Making Our Witness: The Chambers Model

What startled many readers of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness when it first was published in 1952 (and became a bestseller) was its deeply spiritual tone, its message of returning to faith in God, not only for the sake of individual salvation but also for the hope of salvaging Western civilization.

Chambers had been a avowed atheist, an ideological stance influenced by his dysfunctional family upbringing, the nihilism communicated to him by his university education, and his commitment to changing the world through communism.

One of his most famous lines about religious belief prior to his conversion shows not only his attitude but his ability to convey that attitude in memorable phrases:

I associated God with ill-ventilated vestries and ill-ventilated minds.

That attitude crumbled when he finally faced the truth of the Christian faith. There is one passage in Witness that best describes what happened to him when the Spirit of God touched his life, and that passage is even more memorable than the one noted above:

What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step.

It was that touch from the hand of God that led Chambers to his decision to make his witness before the world—not just a testimony about what he knew of the workings of the communist underground and its designs to overthrow the American government—but a witness to the grace of God in men’s lives.

Yet it was that very witness that most intellectuals rejected. They didn’t understand how Chambers could embrace the “old” faith that so many of them now despised. This is why Chambers, near the end of Witness, wrote this:

To those for whom the intellect alone has force, such a witness has little or no force. It bewilders and exasperates them. It challenges them to suppose that there is something greater about man than his ability to add and subtract. It submits that that something is the soul.

What’s interesting is that Chambers saw a clear demarcation between those intellectuals and the majority of the population:

Plain men understood the witness easily. It speaks directly to their condition. For it is peculiarly the Christian witness. They still hear it, whenever it truly reaches their ears, the ring of those glad tidings that once stirred mankind with an immense hope.

For it frees them from the trap of irreversible Fate at the point at which it whispers to them that each soul is individually responsible to God, that it has only to assert that responsibility, and out of man’s weakness will come strength, out of his corruption incorruption, out of his evil good, and out of what is false invulnerable truth.

Why did Chambers believe that weakness could become strength, that corruption could be transformed into incorruption, that good could be squeezed out of evil, and that falsehoods could nevertheless lead men to see the truth?

He could believe all of that because it happened in his life. He responded to the Christian message, he acknowledged that he was individually responsible to God, and he took the necessary steps to assert that responsibility by proclaiming the witness God had given him through his own personal experience.

The message hasn’t changed. God hasn’t changed. All of us need to respond as Chambers did. We need to make our individual witnesses to the world. We are all individually responsible to God and need to take whatever steps are necessary to make our witness.

Lewis on the Proper Christian Spirit

C. S. Lewis 13Last Saturday, I wrote about how C. S. Lewis warned against what he called a type of “band-wagoning,” in which we can, at the expense of our principles, decide to become part of a system with which we say we disagree. He continues the discussion in Reflections on the Psalms with what he believes are more subtle forms of the problem that can easily deceive us.

Many people have a very strong desire to meet celebrated or “important” people, including those whom they disapprove, from curiosity or vanity. It gives them something to talk or even (anyone may produce a book of reminiscences) to write about. It is felt to confer distinction if the great, though odious, man recognizes you on the street.

That motive is completely unchristian. But what about Jesus’ example of sitting down with sinners? One must keep in mind that when Jesus did it, His goal was to revolutionize their thinking, not to join in with it. There is a fine line here that Lewis works through carefully with these words:

But I am inclined to think a Christian would be wise to avoid, where he decently can, any meeting with people who are bullies, lascivious, cruel, dishonest, spiteful and so forth.

I could insert a certain political figure here as an example, but I will restrain myself.

Why avoid such people? Lewis continues,

Not because we are “too good” for them. In a sense because we are not good enough. We are not good enough to cope with all the temptations, nor clever enough to cope with all the problems, which an evening spent in such society produces.

The temptation is to condone, to connive at; by our words, looks and laughter, to “consent.”

TruthIf you seem to go along to get along, what happens to your Christian witness? Yet are we to become obnoxious in our response? Again, Lewis threads the needle:

What is one to do? For on the one hand, quite certainly, there is a degree of unprotesting participation in such talk which is very bad. We are strengthening the hands of the enemy. We are encouraging him to believe that “those Christians,” once you get them off their guard and round a dinner table, really think and feel exactly as he does. By implication we are denying our Master; behaving as if we “knew not the Man.”

Yet the opposite actions can be just as bad:

On the other hand is one to show that, like Queen Victoria, one is “not amused”? Is one to be contentious, interrupting the flow of conversation at every moment with “I don’t agree, I don’t agree”? Or rise and go away? But by these courses we may also confirm some of their worst suspicions of “those Christians.” We are just the sort of ill-mannered prigs they always said.

What is the solution, then? Lewis advises this course of action:

Disagreement can, I think, sometimes be expressed without the appearance of priggery, if it is done argumentatively not dictatorially; support will often come from some most unlikely member of the party, or from more than one, till we discover that those who were silently dissentient were actually a majority.

A discussion of real interest may follow. Of course the right side may be defeated in it. That matters very much less than I used to think. The very man who has argued you down will sometimes be found, years later, to have been influenced by what you said.

So it really comes down to the attitude we display. We can stand for truth, even argue for it, as long as our spirit is Christian. And it is that Christian spirit that may ultimately win someone to God’s kingdom. After all, isn’t that the goal, and not simply winning an argument?

Lewis: Not Ashamed of the Gospel

C. S. Lewis 3In his customary pithy way, C. S. Lewis reminds us that we do stand for something, and that we had better make that stand:

As Christians we are tempted to make unnecessary concessions to those outside the Faith. We give in too much. Now, I don’t mean that we should run the risk of making a nuisance of ourselves by witnessing at improper times, but there comes a time when we must show that we disagree. We must show our Christian colours, if we are to remain true to Jesus Christ. We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.

May we demonstrate Christian boldness wherever God has planted us.