objectivism-christianity-compatible

Five Things Christians Can Learn from Objectivists

I’m not an Objectivist, because I’m a Christian and those labels ultimately conflict.

However, Ayn Rand’s critique of Christianity is clarifying and taking it seriously has changed my life and made my faith more robust. More important than her critique of religion is her philosophy, which is 99% life-affirming and the most objectively air tight philosophy of living I’ve ever studied and tried.

Here are five things I’ve learned from Ayn Rand that pay off every day and allow me to live a life that is more fruitful and God-glorifying than it would otherwise be:

  1. Primacy of existence over primacy of consciousness
  2. A is A
  3. Life is the purpose of life
  4. Duty vs. causality
  5. There are no conflicts of interest among men
  6. Bonus: (Read to the end to find out)

There are more, but these are earth shattering if you know how to apply them. I’d need a whole book to break them down, but let’s see if we can do it with only a couple thousand words (okay, 4800 words).

Primacy of Existence

There are two ways to look at reality. One is that there is no such thing as reality. Are we here? How do we know? If a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear or see it, did it really happen?

The other way is to realize that reality is concrete and eternal. Objectivists look at the universe as having simply always been here. We Christians don’t, but we do look at God in that way. He was here always, which means reality was here always. At some point God was the only thing that existed, but then He created everything, that is, He brought it into being, into reality. This is called “the primacy of existence.”

The opposite viewpoint is the “primacy of consciousness.” This is a tempting view for us believers because we see God as a consciousness and ourselves as primarily a consciousness. Objectivists call this nonsense. They say only an entity can have a consciousness. In other words, only a body, an organism, can have a consciousness.

This is a brilliant point, and it matters that we agree with them. I agree with them by saying that God is not only a consciousness, but He is an entity, and as such He has a consciousness. He tells Moses that His name is “I Am” (and “I will be”). God is stating the law of existence. Descartes got it wrong. It is not, “I think, therefore I am.” It is rather, “I am, therefore I think.” I exist, so I have a consciousness.

Why is this so important? Because of the next point I’m going to make. But for now, just know that God does what He does because He exists and because of who He is, and we do what we do because we exist and because of who and what we are.

A is A

This is also known as Aristotle’s Law of Identity. A thing is the thing that it is. You may be thinking, “duh.” But then you don’t understand how profound this is in our secular and relativistic age. It matters because everything that exists has a nature. That nature dictates what we do.

I’m going to come back to this, because I can’t explain further until I tell you about the next big idea.

Life is the Purpose of Life

Why are we here? Most Christians would say “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Yes, but how? Most Christians would say some kind of answer that would miss the point and cause problems and contradictions in their lives. For instance, they might say, “by doing everything for Him.” Or they may say, “by doing nothing for ourselves or in our own strength.” These are both nonsense, depending on how you look at it.

What do we know so far? Existence exists and we exist. Just like everything that exists, we have a certain identity (A is A). That identity as a living being dictates what we will do. That is, who and what we are dictates what we will do.

Why? Because we have to do something.

Why? Because being alive requires that we do stuff.

Why? Because we will cease to exist if we don’t.

Who cares? We all care, because deep down we know that life is the purpose of life.

As a Christian, I’m good with saying that life is the penultimate (next to last) purpose of life, God being the ultimate. But I cannot glorify God if I’m dead. (I know that one’s death can glorify God, but I’m talking about another context.)

God created you to live. He spoke you into being, and said, “Produce, multiply, subdue earth, rule over it (Gen 1:28). This has profoundly impacted my life. It means this: Because of the laws of God, which include the laws of nature, physics, and true (logical) philosophy, I am created, called, designed to glorify God by…

Being myself

There are two ideas there: myself, and being.

Myself — I exist. I am. As an image bearer of God, I’m a little “I am,” in the image of the Great I Am. (Although it should be noted that so is a bunny or a rock. They are not created in His image, but they can both claim to be “am” — that is, existence exists).

Because I am, I exist; I have a consciousness with which I perceive what’s around me, conceptualize based on learning, then make judgments, then make decisions, then take action.

