The Gospel According to Ayn Rand

I am an Ayn Rand fan. Actually I’m an Ayn Rand writing fan. Ayn Rand, the person, was a little crazy. I say this because I don’t want the reader to think I’m becoming a socialist. I’m not, at least not in the contemporary sense. My objective here is to use a major fallacy, in my opinion, in Ayn Rand’s philosophy to point out a major problem I’ve observed in American Christianity throughout my young life.

I loved Atlas Shrugged. Progressives hated it, for good reason I suppose. The moral of the whole novel centered on the quote by the protagonist, John Gault:

I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

Unfortunately, Ayn Rand’s tragic disdain for voluntary altruism overshadowed her brilliant parabolic critique of altruism by policy enforced through the barrel of a gun, the state’s gun. Ayn Rand could think of no more virtuous moral principle than selfishness. She, as I infer from her writing, thought living for the sake of another was the most sinful thing a human could do. Selfishness was a virtue. As a member of the Ayn Rand fan club, I admit that she was an anti-Christ regarding Jesus’ ethics.

Enter the Christian. Why is the Christian a Christian? Why does the Christian seek to live a moral life? Why does he want to be holy?

Before I go any farther, I must clarify that when I write “the Christian”, I mean an average right-of-center, politically and theologically, protestant Christian. I acknowledge that I’ll be making generalizations to which there is a plethora of exceptions. And lest the reader thinks I’m being unfair, I have issues with left-of-center Christianity, but I am not a left-of-center Christian, generally speaking. Conservatives would probably disagree pretty vehemently if they asked me to detail my theology and political views. So be it. I’m making an observation about my own camp here, not another’s.

Moving on…

Why does the Christian pursue holiness? Why does the Christian seek to affirm the right doctrines? Why is truth important? In my experience (which spans four different decades now) of Christianity in America, there are two common answers.

The first answer comes from fundamentalists: To avoid hell. According to Jesus, the most important commandment for any person to obey, is the commandment to love God with all of one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength. How can I possibly love someone like that when he threatens me with incredible suffering for eternity if I don’t? I can’t. I suppose one could do a “work-around” by reducing love to mere choice, but on what is that choice based? It is based, as I hope is self-evident, on self-preservation… selfishness, Ayn Rand’s chief virtue.

My response to this is to point out that Jesus is the one we are to follow. He explicitly rejected the foundational human instinct of self-preservation and self-interest. When a Christian reads Matthew 25, wherein Jesus warns believers who lack pro-active empathy for the poor, naked, alien, hungry, and criminal of age-enduring punishment, the Christian would rightly modify his behavior and start giving to the poor, visiting criminals in prison, etc. But what motivates this change? The motivation is fear of punishment, Ayn Rand’s virtue of self-interest.

According to Paul, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” According to John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, for fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.” Love and threatened punishment are incompatible. At a very early age, I figured this out. Many Christians still preach this ardently.

The second answer to why the Christian does what he does comes from folks who don’t think they’re fundamentalists. This answer took some time for me to reject. The Christian does what he does for the reward he’ll get in heaven. Hopefully, since I started out by mentioning Ayn Rand’s virtue of selfishness, the problem with this answer is as self-evident as the first. I’ll still discuss it.

Love compelled by threat of punishment is not love but self-interest. So this reasoning is not defended except by the most vehement, fearful, and, may I say, consistent fundamentalists. This second one is not so easily rejected by its adherents because of the ease of dressing it up and making it look nice, possibly even inspiring.

When we strip away all the fluff and church-speak, the Christian who “seeks Jesus” is really seeking status in the supposed hierarchy of heaven. I’m not saying that there aren’t people who don’t genuinely love Jesus. I honestly can’t know that about anyone without spending a long time in their shoes. I’m making an observation about Christian culture in general, about “the Christian”. “Passion for Jesus”, “seeking Jesus”, and other church-speak catchphrases seem off to me. I smell fear of missing out. I smell a desire for greatness, acclaim, and recognition, even if not in this life. I smell a theology of glory (see Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation). I smell Ayn Rand’s virtue of self-interest.

If I love Jesus and follow him in order to achieve a certain status in the afterlife, who am I loving? I am loving myself. If I think God’s Ecclesia (church) is a corporation in which I am promoted according to my passion for Jesus, do I really love Jesus? Or am I really just loving myself? Shouldn’t it be enough to be the least in God’s Kingdom? Shouldn’t we, with David, a man after God’s own heart according to the Jewish scriptures, be content to be mere doorkeepers in the house of God? Is that not real love? If my children love me because they want to inherit my estate, do they love me? Or is their zeal for me motivated by what I can give them? To be clear, I am happy to leave them my material riches, but that’s beside the point.

