Category Archives: Atlas Revisited

Because Friends Shouldn’t Let Friends Play with Objectivism*.

At least not without close supervision. Prolonged or unchallenged exposure to objectivism can lead to all kinds of nastiness, often against yourself, close friends and loved ones, or your entire facebook community.

I’ve been off of blogging for a while because of engagement and wedding planning and moving and the working two jobs thing  (this is my busy season), but when I see friends quoting Ayn Rand on facebook, I just want to seize them by their virtual lapels and shake them awake.

I had one such experience today, so I’m going to pick up where I left off so very long ago with my “Atlas Revisited” project. (See here.)

Wait, I think I vaguely remember promising in that post that I would refrain from snarky and smug comments. And I will. Starting now.

So far, I’ve read most of the preface to the 35th Anniversary Edition (the one my dad bought for me when I graduated from high school, with the inscription “May this book inspire and sustain you as it has me.”) Already I have enough notes in the margins to start a book, and it’s hard to know where to start, but I’ll focus in on one passage for the sake of trying to keep this blog post readable.

As I believe I sort of mentioned before, one of my main areas of bafflement with the whole Ayn Rand movement is how many professing Christians have started adopting parts of her philosophy as their own. Ayn Rand herself claimed that you could not be both a disciple of Jesus and a disciple of her philosophy.  I even understand some of the psychological appeals of objectivism (wasn’t I a disciple myself for 10 years?), but they are vastly different from the rigors required of a serious Christian faith, and I’m puzzled at how many people don’t seem to see how obvious this is.

In the preface to the 35th anniversary edition of Atlas Shrugged, Leonard Peikoff (Ayn Rand’s “intellectual heir”) mostly quotes from the journals in which Ayn was working out the premise and relationships driving her book, and he quotes this passage, straight from Ayn herself:

“Therefore, while a creator does and must worship Man (which means his own highest potentiality; which is his natural self-reverence), he must not make the mistake of thinking that this means the necessity to worship Mankind (as a collective).”

Let’s start here. In one sentence, Ayn has inverted the entire central message of the Bible. I don’t think I’m overstating the case. Consider this passage from Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV):

” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Emphasis mine.

In the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, the first and primary commandment is always to love G-d first. Or, as it’s translated in the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Or, from Luke 4:8, “Jesus answered, ‘It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’ ‘ ” (He was quoting from Deuteronomy).

Ayn makes the case for worshiping “Man” instead of worshiping G-d. And specifically, worshiping the best in yourself but not in others, the very opposite of treating others as yourself. She’s not subtle about it. And who is this “Man” that Ayn has set up as a god? She calls him “the creator.”

“Man, at his highest potentiality, is realized and fulfilled within each creator himself….He alone or he and a few others like him are mankind, in the proper sense of being the proof of what man actually is, man at his best, the essential man, man at his highest possibility. (The rational being, who acts according to his nature).” Emphasis hers.

So there it is. The god-Man is a rational creature, apparently the only creature that properly falls under the category of mankind. Emphasis mine. I could go on at some length about how our rational faculties are only a small percentage of our brain, and that denying the rest of the human experience, the full range of human emotions for starters, creates a false expectation of reality, not to mention two-dimensional characters and wooden fiction, but I’ll save that for another post. Reigning in the snark beast.

Practically speaking, what does such a rational creature as Ayn’s god look like? In her own words, “I think I represent the proper integration of a complete human being. Anyway, this should be my lead for the character of John Galt” – {her hero in the story, ‘the ideal man – the consistent, the fully integrated, the perfect’ – I couldn’t make this up if I tried.} – “He, too, is a combination of an abstract philosopher and a practical inventor; the thinker and the man of action together…”

I’m sorry. I have great respect (truly, no sarcasm) for anyone who can type out a 1168-page work of fiction and then get it published. And then spawn a movement that lasts for decades. Let me not diminish the magnitude of Ms. Rand’s achievement in this respect. But does anyone else find it incredibly convenient for Ms. Rand’s philosophy that, aw shucks, her ideal Man, her god, looks just like her?

I believe in academic circles, you would call this anthropomorphism – the creation of gods who look like (and act like) people. Often some narrow, idealized aspect of what a person is. In Christianity, we call it idol worship. Ayn liked to think that she was doing something unprecedented in the history of humanity, and while she has achieved some very notable worldly success, let it also be noted that creating gods in your own image is as old as civilization itself. We used to make them out of bronze or gold; now we craft them from words.

Here’s something that I actually really appreciate about Ayn: she understood that your basic assumptions about life, death, and morality have very practical consequences for the way you live your life. I don’t have a direct quote for you on hand, but this theme shows up a lot in her writing – the consequences of belief. In this, she is actually in agreement with Jesus (“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”) Both Ayn and Jesus understand that what you believe is not necessarily what you say you believe or even think you believe – words and thoughts can lie. What you believe is what you do. This also sheds light on Jesus’s admonishment that “the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (Jn 6:29)- if your true beliefs always show themselves in your actions, then excavating your real beliefs and holding them up for examination and submitting them to G-d for the renewing of your mind is truly work. And our behaviors betray our true beliefs more reliably than our words. Peter Rollins has a very challenging piece along that topic here. Anyway.

So when Ayn says that the proper object of worship for man is Man, she understands that this has very practical consequences in real life. Or, as Richard Rohr (a Franciscan monk) puts it, “Your image of G-d creates you.”

