Who else has a perspective on Christianity or Ayn Rand’s Objectivism?

You ask some interesting questions about Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and Christianity: the differences and similarities between the two world views, Christian Libertarianism, Christian Anarchism, and Rand’s politics, and my own view. I’ll do my best, in a nutshell.

Ayn Rand is a committed atheist. She believes in absolutes, but not in a Giver of absolutes. Taking a page from Aristotle, she marks her own life as the highest possible occupation of her soul; not others, not the collective, and certainly not God. About every decision and every value, she asks “Will this promote, maintain, or enhance my life?” If so, it’s a virtue. If not, it’s a vice. After all, she reasons, without my own life I could have no values; my life is therefore the Supreme Value. A person must produce, or create value, in order to sustain their life. So, in all of Rand’s fiction, the Producers are the Prime Movers, the heroes and heroines.

Mother Teresa, in Ayn Rand’s view, was not a hero and neither was Jesus. In her view, both were moochers, and deserve scorn for their self-sacrifice. Ayn Rand was a passionate individual and a brilliant thinker, but I don’t think she truly understood the Gospel. She railed on Christianity, but it was a shallow Platonic version that focused on Victorian religion and Kantian duty. Nothing like what John Piper calls “Christian Hedonism.” To the extent that Rand advocated that individuals pursue their highest possible joy, I applaud and appreciate her. But her passion falls short; she “settles” like C. S. Lewis’s “child making mudpies in the slums…”

Through a journey that began with cancer when I was 17, Jesus drew me to himself. The deepest longings I have felt throughout my life have only been met in Him. Still, my hunger for his presence grows. Today, I can’t say that I’m an Objectivist, or even an Objectivist Christian. I would say that Objectivism finds its fulfillment in the Gospel because the truest and highest occupation of my soul is not myself, but God the Father, through Jesus Christ.

Objectivism and Christianity share a strong passion for life, a vibrant work ethic, a conviction around moral absolutes like honesty, integrity, and respect for the individual. Unlike many postmodern thinkers, both Objectivism and Christianity recognize objective truth and see truth as exclusive. The Objectivist becomes arrogant, because he has achieved something that has eluded his contemporaries. The Christian becomes confident based on the achievement of salvation, but humble, because he had nothing to do with it.

Rand’s politics are economically conservative and socially liberal. Ayn Rand raged against the Libertarians of her day because they were anarchists; they believed that government had no place, and its authority should be avoided altogether. Today’s Libertarians, like Rand, advocate for limited government. Rand believed that government’s role is to protect the rights of the individual (the smallest minority in the world) from criminals at home and abroad. It is the function of our Constitution, she said, to protect the individual from government.

I suggest approaching today’s new atheists (for whom Rand’s thoughts are seminal) with three elements in mind. First, articulate their worldviews accurately and clearly, avoiding oversimplification and caricature. Next, identify areas of truth and validate, wherever possible, the values we hold in common. Finally, show how the Gospel values these truths even more highly than the atheistic worldview. While they may not be converted after the conversation, they go away wishing that Christianity were true.

I have attached an essay by John Piper entitled, The Ethics of Ayn Rand: Appreciation and Critique. I think his view is accurate and balanced. There are two new biographies of Rand that hit the shelves in October. Jennifer Burns’ “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right” is focused on Rand’s politics of capitalism; critical, but balanced. Even more critical, Anne Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made gets into the destruction she caused through her brilliance, eccentric passion, and emotional sterility.

What is your experience with Christianity? With Objectivism?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

13 thoughts on “Who else has a perspective on Christianity or Ayn Rand’s Objectivism?

  1. “Unlike many postmodern thinkers, both Objectivism and Christianity recognize objective truth and see truth as exclusive.”

