Monday, September 05, 2011

What's a Christian to do about Ayn Rand?

Elizabeth Hansen

Two months after the release of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 in theaters, discussion and debate over Ayn Rand, Objectivism and the philosopher-novelist's disdain for altruism and Christianity continues, including a column on First Things' website last Wednesday that pulled no punches in arguing why the philosophy espoused by Rand's fictional heroes is incompatible with Christianity.

"Rand's doctines are Satanic," writes Joe Carter -- and he means that literally, with the rest of his piece, "The Fountainhead of Satanism," describing how the founder of the modern day Church of Satan -- Anton LeVay, who also penned The Satanic Bible -- openly credited Rand as his inspiration. Carter writes:

Perhaps most are unaware of the connection, though LaVey wasn’t shy about admitting his debt to his inspiration. “I give people Ayn Rand with trappings,” he once told the Washington Post. On another occasion he acknowledged that his brand of Satanism was “just Ayn Rand’s philosophy with ceremony and ritual added.” Indeed, the influence is so apparent that LaVey has been accused of plagiarizing part of his “Nine Satanic Statements” from the John Galt speech in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Devotees of Rand may object to my outlining the association between the two. They will say I am proposing “guilt by association,” a form of the ad hominem fallacy. But I am not attacking Rand for the overlap of her views with LaVey’s; I am saying that, at their core, they are the same philosophy. LaVey was able to recognize what many conservatives fail to see: Rand’s doctrines are satanic.

I realize that even to invoke that infernal word conjures images of black masses, human sacrifices, and record needles broken trying to play “Stairway to Heaven” backwards. But satanism is more banal and more attractive than the parody created by LeVay. Real satanism has been around since the beginning of history, selling an appealing message: Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.

Hyperbolic or a fair assessment of the roots and reach of Objectivism?

Striking a more tempered note -- though no more forgiving of Rand's many flaws, both personal and philosophical -- is an article by Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, posted on the day after Carter's ran on First Things.

"Who Really Was John Galt, Anyway?" Fr. Sirico asks, referring to the iconic hero of Atlas Shrugged whose climactic speech championing the individual and railing against collectivism was considered by Rand herself as the most concise summary of her philosophy. Fr. Sirico writes:

There is in Rand an undeniable and passionate quest, a hunger for truth, for the ideal, for morality, for a just ordering of the world. She is indeed frequently adolescent in this quest, yet this may be just what appeals to so many idealistic young people who read her before reading the Tradition in depth.

One of the most famous opening lines in literature is the question she poses and uses as a device throughout Atlas, a question now on display at Tea Party rallies: "Who is John Galt?" The answer is not immediately given in the book; it (he) remains mysterious throughout much of the novel. Yet it inexorably emerges: Galt is for Rand the ideal man—the Man of the Mind (the logos); the One upon whom the world and its creative capacity depend. He is, in a real sense for Rand, the God-Man.

"I disagree profoundly with Rand; her attenuated definition of faith as unreason and her notion of sacrifice as wholly lacking dignity are unrecognizable to a Christian," he continues toward the end of the piece. He goes on, however, to quote G.K. Chesterton: "Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God."

"...[T]here is in each heart an innate human thirst for beauty and Truth," Fr. Sirico concludes. "The question Rand poses at the outset of Atlas Shrugged reveals more of this sad woman than I think even she realized. One can only pray that in the infinite mercy of the God in whom she did not believe, that Rand in the end may actually have found out who John Galt really is."

Despite their different tones, are Carter and Fr. Sirico essentially pointing out the same theme in Rand's work? In articulating her philosophy of radical individualism, and in exalting John Galt as Objectivism's Christ-figure in the world of Atlas Shrugged, Rand's grasp for truth devolved into an ideology that exalts -- demands, really -- each person's self-interest in all realms of life, from morality to economics. In her revolt from the Socialism of her Russian homeland, Rand rejected one godless ideology, but for what? Another cold system, one that supplanted mercy and compassion with self-interest? Doing away with God, man's reason and self-determination take His place; in place of the God who gave His life for man is a man who rises above the collectivist masses by embodying Rand's Objectivism and declaring, "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 mine."

Her system -- like any other ideology -- is a narrow prism through which to view the world in an attempt to make sense of it. And like any other prescription for happiness, freedom and fulfillment crafted by human hands, it will fall short. There is only one Ideal Man whose "life was the light of the human race," and no charismatic businessman, economic system, philosophy -- or fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil -- can take His place.

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