Atlas shrugged, and we argued about it
...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 3:40 PM [+]
Last summer I began reading Ayn Rand's book “Atlas Shrugged” and just recently I was watching an episode of John Stossel's new program which was discussing the book, its renewed popularity, and its is apparent prophetic coming to life today. In fact, mention was made that at the time of its first publication, one of the chief complaints about the book was that it was too unrealistic; too far fetched to be taken seriously. No one is saying that now.
Rand was a rather rabid atheist and a huge proponent of “rational self-interest.” Criticisms, particularly from a Christian perspective, of her personal philosophy are absolutely warranted, however, as an atheist she is certainly living out the logical ends of her worldview (She herself of course would suggest that her personal philosophy is the absolute most effective way for any notions of a practical “Christian” social justice to be realized). In any event, someone once asked me, with a certain degree incredulity, if I'd “gotten anything out of the book?”
It's a good question, and I'd say my answer is yes. Applying Rand's philosophy personally is, I find, an ugly proposition. How we as individuals interact with other individuals is a foundational component of community and I simply cannot abide by Rand's notion of “rational self-interest” when dealing personally with other people. There is no better way to wreck havoc in your life than to live solely with yourself in mind, indeed this is the cornerstone of the Fall. But, that being said, I do not believe that government is a personal entity, however much it may be made up of individuals...no more than a corporation is a person. Therefore, when it comes to how the state ought to oversee and navigate itself through our dealings, I think Rand's general philosophy of individual self-interest and responsibility ought to be the assumed natural and right way of being for people. This is individualism (much dreaded in many Orthodox circles I am familiar with), but only in as much as it applies to how the secular authorities view and treat us; it has no bearing on our personal or even our community lives. It seems to me that philosophically, morally, and literally with regard to our particular government's founding that the principle function of government is to protect individual liberty and NOT to seek to foster community. In other words, the state should make little to no effort in forcing grander perceptions of “Christian” community or social justice upon us. For you see, I believe real community can only exist when free peoples freely associate themselves with one another. Threat of punishment is by no means any way to foster community...it must be organic and the state has no notion of such things. Thus, while I see little application of Rand's philosophy in my personal life, I do see a great deal of application for how the government should view us as free persons.
But, some will ask of me, what of the Gospel commandments to love one another? And I would simply say that that is precisely why I reject living my life personally by the Randian “Objectivist” code. However, I do not believe the Beatitudes were ever intended to, nor should they be, set into motion by force of law. I believe the best of intentions when passed on to the megalith of government oversight and enforcement will almost always inevitably fail in seeing truly positive results, and I believe this is especially true of the teachings of Christ. The government cannot love, it cannot express true Christian charity, and any attempts it may make at doing so will be treading upon very thin ice – balancing precariously between fulfilling moral obligations it never had to begin with and tyranny. An ever recharging welfare debit card does more to build dependence than to free a person via charity that comes quite naturally when delivered incarnationally. Community isn't expressed through our government, I believe that very firmly, though I know this may put me in minority status for it would seem that more and more we as a society look less and less to one another and more and more to the state as the source of...well...as the source of nearly everything if you stop and think about it. And therein lies the entire crux of the reasoning for the ongoing culture war and the divisiveness that not only haunts this land, but as I've personally seen, ends friendships that should have been able to weather such debate.
Watch and listen. I've recently been witness to Christians raising up their ramparts and manning the war towers at the very hint of something with even a slight political feel to it. And I wondered, from where does this passion come from? Why are we so committed...DEEPLY committed to fretting over who has our government's ears and eyes? And it's not as if I've not been equally devoted to these fears in the past, but I think there is something in “Atlas Shrugged” that has helped me to see a more clear picture of this situation. I believe the strife and even anger (Christians angry at one another because of how they cast their votes!?!?!) arises from the fact that we have charged government (both in our minds and in reality) with the task of manufacturing community. Both sides of the popular political spectrum do this, albeit in different ways. So much so that, in the end we all wring our hands nervously worrying over what government may do to wreck havoc in our lives. The examples are endless: Homosexuals worry they will not be allowed to be themselves and marry one another; conservative Christian parents worry that the state schools will teach their kids that it's wonderful that “Johnny has two dads!” Another group worries the tax code will destroy their small business. Another worries that that the tax code will not raise enough to provide for the needs of the poor or uninsured. In essence, we truly believe that the government will be the deciding factor on what our community is like and thus we have gone miles and miles away from “free persons freely associating” and have arrived at something altogether different which we all ironically fear and yet continue to try and redeem. And such attempts at redeeming the problem only makes it worse, because we simply invest MORE community-making authority in the body we fear and while one side may gain temporary victories, they ought to realize that the very power they have vested in the government today which actualizes one vision of community, may tomorrow be used to smash that vision and rebuild another far less desirable to those who first bestowed the authority upon Washington DC to begin with. We perpetuate the fear and the war.
The dissolution of friendships – and God forbid even Christian fellowship – because of an inability to “agree to disagree” on political matters says perhaps something specific of the people involved, but I think it also says something about the broader socio-political culture we have grown here. It does not speak kindly of it, I think. I’m under no illusions that my somewhat apolitical libertarian stance on the matter doesn’t divide me from both of the standard sides of the fence (I have sympathies on both sides…perhaps more one than the other), but I really believe that as things get worse, the divisiveness more unbearable, and culture war rages on…perhaps people will begin to ask why we argue so much.
I don’t know what would happen if we were to actually see Atlas shrug. But I think the passions that politics raises up in us is of bigger concern. Controlling or even snuffing them out is probably the only thing for which we can manage to have hope for change.