I was the kind of strange kid that, while I was never a fan of homework, particularly concerned with grades or a ‘teacher’s pet’, I might actually pay attention when my 9th grade English teacher talked in serious tones about how important Ayn Rand is and how essential Atlas Shrugged and especially The Fountainhead were to understanding, not just American literature, but our lives and ourselves.
So I read both books, surely not understanding all of what Rand was trying to communicate, but even as a 9th grade boy, while I enjoyed reading them (especially The Fountainhead) there was this underlying cognitive dissonance with the larger points that Rand was trying to communicate and that undergirded her stories and her thinking.
I had some sympathy with how she saw the world – as it was – but I could not come to agreement with how she thought the world should be. My favorite, and perhaps the best, synopsis of her view of the way the world should be is The Simpsons episode in which the youngest Simpson, Maggie, is sent to the ‘Ayn Rand School for Tots’…..the school is decorated with posters that say things like ‘helping is futile’ and the students are taught/encouraged to find the ‘bottle within’ as they aren’t really cared for, mostly left to fend for themselves, but are strictly forbidden to have pacifiers.
As I said, I found Rand’s writing to be engaging in a way, but I was always sort of uneasy with it. Something didn’t sit right with me. Her view of of the world, I would learn as I moved beyond her fiction writings, was simply incompatible with mine. She subscribed to a total reliance on self as both a virtue and a real necessity and my disposition as well as my faith has always led my to a much more connectional and relational understanding of how the world should be and how we best operate as leaders and people. The above quote illustrates well just how extreme her view was about the centrality of the individual – even in groups that work together, she suggests it is really no more than an illusion at worst and a ‘compromise’ at best.
In contrast, in her wonderful book, Braving the Wilderness, gives a much different view of who we are and how we are called to be together. As I read our assigned book for this week, The Righteous Mind: How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, especially the ‘10% bee’ and the ‘hive switch’ portions, I kept thinking about how this resonated so clearly with the questions Rand and Brown are asking, and the very different answers they give.
Brown paints a picture of what it means to belong and the critical importance of being part of a group that speaks directly to what Haidt is asserting and, I think what we as Christians know about the power of relationship and connection. She says:
While there’s deep alignment between what I’ve found in my research and what Cacioppo (ed. note: Cacioppo, was until his death in March a professor at the U of Chicago, whose work on loneliness and it effects are widely influential….he also was a pioneer in the field of what he called ‘social neuroscience’) has found, it wasn’t until I processed his work that I fully understood the important role loneliness plays in our lives.
He explains that as members of a social species, we don’t derive strength from our
rugged individualism, but rather from our collective ability to plan, communicate, and work together. Our neural, hormonal, and genetic makeup support interdependence over independence.
He explains, “To grow to adulthood as a social species, including humans, is not to become autonomous and solitary, it’s to become the one on whom others can depend. Whether we know it or not, our brain and biology have been shaped to favor this outcome.” Of course we’re a social species. That’s why connection matters. It’s
why shame is so painful and debilitating. It’s why we’re wired for belonging. (Brown, 53)
This is, I think, exactly what Haidt is talking about when he says this:
My hypothesis in this chapter is that human beings are conditional hive creatures . We have the ability ( under special conditions ) to transcend self – interest and lose ourselves ( temporarily and ecstatically ) in something larger than ourselves . That ability is what I’m calling the hive switch . The hive switch , I propose , is a group – related adaptation that can only be explained “ by a theory of between – group selection , ” as Williams said. It cannot be explained by selection at the individual level. ( How would this strange ability help a person to outcompete his neighbors in the same group?) The hive switch is an adaptation for making groups more cohesive, and therefore more successful in competition with other groups. If the hive hypothesis is true, then it has enormous implications for how we should design organizations, study religion, and search for meaning and joy in our lives. (Haidt, p. 258)
Another way of saying what Brown and Haidt are observing is that we are wired – that is we are created – to be in relationship with each other. And more than that, we are actually designed to only fully realize our own potential and our truest selves in the midst of community and relationship, first with God , but importantly also with others. (It might be said that a real weakness of the American Christian landscape is it’s Randian nature, with an over emphasis on self and individualism ‘me and my God’ and a loss of the location of faith in the context of a community of believers – p.s. If it isn’t already a thing, I am definitely coining the term Randian Christianity)
Undergirding Haidt’s thought here is the work of Emile Durkheim, who I first encountered in my undergraduate study of the sociology of religion. I was a big fan then and I am now as well. Durkheim, Haidt points out, argued that humans exist on two levels: the individual and as part of a higher society. (Haidt, p. 260)
The most important of these Durkheimian higher – level sentiments is “ collective effervescence, ” which describes the passion and ecstasy that group rituals can generate. As Durkheim put it: The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation. (Haidt, 262)
Don’t we as the church know this, that ‘the very act of congregation is an exceptionally powerful stimulant.’ We are designed this way, because we are supposed to be in relationship together. While my faith is my own (but really only mine with the help of the Holy Spirit), it can only be nurtured, practiced and lived out in community.