This is the Gospel according to Ayn Rand (if she wasn’t an atheist, of course): For your own good, love God. For your own gain, love God. Be zealous for Jesus so you can rule the world with him. Imagine the status you will have in Jesus’ kingdom because of your zeal in this life! This world will hate you, but God damn the world!

I can’t do that. To be frank, I try not give any thought to anything that lies beyond this life. It doesn’t matter to me. I assume I will have no status, no authority, and no inheritance beyond this eschaton. I may sound arrogant or self righteous. I’m sorry if I do, but I don’t want to love God and others for any other reason than because God is good. I want my love for Creator and creation to be real, not selfish or self-preserving. I want to live a holy, pro-actively empathetic life simply because it’s the right thing to do, period. I don’t want my love to be tainted by self-interest. I reject Ayn Rand’s gospel. It’s a false gospel. I have every spiritual blessing in Jesus right here and right now. That’s good enough for me.

Advertisements

Are We the Good Guys?

When contemplating the horrors of history (I’m thinking of the Holocaust), we must not fool ourselves into believing it can’t happen here. However, we cannot stop there. We each must have the humility and intestinal fortitude to acknowledge that if it did happen here, we may be the ones pushing the buttons, pulling the triggers, inserting the needles, voting for strong leaders, signing the bills, and crying out “crucify him”. The most dangerous evil in the world is the evil inside. Often the more zealously we fight evil in others, the harder it becomes to see it in ourselves. It can happen here, and any one of us could be the cause. The Nazi’s were absolutely convinced they were the good guys.

Evil and the Justice of God – A Brief Review

When evil and justice appear in the same title of a book written by a theologian, the reader will probably immediately think ‘final judgment’. N. T. Wrights Evil and the Justice of God is not about that. It’s more about the means of redemption. To me, means are important. I like theology and moral philosophy. They should not be separated. Without thinking about morality, theology can lead to very bad things. I’m thinking of things like Hitler’s Germany and 17th century American puritanism. Both were brutal (although the latter was much less brutal and not widely acknowledged). I’m always uneasy when theologians talk about evil and injustice because, in my experience, even great theologians, don’t consider the ways which their theologies will play out in society. In the American colonies in the 17th century, the puritans were brutal and heavy handed in all aspects of community life (unless you towed the theological line and strictly avoided social taboos) which resembled modern sharia law, but the Quakers, while no less pious, were peaceful with others and advocated high levels of individual liberty in their communities. Their respective theologies informed their ethics.

What does all of this have to do with N. T. Wright’s book? His focus is not on eternal judgement but on the following question: What does God do about the problem of evil? He doesn’t slip into the trap of focusing entirely on the eradication of evil. Authors who do this, run the risk of inadvertently supporting the kinds of moral quandaries I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Wright doesn’t give an explicit solution to the problem of evil but, instead, has a conversation with the reader about what evil is and viable means to addressing it. The end, of course, is justice. God tackles the problem of injustice much differently than we humans. We humans are addicted to violence, empire, and the state. We worship institutions. These are our default solutions to evil. Unfortunately these solutions are built upon the very same human fallibility that creates evil in the first place. In this book, Wright stuck me as an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn style conservative. So he certainly sees value in institutions. He is as skeptical of liberalism as he is of Marxism.

I’m not going to give the book away. I want you to read it. His conversation is worth the time. This much I’ll say: Wright doesn’t go as far as I would in his critique of institutions, and he is too critical of economic liberalism given his implicit thesis that the end does not justify the means. But to this thesis I give a hearty amen!

Stefan Molyneux – History of Ethics

Below is a speech by Stefan Molyneux on ethics. Ethics is still a primitive field. I’m not saying being ethical is primitive, but that ethics is grossly underdeveloped as a discipline in relation to other disciplines, especially hard science.

Most people form their opinion regarding morality, whether they realize it or not, on their feelings and sentimentality. This, unfortunately leads to the widespread (almost universal) use of government to oppress ones neighbors. Most people fit into one of two ethical categories, those who want to ban what they think are bad behaviors and those who want to mandate what they think are good behaviors. The former are usually conservatives, the latter are usually liberals. In the West, there are people who realize that neither of these approaches actually do anything to fix societal problems. Ethics is still very subjective… or is it?

