Jun 21, 2012

Jonathan Edwards, Ayn Rand & the pursuit of good

The first words of Jonathan Edwards first sermon:
“Reasonable beings, while they act as such, naturally choose those things which they are convinced are best for them, and will certainly do those things which they know they had better do than leave undone. (And, indeed, who in the world could imagine that there were such unreasonable creatures in the world, as that at the very same time that they themselves know a thing to be much to their advantage, yet will not choose or do it?)”
For Douglas Wilson, as well as John Piper and a circle of Reformed Christians in American today, this insight serves as a starting point for understanding and explaining Calvinism. This is a key way in which Edwards “lives,” theologically, right now.

Curiously, there’s another near-contemporary figure who starts from this same place and has this same “disciplined understanding of what makes human beings tick,” as Wilson describes it, but who ends up somewhere very, very different: Ayn Rand.

She called it the virtue of selfishness.

Where Wilson says,
“Everybody chooses that which they believe to be good, and that which they believe to be good for them. Now there’s a way of doing it selfishly. The difference between good and evil is determined by what you call ‘good,’ not whether you pursue good.” 
Rand agrees,
Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value.”
For her, though, starting with this idea that people do bad things only because they’re confused and think those things are good things, and if they truly understood what was good they would want that instead, ends not in the imperative, “Glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” but rather: Be selfish.

Or, as her fictional spokesman John Galt declares, “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

The ideas are not the same, of course. The trick is articulating why. Which is the history of ideas part of the back-and-forth cultural translation of the tricky business of trying to understand Edwards in our time.

Read more of Edwards in our time @ The Jonathan Edwards Center Germany.