By Richard E. Helmer
I find my recent ministry haunted by none other than Ayn Rand — a name I barely knew until a few years ago when she came up in a pastoral conversation. Since then, I’ve learned she was an inspiration at some point in a number of our parishioners’ life journeys. Something about her words captured youthful aspirations towards self-actualization and independence. When I at last started reading more about her, I realized in a profound sense that I did know her, or at least her ideas, from my own youthful ambitions as a concert pianist. Rand’s perspectives captured in many ways my hyper self-absorbed, rugged, rationalizing pursuit for success in a competitive world where my own mettle and skill — even in generating something as moving to the soul as beautiful music — mattered more to me than anything or anyone else.
While our nation’s body politic currently is filled with the stench of half-truths, shocking indifference, bureaucratic paralysis, and bitter hyper-partisanship, Rand, though long deceased, has suddenly appeared very close to the forefront of our discourse. I confess a pit forms in my stomach at the thought of paying to see the recently released movie of her wildly popular book, Atlas Shrugged. I can dine on most theatrical fare, but the idea of wallowing in hours’ worth of Rand’s philosophy — if it can rightly be called that — gives me enormous pause. Objectivism, the heart of Rand’s meandering corpus, eyes the world with a mirthless, cold stare. One of our parishioners, before she became a Christian as an adult, explored, amongst various philosophies and belief systems, Ayn Rand’s works. Recently, she reflected to me that she once met a thorough-going objectivist who said there was no such thing as a truly happy objectivist. When material reality and our perception of it is all there is, when reason is without divinity and intuition and inspiration are marginalized, when other human beings and the wider world are means to whatever selfish (and Rand used the word in a technical sense) means we devise for ourselves, when life is a race against time to achieve for me and mine alone, what room is there for old fashioned happiness?
In a recent excoriating commentary in Newsweek , Jonathan Chait notes how the new, smart-as-a-whip congressional budget leader, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, openly brings to bear Rand’s economic philosophy on his political ideals and budget proposal. It’s easy at first to understand why Rand is the resurrected goddess of portions of the neo-conservative, libertarian, and tea party movements. Her strident support for laissez faire capitalism is matched only by the creeping social Darwinism of her attitudes. And her best-known protégé, Alan Greenspan, arguably is the most influential individual on the economic system we have inherited, more so even than any President or congressional leader.
But Donald Luskin in another recent editorial, this one in The Wall Street Journal, reflects how in other respects, Ayn Rand could be considered a liberal’s liberal. She was a fiercely independent woman who, by refusing to live in the shadow of any man and by paving her own career path, could be considered among the first wave of mid-century feminists (though she apparently publicly criticized feminism, and her relationship with the movement is conflicted at best). She deplored racism, supported integration of public schools, and staunchly opposed the war in Vietnam. Luskin notes how Atlas Shrugged casts almost as many aspersions on Big Business as it does on the bogey-man of Big Government. Rand, he writes, ultimately offers us a celebration — though that might not be the right word — of the innate dignity of the individual.
But for many conservatives and liberals alike, Rand poses considerable moral problems. Her infamously open marriage and her hyper-sexualized characters betray something deeper than simply a political philosophy that fits whatever contemporary agenda we’d like to inflict on her memory, whether governmental spending cuts or individual rights. Ayn Rand was an atheist of a sort that meant that the fiercely individualistic “I” was ultimately self-referential. The element of her conflicted popular philosophy that is mysteriously endearing to the American grassroots psyche is the rugged, no-holds-barred lack of accountability, an amoral construct that is truly all about the individual me. It captures our cultural navel-gazing and our simultaneous fascination with singular supermen and superwomen: our tragic obsession with pseudo-heroic egoism that, if unchecked, risks landing us with a Donald Trump as Commander in Chief, CEO of America, Inc.
The well-heeled intellectual elites of our society have too long dismissively pooh-poohed Rand, much to all our peril. The egoism she promoted, our rampant egoism she reflected in her work, makes for a slavery to self that wreaks havoc on the fabric of our relationships. Integrity, Rand seems to assert, is only internal and individual. But of course it isn’t, unless we are prepared to arrogantly chuck out the very heart of thousands of years of moral tradition that has weathered the storms of humanity in multiple cultures and spiritual traditions around the world. The current madness around Rand’s legacy is our collective madness, a reflection of our shared humanity wrecked on the rocky shoals of our hyper-protected egos now laid waste by crises too many to number.
The poor, the invalid, the destitute, the homeless: they all threaten our egos by reflecting our interdependence and vulnerability. No wonder we want to shrug them off. But we are not supermen or superwomen, we are frail, yearning creatures capable at times together and individually of awesome works and horrific acts. And sometimes we are plain down and out. We could conceal this messy, fleshy reality from ourselves when times were good. Now they’re not, and now we can’t anymore.
I am struck, along with many, that ostensibly Christian politicians openly embrace the sometimes ankle-deep and oft-tangled philosophical constructs of someone who once remarked that the Church is little more than “the best kindergarten of communism possible.” But I suppose Ayn Rand can be forgiven for this slight. The idea of living to serve others and something far greater than ourselves probably felt far too much like the autocratic threats to essential human dignity of the Soviet regime in her native Russia. And I suppose objectivist eyes cannot see anything but silliness in what I spend a lot of time these days doing: devotion to what a Rand fan I once met somewhat derisively called my “invisible best friend.”
The real irony for me is wondering whether or not Rand would welcome the mercy of Christian forgiveness. John Piper, a Baptist pastor in Minneapolis offers a succinct and compelling simultaneous appreciation and critique of Ayn Rand’s ideas, concluding that her Godless world view was most critically devoid of mercy: that foundational Christian virtue that understands an imminent and transcendent God loving us and all Creation into being and ultimately — not because we deserve it but because we need it — salvation. God shatters Rand’s ideal of relationships built on objective transaction, the philosophy of life structured around the quid pro quo. The God of faith, beyond all human logic, needs nothing from us, and yet offers us everything, from our first breath to our last, and beyond.
Our world right now seems littered with odd new juxtapositions. I am caught in this season of Resurrection reflecting on Ayn Rand outside the tomb of Lazarus — a strange juxtaposition indeed!
Martha notes that our body politic, like the body of her brother, stinks.
In reply, Ayn Rand’s Atlas shrugs.
For his part, our Jesus weeps, and then calls forth the dead into life.
The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif., and a postulant in the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs at Caught by the Light.