Objectivists have proven to me that this is called living. The reason I perceive the world, form concepts, make judgments, then take action is for the sake of my life. As a steward of one talent, my beating heart, I must live. I must use my reasoning mind to seek life. Food, shelter, community, love, progeny, purpose, passion, and inspiration. All living things seek a life-affirming life with a clean conscience. All living things, that is, except for humans.

Why is this? Humans rarely live as straightforwardly as amoebas and plants and tigers. Amoebas, plants, and tigers just go around seeking to further their life and family. Humans get easily confused by the complexity of our comfortable lives. We forget the purpose of living is living (and of course, glorifying God by doing so).

You might be objecting right now because you think we are to live for more than just staying alive. That is true, because true life is more than just staying alive. Whether he was right on the order, Maslow was right that we have a hierarchy of needs. You won’t feel satisfied just because you have food and even shelter. You will want more. Everyone will come along and call that sin. You will believe them. They will tell you it’s okay to go for more, just so long as your purpose is not making yourself richer, better, happier. In other words, if you can come up with an excuse for getting what you want—the best loved excuse is: “It’s so I can put others first with this mansion”—then you get to keep your mansion.

That’s why most Christians are confused and sad. They know they want stuff, but they know it’s not okay unless they can fool themselves and others into believing, “It’s not really for me. It’s for God.” Well, others will believe you, because they want you to believe the same about them. But it’s a game, a con. And if you get them to believe, you won’t be able to get yourself to believe it, because you know: You want the mansion (or two bedroom house—why don’t you live in a box so someone else can have that house?) because you want it.

The sin is not what you think it is. You think the sin is having too much. But it’s not. The sin is you got the mansion to signal your status, because deep down you hate yourself and feel ashamed of not being good enough. (Rand calls this being second-handed.)

Instead of doing mental acrobatics to justify doing what you want to do and pretending that you don’t have to put your life first, just put your life first. Because you have to.

Your life is the one talent of stewardship that you are uniquely called to steward. It is the only logical way to see it. You can still believe that Jesus wants us to put others first, but you must put that in the context of logic. I hate to be cliche, but this is the old, “Put your mask on before you put the child’s mask on, or you’re both dead.” It’s not that God will never ask you to die for someone, but in the words of Howard Roark to Gail Wynand,

“Gail, if this boat were sinking, I’d give my life to save you. Not because it’s any kind of duty. Only because I like you, for reasons and standards of my own. I could die for you. But I couldn’t and wouldn’t live for you.”

And speaking of duty…

Duty vs. Causality

Ayn Rand’s ideas on duty vs. causality changed my life more than almost anything else. I’ve been a pastor for over two decades and one thing any pastor will tell you is that there is an epidemic of sexual sin among committed Christians.

Countless men (and many women) who have truly dedicated their lives to Jesus will sometimes look at pornography. You might say, “Well, they’re not committed.” But I can tell you, they have made huge sacrifices for the kingdom and planned their lives around serving God and His Church. And yet, they struggle with this sin. The reason is that they are duty bound to their Christian morality.

Yeah, so? Rand’s brilliant insight is that a duty bound Christianity (for which she blames Kant), has no power to cause a moral life. By that I mean a life that is consistently moral. Morality that is not tied to reality doesn’t work. Stay with me!

Most people don’t see God’s laws as causal. They see them as duty. There is a list of rules and if we follow them all, we can be “perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect” and God will like us.

The problem is, we already know we are not perfect. In fact, to be a Christian is to admit—confess—your imperfection. We know we are not righteous and we need an “alien righteousness.” True. But we also have the Bible admonishing us to be righteous. Since we know we can’t be righteous, we hear the gospel message as,

You are so pathetic and sinful, filthy, really, that poor Jesus had to die for you. God had to subject His one and only Son to torture, rejection, and a painful death on a brutal Roman cross, all so your sorry butt doesn’t go to hell like you deserve. And don’t start trying to earn your righteousness now by thinking you can do anything good. No one is good. Especially you. Now, be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.

That is a nonsensical message. It is a contradiction that will break your brain. When your brain is broken, you don’t think rationality exists. When you don’t think rationality exists, you call contradictions “mysteries” and say that God’s contradictory ways “are higher than our ways.” But that is not what it means that God’s ways are higher than our ways.

