I’m not exactly sure how or when Ayn Rand (Ayn is Russian for ‘worst fiction writer ever’) became a prized philosopher. Or, for that matter, I’m not sure when she even qualified to be considered a philosopher as such.
While the recent terrible film version of Atlas Shrugged demonstrated Rand’s limits for plot, character and pathos, her work as a philosopher continues to receive praise and self-serious examination.
What’s even more troubling is to see how her unembarrassed espousal of self-interest has been adopted by self-avowed Christians. It seems more than a little obvious that the world seen through Rand’s eyes could not be more divergent than the one seen through Jesus’ eyes. That the previous sentence might be interpreted as a partisan attack only proves how far Christians have gone in forgetting their core story or, perhaps, in being able to apply that story to the world around them.
It’s one thing to agree to a free-market as a means for our common life together. It’s another to treat it as an end in and of itself, a move a Christian should not agree to make.
For that statement to make sense, though, requires a reminder of just what Christians mean by the word ‘sin.’
The church’s way of thinking about sin is a function of how it thinks about creation and evil.
We are creatures made to desire an end (telos).
God and God’s Kingdom is the End to which we’re properly oriented; that’s how God made us.
Because we’re end-driven creatures, human freedom is different than how we typically define it in modern America. Culturally, civically and economically we tend to think of freedom in the negative; that is, freedom is the absence of coercion. Thus, the ‘free market’ is a market without any external controls or values imposed upon it.
Freedom, in such a context, is not directed to any End, or rather it’s directed to whatever End the individual decides.
For Christians, however, freedom isn’t defined negatively as something that exists in the absence of coercion.
Freedom isn’t freedom from something; freedom is freedom for something.
Freedom is freedom for the Kingdom.
In other words, as telos-driven creatures we are free only when we are directed towards and participating in the Kingdom, only when we’re wrapped up in God’s will.
Freedom then, as Paul describes it, isn’t independence itself but dependence on God. When we try to live- or shop- without acknowledging our dependence on God, our loves become disordered, directed towards some other end but God. A Paul says of his own pre-Christ life, the freedom he thought he enjoyed was actually slavery.
Augustine says famously that ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee (God).’
Why is it that the pursuit of, say, material happiness so often leads to sensations of emptiness and meaninglessness? Even nothingness?
Here’s why, according to Augustine.
Because creation is given as a gracious gift, the goodness of creation is only ‘good’ insofar as it participates and points back to God’s greater goodness. Wine is good, for example, because its a sign of the graciousness of what God has made.
However, when you’re no longer directed towards or participating in God’s End, the Kingdom, you effectively strip the material things in creation from God’s goodness. They no longer have the purpose for which God gave them. They no longer have any meaning.
Think of the pervasive sin of consumerism.
As William Cavanaugh says:
“All such loves are disordered loves, loves looking for something worth loving that is not just arbitrarily chosen. A person buys something- anything- trying to fill the hole that is the empty shrine (by which he means our having been created to desire the Kingdom). And once the shopper purchases the thing, it turns into a nothing and he has to head back to the mall to continue the search. With no objective End to guide the search, his search is literally endless.”
In this way, the ‘free market’ as we tend to think about it isn’t free at all. In the words of Paul, it’s slavery. Or, put the other way round, only someone who loves God can participate in the market without becoming a slave.
Here’s a good story from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the rise of Rand.