The Plunder of the Egyptians
Here I outline my worldview and philosophical project.
The title of this essay refers to the Exodus, in which Israel gained much wealth from their enemies. I will argue that Christians need to learn from the philosophical achievements of their enemies.
The “plundering of the Egyptians” can also stand for the West’s discovery that classical works thought lost had in fact survived in Egypt and the Arabic world. This story presents a notable test case for what I am advocating.
It is the story of Thomas Aquinas.
A medieval philosopher and theologian, Christians throughout history have held Aquinas in highest regard. His role in history was to reintroduce the ideas of Aristotle into western society. In his day some of Aristotle’s works had been discovered, but they remained unappreciated. Aquinas set out to plunder this “Egyptian.” He believed truth was to be accepted no matter where it was found. He recognized greatness when he saw it. Reaching backward fifteen hundred years to the works of a pagan philosopher, Aquinas initiated the Renaissance of human achievement.
These are the specifically Aristotelian ideas Aquinas unearthed:
- The Principle of Non-contradiction
- The Science of Logic
- The Principle of Causality
- The Peripatetic Axiom: “Whatever is in our intellect must have previously been in the senses.”
- The Correspondence Theory of Truth
Where would we be without the genius of Aristotle? Or without Aquinas who made him known? Aristotle, through Thomas Aquinas, provided the West with the foundations of what would become its scientific and technological revolutions as well as its characteristic orientation toward reality and life.
Should we accept truth no matter where it is found? Aquinas thought so, and he brought Aristotle’s genius to Christendom.
Today we see a parallel situation
I am one of many Christians who have discovered greatness in the mind of another pagan thinker: the 20th Century Russian-American novelist, Ayn Rand. I have asked could and should I do for Ayn Rand what Aquinas did for Aristotle, bringing her genius to the church?
It is no easy task. She was an atheist. To gain a thorough understanding of a foreign worldview is a project for a decade. And that is how much time I have spent. Study is measured in hours, not decades. My thousands of hours of study have brought me to the point of confidence about what in Rand’s work is worthy of plunder. There is much.
An appreciation for Ayn Rand does little for the credibility of a Christian. Mine has been a journey of disappointment, as those most able to understand ideas have been those most unwilling to hear them. Online, the hatred toward Rand is high, matching the hatred toward the free market she advocated. For every Christian that writes favorably about Rand there will be ten Christian articles calling it ridiculous. These articles are rich in animosity, but poor in quality and honesty.
Aquinas too met great resistance in his day. The leading universities outlawed parts of his teaching until fifty years after his death. But seven centuries later, you know Aquinas, and you know Aristotle.
What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?
The common answer toward such a question is skepticism. But my life’s work will be to give a full answer to the question.
What I present is a biblically faithful adaptation of Ayn Rand’s worldview. She called her philosophic system Objectivism. Rand was a strong advocate of free markets, rights, and individualism. But it is not for these that she is most important. Her greatest achievements were in epistemology and ethics. She discovered a theory of concepts to answer the classic conundrum of nominalism vs. realism. And hers is the first philosophical system to correctly grasp of the nature and purpose of morality as a field of study.
Rand’s method of thought led her to ask crucial, overlooked questions about the nature of life, reason, and values. Though she did not always come to the right answers, Christians can learn from her method of questioning. She would always ask of any idea: what facts of reality give rise to the need for it?
Like Aristotle and Aquinas, Rand attempted to be reality-oriented at all times. We as Christians should do the same.
Is there a need for Rand’s ideas?
God has revealed himself to us. Along with reason, we have God’s words to help us know what we could never learn on our own. Since we have this revelation, why does Ayn Rand even matter?
This is the greatest cause of resistance among Christians. Doesn’t the Bible contain all that is necessary for life and godliness? It does. It contains all that is necessary to help an adult mind find the way to God.
But we are not born with adult minds. A young child cannot read the Bible. He needs basic instruction in the use of concepts. A young adult may not be able to understand its basics without some adult guidance. Even adults have difficulty agreeing on much of what the Bible says and means. It is not for lack of clarity. The Bible is understandable–to an adult mind.