You don’t think you can be perfect, so something inside you says, “why bother trying to be perfect. I’m always going to suck. Where is my porn?”

But perfection and infinity are not the same thing. We think of God’s perfection and we assume it means something infinite since He is infinite. But it cannot mean that, because the idea of perfection is that there is a standard to measure by.

For instance: If I asked you to count to three, you could do it perfectly. There is no way you could have done it more perfectly. It’s a binary question; you either did it, or you didn’t do it. If you said, 1-2-3. Then you did it perfectly. Jesus couldn’t have done it better.

God’s ways are finite and causal. You heard me. They are finite and causal. This is glorious, good news! He does not ask us to do anything arbitrary. It all has a purpose. Why does He want sexual purity for us? Because He created something life-affirming and fantastic in conjugal marriage and family. There is nothing you can do with a pornographic picture that would remotely measure up to what you could do with your loving spouse, your one flesh bone of bone. His ways, His sexual ethic, is causal for the purpose of LIFE and life abundant.

Even if you consider that Jesus upped the ante when He said, “You have heard it said, do not murder, but I tell you…don’t even hate” (my paraphrase), He still said nothing that cannot be perfectly accomplished. It’s a binary thing: hate, or don’t hate.

Kill, or don’t kill.

Steal, or don’t steal.

Lie, or don’t lie.

Try to think of any of His ways that are not causal and don’t lead to Life. There aren’t any.

Just to stick with our porn example, why on earth would you do something to yourself like looking at porn? You will have a less joyful marriage and married sex life. You will have a weaker will and weaker ability to resist cheap dopamine. You will exploit some girl and support an evil industry, making the world you live in a worse place to exist. All these are causal reasons to obey God’s sexual ethic.

We are not duty bound to follow God. He is a good, good Father Who has shown us the way to Life, not just here on earth, but in our existence in the next epoch. Just try it for a while. Ask yourself if you want a great (eternal) life and then focus on getting it by seeking the Kingdom of God, its finite and attainable rules, and “accept the facts of reality, being one yourself” (I think this was said by Peikoff, Rand’s intellectual successor).

One objection: “Shouldn’t we want to obey God simply because He said so and He is God?” Yes, but that does not change the fact that His ways are causal and we have to see them that way, or we will have no power to obey them. Now, hang on, because the next one is a doozy.

There Are No Conflicts of Interest Among (Rational) Men

This is the most difficult to grasp, and I can never explain it without going back and studying, but every time I do, I am staggered by the brilliance of Rand’s idea. This applies to questions such as the one she poses in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Suppose two men apply for the same job. Only one of them can be hired. Isn’t this an instance of a conflict of interests, and isn’t the benefit of one man achieved at the price of the sacrifice of the other?

Rand says no, and, according to her, there are four factors to consider when deciding if conflicts of interest can exist between the rational.

  • Reality
  • Context
  • Responsibility
  • Effort

First, reality. A man’s interests depend on his goals in reality, his desires and values in reality. His desires are not “valid tools of cognition.” This means that just because a man desires something doesn’t mean that his desires are aligned with all reality, even his good judgment. He could have a whim based on some appetite that does not bring into consideration his truest judgments. If I want another cigarette after I have learned it is giving me lung cancer, my desire is not serving me in reality.

But if I desire something that is holistically good for me long and short range, then my desire is rational and based on reality. But then, I have to consider the wider reality. I may rationally want something that I cannot, in reality, have. Consider the above question. It is not rational to want the job that the other man is more qualified for, or aside from being qualified, the one hiring has decided to choose according to his own rational (or irrational) choice. Once the choice is made, it is not in my interest to want the job.

Furthermore, we do business by a principle of trade by free choice. It is in my interest to function within these bounds. Getting the job that the employer wants to give someone else is to live in an irrational world. I don’t want to live in that world, because I am a rational being. I can only thrive in a rational world, even if I don’t get the job, the girl (who wants someone else more than me), or the last slice of pizza. This is reality. It is not rational nor real to get the job if the job is better for someone else. I would be holding contradictory values if I wanted a job that someone else was better for. The contradiction would be my desire and the facts of reality.