Here Stefan Molyneux discusses the logic and the philosophical history leading up to what he calls Universally Preferable Behavior (UPB). This is really just a fancy philosophical term for the non-initiation of force, or the non-agression principle (NAP). This principle is the ethical and moral foundation of some streams of modern libertarianism. It’s like a secular version of the Golden Rule, and for some libertarians (not all and probably not even most), serves as the moral compass and first principle in determining viable options in public policy and private interaction. A conservative would say, “Don’t tread on me!” A liberal would say, “Don’t tread on the poor!” UPB says, “Don’t tread on anyone!”

I don’t know of anyone who would (or logically could) disagree with UPB when they learn what it means. Its simplicity and logic make UPB a simple pill to swallow. However, UPB necessarily calls into question all forms of modern government, and its logical conclusion is a kind of anarchism or voluntaryism. Those words conjure up fears of extreme lawlessness, unchecked capitalism, or both. UPB doesn’t offer easy solutions to these, but rather demands that, individually, collectively, privately, and publicly, the means be at least as just as the end, and sees truth and virtue, not force, as the liberator of humanity. Naturally this means a just society cannot be attained by either violent revolution or coercive policy, but by the painstaking drudgery of daily seeking and proclaiming truth and living according to it. This sounds a little bit like religious evangelism. In a sense, I guess it is. But Stefan Molyneux is an atheist. If you have a strong aversion to atheists, I’m sorry. Many are really smart and worth getting to know. If it makes you feel any better, Molyneux is a strong advocate of things religious conservatives like such as homeschooling, the health and preservation of the nuclear family, monogamous marriage, stay-at-home parenting, opposition to state gun regulation, and even avoidance of sex outside a firm and explicit lifelong commitment. For the non-theists who may watch this, no such preface is necessary.

Enjoy.

The “Good” Guys

70 years ago today, the Red Army arrived and evacuated the Auschwitz concentration camp, the most notorious of the Nazis’ death camps. As far as tyrannies that slaughter millions go, the Nazi’s are usually at the forefront of the American psyche, responsible for the death of roughly 6 million Jews, not to mention non-Jew dissenters. In this story, the Red Army is the “good guys”. We do well to remember that multiples more people died unnecessarily under the Soviet Union than under the Nazi regime, not only at the hands of the state directly but also through famine and disease.

Well-meaning government often kills more people than directly barbaric government. It is often assumed that state socialism is somehow more noble or progressive than fascism because it claims to prioritize the common good. They’re both deadly. They’re both collectivist and have little regard for the individuals worth. They both justify the means with the end. However, the former is probably more deadly because it seems more noble to the masses. Let us not forget that while those who rule by direct force are evil, those who rule by policy (which is still enforced by violence), because they appear more humane and democratic, are often more deadly and, thus, are not any less evil.

The Nazi regime was evil, but it wasn’t the biggest shark in the water. Things like terrorism and climate change may be problems, but there are much deeper evils in the world, and in trying to combat the former, we could end up assisting the latter.

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”

~ C.S. Lewis

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

I recently read Her Gates Will Never Be Shut by Brad Jersak. I first encountered Brad Jersak in Kevin Miller’s movie, Hellbound?. In the documentary, Miller wrestles with doctrines of hell and eschatological judgment. It is mostly comprised of interviews with various influential figures in Western Christianity such as Mark Driscoll, Greg Boyd, Mike Bickle, and Brian McLaren as well as some Roman Catholic and Orthodox thinkers. Brad Jersak was one of the interviewees and Her Gates Will Never Be Shut was the main inspiration behind the film. Brad’s contribution to the film was his discussion of the history of Gehenna, the Lake of Fire,  and of the early church fathers. His discussion is what motivated me to buy his book. Jersak rightly puts final judgement into the category of eschatology, not soteriology. He discusses hell, judgment, and eschatology.

Regarding hell…

Jersak discusses, at length, the various words that are often translated into hell. His most thorough discussion is on Gehenna, since that is the most frequent “hellish” word that appears in scripture. It is also the only “hellish” word that refers to judgment. Sheol, Hades, and Tartarus, even if they are literal, are all temporary, even according to the most conservative readings of scripture. He contends that, in both Hebrew and Christian scripture, hell (Gehenna, Sheol, Hades, etc.) is a rhetorical device referring to either the grave or present day destruction, not an unending torture chamber. His reasoning is sound and worth considering because he is not cavalier with scripture, he reads scripture with the community of the saints, i.e. he consults the early church fathers, and he avoids liberal sentimentality. In my opinion, Rob Bell fails to avoid all three of these pitfalls in his recent book, Love Wins.