This is why it’s so important to me to tell people why I think that Ayn Rand is dangerous. I spent 10 years letting Ayn Rand’s conception of perfection shape me, and I grew smaller. In soul, spirit, and courage, my life got smaller. In some ways, I was lucky – my innate gifts are so unlike those worshiped by Ms. Rand that my spiritual failures were acute, and I was forced to address the inconsistencies early. I could have languished for years longer if I’d had a little bit more of a “rational” bent. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a rational nature; somebody has to keep us dreamers tied down to facts and sense. Even for people who are more rational by nature, though, Ms. Rand’s philosophy is ultimately limiting. While some rational types find a kind of affirmation in Ms. Rand’s writings that they struggle to find elsewhere, this intoxication (and Ms. Rand’s insistence that they are already superior to their lesser, less rational, brethren) can dissuade them from seeking to understand and celebrate human expression in all its forms.

I have tons more thoughts on this, but for now, here’s the take-away: If you’re in need of a Higher Power, don’t look to John Galt.

*[I am stupidly happy that spell check informs me that “objectivism” is not officially a word.]

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Outrunning Ayn Rand *(this post rated PG for language)

We interrupt the Taipei Chronicles to bring you this rant.

On outrunning Ayn Rand.

Or not.

A more appropriate title for this post would be “AAAGHH! No Matter How Fast I Go, I Can’t Outrun Ayn Rand!!”

I also considered “Ayn Rand Gives Me Hives,” “Ayn Rand and Stunted Human Being Syndrome,” “Who Cares About John Galt?,” “The Dunderhead,” “Atlas was a Chump,” “Ayn Rand was an Emotional Adolescent,” and “Ayn Rand {[!#@$*SCREEEAAAAAMMMM!!@#$%]}” as alternative titles.

But it occurred to me that that might be snarky and not very christian.

Certainly emotionally adolescent.

Let me be clear.

I really, really, really, really hate Ayn Rand. That bitch ruined 10 years of my life.

Probably more, depending on one’s accounting methods. But let’s call 10 years the conservative estimate.

If you don’t know who Ayn Rand is yet, you probably will soon – there’s a movie coming out (CORRECTION: came out in April, panned by critics) of her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. She’s a philosopher-novelist (aren’t all novelists philosophers? most manage to write novels that don’t read so relentlessly like philosophy) who pretty much devoted all her mental energy to making a virtue out of greed, and to making commercial productivity the highest virtue of all.

She was a charismatic writer, highly intellectual, and her arguments can be fascinating and compelling, especially to impressionable young people who feel the need to prove themselves (like me when I first read the book at 15), self-serving narcissists, uber-logical people who are uncomfortable with their emotional life (Rand conveniently excises most real emotion from her world-view, and makes a virtue of that, too), and other vulnerable populations.

Please note: I am friends with several people whom I consider to be intelligent, reasonably well-rounded human beings who are fans of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, so I cannot make that last bit a blanket statement, but more on that in a moment. Please tolerate my rant for another minute or two. It’s been coming on for years; I need to give it some space for my own sanity.

To make the personal story very, very short – Ayn Rand told me that to have meaning in my life, I had to produce something grand and make as much money off of it as I could. I lived with that paradigm as the stick by which I both measured my life and beat it bloody. After 10 years, I was exhausted and miserable, and it occurred to me that if my philosophy wasn’t working, I could and should change something. I reached out, improbably, to Christ, and I haven’t looked back since.

In fact, I pumped my intellectual legs as fast as I could, trying to put as much distance between me and ole Ayn as possible. It seemed self-evident to me that christianity and objectivism were diametrically opposed worldviews. Ayn herself said as much. So did Jesus for that matter – “you cannot serve both G-d and money“. It was welcome, sweet relief, and I looked forward to never thinking about objectivism again.

And yet.

“Who is John Galt?” t-shirts haunt me in public parks (it’s a catchphrase from Atlas Shrugged). I catch people reading Atlas on the subway every other day now. B and I conversed with a college student in Taipei who was reading and enjoying it. And now the damn movie.

Ayn Rand is chasing me down. Or G-d is chasing me down and insisting that I have some internal work to do here.

Ya think?

So here’s the deal. I will be re-reading Atlas Shrugged.

I need to do this for me, to find out how much of the trauma of my life, which I have previously laid at Ayn’s feet, should really be attributed to other, more personal, less philosophical, sources.

I need to do this for me, to find out if the poisonous, soul-shriveling beliefs that shaped my 20’s really came from Ayn, or if I’m just dumping on her unjustly.

I owe this much to both of us.We need some forgiveness between us, me and Ayn.

And since Ayn is so much in the news and in the zeitgeist these days, I will be sharing that journey on this blog, so that those who are adherents, ex-adherents, curious, or angry can come along and see how it goes.

If you identify as an objectivist, or you are sympathetic to Ayn Rand, I commit to you that I will approach this project with as open a mind as I can manage. After this post, I will refrain from name-calling and snarky comments as much as consciously possible. I once took Ayn Rand very seriously, and I intend to root myself in that stance again in this re-examination.

Which is not to say that I expect to swoon all over again. But I am open to discovering things that I overlooked when I was 15, and in the spirit of Christ, my theology demands that I be open to the reconciling of opposites, even these.

This will be mostly, I think, an examination of how core beliefs play out in real life. There will be ample armchair-philosophical posturing, I’m sure, but there will also be plenty of emotion, reflection, illustrative anecdotes, and probably comparisons with scripture/theology. I don’t really have a plan.

And I don’t really have a timeline – I also plan to finish the Taipei Chronicles and keep posting other things, so it will not be an uninterrupted, linear journey.

But I post this introduction here as a commitment to follow through on the project.

Lord help me.

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Filed under Atlas Revisited, personal, religion