Ayn Rand changed my life. When I embraced her philosophy, Objectivism, the conversion was far more dramatic than my decision, several years later, to follow Jesus Christ—more dramatic, but in the end transitory. Yet Rand, the novelist, philosopher, and uncompromising atheist, inadvertently opened a door for the gospel. I don't believe dead people spin in their graves, but if they did and she could read these words, I imagine Rand would be twirling violently.
As many have noted, Rand's ethic of rational self-interest is incompatible with the gospel, and leads to social as well as spiritual disaster. "Most observers see Rand as a political and economic philosopher," wrote Gary Moore last year in Christianity Today. "I believe that she was first and foremost an anti-Christian philosopher." A six-foot dollar sign wreath towered over her casket, Moore pointed out, an icon of the false gospel she labored to proclaim. I agree entirely that Christianity and Objectivism are utterly incompatible. But my gratitude to Rand remains profound.
In the spring of 1962, an awkward and philosophically oriented 15-year-old raised in an utterly secular home, I read The Fountainhead and then Atlas Shrugged. Those books triggered a philosophical (and, unknowingly, spiritual) revolution. One evening, immersed in Rand's writings, I listened on the radio to a re-broadcast of a lecture she had delivered a year earlier at the University of Wisconsin, during a symposium called "Ethics in Our Time." Even at a distance of 48 years, I can still hear her heavily accented voice as she quoted from John Galt's speech, the long and detailed summary of Objectivism that appears near the end of Atlas Shrugged: "Yes, this is an age of moral crisis. Yes, you are bearing punishment for your evil …. Your moral code has reached its climax, the blind alley at the end of its course. And if you wish to go on living, what you now need is not to return to morality … but to discover it."
For three years I followed Rand, read every word she published, studied Objectivism and its moral, political, and economic implications, and even tried to imitate the heroes in Rand's novels. Several times, the central character in The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, is accused of staring at people, his piercing eyes making the novel's villains feel judged and found wanting. And so I practiced widening my eyes and keeping them open for extended periods. No one, however, seemed daunted by my gaze.
Because my family lived in New York City, I was able to enroll in a 20-session "Basics of Objectivism" course at the Nathaniel Branden Institute. (Branden, an early Rand associate and a psychologist by training, spent many years teaching Objectivism in partnership with Rand.) The course included sessions on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and political and economic theory, with a heavy emphasis on laissez-faire capitalism. When Branden finished his lecture, Rand herself would often answer questions. Among the memorabilia from that period of my life is a scrap of paper with Rand's autograph, the letters sharp and angular. I also enrolled in "Objectivist Economics," taught by a very young Alan Greenspan.
My commitment to Rand and her philosophy, however, did not survive my early years in college. Two figures intervened.
The first was Plato. In Rand's teaching, Aristotle served as a kind of philosophical hero. Plato, with his tendency toward mysticism, represented philosophical depravity for Rand. So I entered college predisposed to reject Plato, and came armed with Objectivist and Aristotelian weapons for the battle. Then I actually read Plato in a philosophy class. I was shocked to find much to commend his vision of a Reality that is more than the reality we can see. "A young man who wishes to remain an Atheist," C. S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy, "cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere—'Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,' as Herbert says, 'fine nets and stratagems.' God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous."
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