You Are a Holy Nation, a Royal Priesthood by Gene Ciarlo

What makes America or any nation great? Is it its politics, its economics, its educational system, its creative spirit permeating its laboratories and workplaces, its enthusiasm for research and development tirelessly reaching for the stars? I am quite sure that none of these factors taken individually or collectively can make a nation great, because the greatness of a whole society is much more fundamental and primary. It rests profoundly within the hearts and minds of its people, individually and collectively, and the words and deeds that issue forth from them.

What makes a great people? Perhaps it is the content of their character, as Martin Luther King Jr. said. Character is developed first of all by the cultural and humanitarian environment of a whole people, taken together. Further, character matures and expands according to each one’s individual philosophy of life and hierarchy of values, spiritual values in the broad sense, as well as the learned developmental history that has formed the backbone of a nation’s heritage. These qualities, individual and societal, in turn work their way down to the homespun lifestyle cultivated by family values and conduct. There are many factors that help people to grow into all that they can be, which consequently create the content of their character. It all comes together to make a nation great.

As individuals we may see ourselves in a positive light in spite of the negative slings and arrows that daily are hurtling around us. However, in our time, in this historical moment, we, as a whole people, are beginning to feel the pain of being crushed by circumstances that seem to be beyond our control. Recently, we the people the world over have had the greatness and strength of our humanity challenged and threatened by the worldwide pandemic that we are still trying to overcome. In addition to the pandemic, a major factor, among many other considerations, is the degradation of our environment that is threatening our sense of well-being and prospects of a future for the earth and all that it holds. Our earth is being assaulted. That invasion deeply affects our humanity, how we think and feel about ourselves, who we think we are and what we are becoming.

How do we react to the events in our time that tend to crush us? Concurrent with major international efforts, perhaps we, as a nation and as individual persons, can do something about them. A lot depends on what we think of ourselves, our potential, and our can-do spirit.

Ayn Rand, author, philosopher, thinker, and atheist, died in 1982. She authored some thought-provoking works of fiction that were meant to impart, in their own way, a very humanitarian message. The one that captured my attention was The Fountainhead, written in 1943. I see it as a spiritual work, deeply spiritual, because of the main characters in the story—who and what they represent to me.

There is a strong Jesus figure among them, namely the protagonist. I see his story as the struggle for ascent, the struggle to lift up the human spirit, a dying and rising, life stretching upward only through pain and suffering. Allow me to tell you in greater detail the story of what I discovered in The Fountainhead.

According to Rand, religion and politics are robbers and plunderers, stealing from people what rightly belong to them and replacing self-determination and personal creativity with the values drummed up by politicos and religious gurus. It is the development of an ethic from “out there,” a way of living and evaluating life with others according to certain prescriptions of law that value the collective spirit more than the individual. Rand’s idol is the self-sufficient and self-guiding, go-it-alone frontrunner, trailblazer, and creative personality. Society might call such persons antisocial egotists; Rand would call them virtuous.

The Fountainhead is an exciting novel of ideas, countercultural ideas that seemed off the mark in 1943 and still perplex the thinkers of our time and age. I began reading the book looking for marks of Christianity—but how do you find them in a novel that explicitly defies religion and all that it stands for? Religion, in this book, is seen as the wolf that tends the sheep. Setting aside marks of Christianity temporarily, I settled for a humanistic approach, the exaltation of man and woman in our created order. As I noted earlier, I discovered that the protagonist in The Fountainhead might just as well have been the person of Jesus, the Christ, in modern dress.

Howard Roark is the principal character, my Jesus figure. He is, by profession, an architect, expelled from university because he refused to follow the principles of architecture laid down by his professors. That is the beginning of what might be considered his stubborn, self-sufficient, individualistic attitude.

For Rand, however, Roark is convicted with integrity and is his own person. He belongs to no one. He is a creator and hopefully a redeemer of the self, self-determined, one who gives authenticity to a world steeped in falsehood and wallowing in what is second-hand, the opinions, thoughts, feelings, of others—and hence, in the author’s estimation, what is superficial. His expulsion from the architectural firm that employed him is Roark’s own time in the desert leading to his baptism and the beginning of his public life. From that time forward, he becomes more and more determined to execute architecture according to his plan, his truth, and his convictions.

One failure follows another. He is hurting financially and psychologically, yet he will not concede to the wishes and desires of those who would try to change his mind, his stance, attempting to pierce his personal integrity. His attitude reminded me of Christ’s stinging rebuke to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan.” He would rather starve than take on a client who offers him the world, offers him bread instead of stones, offers him a huge architectural undertaking that could put him on easy street, a client who would want a building that Roark does not, cannot, believe in as “truth” in architectural design.

Rand proceeds to build her case for integrity and her exaltation of the human spirit with a particular incident that is powerful in its depiction of humanity as imbued with almost divine qualities, endless potential, and a sacred spirit. The avowed atheist and philosopher of selfishness introduces a new character, Hopton Stoddard, who wants to build a Temple of the Human Spirit, a “church” that praises humankind instead of God:

So you see, Mr. Roark, though it is to be a religious edifice, it is also more than that. You notice that we call it the Temple of the Human Spirit. We want to capture—in stone, as others capture in music—not some narrow creed but the essence of all religion. And what is the essence of religion? The great aspiration of the human spirit toward the highest, the noblest the best. The human spirit as the creator and the conqueror of the ideal. The great life-giving force of the universe. The heroic human spirit.