Modern doctrines of hell are often more influenced by Greek philosophy, Protestantism (which is only 500 years old compared to 2000 years), and medieval paradigms than by scripture or teachings of the early church fathers. Jersak says as much, but unlike some, refrains from making the illogical and unbiblical leap from “no literal geographic hell” to universalism.

Regarding judgment…

For a universalist, hell is not the problem. Eternal punishment is. Doing away with a literal hell does not do away with the consequences of sin, even if they are eternal. Hell and eternal damnation are not the same thing, at least not literally. Eternal separation from God is hell, but that’s not the way any references to hell are used in scripture. The two are never conflated in scripture. A plain reading of scripture informs us that punishment is inescapable apart from repentance, nonexistence of a literal hell notwithstanding. Jersak doesn’t shy away from this, but he doesn’t settle at a plain reading of English translations of scripture. He maintains that, in the original Greek language of the text (referring particularly to Matthew 25), punishment is not retributive, but purgative, and eternal is not “forever without end”, but more like “for the whole age”. He knows this doesn’t necessarily prove universalism biblically and admits as much, but he also asserts that this puts dogmatic infernalism on weakening ground. Is there punishment? Yes, but, based on the Greek words used, it’s purgative. Is it without end? The bible doesn’t explicitly say, and even in the places in which it seems to clearly say so in English, it doesn’t.

Regarding the end…

There is justice. Sin has real consequences. God will not idly watch sin destroy that which he loves, i.e. humanity and the creation to which it has been entrusted. But merely punishing sin is not just. It must be eradicated, purged from existence. At the end of the book, Jersak turns to Revelation. Jersak doesn’t discuss, in detail, how a preterist would read revelation. It seems his target audience is composed of mostly futurists, i.e. those who read Revelation eschatologically [I personally find a futurist interpretation of Revelation very difficult to defend]. As Jersak discusses, Revelation puts the unredeemed in the Lake of Fire in chapter 20. In chapter, we find the unclean, not in the Lake of Fire, but just outside the City gates. Furthermore, “her gates will never be shut”, and people are coming in and out. At the end of chapter 22, we find the Spirit and the Bride, saying “Come.” To whom are they saying “Come”? – not to Jesus, as many modern Americans assume, but to the thirsty unclean outside the city. They still must be washed in the blood of the Lamb. God is just, and will not allow sin in the City. If one reads Revelation literally and futuristically, he or she could logically take this as biblical evidence that post-mortem repentance is possible.

Why Read It?

One of the things I appreciate about Jersak’s book is his discussion of early church fathers like. He writes:

“Their parents and grandparents were raised on Luther Calvin, Wesley, and Edwards. Their children will know Origen, Clement, Basil, and Gregory.”

I’m glad to be one of those discovering the ancient Christians who gave me the scriptures I read. Until I discovered Brad Jersak, the early Church fathers were not really on my radar. They are a very important part of his discussion. Christians do well to know the history and sometimes universalist beliefs of the people who determined what is and is not scripture and Christian orthodoxy. I was never taught Church history beyond Luther. Some Christians’ knowledge of Christian history doesn’t even go back that far and completely ignores Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. How can we read scripture like the early Christians when we aren’t aware of how our own personal hermeneutics have changed over the millennia? We are so burdened with paradigmatic baggage that a “plain reading” of scripture is impossible without seeking to understand that baggage. Jersak corrects some of these deficiencies in our ignorance of history and geography.

While Her Gates Will Never Be Shut is mostly about final judgment, the reason I think people should read this book has more to do with atonement and why a person should follow Jesus Christ. Jersak writes:

“If our only reason to be a Christian is to avoid hell, we will not only probably go there, we may be there already.”

“If my faith depends on fear of punishment, what happens when perfect love (Jesus) comes to cast it out? If God thinks fear of punishment is something to be cast out like a demon, then out Gospel better not rest on that foundation.”

He also quotes another author:

“The Gospel is not a Gnostic secret that, once we are aware of it, ensures that we’ll be magically and effortlessly altered when the time is full.”

