A Mystic Reads Rand, Part V
Celebrating success without guilt.
by Jonathan Wilson
August 20, 2005
This article continues a series on author Ayn Rand's presentation of Objectivist Philosophy through her novel Atlas Shrugged. As a member of the clergy, I question Rand's premise that Atheism is a necessary component to Objectivism. All installments of this series are available on the Partial Observer.
For this essay I will expand on the fourth of my eight response statements:
Any form of Christian ethics which induces guilt for being successful, which diminishes achievement and which celebrates failure, is a misrepresentation of Biblical, God-inspired faith.
It is absurd to feel guilt for one's success. To climb a mountain, to marry a wonderful person, to graduate with a set of skills, are all reasons to feel good about oneself. It is equally valid to feel good about inventing a useful tool, and equally valid to feel good about selling useful tools for others to use. Success stories are written up in magazines, and people become celebrities. Rand would approve of the status and celebrity enjoyed by Bill Gates and probably Martha Stewart.
Yet there seems to be plenty of guilt to go around. We continue to hear from scholars, in such disciplines as sociology and political theory, that progress is a "myth," that we are destroying the Earth, and that the free market is powered by human avarice. Bill Gates is not a success story, but a parable of human greed, while Martha Stewart is convicted for the criminal act of having friends looking out to protect her investments.
These complaints are also heard from scholars of divinity, usually derived by reading scholars in these other disciplines. So Ayn Rand levels a devastating critique at "preachers" and "mystics." In this article we will set the belief that success equals guilt in its historic context, and then see whether that God who is worshiped in the church would make that judgment or whether, as Rand herself, God values success, achievement, and even progress.
A. Turning Profit Into Sin
Ayn Rand was the daughter of a pharmacist whose business was shut down by the new Soviet regime during the Bolshevic Revolution[i]. She fled the Soviet Union in 1925, only to discover that many in the United States had believed the Bolshevic propaganda. In the 1920's and 30's American politicians and academics advocated for socialism as the wave of the future, and their counterparts in the pulpits derived from them the "social gospel." In keeping with the political climate, these pastors, priests and evangelists, tied the profit motive to the "deadly sin" of avarice. As Objectivism is presented by her hero John Galt in the novel's climactic speech, it is no surprise that Rand criticizes "preachers" and "mystics" for basing ethics on the spurious principle of entitlement. I also know first-hand that this attitude persists, in various forms, in much of the clergy.
The attitude can be summarized in this way: The success of Bill Gates, who has a personal wealth around 45 billion dollars, is his supreme moral liability. That he has profited from his software designs is a reflection of his sinful nature. Never mind that he employs thousands, that he underwrites numerous philanthropic enterprises including Charter schools, and that his software platforms are the tools of success for innumerable entrepreneurs and corporations of every conceivable size. Never mind that this article is being composed on his company's software. That he has personal control over 45 billion dollars is seen as a great social and moral wrong.
The Biblical foundation for this view can be assembled from various texts. In Luke chapter 12, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who retires in comfort only to be condemned by God. In Matthew Chapter 16, Jesus asks rhetorically what profit there is in gaining the world while losing one's soul. St. Paul in First Timothy chapter 6 states that "the love of money is the root of many kinds of evil." And in Leviticus 19:9-10 the land-owners are told to leave the corners of their fields unpicked, and not to glean their vineyards twice, so that travelers and the poor would be able to pick and eat.
This brings us to the other side of the Christian social gospel. If we are commanded to leave some apples on the tree for the poor neighbor, then it must follow that our neighbors are entitled to a share of what we have. This ethical premise applies the command from Jesus Christ to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27) and of John the Baptist who said "the person who has two coats should give one to the person who has none" (Luke 3:10-11). In the early chapters of Acts the believers in Jerusalem each sell their property and bring the proceeds for all to share alike.
The social gospel is rooted in a form of common sense. If we accept the premise that the Bible declares the profit motive to be evil while commanding that neighbors hold all things in common, then two conclusions follow: 1. Society would be better off without the profit motive. 2. The eventual condition of humanity is that we will all act in accord with God's will and hold all things in common, when we have attained (or evolved) a correct spirit. We will each be governed by our heart's desire to contribute what we can without any desire for possessing more than we need. Karl Marx's utopia is seen to fit neatly with the Kingdom of God.
This vision is the premise for various lobbying activities in the political arena by Christian social activists. One of the most influential books to come out of this movement in recent decades was written by Ron Sider, called Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. A second generation of preachers and Bible scholars is coming under its influence.
B. The Social Gospel Today
In today's culture, the Christian social activists only command the spotlight when they are arguing with each over whether to ordain sexually active homosexuals. Christians fronting for the neo-conservatives are the ones getting the camera time in our generation. This was not the case when Rand was writing her novel; in her time the preachers of the social gospel commanded the media attention. Even so, today proponents of the social gospel remain influential in circles beyond the eyes of the media.
In the 1980's, a form of Christian ethics which had hatched under the oppression of Latin American dictatorships gained currency among American divinity scholars. This "Liberation Theology" introduced a method for understanding the Bible. This method is not easily understood by Americans enjoying the highest standard of living and liberty in the world. Liberation Theology was quickly hi-jacked and deconstructed by American intellectuals feeling guilt for belonging to the world's most privileged caste.
While Liberation Theology renewed the momentum of the social gospel, it has bestowed one great benefit on the Christian Faith as a whole: The Church has been forced to deal with its pluralism. Liberation Theology has bridged the modern and post-modern intellectual milieus. The diversity of voices within the Faith are now given a hearing as never before. This means, for example, that Latin American voices are not allowing themselves to be co-opted by America's academic intelligentsia, while the African American Church is getting respect for its rich theological heritage. It also means that for churches in non-western nations, including those supported by American churches through "missions" budgets, non-western solutions are being heard and applied to non-western problems.
