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A Mystic Reads Rand, Part IV

Excuses and Excellence

by Jonathan Wilson
August 6, 2005

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A Mystic Reads Rand, Part IV
This article is the fourth in a series in which I, the pastor of an evangelical church, respond to Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy. According to her novel Atlas Shrugged, I am what Rand describes as a "preacher" and a "mystic," which are terms of derision in the lengthy speech made by her hero John Galt. Rand argues for atheism as a central premise of objectivisim.

At this point I cannot present each article as self-contained; to do so requires too much text devoted to ground we covered. Since you can find the earlier parts of the series on the Partial Observer menus, I suggest you pick up the series from the beginning.

For this essay I will expand on the third of my eight response statements:

3. That any Christian evangelism which promises an excuse from responsibility, a justification for mediocrity, and an entitlement to the charity of others, misrepresents the gospel.
 
A. Back to Agreement: Why I Agree with Rand and Libertarians
            
Readers who are disposed to esteem Rand's atheism as core to Objectivism will take my defense of theism as evidence than I reject Objectivism and support big government and social paternalism.  That is not true. Just this week I experienced a vivid illustration of the kind of mediocrity and incompetence that Rand describes in her novel.
            
As my family prepares to travel abroad, we have tried to line up a passport for our baby girl. This first required obtaining a social security number. Already the reader is aware of the web of government involvement. We obtained the number without a hassle. What remained was that we get pictures of the baby and process the passport at a United States Postal Service office.
            
Of course, government laws have created an entire industry. Passport photos are bread-and-butter at many studios. We saw that Osco® Pharmacy, a major retail chain in the Chicago area, advertised themselves as being competent to take passport pictures. So we went and got a picture taken, paid up, distributed some of the duplicates to baby's grandmother, and in due course arrived at the Graceland Finance Station USPS on Chicago's north side, on Friday, August 5, 2005, at approximately 10:30 in the morning.
            
Well, the picture was "all wrong." The background was the wrong color, the face was too large, and the picture was not centered properly. I was indignant with Osco® for billing themselves as competent to serve those in need of passports, when clearly, the person who did it was not trained in the issues of passport compliance.
            
That there are such issues of passport compliance is also a reason to be angry. That anger has to do with the philosophy of government. The more immediate indignation is that, with such compliance in force, the capitalists who run Osco® have promised a service of compliance, charged us money, and did not deliver on the promise.
            
So, resolving to get my money back from Osco®, I asked if we could get the baby's picture done right, there at the post office. Yes indeed, said the three cheerful ladies behind the counter.  And then, not one of them would agree to actually take the picture. "I've been trying to hold down squirming babies all week," said one.
            
Reader, take pause. Three employees of a tax-subsidized federal monopoly refused to render the services promised by the monopoly. This is not because we were present at the wrong time. We were well within posted times that passports would be processed and pictures taken. What happened is that the federal employees salaried by the people and responsible for taking such pictures, refused to take responsibility. In Rand form, I walked out with my baby, refusing to waste another second on incompetent bureaucrats whose chief interest is their own convenience.
            
So we have incompetently rendered services offered by Capitalists in the name of compliance to federal regulation, and we have unrendered services in the federal office itself. Am I a Libertarian? You can bet I am on the sweet smiles of the staff at the Graceland Post Office on North Ashland in Chicago. 
            
I doubt that any of those ladies would assume that I am the pastor of a church. I really don't care one way or another if they find out. My indignation towards this kind of mediocrity is, I believe, the righteous indignation of God. They and others mired in justifying their own convenience at the expense of responsibility could well scoff at me and continue to assume they are right with God. As for me, I don't believe grace is a cheap excuse for the willful neglect of duty, nor do I preach that way.
 
B. Good News?
            
Rand's lifts up three values: wisdom (nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed), prudence (you can't have your cake and eat it too)  and responsibility (Rational self-interest; the human being is an end to themselves). Rand believes that to reject these features of maturity is to diminish one's own humanity. Humanity is most distinct from the animal kingdom in that each human possesses "volitional consciousness," as her hero John Galt states. 
 
Rand criticizes preachers and mystics for diminishing wisdom, prudence, and responsibility. This is a fair criticism of religious faith, illustrated in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? In one sequence we see one of the great problems in the offer and acceptance of the Christian faith's good news. This good news, or "gospel," is that a person can claim Jesus Christ as Lord, repent of sin and start over with God. 
This gospel takes a lot for granted: It assumes that the person believes in God, believes that Jesus Christ came from God, and agrees with the need that Jesus Christ and his followers announced in the New Testament of the Bible, that we are sinners who need to repent and start over. I believe and I preach all of these as true. However, the movie shows an escaped convict being swept up into a riverside baptism service, thrusting himself forward into the line, and being baptized. He returns to his partners who joined him in the escape, to announce to them the "good news." He claimed that he was no longer a prisoner, that his punishment had been removed. He was a free man because his past was washed clean by his baptism.
            
This is absurd, as his companions point out. He is a convict on the run. He cannot turn himself over to the police and the judge and the warden and say, "That past has been forgiven. You are not supposed to punish me anymore." Neither baptism nor any other act of God's grace can absolve a person from facing one's failures. In fact, true penitence before God makes it more likely that this prisoner would have turned himself back in until society had received its satisfaction for his crimes, including the escape attempt.
            
Too often people have been "born again," in the belief that by doing so they have escaped the need to be wise, prudent, and responsible.  They have been looking to get off the hook, and they believe religion has provided them a way. Rand is correct that preachers have much of the fault to bear for this crazy belief.
            
