Rand and Christianity: Part 3
MY last post concluded with a discussion of an apparent contradiction in Ayn Rand’s moral message. On the one hand, in Atlas Shrugged, Rand affirms the moral necessity of some correspondence between human acts and an objective order. On the other hand, she suggests in The Fountainhead that that the sole determinant of an action’s moral quality is its relation to the human ego; a good action being a freely selected means to a desired (self-satisfying) end, an evil action being one taken as a result of external pressure, or in opposition to personal desire. Rand is wholly committed to that which is, but she seems entirely convinced that the only authentic (and therefore, the only good) actions are selfish actions.
You have probably noticed the image which I selected as a heading for this post. It, of course, represents the sort of skin-deep analysis by which most debates on the internet proceed. If we are to limit ourselves to simply comparing the theological convictions (or lack thereof) of Ayn Rand and Jesus Christ, then we must concede that the two are essentially at odds. One cannot say that Rand and Christ are both right in their entirety, for in that case A would be not A. But, given the cultural importance of Rand’s work, along with the political significance of self-interest and the extent to which it should be allowed to guide human action, I think we must endeavor to understand exactly where these two positions diverge.
If there is to be internal consistency between Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead (and I believe there is), Rand’s moral message must be founded upon this proposition: complete self-centeredness constitutes the highest devotion to what is. Only if this is true will the subjectivity of the ego operate in harmony with objective reality. If there is to be further consistency between Rand’s work and Christian doctrine, then we must determine what “complete self-centeredness” implies and how these implications bear upon human nature (understood in the separate contexts of human depravity and redemption).
In order to understand exactly how Rand’s moral principle ought to be applied, I shall invoke the teaching of St. Augustine. In City of God, Augustine identifies goodness with existence, seeing evil as having no existential value in itself, rather defining it only as a privation or deficiency of existence. To make his claim, Augustine first writes that God’s self-descriptive statement, “I AM WHO I AM,” means that “God is Absolute Being and, therefore, all other being that is relative was made by Him.” Since God “supremely is and, therefore, is immutable, it follows that He gave ‘being’ to all that He created out of nothing; not, however, absolute being….Consequently, no nature—except a non-existent one—can be contrary to nature which is supreme and which created whatever other natures have beings. In other words, nonentity stands in opposition to that which is.” God’s first and foremost quality is His self-existence. Yet, His existence is not formless—He possesses an essence, an identity, from eternity. He does not say simply “I AM.” He says “I AM WHO I AM.” It follows, then, that His creative acts, which impart existence to created natures, will be consistent with this identity. Since He is the only creator and His essence is goodness, everything which bears existence bears goodness in proportion to that existence. Evil, therefore, does not exist, properly speaking. Instead, Augustine writes, “What ‘makes’ the will evil is, in reality, an ‘unmaking,’ a desertion from God.” Rebellion against God is the repudiation of the existence which He has ordained.
Not only is God “Absolute Being,” He is wholly concerned with His own pleasure and glory. He did not create the universe in order to please the universe, He did it so that the heavens would declare His glory (Ps. 19). He did not redeem rebellious creatures out of pity or obligation, He incurred an enormous cost “according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace” (Eph 1) “for the joy that was set before Him.” (Heb 12) It is, of course, true that all things to which God gave existence and for which God made sacrifice enjoy enormous benefits as the result of His action. These benefits are peripheral and secondary, however, when it comes to the motives for God’s actions. “The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served” (Matt 20:28), but only because man could no longer serve as He ought. Christ’s service to us was ultimately self-serving. Had it not been, Christ would have been an idolater. God’s good pleasure is the only motive for His actions. Our pleasure is the mere by-product of His plan. The fact that the two so nearly coincide should not allow us to believe that God is altruistic. Rather, He is just extravagantly brilliant: He crafted us in such a way that His pleasure would be served by our joy (as Piper writes, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him”).
In this light should Rand’s principle be examined. I submit that Rand’s moral teaching completely captures the essence of a being whose person is the source of existence and whose nature is the source of moral truth. Her mistake is to suppose that this being is man. God, as a being whose essence defines goodness, will necessarily have only desires which are good. Furthermore, being the source of existence, God’s complete self-centeredness constitutes the highest devotion to what is. Rand’s emphasis on man’s creative function as his most fundamental expression of morality suggests that, as so many have observed, her simple mistake is to treat man as God. I think, though, my exploration of her thought in the context of Sartre and Augustine shows that, while Rand is in error, she errs in style. Many writers have improperly deified mankind. Few writers have actually comprehended the moral implications of this mistake. Even fewer have completely captured the nature of human evil (rebellion against Being) and correctly identified the unity of existence and goodness while making this mistake. For this, Rand deserves immense respect. Rand’s absolute devotion to the authentic is an essentially Christian impulse; she errs only in supposing that the human ego is the fountainhead of the authentic.
