“There is a great, basic contradiction in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus was one of the first great teachers to proclaim the basic principle of individualism…. But when it came to the next question, a code of ethics to observe for the salvation of one’s soul—(this means: what must one do in actual practice in order to save one’s soul?)—Jesus (or perhaps His interpreters) gave men a code of altruism, that is, a code which told them that in order to save one’s soul, one must love or help or live for others. This means, the subordination of one’s soul (or ego) to the wishes, desires or needs of others, which means the subordination of one’s soul to the souls of others. This is a contradiction that cannot be resolved.”
-Letter to Mrs. Austin, by Ayn Rand
The “Great Basic Contradiction”
Previously, I covered the beginning of this (and another quote) by Rand on the teachings of Jesus in regard to individualism and egoism (Read Ayn Rand on Christian Egoism: Part 1, here). In both quotes (each taken from personal letters), Rand begins by praising Christianity for its teaching on the sanctity of man’s soul (ego) and for making the salvation of one’s own individual soul the primary concern. However in both quotes, Rand goes on to elaborate on a fundamental contradiction which she sees in Christian philosophy: the contradiction between Jesus’ teaching on individualism/ egoism and the morality of altruism:
“Christ did say that you must love your neighbor as yourself, but He never said that you must love your neighbor better than yourself – which is a monstrous doctrine of altruism and collectivism. Altruism – the demand of self-immolation for others – contradicts the basic premise or Christianity, the sacredness of one’s own soul. Altruism introduced a basic contradiction into Christian philosophy, which has never been resolved.”
-Letter to Rev. Dudley, by Ayn Rand
“Jesus gave men a code of altruism“, “Altruism introduced a basic contradiction into Christian philosophy“, “this is a contradiction which cannot be resolved“. These are serious charges – not only against Christianity, but against Christ – and if true, they certainly warrant the rejection of Christianity as an irrational ideology – and worse, the rejection of Christ as a contradictory teacher. Either Christianity does not advocate altruism, or Christianity is a farce. I obviously intend to demonstrate the former — and I want to start by examining Rand’s claim about Jesus’ instructions on how to save one’s soul.
Salvation Through Altruism?
But when it came to the next question, a code of ethics to observe for the salvation of one’s soul … Jesus (or perhaps His interpreters) gave men a code of altruism … a code which told them that in order to save one’s soul, one must love or help or live for others. This means, the subordination of one’s soul (or ego) to the wishes, desires or needs of others, which means the subordination of one’s soul to the souls of others.
This may be one of the most tragic misunderstandings of Christianity I have ever come across; the idea that the salvation of one’s own soul comes through altruism, as such – which is the neglect and strategic destruction of one’s own soul – is entirely antithetical to the Christian message. And yet, based on what is preached and believed by most Christians today, Rand was completely justified in concluding that this was Christianity’s true path of salvation.
In truth, the serious student of Scripture who genuinely wants to know the prescription given by Christ and His apostle’s regarding salvation will come to one conclusion: salvation is through faith alone – not by any work – altruistic or otherwise (Eph. 2:8-9). But don’t fly off the handle and read “anti-intellectual fantasies” when you read the word ‘faith’. That is not what was meant by the Biblical authors and that is not the way Christians should mean it today. Faith, properly understood, is the emotional and volitional response to that which is certainly known (known by reason) in the face of irrational and petty obstacles which would otherwise cause doubt. Therefore the question you should be asking yourself regarding the faith which alone brings salvation is: faith in what?
The answer is: in the supreme value of Christ, and in His irrevocable promise to absorb the wrath of God on behalf of those who trust in Him. If you (Christians) do not know any reason to believe that Christ is supremely valuable, or that He “is faithful and just to forgive your sins”, then you likely do not have any faith. To the Objectivist, if you are saying right now “but Christ, God, wrath, etc.. are all just parts of your fairytale which I have no reason to believe in”, then you may need to check your premises. Just because Christians treat Christianity like a fairytale does not mean that it actually is a fairytale. There is very good reason to believe that God exists and that He is very much like the supremely rational (and valuable) John Galt, in both character and motive.
