Ayn Rand, Manichaeism, and Christianity
Ah, the voice of Ayn Rand from St. Petersburg, Russia rises again with the opening of a new movie based on her novel, Atlas Shrugged. For those who are not familiar with Rand's Atlas Shrugged, it is a polemic of the glories of capitalistic anarchy dressed up in a rather badly written 1950s-era science fiction novel. The irony of Rand's novel thickens like mucus in flu season. She claims the nobility of art in her novel with little artistic value. She claims the value of self-interest through a character, John Galt, who demands everyone to conform to his worldview. Galt, much like a communist plotter, makes all who join his movement take this oath: "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine."
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You would think a novel and movie based on a woman who thought little of Jesus and his ethic of love, who advocated for free love (she even had open affairs with her disciples), and lived a life so unapologetically un-Christlike would face relentless criticism from Christian quarters. Instead, Rand has become popular in the media with the help of important opinion making advocates such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Alan Greenspan. In response, the Christian apologists have shrugged and raised hardly a word or complaint against Rand's very unchristian philosophy. In the pews, just as many lap up her words as if they were the gospel. I do not believe there was ever a time in the church's history in which a teaching like Rand's would have gone unchallenged. Why does it go so unchallenged today?
I think our current political climate, which promotes a Manichaean view of them and us, bad guys and good guys, Right and Left, weakens us. Anyone who remotely seems on "our side" has to be defended (and their defects ignored or explained away), while the other side is demonized for any seemingly minor defect. Since Ayn Rand is embraced by certain quarters of the political Right, the Christian Right holds its nose and says nothing in response to her philosophy. Of course, I can point out many similar examples from the Christian Left. But just as the early church rejected Manichaeism, we must stand up and reject Rand's philosophy as unchristian. After all, Rand believed that Jesus' teachings contradicted themselves, and no Christian, Left or Right, can in good conscious accept this thought of hers. Rand wrote in a letter published in the book Letters from Ayn Rand:
There is a great, basic contradiction in the teachings of Jesus. 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 when it came to the next question, a code of ethics to observe for the salvation of one's soul -- (this means: what must one do in actual practice in order to save 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 means, the subordination of one's soul (or ego) to the wishes, desires or needs of others, which means the subordination of one's soul to the souls of others.
This is a contradiction that cannot be resolved. This is why men have never succeeded in applying Christianity in practice, while they have preached it in theory for two thousand years. The reason of their failure was not men's natural depravity or hypocrisy, which is the superficial (and vicious) explanation usually given. The reason is that a contradiction cannot be made to work. That is why the history of Christianity has been a continuous civil war -- both literally (between sects and nations), and spiritually (within each man's soul).
If the choice is Jesus or Rand, I choose Jesus.
Ernesto Tinajero is a freelance writer in Spokane, Washington, who earned his master's degree in theology from Fuller Seminary. Visit his blog at beingandfaith.blogspot.com.