Nowadays, his conversion to Christianity exemplifies why the only way to live life is by God's principles and not humankind, a conservative scholar said recently as guest speaker at the Acton Institute's Lecture Series.
Chambers (1901-1961) was a senior editor for TIME Magazine who wrote the autobiography Witness, initially published in 1952 that has since been reprinted, which details his life as an agent in the Fourth Section of Soviet Military Intelligence from 1932 to 1938, where he coordinated espionage activities with high-ranking United States government officials. Witness explains Chambers' exodus from communism and his conversion to Christianity.
Modern world in crisis
"Chambers bore witness that America had lost its way spiritually," said Greg Forster, director of the Oikonomia Network at the Center of Transformational Churches at Trinity International University, and a visiting assistant professor of faith and culture.
"He (Chambers) said the modern world is in crisis because technological progress has brought an end to the older ways of life that were bound by traditions. And those traditions had dictated to people what the meaning and the purpose of their life was but, in the advanced modern world, we have to figure out the meaning of our lives for ourselves. And we have obviously not developed the moral and spiritual maturity to do a good job of this reliably."
Many continue to ask the same basic question Chambers did in the mid-20th century: Should we choose God's methods or man?
"Do we believe that the human mind is the highest thing that there is, that the solution to our problems is the almighty mind of man, remaking the world to eliminate poverty and injustice?" said Forster. "Or do we believe there's a power higher than the human mind, that the destiny of man is not in the hands of man?"
For much of Chambers' life, the answer to the world's travails was rooted in communism, specifically the revolution Soviet Union dictator Josef Stalin continued to stoke.
Growing up, Chambers' dysfunctional family life was unhappy, "full of emotional neediness, manipulation and petty jealousies," said Forster, all of which came to a head following the suicide of his younger brother, Richard.
See the future
Chambers eventually enrolled as a student at Columbia College of Columbia University in the 1920s where his academic advisor told him to "go see the building of the future" and journey to the Soviet Union.
Chambers did just that, by joining a Quaker international relief team who eventually cast him out of their group after discovering some atheistic essays he had published.
Chambers joined the U.S. Communist Party in 1925 and spied for the Soviet Union in the 1930s.
It was his brother's death that nudged Chambers to embrace communism and denounce materialism, said Forster.
"So standing in (his brother's) graveyard, Chambers consecrated his life to the destruction of America," said Forster. "He would later write at that time, 'I had been a member of the communist party for some time but it was not until that night (New Year's eve) I truly became a communist.' He wrote nobody becomes a communist because communism is intrinsically attractive. People become communist because they confront the crisis of history in the modern world and they are driven to desperation because they can't find any other answers."
Daughter's ear changes heart
Later in Chambers' life, communism had lost his luster, partly because of communists "careerists" who maintained a stronghold on personal power and corruption and, of all things, the birth of his daughter.
A thoughtful observer, Chambers couldn't divert his attention from how his daughter's ear was designed.
Chambers also could not ignore the mass murder of millions under Stalin's orders.
"It began to dawn on him was the problem was not that Stalin had perverted communism, the problem was communism itself," said Forster. "He got down on his knees and prayed. And he began praying every day and he came to need prayer like food and water. By turning to God, he was discovering who he really was, and the illusion of the almighty mind of man began to fade away. Chambers said reason is good but there's a flaw in humanity, a flaw that causes great evil and suffering, and it goes beyond the realm where reason can reach."
Disenchanted, Chambers left the communist party and became embroiled in a high profile House Un-American Activities Committee questioning, when, at this time, he worked for TIME Magazine as a senior editor. His former close friend, Alger Hiss, testified against Chambers while at the same time, claimed he never was a communist. Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury when Chambers, a star witness in 1948, retrieved microfilm from a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm, which was turned over to investigators that proved Hiss was a Soviet spy.
"He (Chambers) knew by testifying he could lose his job and his farm," said Forester. "He did in fact lose his job as a result of his testimony although he did manage to keep the farm going until much later. He could have saved himself, saved his job, saved his position and stayed at the top of American society at TIME magazine by just pretending not to remember very much, but he decided to tell what he knew."
Needed: church-led solutions
The takeaways from Chambers' life include living out God's principles in the private and public sphere, limiting the authority of government and enacting church-led solutions as the answer, said Forster.
"Without God, sooner or later we're going to start lying, cheating and stealing and eventually murdering on a massive scale to remake the world, believing our cause, our destiny, is in our own hands," he said.
"We need to recognize that limiting government, while good and necessary, is not enough," added Forster. "Getting government out of the way will not by itself will not be sufficient to meet the needs of the crisis of history in the modern world. The gradual expansion of state power over more and more areas of life is caused primarily by the absence of large-scale church led solutions to social problems."
The church at large has to stop waiting for government's permission to do its job, stressed Forster.
"Until the church creates church-led solutions to social problems and proves that they work, people are just going to continue looking to the government to solve their problems for them, because if the church is not there, where else are they going to look?" said Forster. "And I think that kind of enterprise could reveal enormous common ground between Christians who are on the left and the right."