As far as I am concerned, this is as true an estimation of God's will for social justice as the Church has ever understood and rendered. This is not because American academics are solving the world's problems by demanding more government aid, per Ron Sider's vision, but because the world's Christians are solving local problems locally.
C. Money Makes the World Go Around
Rand projects money as the one true objective measure of value, and thus a person's net worth is measured by the wealth both created and enjoyed by the person. Those that enjoy wealth without creating wealth are "looters," the lowest form of life in Rand's universe. Therefore, the generation and enjoyment of wealth is the highest motivation for a human being; it is the ultimate expression of self-interest and the substance of "egoism" in her philosophy.
However, when this is isolated from the rest of her philosophy, the pursuit of wealth can lead to compromise on other objectivist principles, such as, commitment to the truth and commitment to fairness. Abstractions such as truth and justice, and a commitment to integrity in business, are required to keep both Atheists and Theists from falling into ethical confusion.
Rand celebrates the pure self-centeredness of her philosophy, using language designed to provoke the social gospel preachers. I am not provoked by her philosophy, nor even by its self-centeredness. In fact, the Christian faith is based on the uniquely self-centered need for the individual to be right with God. Also, in Rand's concern for the treatment of one's neighbors, respect for the agency of the human being, justice, and opposition to violence, as we have discussed in an earlier installment, Objectivism has plenty in common with Bible-based Christian values.
Must the Christian, however, believe that the profit motive is akin to avarice? That conviction is a distortion of scripture. One's motive for profit may be a symptom of avarice, as it is in Rand's characters who are "looters." These are the ones who leverage the power of government to confiscate the profits from the producers of wealth. The profit motive, however, is not inherently evil, and it is woven in to God's design for society.
It is God's will that people succeed; a successful human being is part of rendering God's image. It is a Satanic deception to be made to feel guilty for doing those very things God has gifted one to do, succeed at them, and find prosperity. In fact, Rand herself had intuited part of God's design; both Rand and God agree that the prosperous person strengthens, rather than despoils, society.
Let us begin with the passage in Leviticus about harvesting the corners of the field or picking all the apples. It is God's command that some apples are to be left unpicked, so that, a person who is traveling, or a widow or an orphan or other poor person without property, can pick an apple and eat. God does not command the apple-producer to pick all the apples, sell them, and give 38% of the cash to poor people so that they can buy apples from somebody else.
The principle here is that opportunity is not to be hoarded. The unpropertied widow and orphan are to have the ability to work for their food by picking it themselves. God condemns those that abuse their power (in this case the power of owning land) to corner a monopoly on opportunity (in this case the opportunity to glean a meal for oneself). Rand condemns those who commit the same crime. She has nothing good to say of her villainous characters, the cartel of business executives that co-opt their interests with the government to deny opportunity to competitors.
So here is my olive branch to the champions of Liberation Theology: There is a huge moral distinction between those who are rich by looting, Rand's lowest form of villain and those whom the Bible decries as oppressors, and those who are rich by producing. The ethical difference between these two kinds of rich people mean everything in Rand's system, and everything to a Biblical understanding of justice. So long as Christian ethicists continue to lump all rich and successful people into the moral category of looters, Rand's criticism will hold force. Christian preachers and mystics must begin to articulate the distinction, just as Rand does, and as I have done in this series.
In Luke 12, Jesus tells of the man who retired in wealth but died that same night and faced judgment. It is not that he prospered that God condemned, it is that he was not "rich toward God" (verse 21). So Paul writes the truth that "the love of money is the root of many kinds of evil," but this is the complete text: "…and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains" (1 Timothy 6:10). This is a problem Rand describes among her villains, as when her hero D'Anconia sets up his looting investors with a panic that causes the share prices to collapse.
It is not getting rich or being rich that is the problem. The problem is when the "eagerness to be rich" causes people to compromise on even greater values: truth, integrity, justice, all of these being component both to Objectivism and to God's will for the world.
That it is God's will that people prosper, succeed, and profit, is inherent in these very texts. The text in Leviticus about gleaning assumes a propertied class, while in First Timothy Paul goes on to teach about the attitude rich people are to take: "…not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life"(17-19).
This is what the man in Luke 12 had failed to do—he had failed to be "rich toward God." Here Paul does not lay out a formula for the confiscation of wealth from the rich; the New Testament presupposes that generosity springs from freedom of the will. There is nothing generous which is yielded under compulsion. This text further presupposes that the rich will remain rich and thus remain in a position to be generous.
The Gospel of Luke is itself most likely written to a benefactor who might be addressed in its first verses. Few in the ancient world could afford the leisure of taking time to write at such length without someone meeting their needs. The same author is traditionally believed to have composed the Book of Acts as well. He describes a woman of means, a dealer of purple named Lydia in the city of Philippi. She became Paul's benefactor in the city, and her home was the first location for the Philippian Church.
God's kingdom has thrived through the kindness of wealthy people ever since Joseph of Arimathea donated a tomb in which to bury Jesus Christ. Poverty is an exceptional call in scripture: the stewardship of wealth is the normal rule of God's will. Profits are not sin, they are the rightful fruit of labor; success is not evil, it renders the image of God. Those believers who by productive labor have profited themselves have been the backbone of generosity in the Church and the engines of its progress, from the New Testament on.
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