My recent experience in seminary highlights the great confusion even at the graduate level. There are students who treat the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ as their own entitlement, who are meanwhile slothful in their work, distracted in their responsibilities, slackers and deadweights on the graduate school community, and just plain jerks.  These future pastors have complained about everything from the coldness of professors to the inadequacy of facilities. I would summarize their problems with the faculty as follows: Christian scholars should have more forgiveness and love in their heart before assigning an "F" to people who need the credit but won't do the work.

I say this as one who had been there myself. I dropped out of my first seminary enrollment because I wanted my mediocrity to be good enough and I hated finding out that it wasn't. It took me awhile to grow up and get back to seminary with the intention of working. Rand would have had little use for me when I was twenty-three years old. It is no great surprise that divinity schools and seminaries have been churning out more mediocrity than should be allowed.     

One of the great bastions for mediocre Theists, is within the mighty fortress called the Not for Profit Organization. As a church pastor part of my call is to manage an NPO—a local church. This includes interview and hiring—and firing. Christians never feel good telling someone else they are doing poor work, especially those that work within the same NPO! Meanwhile there is almost an instinctive allure for slothful, slacker church-types to the Christian-run NPO. Once encamped, they pass the buck, they reject projects, they post-pone work until all their work is re-active and they feel stressed to meet "unreasonable" deadlines. They believe that it is every other Christian's moral duty to forgive them and to keep them on payroll since, after all, everyone has to eat.
            
I have such seen people leverage their position for a form of bureaucratic tenure endemic to the NPO, creating situations for themselves where there could not possibly be any productive, face-saving way to fire the person.
            
I know. I work for a Christian  NPO now, a church, and I worked for one 14 years ago, a small Christian university. The small school I was part of introduced a concept called "Radical Service." The concept was simple: Since the budget was tuition-driven, students and their paying parents were our clients. We as staff should go out of our way to streamline systems to make students feel valued, increase satisfaction, and reduce frustration in whomever it was paying the student's tuition.
            
This is not "radical" at all. It is good business sense. And when it was introduced to the staff at this little college, you would have thought Lucifer had farted in church. Christians who should carry in their hearts the willingness to "go the extra mile" (Matthew 5:41) were the last people on Earth who wanted to be told they had to convert their attitude towards work from mediocrity to excellence.
            
Those Christians who pursue excuses instead of excellence are a drag on the entire Church. To fire such a mediocre person is to raise up a new martyr. "All these years I gave" and blah blah blah. If ever a person needs to shut up, it is the Christian who covers their own sloth under a pious concern for "justice," sprinkled with tall tales of their own martyrdom and topped by slander for those who care about excellence. This form of "looting" is an abuse of hard-working believers.
           
C.  A Theist's Commitment to Excellence
            
The good news of Jesus Christ is meant to rescue the person from sin, not keep them wallowing in it with a new set of excuses. Sloth is taught as one of the seven "deadly sins" in the Catholic faith, in that sloth is a habit-forming vice.  The Catholic Church, much as Ayn Rand herself, credits the reasoning of the philosopher Aristotle. We see sloth in the above example of a capitalist partner to big government that did not see the need to train its employees to competent compliance, and we see sloth in the employees of the big government. The outcome of my wasted time is that I will have to seek out a branch of the USPS that can competently serve the public according to the regulations. Sloth is also endemic to Christian NPOs.
            
The Bible is clear that sloth is a sin, and as a sin, needs to be repented. To "repent" does not mean we receive as a gift from God an excuse for our sins. Instead, the word in Greek means to have a "change of mind." To repent of the sin of sloth is to change our minds about sloth; to agree that sloth is bad, while the virtue of productive work is good. This is what the Apostle Paul warns believers about what the world sees in them, because sloth seemed to be endemic in the churches of the Thessalonians:
            
"Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody." (I Thess.4:11-12, NIV)
            
Was this strong enough? Paul wrote more than one letter to this group:
            
"In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help (professional workers for the church are salaried by those whom they serve—JW) but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'If a man will not work, he shall not eat.'  We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy, they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right." (2 Thess. 3:6-13, NIV) 

It is correct of Paul to command these things in the name of Jesus, for Jesus commanded these things himself. He tells a story in Luke 16 about an incompetent manager. When he is served notice of his dismissal, he embezzles his boss's budget to score deals among his boss's debtors, so that one of them might return the favor and give him a job. Jesus then states the point in verses 10-13: 

"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much….You cannot serve both God and money."
Verse 13 has been lifted up by preachers and mystics to make all kinds of spurious points. Taken in context of the story he told, the sin Jesus illustrates is sloth and greed. When sloth is partnered with greed, the outcome is a looter mentality. The incompetent manager is as vivid an example of a "looter" as any that Rand described in her novel. The looter is motivated by money, but hates the thought of earning it.

Serving God means that some priorities will supersede the personal wealth or advantage that the looters might enjoy for a time. One such priority is truth, including a willingness to die for what is true rather than enjoy wealth and privilege for false premises. This priority is lifted up by Rand through her characters. For all of her heroes, the truth was more important than their own safety or rescue from bodily harm. Her chief heroine Dagny Taggart hated her brother for increasing the company's wealth by co-opting the looting mechanisms of the government.
Another priority is that joy is found in productive work. Again modeled by Rand's heroic characters, this is lifted up in Ecclesiastes 2:24, "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God."

The Objectivist, therefore, raises above money itself a set of abstractions from which true joy is obtained: Truth, productivity—an integrity of spirit. Looters are motivated only by money for the sloth that money can buy. Sloth is anathema to the character of God, while the abstractions of truth and integrity praised by Rand and Objectivists are central to God's own will and motives.

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