I first encountered Ayn Rand as a sophomore in college. At the time, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. I was just beginning to have an interest in politics, and the title of her book jumped out at me. My introduction to Rand came as simply as that.
The title was Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and what got my attention was that last word: ideal. I had grown up in a relatively pro-capitalism environment, yet I had never heard the system framed in such a way. From the little I knew, I certainly preferred a free market system to the rest, but how could it be elevated as an ideal?
Upon diving in, I was immediately taken by her approach. Her philosophy was fresh and provocative, her writing was sharp and wry, and her view of the individual was engaging and inspiring. As a young sponge scrambling to make sense of my own worldview, Rand’s words were pure meaty matter. Thus, when finished, I quickly moved on to read The Virtue of Selfishness and Anthem. Since then, I have remained thoroughly fascinated by her work and usually jump at any opportunities to discuss it.
But I have also grown significantly disenchanted. First and foremost, Rand’s devout atheism has been a constant point of disagreement. Rand continuously lambasts belief in an almighty God as silly and portrays any form of subordinate “mysticism” as highly diminishing to the individual. Although Rand’s promotion of individual sovereignty and responsibility is often consistent with Biblical teaching, she is far too often guilty of committing what the Apostle Paul calls creator confusion.
There are plenty of errors in Rand’s thinking that are worthy of discussion, but at the moment I would like to engage only one: Her negative view of Jesus’ approach to individual empowerment, and more specifically, her ignorance of the individual benefits of self-sacrifice (or, as Rand prefers to call it, altruism).
In a letter to Sylvia Austin in 1946, Rand outlined her overall view of Jesus, indicating (at first) an admiration of His emphasis on individual salvation:
Jesus was one of the first great teachers to proclaim the basic principle of individualism — the inviolate sanctity of man’s soul, and the salvation of one’s soul as one’s first concern and highest goal; this means — one’s ego and the integrity of one’s ego.
But alas, when it came to Jesus’ methods for attaining individual fulfillment, Rand was ultimately disappointed:
But when it came to the next question, a code of ethics to observe for the salvation of one’s soul…Jesus (or perhaps His interpreters) gave men a code of altruism, that is, a code which told them that in order to save one’s soul, one must love or help or live for others…This is a contradiction that cannot be resolved.
Here and elsewhere Rand rejects Jesus’ approach as illogical — as a supreme and utter contradiction. Yet throughout all of the Jesus-bashing I’ve read by Rand, I have yet to find much support for her dismissal. She certainly provides plenty of arguments against the forces of dogmatic collectivism and blind, emotional altruism, but that is not what Jesus advocated.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ call for individual transformation does not result in some gnostic or emotionally charged view of individual sacrifice. At its most fundamental level, Jesus’ message is about obedience and dedicated, mutual relationship. Christians like to call this a covenant, and if Rand properly understood it, she would probably exalt it as a contract.
But alas, much like Rand, many Christians also act as though Jesus couldn’t really mean what he says. The last shall be first. Whoever will save his life will lose it. Give away everything you have and you will have treasure in heaven. Certainly by any “objective” standard, this is mere crazy talk!
Thus, we proceed to transform Jesus’ words into something we can understand. Whether that results in a God of poverty or a God of riches, we’ll take either. The problem is, of course, that Jesus’ message is neither me-centered nor them-centered. Rather, Jesus’ call is God-centered, and only through such a transcendent orientation can we find the proper balance that Jesus is pointing to. Only through a regenerated mind and dedicated spiritual alignment can we understand that complete submission to Him is the ultimate profitable move.
The message of Christ is both self-sacrificial and self-interested all in one. The Beatitudes don’t read “cursed are the poor,” yet they also don’t read “blessed are the rich.” Likewise, Jesus constantly qualifies his demands for sacrifice with promises of reward, whether in this life or the next. For anyone who reads the Gospels in full, Jesus is consistent and intentional in the way he elevates the ideal of self-sacrifice alongside the ideal of rational self-interest.
But how often do we disregard or ignore the individualistic benefits of sacrifice, pretending that God actually wants us to be destitute and miserable? Particularly in progressive circles, many Christians cling to Rand’s interpretation, promoting a God that wants to chain us to our fellow man and rob us of any individual purpose or destiny. Whether or not we want to admit it, the historical church has been complicit in painting God as Rand does — as some lofty and detached communist dictator who delights in limiting our ambitions and seizing his fair share. Like Rand, many Christians opt for a one-sided Jesus who delights in our suffering and whose heavenly Father sees oppression as a prerequisite for salvation.
So how do we move forward? How do we gain a better understanding of the “saved” life that Jesus promises? How do we approach the upside-down economics of Christianity without dwelling in poverty or exalting in riches? How do we avoid limiting the Gospel message with our faulty, human reason?
The good news is that for atheists like Rand, the profits promised in Jesus’ message are indeed observable in physical terms. Certainly these benefits are of no comparison with the enormous spiritual wealth involved, but the natural component is still important for us to understand.
So here is what we need:
First, we need a better understanding of the spiritual transformation available through Jesus. We need to understand in detail what kind of spiritual gain Jesus is talking about. What will this look like in our own lives? How can we know whether or not this gain is as frivolous as Rand claims it is?
Second, we need a better understanding of how Jesus’ instructions actually play out in ways we can observe. Can Jesus’ demands for sacrifice actually result in earthly gain? If we give everything we have to the poor, will we see no net benefit until the afterlife? This point may be of little importance in motivating Christians (and it should be), but it has enormous potential for proving Jesus’ point to those in the realm of Rand.
Much of this post is high-level explanation rather than theological or fact-based argumentation. Indeed, there is certainly more to be said. Therefore, in my next two posts I hope to provide more comprehensive and coherent arguments for each. In the meantime, it may be valuable to further ponder Rand’s initial point: Do you think Jesus’ message really does contradict itself? Is there no spiritual or physical explanation for Jesus’ constant framing of salvation in the context of self-sacrificial self-interestedness?