    The difference between the two, however, is that for Christians and all other religions as well, the objectivity is what is not exclusive. So while Christians recognize some objective truths, they also treat some ideas as true that cannot be objectively derived from existence. In this statement,

    “Rand is a committed atheist. She believes in absolutes, but not in a Giver of absolutes.”

    the “Giver” is one of those ideas that cannot be objectively derived or verified as absolute truth in the absence of objective evidence.

    Atheism is not a whim of Rand’s. It is a natural consequence of recognizing that man’s only means to fulfill the potential of his own nature is to identify existence with his capacity to reason and apply the knowledge derived to his actions in the service of life. But that means that all knowledge is contextual — i.e., it is limited to that which can be derived through the exercise of reason from the objective evidence available. No claim to knowledge by any other means may be made without contradicting one’s own human nature.

    Consequently, failing a coherent and non-contradictory definition of such a being (and versions vary ad infinitum), the concept is useless and ultimately not necessary. If I want to know how to grow a perfect tree, I need only identify its nature and its means of survival to determine what it needs in order to be the best of what it can be. The same is true of all living creatures, including man. That is what Rand formulated in her philosophy of Objectivism — a definition of man and the specific means by which he survives and thrives as a human being. Her philosophy is a guide to live in the universe we know as what we know we are, without extraneous speculations about things one cannot know without hard evidence.

    Rand and Objectivism constitute a unique challenge to theists of all stripes. If her rigorous definitions of man and existence can show men how to pursue their lives in accordance with their nature, how plausible could it be that a Creator of that nature would condemn such loyalty to the totality of His creation. The scarcity of evidence such a Creator exists at all, should raise the additional question of what evidence could ever confirm that such a being would necessarily want to be known to the creatures He created in the first place.

  2. Mark –

    If you think this is Rand’s reasoning, you’re missing her point.

    In “The Virtuous Egoist” (p. 21), Dr. Tara Smith puts it this way:

    Rand’s point in claiming that life makes value possible, then, is not simply that a person must be alive in order to seek values, which is true but trivial. Rather the point is that the concept of value is unintelligible in relation to non-living things. It is only against the background of alternatives that we can meaningfully distinguish things as good and bad.

    Rand puts it this way in “The Objectivist Ethics”: The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is
    indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist.
    It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of “Life” that makes the concept of “Value”
    possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or
    evil.

    http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=ari_ayn_rand_the_objectivist_ethics

  3. “…without my own life I could have no values; my life is therefore the Supreme Value…”

    “… the point is that the concept of value is unintelligible in relation to non-living things.”

    I’m reading the two statements above as making the same point.

    Mark, did you mean something different by ” without my own life I could have no values”?

  4. Tom and Jim — Great pushback. Thanks. About the life of the individual being the Objectivist’s Supreme Value: The question is not “Is the life of the individual more valuable than a non-living thing?” but “Is the life of the individual more valuable than anything else?” Am I more valuable than a rock? Yes. Am I more valuable than God? I think you’d have to ask God that question.

  5. Jim — Thanks for the clarification. You’re right. I did not mean something different by “without my own life I could have no values.” To me, there’s not a lot of ambiguity in Rand’s position.

  6. Here’s an interesting thought (interesting to me, at least ;))…

    If Ms. Rand were to allow for a moment, *just for the sake of argument*, for the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient Being of Perfect Good, one which *always* acted in the “correct” way, with Perfect consistency and always ultimately for the good of each and every human individual…would *she* find that Being more valuable than the Human Individual?

    I expect that Ms. Rand would refuse to consider the existence of such a Being, even merely for the sake of argument…

  7. Jim – You need to read Tom’s comment again, and then ask yourself what you mean by “correct”. In particular, what is the standard by which any act of such a Being could be correct as opposed to incorrect. The material cited by Tom explains why the concept of value (as well as right/wrong and correct/incorrect) can only have meaning in reference to a volitional living entity facing the alternative of existence v. non-existence.

