Cogs or Contemplatives: A False Dilemma?
Confession: I’ve been an admirer of Ayn Rand’s fiction for a long time—almost a decade, in fact. I realize there are plenty of circles where this admission risks drawing a hailstorm of rotten fruit. Many folks have deemed her doorstopper-length novels to be turgid and overwrought, laden with unrealistic characters and numbing speeches. Plenty more have decried her philosophy of “Objectivism” as a hideously amoral version of Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake”—a social Darwinism on steroids that acknowledges no ethical imperative beyond raw self-interest.
And let’s be honest: much of this notoriety is well-deserved. As John Rogers memorably put it, “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
Theological critiques of Rand’s thought generally fall along similar lines. Her stories of self-made men, independent creators defying a world bent on opposing them, seem to clash with an essential truth of reality: human beings are not merely rational animals (to use the Aristotelian formulation), but, as Alasdair MacIntyre would put it, dependent rational animals—necessarily receiving both their properties and their being from realities beyond themselves. At bottom, both Rand’s metaphysics and ethics leave off that recognition of essential dependence.
The only fitting response to a recognition of such profound dependence can be gratitude—gratitude to the parents and family from whom physical attributes derive, to the teachers and resources through which habits of mind have been cultivated, and to the God who creates and sustains all things ex nihilo. And beyond the self, the social realm is filled with countless realities that ought to inspire such gratitude—the flickering fire of human law and order, as in Cormac McCarthy’s searing novel The Road, or principled governance, as in James Madison’s vision for the American Constitution as a “debt against the living,” or the canon of Scripture, or the tradition of the Church writ large. In short, every moment in every domain of life is an encounter with the given, that which we did not create and upon which we can exert no enduring claim. Such a gratitude-inflected sensibility sharply conflicts with Rand’s vision of the fully actualized human as a “prime mover” in their own right. And there, for many Christian critics of Rand, the story stops.
But this is perhaps too narrow a reading of Rand. Her sharpest critics often forget that she described Aristotle as “the cultural barometer of Western history,” whose growing or waning influence corresponded to the health of the West. Even more intriguingly, she considered Thomas Aquinas “a giant” who bequeathed the Catholic Church a “long, illustrious philosophical history.” MacIntyre himself couldn’t have said it better. (By contrast, Rand’s wrath burned hottest against Augustine, whom she vitriolically described as “mind-hating, life-hating” and Aquinas’s “primordial antagonist.” As it were, the primary source of her animus—Augustine’s conception of original sin as inherited guilt, not merely predisposition toward wrongdoing—has been linked to the Vulgate’s erroneous translation of Romans 5:12, rather than from the original Greek text.)
If one agrees with Irenaeus that “the glory of God is man fully alive,” the common ground between Rand and Aquinas becomes easier to discern. While Rand’s philosophy is largely (and regrettably) devoid of any sense of transcendent gratitude, it does share with natural-law thinkers the premise that humans ought to act in accordance with their reasoning nature (or, as Christians would term it, the “image of God”—see Summa Theologica I.93.4), and that doing so correctly is the heart of human flourishing.
But Rand’s vision of “man fully alive”—humans reaching the pinnacle of success in the spheres of business and art—is certainly not universally shared. And skepticism of this vision, I would hazard, is the unstated position held in common by many of her critics. In general, I’ve noticed that Rand’s fiercest Christian opponents tend to be individuals whose behavioral predispositions do not align with the broad neoliberal priority of economic value-maximization—those who (often rightly) see the pressures of modern culture as eroding contemplative ways of being. Yet there’s a trenchant irony this: in revolting against modernity’s perceived message that everyone should become a cog in the grand globalized system, these opponents often imply that everyone ought instead to be contemplatives.
This tension lies at the root, I think, of many lay readers’ resistance to the “decline narratives” that have dominated theologically conservative intellectual spaces in the past few years (Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is overwhelmingly the best-known of these, but the same trajectory exists in the work of Anthony Esolen, Charles Chaput, R.R. Reno, Patrick Deneen, and many others). James K.A. Smith echoes this in his book “Desiring the Kingdom,” suggesting that Christian universities ought to make students “useless and unproductive for what currently passes for ‘society.’” While I do understand Smith’s larger point—that universities should orient their students toward matters of eternal significance—he and other writers in this vein are so scathing in their denunciations of “modernity” that it would seem they have very little to say to those who are called to engage vigorously in political and economic life.
One difficulty I’ve always had with this line of reasoning is that the authors of these books—that is, the proponents of the decline narrative—are not themselves the products of the antimodern parallel societies they champion: they have work histories at broadly influential institutions, degrees from world-class universities, and long records of scholarship in mainstream peer-reviewed journals. And the good they are doing for the world—their generation of meaningful Christian scholarship and commentary in the midst of widespread secularity—is intimately connected to the credibility they’ve attained through sustained engagement with “the world as it is.” Accordingly, when they argue that Christians ought to abandon “mainstream” cultural institutions as lost causes, I’m left thinking that what’s good for the goose isn’t really good for the gander.
And this is, of course, saying nothing of the purely pragmatic considerations involved (which I’ve written about before). If swallowed whole, the decline narrative risks triggering a self-perpetuating “death spiral” in which people of good faith abandon “mainstream” institutions without a cohesive alternative in view. The loss of any check—for instance, any influential voices willing to defend religious liberty against unchecked civil power—on the worst excesses of modernity seems a steep price to pay.
The Lutheran doctrine of vocation, I think, offers a more constructive path forward. Luther’s doctrine emerged as a reaction to medieval voices that extolled the virtues of monasticism over more “worldly” forms of work. The doctrine of vocation allows for a recognition that not everyone may be called to prioritize the local over the national, or the contemplative life over the active life; rather, love for God and neighbor is manifested through faithful service “as unto the Lord” in every domain of life. In the words of 1 Corinthians 12:21, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” Christians may live out their faith according to their respective giftings; the congressional chief of staff in Washington, D.C. may serve God just as fully as the farmer working outside Des Moines.
The doctrine of vocation thereby recognizes the need for gratitude—for loving service to God and others in thankfulness for the givenness of our lives—while avoiding the pitfall of rejecting the “active” life as insufficiently spiritual. When viewed through the lens of vocation, Rand’s aestheticized concepts of human action and creative vigor can thus be oriented toward a more suitable end.