Second, is context. In what context do we seem to be having a conflict of our interests? What is the context in which you could say you want the thing because it is right? All convictions and desires are held and judged in context of range and means, according to Rand.

Context dropping is the main way humans evade reality. And what is dropped? Either the issue of range, or the issue of means.

Issues of Range

What are your lifetime goals according to your truest values? No one millisecond is detached from the rest of your life. To have a short term goal that is in conflict with a long term goal is irrational. It is that simple.

Imagine that you have a chance to fail at an important long term goal by the instant gratification of a desire. Our earlier example of smoking fits here, of course, but in terms of the conflict between the interests of two men, each man has both long and short range interests and those interests are dependent on the kind of society in which they live.

Each man wants to achieve his long range values, so he wants to live in a world where there is freedom. He wants that world to be one where men can trade freely with other men in order to achieve their purposes. And here we are beginning to discuss the issue of means in terms of context.

Issues of Means

Each man has certain abilities with which to pursue the values that make up his life. Each man needs freedom (protection from the initiation of force by another) to use those abilities. Each man must respect that the conditions which enable his freedom must also be applied for the freedom of others—all others. If one man is not free, then no man is free.

When it comes to issues of means, Rand says,

It is in this sense that a rational man never holds a desire or pursues a goal which cannot be achieved by his own effort. He trades value for value. He never seeks or desires the unearned. If he undertakes to achieve a goal that requires the cooperation of many people, he never counts on anything but his own ability to persuade them and their voluntary agreement.

In other words, he has means: his mind, his skill, his stewardship of what he’s been given by God (my words, not the atheistic Rand’s). He has means, and that’s all he has if he has freedom to use them and relate to other men with freedom to choose to reward him or not. When he is rewarded over the other man, then in a free society he can presume he has earned it. He has accomplished life. If he fails, it is of little consequence, but he must keep going and try something else. Eventually, he achieves his purpose, life.

Imagine the lone person on an island trying to obtain food. He searches for an edible plant. He doesn’t find one. There was no conflict of interests, just a test of the value of his skill at detecting edible plants. He must keep going, keep trying if he wants to stay alive. He is living in freedom, because no one is there physically trying to prevent him. Only nature is in the way, but that struggle is not a conflict of interest among men.

Stick with me here: This is why adding in the factor of trade does not add in the factor of conflicts of interest among the men we trade with or even against. If you take that person on the island and give him someone to trade with, he simply must use all the same ingenuity and skill to come up with something worth trading.

This is a boon, because, presumably, there are many more possibilities now for getting his needs met. Even if the first few proposals he makes to the other man are rejected, it doesn’t mean there isn’t still great opportunity. He just has to up his game until the other man sees that what he has to offer is valuable enough to give something valuable in return.

The only thing he must not do is rob, hurt, or kill the other man, which is where most people get Rand wrong. Rand values self-interest, and people assume she means taking advantage of others. But she most emphatically does not, because it is not rational to take advantage of others, because you want to live in a world that does not reward such a thing.

This is thoroughly biblical. If you carefully study the Bible where it condemns the rich, it is almost always the case that being rich is correlated with oppressing someone. That is because humans are prone to take advantage of those who are vulnerable if they can benefit from it. This is a massive sin for a reason, and history is rife with it.

But many people conflate oppressing workers with simply making wealth. This especially comes up when a rich man gets rich by, in part, employing others, that is, leveraging the talent and time of others and making a profit. Everyone wins in this situation, but very soon people start to notice the gap between the owner and employees.

As the organization grows, there is also a gap between the management and the managed, and between the various levels of talent from one employee to the next. But this is perfectly natural in a free system. This is what you want.

You may think you don’t want it if you are the low man on the totem pole, but that is because you can’t see the possibilities. You are in a place where you can become the person with more skill, more conscientiousness, more industriousness. You can leave and go take the risk of starting your own company, just like someone did to start the company you work for. There is a reason the owner gets paid the most. They bear the most responsibility for the failure. This is freedom, and freedom will, of course, punish one who uses his freedom to sit around and do as little good work as possible, just as it would the man on the island who does not search for food, shelter, and fire.