Therein is the problem: there are too few adult minds in Christianity. There are too few leaders who understand the basics of what a text is and how to handle it.
Seminaries address this problem. They offer hermeneutics courses to show students how interpret the Bible. But, having been through one of the best and most biblical of seminaries, I must report that among the professors there is wide consensus that objectivity is impossible, and that our individual faith traditions and biases form an insurmountable difficulty as we try to understand the Bible.
The best minds in evangelical Christianity believe that it is impossible to come to Scripture without accidentally bringing our own philosophical premises. While this may be true for many people, I submit that it need not be true. The solution is not to “have no philosophical premises.” That would not be possible. The solution is to bring intentional, correct premises, and to have no accidental ones.
How do we know that we have chosen the right philosophical starting points?
That is a question evangelical hermeneutics works hard to answer. But the answers have not been promising. Even conservative scholars are moving toward an embrace of parts of the post-modern views of Derrida and Foucault.
The scholars agree that what is needed is a philosophical starting point: one which admits no biases and smuggles no assumptions. A method of objectivity. Such a method is needed to ensure that we are approaching the Bible in the best way possible.
We need a concept of objectivity. Ayn Rand has it. It can be found in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. The book is little known among Christian scholarship. It would revolutionize the academy.
But the introduction of Objectivity in Christianity will not start in its institutions. It will start in its blogs and books. It may not flourish in my lifetime. But I will work to make it flourish in the lifetime of my son.
How do I proceed?
As is fair, each of Rand’s arguments must be examined on its own merits and also compared with Scripture. I have done this with care. Many parts of Rand’s system are consistent with Biblical Christianity.
In studying the questions Rand asked, it became clear to me that certain ideas dominant within Evangelicalism are not consistent with the Bible (especially the epistemology of mysticism, the ethics of altruism, and the political philosophy of collectivism).
I discovered that Rand believed the above errors were representative of Christianity. Truly, the errors were representative of the Christianity she observed: the mysticism of the Russian Orthodoxy of her childhood, the authoritarianism and socialism of the Catholic church in the 50s and 60s, and the blatant manipulation and emotionalism of some televangelists she witnessed within American Protestantism. With great skill, Rand correctly pointed out the errors of Christians. But she never discovered the teachings of Christianity itself.
Rand — and most Christians — have not understood the agreement between Objectivism and the actual teaching of the Bible. My project is to show which parts of Rand’s system are both compatible with, and necessary to, a proper understanding of the Bible.
Below I will give a summary of Rand’s philosophy as she provided in the author’s note following her novel, Atlas Shrugged. I have condensed her summary, removing elements incompatible with Christianity. Atheism was not a core premise of Rand’s thought, but an application. In fact, the very question of theism vs. atheism is outside of the domain of philosophy, though Rand did not know it. For this reason, the framework can stand even when the atheism is removed.
I have accepted as much of Rand’s philosophy as possible while upholding the truth of Christianity. With the atheism removed from Objectivism, this is a fundamentally different view, needing a new name. To show my debt and to name the essential of my own view, I will refer to it as Objectivity. Unlike the Objectivism of Rand, Objectivity is not a total worldview. It is a principle and an accompanying set of concepts. The principle is not the same as Rand’s whole philosophy, and it is true whether or not the rest of Rand’s ideas be true. For this reason we may speak of Objectivity as a principle to be used by Christians or by anyone, no matter their beliefs about Ayn Rand or about Jesus Christ.
What is the principle of objectivity?
As stated by Leonard Peikoff in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (117), objectivity is volitional adherence to reality by the following of certain rules of method — a method appropriate to man’s form of cognition and based on facts. The method is logic. Man must observe the objects of his perception and learn about their relationships one to another by means of logic — that is, by identifying specific objects and forming concepts about these objects.
The principle of Objectivity means that knowledge is the grasp of an object through an active, reality-based process, chosen by the subject. The principle relies on Ayn Rand’s distinct theory of concepts, a topic covered in “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.”