Much of Western Protestantism, especially evangelicalism, is built on this message: “God loves you, but you, by existing [assuming original sin], broke God’s law. God must now punish you, if you don’t reciprocate his love.” This is a problematic message. It is not good news. How can I trust anyone whose treatment of me depends on me reciprocating love? Once we realize this isn’t reality, religion doesn’t have much on us. No longer must we fear God’s wrath. This doesn’t do away with the consequences of sin. After all, the wages of sin is death. But God is not the one killing, sin is. Once we no longer are afraid of God, we won’t hide from God when God comes.

Conclusion

The story of God and man begins with God coming to man and saying, “Where are you?” Man, replies, “I heard you coming, and I was afraid.” Throughout the rest of the story, God comes to man, either in person or through a messenger, and over and over again, begins the encounter with the words, “Fear not.” As long as we think sin is a legal infraction, we will hide from the punisher we perceive God to be. When we realize that God is our father and sin, although a real problem, is not a legal problem causing God to keep us at a distance, we’ll stop fearfully hiding from the healer. Jesus didn’t come to save us from God’s punishment. He came to reconcile us to our Father in the ultimate act of forgiveness, forgiveness of deicide. Once reconciled, we now have no excuses to reject God and be saved from sin’s destruction. Reconsidering our modern ideas of hell may help some in deconstructing their problematic modern religious paradigms. Will all be saved from permanent destruction? According to a literal futurist reading of Revelation, that, according to Jersak, depends on who, in this life or the next, answers the call, “Come.”

For me personally, I’m more interested in atonement than eschatology; so, for now, I’m an eschatological agnostic. I won’t make up mind about what will be until I have a better understanding of what is. If I were to form an eschatology based solely on Jersak’s book, I’d probably be a hopeful universalist, as I think Brad Jersak is. Some of Jesus’ references to imposters and children of the satan make me less hopeful than Jersak, but I’ll be perfectly happy to spend eternity saying “Come” to those who are outside the city. That is, of course, assuming I’m on the inside. I don’t want to be too presumptive.

Calvinism and Open Theism

For a long time, I held the view that there was middle ground between classical theism and open theism. I no longer believe that to be the case. In case the reader may be interested in this topic, I’ll briefly discuss why.

Classical theism includes the view that God is immutable, i. e. cannot be acted upon in such a way as to change God’s mind. Open theism is the rejection of immutability based on the belief that God does not have exhaustive foreknowledge of the future. Once I started studying open theism, I came to reject classical theism because open theists have good biblical reasons to reject God’s immutability. God is said several times to have changed God’s mind. Classical theists contend that scripture having said God changed God’s mind means that God only appears to have changed God’s mind when in reality, God’s mind wasn’t changed. This reasoning exalts Greek philosophy and speculation over scriptural revelation. In spite of this, I was unconvinced by their arguments in favor of open theism, but in my mind I could reject classical theism without affirming open theism because I assumed there was middle ground of which I was not yet aware. This was until I heard a philosopher say while defending free will against determinism,”If the future is known, then it cannot be undetermined.” I could not think of any way this could not be true. Later on in the same day, I read this in a comment on another blog:

“Many people… who find Calvinism deplorable also hold to a traditional understanding of hell and the foreknowledge of God. Meaning that they believe, whether they ever really stop to think about it, that God created multitudes of people knowing that they would reject him and ultimately be sent to hell. To me, this is not much different than double predestination, because the end result is still the same (people created with the certainty of going to hell).”

Here we have divine foreknowledge implies determinism implies double predestination. Well shoot! I couldn’t imagine any contradictions to these points. There goes my middle ground.

If the future is exhaustively known, it is determined, whether or not God explicitly decreed it. If God made a person, knowing she would choose to reject redemption, then even if God didn’t decree the rejection, God still predestined said person to damnation by choosing to create her. Thus, to believe in God’s exhaustive foreknowledge, is to believe in double predestination. I’ve heard some Calvinists assert that to be an Arminian necessarily means one must be an open theist. I now think they’re right, to reject Calvinism is to affirm open theism. To reject open theism is to affirm, even if only implicitly, double predestination. I know of at least one well known Arminian who frequently debates Calvinism who also asserts, in no uncertain terms, that open theism is heresy. One day, he’ll have a good laugh at himself for being wrong on one of these.


Here are the links to the philosopher’s podcast and theologian’s blog to which I refer above:

Freedomain Radio – Determinism vs. Free Will… and Sam Harris

Roger Olson – Distinctions Without Differences