Is Subjectivity Always a Bad Thing?
It's interesting what you learn when you start asking questions and seeking answers. I'm coming up on the first anniversary of this blog (July 20), and it's been an interesting year of learning. Not just learning things in response to my questions, but learning what others think. Sometimes, I have learned very painfully what others think of the questions I ask. And sometimes I find out that some people just don't want to hear any questions asked.
What always amuses me, though, is how people want to figure out what box to put me in so they can label me and then dismiss my thoughts. And the funny thing is that many times, I've never even heard of the boxes until I'm put in them.
Take postmodernism, for example. Several months ago, I started seeing the word "pomo" used on some blogs. It took me a while to even find out what the word stood for. I figured out really quickly that it was used in a rather derogatory way, but finding out what it was short for was just the start of my learning.
Once I found out that "pomo" was short for "postmodernism", then I had to find out what postmodernism was. I have found that the concept of "postmodernism" has very different definitions, depending on who is doing the defining. To a lot of Christians, "postmodernism" is the evil trend in our culture to deny any absolute truth and leave everything up to "personal interpretation". It seems to be characterized by those opposed to it as something that resists truth and certainty, and instead wants to leave all options open.
While I have no interest in defending postmodernism, I'm not necessarily sure it's all that its critics say it is. But whether or not it is, it seems easy for people to want to shove me (and people like me) into a box labeled "pomo" and then dismiss us as being an enemy of the Gospel. Well, ok, so maybe they don't go that far in their assessment (at least not to my face), but the responses I get sometimes on other blogs (and an occasional comment that will pop up here on this blog from people other than my regular commenters) indicate that my questions cause major doubt in their minds as to my dedication to the absolute truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
One of the responses that so frequently heads this direction is an accusation that I am advocating for subjectivity, and therefore am rejecting the objective truth of God's revelation. So I wanted to take a moment to talk about subjectivity and how it relates to our Christianity. In order to do so, one must sort through some implications of subjectivity as that term is used in theological discussions.
Subjectivity, in most discussions of this nature, appears to be rejected as a postmodern approach of lack of absolutes. In other words, as I have pointed out in the recent discussion on the role of Scripture (part 1, part 2, and part 3), and as some comments showed in reply to my thoughts, many think that I am advocating for something so subjective that there is 1) no accountability, and 2) no canon (measure) with which to evaluate the legitimacy of the experience or belief.
There is this polarization of two extremes: One purports to be a completely objective, propositional approach to theology. This is the approach that thinks that anything we know about God can only be known through reading the Bible. By coming to the right conclusions as to what the text says, we are left with clear statements of propositional truth (i.e., either true or false, but no room for in-between). The other polarized position is a rejection of all objective truth, and just going on feelings or "being led by the Spirit" in a way in which no one is permitted to question our experience because "God led me" or "God told me".
As most of my regular readers can predict, my response to that is that there is a middle ground between the two polar opposites. And that leads us to the question in the title of this post: Is subjectivity always a bad thing?
Recently, I began reading a book by Carl Raschke entitled The Next Reformation. I have not gotten very far into the book, so I'm not prepared to comment on the book overall. But one quote jumped off the page at me. (This is from page 19 of the paperback version)
The theme of subjective truth, properly understood, has been far more congenial to the expansion of the gospel through the ages than any canon of propositional certitude. When evangelical believers undergo conversion...and offer their own lives to Christ in a personal profession of faith, it is rarely the result of anyone having convinced them through careful and flawless reasoning that Jesus is their Savior. It is usually because God ministering as the Holy Spirit has grappled with them in their private depths of confusion and doubt and given them a whole new inner lease on life. Paul may have convinced a few Athenian citizens that the "Unknown God" they were worshipping was in fact the living Creator. But Paul himself was not drawn to Christianity because some philosopher offered a better argument than the Stoics, Cynics, or Epicureans of his time. Saul of Tarsus became Paul the apostle because the resurrected Lord encountered him on the road to Damascus, said only a few soul-wrenching words to him, and left him speechless and dumbstruck.In other words, the very experience of conversion itself is subjective. Yes, there is objective truth involved, but it also includes a subjective experience. I know of few Christians who would be willing to deny that. And yet, somehow, once a person is saved, we want them to shun all subjectivity and subscribe to a series of propositional statements in order to show "maturity" in their faith. Especially to most cessationists (sorry, Gordon, and other regular readers who are still cessationists), the idea of personal experience becomes very mistrusted. If someone claims to be "led by God" toward a certain decision, some Christians mock that and claim that this "leading" denies the sufficiency of Scripture as the "rule" for our lives.
One of the points that I made in my posts about the role of Scripture is that, while Scripture claims to be "profitable", I do not see a claim by Scripture itself to be "sufficient". When we say that Scripture is "sufficient" for making decisions, living a life pleasing to God, etc., we rule out the subjective experience of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And I think that this is making a huge mistake.
As a means of definition, allow me to quote from Webster's New World Dictionary for the terms "objective" and "subjective":
objective -- of or having to do with a known or perceived object as distinguished from something existing only in the mind of the subject, or person thinking; hence, being, or regarded as being, independent of the mindWhile these definitions may make it sound like subjectivity is something to be steadfastly avoided, we must remember that part of the experience of the believer is a renewal of the mind, and a partaking of the mind of Christ. Thus, the very subjective experience of the believer is, itself, subject to the Spirit of God.
subjective -- of, affected by, or produced by the mind or a particular state of mind; of or resulting from the feelings or temperament of the subject, or person thinking, rather than the attributes of the object thought of
The necessary conclusion of the cessationist argument is that any subjective experience recorded in Scripture is not a model for us today because we have the full revelation in Scripture. