Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (James 4:1-8) transports me to a 1943 telephone conversation between Ayn Rand and a friend, who was trying to convince the advocate of Objectivism (where selfishness is the prime moral virtue and altruism is an evil that will destroy society) to write a book about her philosophy. Rand reputedly answered, What if I went on strike? What if all the creative minds of the world went on strike? This response was the genesis of what would become her most popular novel, Atlas Shrugged, a story of a group of intellectual elites so disgusted with big government intervention that they decide to withdraw from society, to go on strike, refusing to let the government have access to their ingenuity, creativity, and inventiveness. These elites, feeling like Atlas, carrying the world on their shoulders, decided to shrug. Rand, the poster child philosopher for the anti-government movement today, was firing warning shot after warning shot that the engine of creativity was about to come to a screeching halt if individuals weren’t soon freed from government fetters. The height of irony for me is that, instead of really going on strike, Rand continued to invest her creative energies into her work, using her anti-government, anti-altruism, pro-selfishness philosophy to sell lots of books and gain fame and fortune. Continuing the irony, the half-century following Rand’s phone call has seen some fascinating parallel movements: the rising growth of government, the accompanying rise of anti-government anger and warnings about the throttling of creativity, and the rise of one of the most creative and inventive epochs in all of human history. Crazy how things don’t exactly come to pass in the manner prophesied by the elite and arrogant philosopher-prognosticators, who would do well to shrug off some hubris.
I thought about Ayn Rand today when reading James’ warnings about the dangers of selfishness, the stained hands of greed and covetousness and the divisiveness and violence that comes from these hands. James is the antithesis of Ayn Rand. For him, altruism is the cardinal virtue for people of faith, and selfishness is the cardinal vice. And yet, in another of those historic ironies, we now have a movement of very devout, Bible-believing Christians who are also followers and fans and advocates of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, a case of what James calls being double-minded, wanting to be friends both with God and with a godless philosophy of worldly pleasure at the expense of others. This week I was in a dialogue with a self-described Libertarian about this, and he made an interesting comment: I agree with Rand mostly, but never on her Atheism. I am a Libertarian and Jesus is my Lord. What occurred to me was that Ayn Rand’s thorough-going atheism is the one thing I appreciate and respect about her; her attack on Christianity at least demonstrated some intellectual honesty. She knew better than to try and have her cake and eat it too. I think she would have been in total agreement with James that you can’t simultaneously be a friend of God and the world of the all-powerful profit motive. For all her faults, Ayn Rand was not an adulterer in this sense. She wasn’t stepping out on God. She had the courage of her convictions to dismiss God and carry her philosophy of social darwinism to its logistical conclusion.
I think James would have some strong words for folks like the Libertarian who confess Jesus as Lord but want to advocate the virtues of selfishness. Resist the devil! Draw near to God! And in a wonderful connection of hands, heart, and head, he says, Wash your hands of this nonsense; purify your hearts of this garbage, and quit being double-minded. Or maybe, if James were in the dialogue today, he might say it this way: Get off your high horse! You people think you are Atlas? You think you carry the world on your shoulders? Get real! Go ahead and shrug away, and watch the world keep on spinning. The reality is, the world was never on the shoulders of the brightest and best of humanity. The strong and the smart can complain all they want and fire all the warning shots they want that ingenuity and inventiveness and creativity are being stifled, and then watch in amazement as God continues to inspire the most incredible ingenuity and creativity imaginable. So here’s a word to all the Atlas wannabes out there: go ahead and shrug it off. It’s not the world that will fall from your shoulders. It will be irony dripping away.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.