Roark states that he does not believe in God, telling Stoddard, “I don’t think I’m the man you want.” Stoddard responds, “That doesn’t matter. You’re a profoundly religious man, Mr. Roark—in your own way. I can see it in your buildings.”

Personally speaking, I was inspired as I read the story that Rand weaves, in which she reveals her philosophy, her humanism, her spirituality, if you will. Of course I cannot agree with everything that she wrote. She never mentions Jesus, who he was or what he means to her. I did not expect more from her. But her story, redemptive in character, is only beginning with the proposal to build the temple.

The intrigue intensifies when the temple is completed and is presented to the public. What about the crucifix that dominates the focal point, the chancel of every Catholic Church, or the cross that is the highlight of every Christian denomination? Where are they? Roark has his own idea of what, or who, should command attention, and sets his sites on loftier goals than groveling in the mundane:

Just one figure. It will stand here. . . . The place is built around it. The statue of a naked woman. If you understand the building, you understand what the figure must be. The human spirit. The heroic in man. The aspiration and the fulfillment, both. Uplifted in its quest—and uplifting by its own essence. Seeking God—and finding itself. Showing that there is no higher reach beyond its own form.

We Christians will necessarily have questions about that statement. But let us not dwell on the point. The building is finally completed and unveiled. Ellsworth Toohey, a brilliant and articulate newspaper reporter, devoid of integrity, is the gadfly, the provocateur, the archetype and goad for the masses of people who follow the beat of every drum except their own. Toohey convinces the crowds that the temple is an abomination. He convinces even Stoddard, the inventor of the idea, that it is a desecration of the sacred. Roark is taken to court and stands trial for breach of contract. At this point I ask myself: Is this a Christ figure? Has this house, intended to be sacred, become for his antagonists a den of thieves? The biblical theme is played once again, this time in reverse.

Dominique Francon, the one person who sees the real Roark, loves him deeply, and appreciates what he stands for— Dominique, the Magdalen, who struggles to find the sacred in herself—makes a speech at the trial. But her words fall on deaf ears, ears that don’t want to hear:

Howard Roark built a temple to the human spirit. He saw man as strong, proud, clean, wise and fearless. He saw man as a heroic being. And he built a temple to that. A temple is a place where man is to experience exaltation. He thought that exaltation comes from the consciousness of being guiltless, of seeing the truth and achieving it, of living up to one’s highest possibility, of knowing no shame and having no cause for shame, of being able to stand naked in full sunlight. He thought that exaltation means joy and that joy is man’s birthright. He thought that a place built as a setting for man is a sacred place. That is what Howard Roark thought of man and of exaltation. But Ellsworth Toohey said that this temple was a monument to a profound hatred of humanity. Ellsworth Toohey said that the essence of exaltation was to be scared out of your wits, to fall down and to grovel. Ellsworth Toohey said that man’s highest act was to realize his own worthlessness and to beg for forgiveness. Ellsworth Toohey said it was depraved not to take for granted that man is something which needs to be forgiven. Ellsworth Toohey saw that this building was of man and of the earth—and Ellsworth Toohey said this building had its belly in the mud. To glorify man, said Ellsworth Toohey, was to glorify the gross pleasure of the flesh, for the realm of the spirit is beyond the grasp of man. To enter that realm, said Ellsworth Toohey, man must come as a beggar, on his knees. Ellsworth Toohey is a lover of mankind.

Substitute the name Ellsworth Toohey with the Christian beliefs of the various churches, even Roman Catholicism, especially Roman Catholicism, of an earlier age. An earlier age? What do some fundamentalist groups and ultraconservative Catholics teach and preach today? If Jesus came among us today, would he agree with Roark or Toohey—or neither?

I think Jesus was a humanist of the highest order. He saw the dignity of humankind. He saw what we had done to bring ourselves down and he fought to raise us up again, to give us dignity and honor, to once again make us like gods, imbued with a divine spirit. It is all over the pages of the Gospels, especially John’s Gospel. And the author of 1 Peter 2:9 captured this new dignity, calling us a holy nation, royal and sacred.

The episode related above is a great argument for the exaltation of the human spirit, albeit an extreme and atheistic one. But what about the man who sacrifices, who is a prime example of the loftiness of humanity? We need to talk about the person, in my estimation the Christ figure: Howard Roark, architect, designer, and builder. There is a father-son image in the beginning of the saga, the journey, of his life. Roark is speaking with his mentor, the man he admires, another suffering servant who, because of his conviction and determination—some may call it his stubbornness regarding the purity of his art—is left lonely and destitute. He foresees the path that Roark is following and warns him about what to expect:

It’s a challenge in the face of something so vast and so dark, that all the pain on earth—and do you know how much suffering there is on earth?—all the pain comes from that thing you are going to face. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why it should be unleashed against you. I know only that it will be. And I know that if you carry these words through in the end, it will be a victory, Howard, not just for you, but for something that should win, that moves the world—and never wins acknowledgment. . . . May God bless you—or whoever it is that is alone to see the best, the highest possible to human hearts. You’re on your way into hell, Howard.

And so it was and ever shall be: The greatness of a nation rests upon its people’s strength of character individually and as a community at large.  

Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white. 

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