Rand’s principle seems, then, to be correct when directed at God (whose self is the center, and therefore whose self-centeredness is always good and in accord with His Being), but appears to be mistaken when applied to mankind. It is clearly misguided to invoke her principle in the manner that she does, but this is only because, as Augustine observed, the Fall has vitiated human nature of some of its existential quality. In order to parse the application of this principle in both the pre and post-lapsarian contexts, I must first say a few words about human self-interest in general.
Rand is, I believe, unqualifiedly correct in claiming that man is a self-centered being. There are, in other words, no actions which can be described in terms other than “I want.” Selfish choices (choices made for the benefit of the self and to the detriment of others) require no exploration in order to fit this mould. What about acts of altruism? When a person gives of himself for the benefit of others, he does so either willingly or under coercion. If under coercion, the actor is choosing what he takes to be the more desirable of two undesirable choices (“I would rather give of myself than suffer x consequence”). If willingly, we must ask, whence comes the volition? Certainly, it is not the desire to accrue a tangible benefit, but even a so-called “selfless” act is the result of a personal desire to benefit someone else. Even when someone does something that they claim they did not want to do, what they really mean is that they had a choice between two things they did not want and chose the one of those two which they wanted (or for which they had the least distaste). It is literally impossible to make someone do something that they do not want to do. It is possible, however, to make someone “want” to do virtually anything, so long as one has the power to provide them with a worse alternative.
The problem, then, is not that human beings are irremediably self-centered. The problem is, that the self is centered on that which eradicates the self’s existence (opposition to Being, or God). Thus, in his fallen state man who does not seek after God is described as “dead in trespasses.” The spiritual death of which man was warned in the Garden was not figurative. Severing oneself from God is literally repudiating life, or existence. Understanding the Fall in this way perhaps explains why Western philosophy has arrived at its materialist existentialist destination. In some sense, this position “existence precedes essence” is actually descriptive of mankind. The good human nature, in its full existence as it was created by God, remains intact in the person of Jesus Christ. When man is born into the line of Adam, however, his depravity severs him from this nature, and he is in a state of “anguish” very similar to the one described by Sartre. For this reason, the self is improperly centered on non-Being and is, by both the Christian and Objectivist account, intent on evil. Furthermore, there is no self-centered action within the purview of the individual’s power by which he may restore his relationship with God. In other words, every act which the individual perceives as self-centered is actually an idolatrous act (since the self seeks to satisfy its ego on its own terms instead of on the Creator’s) and is therefore a step towards destruction, not bliss (and therefore cannot be properly called self-interested or even selfish).
The miracle of redemption is, then, that God, at His own expense and by His own volition, removes the heart of stone (non-being) and replaces it with a heart of flesh capable of loving Him (“we love Him because He first loved us”). Loving God is not a selfless act (as Rand writes, “One cannot say ‘I love’ without the ‘I’”). God does not require that we turn away from ourselves and to Him, He requires that we turn ourselves to Him. In so doing, the contours of the desires which we pursue will look radically different from those which we sought in our rebellion. We never stop seeking that which we desire. In other words, we never stop having desires. In this sense we are always self-centered. But, by means of the love which grows as a result of regeneration, the self becomes centered on God—this love produces new desires which (like God’s redemption plan), have a by-product of satisfaction which cannot be reached if man “looks only to [his own] interests.” Man, as Rand argued, must be devoted to that which is. Rand thought that by seeking himself, man would find that which he desired. If man were the measure of existence, she would have been right. The principle, that goodness and existence are inextricably linked, is correct. It’s application, when understood in the context of human depravity, is better articulated by the Psalmist: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Ps. 37:4) Every Scriptural injunction to “selfless” behavior is predicated upon cultivation of love which unifies the good of the self with the good of others. The Scripture does not teach that we must “look only to the interests of others,” it says “look not only to your own interest, but also to the interest of others.” It does not teach “whoever loses his life for my sake does well,” it teaches “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Every action directed outside the self is first motivated by a love which is possessed by the self, the execution of which will have the incidental effect of satisfying the self by virtue of the unity that love forges between the creature and the Creator. (Eph 1)
So, if you combine the metaphysics and soteriology herein, you end up with a very interesting result: Reformed Existentialist Christianity.