And just as in Atlas Shrugged, the discovery of fundamental truths about reality which completely re-orient one’s entire worldview; the conviction of the greatness of achieving that which is possible and good and right; the complete restructuring of one’s values based in the panoramic view of reality which has been discovered, will immediately result in actions which will no doubt appear to be self-destructive and irrational to those who are still held captive to that old, contradictory, tattered, and truncated worldview which threatens to truly destroy life, the self, and everything valuable.
John Galt & Jesus Christ: Don’t You Dare Call Them Altruists
That which many (including Rand) mistake for altruism in the Bible is really no different than that which Dagny (and others) mistake for self-destruction in people like Francisco D’Anconia (and other “shruggers”) in ATLAS SHRUGGED: incurring – and in some cases even planning – radical short-term loss for the sake of ultimate long-term gain, because of an evil and irrational world (context) which has forced them to choose between the two.
No Objectivist in their right mind would accuse Galt or Francisco of practicing or advocating altruism as they renounced and destroyed the apparent good in the rotten and irrational world where all good was tainted and used for evil. Therefore, neither should any Objectivist condemn Christ or Christianity as altruistic because of the extremely rational talk of letting go of the tainted good for the sake of attaining that good which is untainted and pure. John Galt gave up his entire life – in one sense – but don’t you dare ignore the fact that what he gave up on (his old life) was tainted and could never bring happiness; that his chief motive and accomplishment in giving up on that life was the fulfillment of his deepest values and the attainment of his true life. Likewise, Jesus Christ gave up (and told many others to do the same) much in this life, but don’t you dare ignore the fact that in His death, He was condemning and destroying death, itself; that He was sentencing to death that which is old, corrupt, irrational, and evil in this life; that He was leading captives free into that which life is truly meant to be: rational, just, joyous, and free. Don’t ignore the fact that He did not stay dead. Don’t you dare call either of these egoistic heroes “an altruist”.
Reclaiming His Greatness
Rand’s letter to Reverend Dudley continues:
The entire history of Christianity in Europe has been a continuous civil war, not merely as a fact, but also in spirit. I believe that Christianity will not regain its power as a vital spiritual force until it has resolved this contradiction. And since it cannot reject the conception or the paramount sacredness of the individual soul – this conception holds the root, the meaning and the greatness or Christianity – it must reject the morality of altruism. It must teach men neither to serve others nor to rule others, but to live together as independent equals, which is the only possible state of true brotherhood. Brothers are not mutual servants nor mutual dependents. Only slaves are. Dependence breeds hatred. Only free men can afford to be benevolent. Only free men can love and respect one another. But a free man is an independent man. And an independent man is one who lives primarily for himself.”
So long as Christians choose to embrace contradictory moral ideals (so long as they evade Christian egoism in Scripture & Christian thought — and prefer rather to read Kantian altruism into Christian ideology), Christianity will continue in the spiraling decay and throws of confusion which it has come to find itself in, here in the second millennium. The degree to which Christians give little to no care concerning the foundations and details of their worldview is the exact degree to which there will be no true Christianity to speak of in the world. Christian leaders everywhere are talking about the need for renewal and revival — and yet they sneer at the very thought of re-evaluating the basic philosophical and moral assumptions which have deadened and numbed the souls of everyone within the Church’s reach.
If Christians wish to truly reflect the greatness of Christ, they must find the courage to examine and discard false notions about greatness (and about Christ) which they may be harboring. They must rediscover the true greatness (gain) to be had in the Christian life, and hold that (the gain – the value) as ultimate over everything else in Christian morality. They must learn to be individuals who love their brothers because of a common love (common value) in Christ and in ultimate reality — rather than being “self-less” parasites upon their “brothers”, ciphering every ounce of value from every saint who dares to value at all.
But once Christians have done this — once they have re-examined and corrected the philosophical foundations of their worldview; once they have discarded the irrationality and evil of altruism; once they have seen the ultimate value of the egoistic Christ and in following Him in His campaign against corruption and death; once they have embraced Christian egoism and become captive to the glory of living a happy and rational life – forsaking corrupt and irrational pleasures for the sake of all that is truly and lastingly valuable, then the true greatness of Christ and Christianity can once again be unleashed upon the world.