    The standard for measuring value can only be life itself, and only when life is contingent on choices in the face of alternatives. Immortal beings cannot value. Even the automatic physical pleasure/pain function would be superfluous to an immortal being.

    The only valuer in your scenario is Rand and, of course, all other human individuals. The good for them is, by definition, that which contributes to the quantity and quality of their life — “quality” meaning consistent with their nature. If the omnipotent Being acted “always ultimately for the good of each and every human individual”, then it would necessarily be interfering in the actions of individuals to guarantee the correct choice in the face of every alternative, thereby negating their mortality and obviating the concept of value altogether.

    Ultimately, the Being you describe is a creation of yours in your own image and likeness freed from the responsibility imposed by volition — freed from the necessity of valuing in order to choose — freed from the task that is life. It is nothing but a wish, and one that is made oblivious of the consequence that without the risk implied in volition and its corollary, fallibility, there can be no such thing as reward.

    These are the intellectual traps one sets for oneself when conjuring up faux realities that have no earthly evidence on which to rest.

  8. Didn’t God show that we have value – to Him – by sending his son here? Is it really a question of whether we have more value than God, or whether we have value at all? Just thinking here (which probably isn’t good for anyone).

    Karen

    “The U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.” –Benjamin Franklin

  9. “Didn’t God show that we have value — to Him…?”

    Again, in other words: If values are exclusive to living entities whose existence is contingent on a specific course of action, a God would have no use for values. The existence of a God is as unconditional as the existence of inanimate matter. No act of a perfect and eternal Being could be good for or bad for His existence.

  10. I have a perspective on Ayn Rand and Jesus Christ. I’m interested in convincing Christians that individualism is a correct perspective, and collectivism is wrong.

    I’m not very interested in trying to convince atheists that some of Rand’s ideas are compatible with Christianity. I write to Christians.

    I advocate Christian Individualism. How can I do that? Many Christians believe Individualism is bad. Many believe it is incompatible with Scripture. Others believe Scripture has little to say on the issue.

    It’s a hot topic. In a recent video by The Gospel Coalition, Don Carson said, ““The Bible does not go around condemning individualism.” So what does the Bible say?

    A friend of mine asked a helpful question:

    “Why do you think the ideas of self-interest and individualism have been taught as ‘bad’ (for lack of a better word) in most congregations? Self-sacrifice and denial of self seem to be the message, particularly of Jesus.”

    Here’s my response:

    Great question. The Bible does say we should be willing to deny ourselves if needed in order to follow God. It also says we will be rewarded.

    But many people feel awkward about doing it for the reward.

    They may think morality is primarily a question of how we treat others, so when a person does something for himself, that doesn’t count as a moral act.

    Emmanuel Kant codified such a viewpoint, and the world has absorbed it.

    But this was not always the dominant view.

    Most Christian writers of the Middle Ages were were unabashed about the individual reward of the afterlife. Christianity brought a major innovation in strongly emphasizing that an individual should do what is needed to save his own soul. Jesus made it clear that he came to save individuals.

    Kant turned the focus toward duty and said that an action is only moral if it is not done with a reward in mind. Now, 200 years later, Christian preachers typically hold this view.

    But such a view was never in the Bible.

    Jesus endured the cross for the sake of the joy that was set before him (Heb 12:2). Jesus appeal to reward time after time. See the Gospel of Matthew in particular.

    Kant’s moral system has turned many Christians into collectivists, both in their own spirits, and in the way they seek to mold society. My goal is to change that.

    I advocate Individualism.

    It is the view that:

    “It is proper and moral for a man to make choices based on the factual needs of his own life. The moral for a man is understood in reference to what is practical for the needs of his own life.”

    Since I follow Christ, I more specifically advocate Christian Individualism. It is the view that God’s commands are the means to my own eventual good. I choose to follow God because he is a value to me. He is good for me. That’s why I love him. It is as simple—and as profound—as that.

    Thanks Mark Henderson, for stimulating this kind of conversation!

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