Responsibility

I will keep this one short. Rand says,

In dropping the responsibility for one’s own interests and life, one drops the responsibility of ever having to consider the interests and lives of others—of those others who are, somehow, to provide the satisfaction of one’s desires.

What she is discussing is socialism. To be human is to be an entity who must take responsibility for himself. To be a steward is to first be a steward of one’s own life. To say that the government, the church, or any other institution should take care of you is to evade the knowledge that someone will have to pay for it. “Yeah, yeah…” says every socialist ever, but it’s still true. It is math. Someone will have to pay for it and we will have to take it from whoever has produced it.

Effort

Finally, a rational man knows he must earn what he makes by his own effort. Or as Rand says,

“A rational man never holds a desire or pursues a goal which cannot be achieved directly or indirectly by his own effort.”

Why are there no conflicts of interest among rational men? Because no two men will give the same effort with the same talent and skill.

In a free society, there is competition, but it is not a zero sum game. It is a masterpiece of diversity. The Bible teaches us that God did not make each part of the body to be the same. What is true in the church, that the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you (1 Cor 12:21) is doubly true in the world. Look around any city on any day. It’s astounding the amount of productivity and, more importantly, creativity that is occurring in any moment. It is an almost infinite ecosystem of thoughts, solutions, creative disruptions, and work. Stop and think of it. God had this in mind when He commanded Adam to produce and multiply. He wanted what would happen in a world populated by beings with free will.

So, it is by our own effort, our own willingness to put forth energy toward producing that we are rewarded. “Yeah, but some men are more capable than others.” Yes, at certain things. But take the example of professional sports: I am not all that athletic. I am also 50. If my dream is to get paid to play football, I am going to have a tough time and my family just may starve to death.

But do they have to starve? No, because I can quickly decide that I have no future as a professional football player and I can find something I’m good at and where there is a need. If I woke up in a place where there weren’t very many people, and those people who were there valued football enough to pay to see it, I might then have a chance. The talent pool is low enough in that case. But I am not in such a place, so my efforts go towards writing and pastoring, something enough people want to pay me for that I get to eat and so do my kids.

If you are like me, you’ll have to read over that section several times to truly understand it. It’s intellectually challenging unless you are a genius, which I am not. But once you get it, it will set you free. There are no conflicts of rational men’s or women’s interests if the society is free, and that is a miracle of modern times. Hopefully our society will remain free enough to live it out. If it doesn’t, I will demand someone give me a place on the football team. I can’t throw a spiral, but I’d like to be a quarterback, please.

Bonus

Even though this is already long, I will include a bonus idea. Rand is not the first to bring it up, but it is through her work that I truly began to understand the idea of men ruling over nature and not other men. Because we have become a society ruled by laws (the rule of law), we are not (supposed to be) a society ruled by men. When we were given the mandate to “subdue the earth” (Gen 1:28), it was not a mandate to “subdue other men.”

If you’ve ever read The Fountainhead, then you know that Howard Roark, the architect, was Rand’s concretization of this principle. In the novel, he says,

Nothing is given to man on earth. Everything he needs has to be produced. And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways—by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others. The creator originates. The parasite borrows. The creator faces nature alone. The parasite faces nature through an intermediary.

The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite’s concern is the conquest of men.

There is hardly anything more profound to me in existence than this. I have known thousands of men and women in my fifty years, and there have been tragically few who have realized the fact that they are powerful, that their independent mind is able to produce the things needed for survival and even thriving.

But to create, one must obey the laws of nature and physics. Francis Bacon is attributed with the quote, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” This means that countless things can be done within the rules if one masters them. Airplanes were invented not by ignoring or disobeying gravity, but by using it. To build something with wood or any other material, the properties of that material have to be accepted, honored. You can probably think of a million examples of great inventions that don’t break the laws of nature, but rather exploit them.

These laws were given to be exploited. Men were not. So exploit time, skill, laws, math, raw materials, and every other objective fact, and be a creator for the glory of the Creator who created you. Leave men and women alone and let them create something valuable to trade for what you created. Live well and glorify God.