reading sheek

Can Ayn Rand and Christianity hold a civil conversation? A review of “The Soul of Atlas”

soul-of-atlasBook review of The Soul of Atlas by Mark Henderson. 2013 Reason Publishing, 246 pages.

Although libertarians have been known to say that it usually begins with Ayn Rand, Christians – especially Christian libertarians – have varying views of Rand and the objectivist philosophy. Even here at LCC, we have published both positive and negative viewpoints on Rand.

I was immediately interested when Mark Henderson contacted me about his recently published book The Soul of Atlas. Mark’s utmost desire in the book is to show that Christianity and objectivism have some common ground, and that this common ground is a great place to start a conversation where one can learn from the other. Mark accomplishes this goal through a survey of fundamental tenets of both philosophies and an intensely personal autobiographical presentation of himself.

Mark grew up in a Christian home, but his faith was rocked when his parents divorced. His mother remarried to objectivist John Aglialoro. His father also eventually remarried, but remained a Christian. During his teenage and young adult years, he describes the evolution of his personal philosophy as deeply affected by his “two fathers.” He struggled with his faith in God for multiple reasons, not the least of which were the things he was learning from John about Rand and objectivism. To make matters worse, he was also diagnosed with cancer as a teenager. Mark spent years working out what he believed, and the Soul of Atlas shows a sensitivity to these disparate viewpoints that one rarely sees from either side. His personal experiences with his “two fathers” allow him to put forward a unique perspective.

Besides the personal recollections, Mark discusses a myriad of topics, expounding upon the similarities and differences of how Christianity and Objectivism view sex, money, capitalism, meaning, the “virtue of selfishness” (or egoism), joy, and power. He concludes with an exposition on the meaning of “Who is John Galt?” and draws an analogy to asking the question “Who is Jesus?”

Here are some of my favorite sections of the book.

In the chapter “Reason”, Mark suggests that Christians ought to herald the merits of reason and to embrace the opportunity to engage in reasonable dialogue with objectivists.

I imagine the two philosophies as two lawyers in a courtroom, each appealing to each other for Reason. I am the jury. Dad heeds the plea for Reason through the prophet Isaiah, “Come, let us reason together.” If God is calling us to reason with him, what does it say that we will not reason together with those whose distance is far less removed? … Dad and John agree on the primacy of Reason; yet they begin at different places to get there because of their presuppositions.

Regarding faith and its relationship to reason, Mark writes:

It is popular to accept the definition of faith as the absence of Reason, and I certainly had conceived it as such. But Dad pointed out to me that the Bible itself offers several tests, identifying the dangers of merely blind faith (much less the kind of “wishful thinking” Rand thought it was), rather than lifting Faith up as the highest virtue… “You see,” Dad said, “the Bible does not exempt itself from its own criteria of truth. It does not hold up the abdication of Reason – the annihilation of the mind – as the means to know God.”

In the chapter about rational self-interest, Mark clearly articulates how the Christianity differs from Rand’s characterization of religion in general.

Rand’s concept of Duty entails an obligation to do something contrary to my nature: as an act of my will, to grit my teeth and do something under duress, out of guilt, or not strictly what I would choose if I were truly free. Religion can be summed up, “I do, and then God owes me.” The order is crucial. First, I perform according to some right standard and establish a record based on my achieveement of the standard. The standard can be anything: the Law of God or the teachings of Jesus… The point is that I keep my end of the implied contract by living up to the standard, and then God or Fate or Fortune or whatever, confers some deserved blessing because I’ve earned it… The Gospel turns the order around. Instead of making my performance against the standard the determining factor of my life’s value, the Gospel says that Jesus has met the standard in my place and exchanged His perfect record for my imperfect one. God doesn’t evaluate me based on what I sacrificed to achieve an acceptable, or even perfect, standard. He takes the initiative.

Mark even explains how praise and worship actually makes perfect sense in the Randian conception of satisfaction as well. In the words of Mark’s Dad:

The world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game… I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.

A fascinating theme that Mark develops in the book is that the ultimate “John Galt” character in history is none other than Jesus himself. Galt is presented as an ideal man with immutable character. His words of wisdom resonate with those who are ready to hear it, and his philosophy attracts a following that changes the world. Yet he is treated like a criminal for speaking the truth. Galt even endured torture to rescue the person that he loved. A Mark says, the “not-so-ominous parallels” to Jesus are pretty clear: “When you understand that Jesus is not only the Ideal Man, but that he is the One who brings us to Joy, all of the good things in your life will pale in comparison to His surpassing greatness.”

What everyone in this world wants, whether objectivist or Christian, is ultimate satisfaction. Sadly, we do not readily recognize that God provides that need in every way possible: “The highest occupation of my soul could not be anything less than the best and most glorious occupation of anyone’s soul: God himself.”

So, who should read The Soul of Atlas? If you are a Christian and have read Rand and want to think more deeply about what you have been reading, then this book is for you. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at what you can learn from Mark’s astute observations gained over years of consideration and dedication to the Gospel.

But also, if you are an objectivist and want to try to understand Christianity a little better, then you have found just the right book as well. Mark honors both schools of thought and presents the ideas fairly.

I am immensely grateful for Mark’s work in this area, and heartily recommend The Soul of Atlas to anyone interested in comparing objectivism and Christianity.