Friday, August 31, 2012

Ayn Rand or Jesus: You Can't Have Both

17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
Mark 10:17-23

I first encountered Ayn Rand (her first name, she said, rhymes with swine) late one night in the fall of my freshman year in college. I was quite entranced for nearly half an hour, but as Bill Clinton said of another youthful indiscretion, “I never inhaled.”

The Ayn Rand encounter was, I thought, a sort of “rite of passage;” something everybody did at least once. But it was not anything to be taken seriously.

In recent years that has changed. Ayn Rand has been rescued from obscurity and is being discussed as an important thinker.

For Christians, this presents a challenge that cannot be ignored. Rand was one of the most famous atheists of the twentieth century. But for Christians, her atheism is not the most important issue. Unlike the theoretical atheism of those who reject idea of God as unnecessary or unscientific, Rand’s rejection is primarily a moral one. Many atheists reject Christian theology while expressing an admiration for the ethics of Jesus. Rand rejects Christian ethics as “immoral.”

Onkar Ghate, a Senior Fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, posted an essay last summer on the Fox News Website titled, “Does America Need Ayn Rand or Jesus?” His closing argument is that when it comes to foreign policy, Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek” would be counter-productive at best, and is not an idea that we could or should embrace. This does not come as news to anyone who has read Reinhold Niebuhr (or Karl Barth, or Paul Tillich, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer) or even glanced at “Just War Theory.” For most Christians, “turning the other cheek” is not an all-purpose response.

But Ghate is to be commended for his honesty in clearly stating that Rand opposed the central core of Jesus’ teaching. If the rich young man described in Mark’s Gospel had come to Ayn Rand rather than to Jesus, she would have told him to keep his money and enjoy his possessions; that he has no responsibility beyond his own self-interest.

Hers is a curiously non-ethical ethics. Historically, the task of ethics has been to balance the self-interest of the individual against the needs and interests of the community. Ethics restrains our natural selfishness. In Rand’s system selfishness is a virtue. Ghate explains:

In Rand’s argument, morality is not about subordination or service to others or to some “higher power”; it is not about self-sacrifice. Hers is a morality that upholds egoism and individualism: it seeks to teach you the difficult task of pursuing the values that achieve your own individual self-interest and happiness.

In the ethics of Ayn Rand, pursuing your own self-interest and happiness is a “difficult task.” And she believed it was “immoral” to love others more than you love yourself.

Ghate is right. We have to choose Ayn Rand or Jesus. We can’t have both.

Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself” (combining Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18). For Ayn Rand there is no place for God or neighbor, your only responsibility is to love yourself.

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