Her theory can be summarized as follows: It is the view that concepts are groups of items (objects, kinds of action, qualities, aspects, etc.) man chooses to view as a group on the basis of their perceived similar characteristics. Rand provides an explanation for how we identify similar characteristics by selectively focusing on measurements of the items. By this method, man is able simultaneously to grasp both the individual items and the similarities among them. On the basis of these similarities he as able to identify true generalizations about the group as a whole.
Rand’s explanation of this process is worthy of study for two reasons. First, it gives insight into the method of logical thinking and concept-formation. Second, since it is an explanation of what concepts are, it settles the question of whether human knowledge is trustworthy and real.
A note on the relation of philosophy and theology:
As I present the broad outline of what from Rand’s system we as Christians may agree with, it must be understood that philosophy comes before theology. The following set of philosophic ideas says nothing about God or the Bible. The reason: the domain of “philosophy proper” does not extend to the question of the origin of the world or to its creator. Philosophy is a strictly limited science that asks questions about the nature of man and the universe only in terms general enough that people at all times and places may be able to answer. It is a domain of knowledge that does not require one faith or another to be true. One may gain true philosophic knowledge without being a Christian in the same way one may gain knowledge of how to build a house: by observation and reason.
Philosophic knowledge neither contradicts nor proves knowledge we receive by God’s special revelation. It is pre-revelation. When I say it is pre-revelation, I mean: 1) It can be understood by someone who has no revelation, and 2) It ought to be understood by Christians as an intellectual foundation as they study God’s revelation. In regard to the second point, it will not be possible to understand Scripture (or any communication) unless we first accept certain philosophic principles (at least implicitly), such as the reality of the world and the necessity of thought.
Here is a Christianized restatement of Rand’s points:
Man is a rational being. He needs an integrated system of thought to define principles for thinking and living his life properly — he needs a philosophy for living. Such a philosophy can be summarized in three main points:
-Reason is an absolute.
-Man’s own happiness is the moral purpose of his life.
-Productive achievement is man’s most important activity.
To explain these points further, here is an outline.
(This is my adaptation and condensation of Ayn Rand’s own outline, Atlas Shrugged, Author’s Note.)
I. Metaphysics: Objective Reality — “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”
1. A is A — things are what they are.
2. The task of consciousness is to perceive reality, not to create it.
3. Reality has primacy over consciousness.
4. Individuals or groups cannot create their own reality.
II. Epistemology: Reason — “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.”
1. Reason, the conceptual faculty, is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.
2. Man’s reason is competent to know the facts of reality.
3. Reason is man’s only means of acquiring knowledge.
4. Feelings are not tools of cognition.
5. Certainty and knowledge are possible to man.
III. Human Nature: Rationality — “Man is a being of volitional consciousness.”
1. Reason, man’s only means of knowledge, is his basic means of survival.
2. Man’s volition is his ability to think or not. This is his only freedom, and it controls his choices and character.
3. Man is not a determined being — not a product of his environment. He is a product of his choices.
IV. Ethics: Self-interest — “Seek your values so that you many live.”
1. Reason is man’s only proper judge of values and his only proper guide to action.
2. The proper standard of ethics is: man’s survival qua man (a rational being).
3. Rationality is man’s basic virtue.
4. “Man — every man — is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.”
5. Altruism — the claim that morality consists in living for others or for society — is a false moral code.
V. Politics: Capitalism — “Give me liberty or give me death.”
1. No man has the right to seek values from others by means of initiating physical force.
2. Men have the right to use force only in self-defense and only against those who initiate its use.
3. Men must deal with one another as traders, giving value for value, by free, mutual consent to mutual benefit.
4. The only social system that bars physical force from human relationships is laissez-faire capitalism: the system which recognizes individual rights, including property rights, in which the only function of the government is to protect men from those who initiate the use of physical force.
5. All forms of collectivism are improper — including fascism, socialism, and mixed economies in which the government regulates the economy and redistributes wealth.
In light of the above presentation, the Christian must wonder many things — he must wonder whether certain Scripture passages seem to directly contradict the above philosophy, and he must wonder whether the whole message of Scripture, taken as an integration, does not point in a different direction.
In other documents I will present my scriptural defense of this philosophy. Here, I will leave only a clue, a favorite saying of Ayn Rand: “Check your premises.”