. He was attending Quaker meetings after his conversion in the book.

Unknown said...
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Robert Brockman said...

What's odd with this example is that Mr. Chambers "involuntary conviction" seems to have been wrong. As far as can be determined, the shape of our ears really is a product of natural selection (with a hefty dose of randomness) rather than design. The Commies really were right about this (for once), to the extent that even the Catholic hierarchy has had to deal with evolution now.

The causes of the shapes of animals isn't a theism vs. atheism thing. This is a straight science issue.

Now maybe this incorrect idea of Mr. Chambers was just the surface of what was going on. Maybe what was actually going on is that Mr. Chambers was getting some low-level impression that the Commies had been deceiving him (which they almost certainly had) and that the Commies were seriously deficient in their caring about real people (which they demonstrably were). Perhaps this unwanted idea was his subconscious (or possibly a Divine spirit!) trying to get through to him.

The Social Pathologist said...
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The Social Pathologist said...

@R Brockman

As far as can be determined, the shape of our ears really is a product of natural selection can prove that, can't you?

Evolutionary theory is sort of like Freudian psychology: non falsifiable.

If beauty is an evolutionary advantage why are there ugly girls, ah yes, their is an evolutionary advantage for that as well. You can make any sort of plausible explanation up to justify a thing's existence. I've met quite a few biologists who whilst accepting evolution,in the absence of any better explanation, recognise that there are lots problems with the the theory. Anyway these series of posts are on faith and not evolution, so I don't want to divert the thread.

Disbelief in communism does not necessarily entertain a belief in God. In fact, the more logically plausible outcome of Mr Chambers's disillusion with communism, (something which he tried to suppress within himself) would have been alternative non-communist forms of atheism. Ayn Rand's objectivism for instance.

The Social Pathologist said...


As I recall, Chambers was descended from Quaker stock

As I understand it, he initially went back to his Quaker faith, but afterwards drifted amongst Christain denominations.

Blue Blazer said...

"...drifted amongst Christian denominations..." This is called The Typical American.The "Civic Religion" reigns supreme;good or bad ,it reigns supreme.

Gibson Block said...

"The Social Pathologist said... If beauty is an evolutionary advantage why are there ugly girls"

If there is a benevolent God why are there ugly girls?

Also, you don't know that God put this idea about the ears in his mind. It's not odd to suspect that something complex like an ear was made by someone. A supernatural explanation is not required.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Gibson Block

Ok then, can you point out who else created that ear?

JMSmith said...

I'm not sure that Chambers was simply impressed by the apparent design of his daughter's ear. He'd seen millions of ears before. He had a sudden awareness of the beauty of that tiny ear, this beauty highly colored by a simultaneous intensification of the love he felt for his child. We've all had those moments, emotional-aesthetic experiences so powerful they actually hurt. Now what does that mean? Where did that come from? It is possible, of course, to posit a secular explanation grounded in genetic affinity, but other species appear to survive without such experiences. I'd suggest that Chambers experienced his daughter's ear in a new way, and (to speak metaphorically) "saw" that he was seeing it in a supernatural or divine light.

Robert Brockman said...

Of course evolutionary theory is falsifiable! In fact, in a very few years now, it will likely BE false. Changes in human biology will increasingly be a result of readily observable Intelligent Design. Of course, the designers will be human bioengineers.

jmc said...

Too bad you can't print my entire comment because it's too long. I had, i thought, much that was interesting. The upshot was that Chambers was not an individual to be trusted --- filled with fantasies, invented stories, distortions, and lies.

Here are the last few paragraphs.

Over the years, the Ales Cable as it has become known has served for some as the conclusive proof that Hiss was a spy, the only problem being that at the time Venona cable #1822 indicates Ales to have been in Mexico City, Hiss was already back in Washington. A further complication involved the fact that a former KGB officer, Alexander Vassiliev, who did extensive research in Russian intelligence files never once saw Hiss referred to with the code name ''Ales,'' never saw a document ''saying … that Hiss [was] Ales.'' [ ]

Further complicating the Hiss matter is the fact that at least two Russian agents are known to have been filching documents from inside the State Department, a man named Julian Wadleigh, and, as we now know, a man in the Far Eastern section, Laurence Duggan. Although never investigated for some reason, two secretaries in the State Department were also giving typed copies of State department papers to Russian couriers [ See Athan Theoharis, 'Chasing Spies'].

So the discussion continues. For the most comprehensive online information and are two good places to begin.

jim crawford
Westwood NJ

The Social Pathologist said...

The Hiss defence rested on the assumption that Chambers was unreliable, Yet a substantial amount of of Chambers' claims were corroborated. I'm sorry but the mental instability charge doesn't stick.

Chambers had all the cards stacked against him; a deeply flawed man, from a working class background who was not physically attractive against a dashing Harvard man, from a distinguished family.

The Venona transcripts had not implicated Hiss till about five months after he had been convicted for perjury.

Here's the CIA take on the Hiss case My line of analysis follows the same lines.

Hiss always claimed he was framed. The question is really by whom, and why? The high and mighty all came to Hiss's defence. Frankfurter and Aitchinson; these guys would have had unofficial contacts which could of helped them stop any "frame up". Truman thought it was baloney. To assert that the Gov was behind the conspiracy only to have the heads of Government come to his defence is stretching things.

In fact, what I think is that the Government did not want to believe that Hiss was guilty. Nixon, in his memoirs, relates how his friend, Hoover, couldn't help him because of orders from above.

Blue Blazer said...
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Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

The following article, which reviews Sarah Palin's book America by Heart, appears on a website on Whittaker Chambers that his family maintains -- and contains comments on the "ear" passage (among others):

"The Ghosts in Sarah Palin’s Book"
part of

The Social Pathologist said...

@Anon @7.42

Thanks for the link. Though I'm not sure if you agree or disagree with my post. I get the impression that you disagree with my take on your grandfathers "ear" passage.

I'm quite O.K. with the criticism.

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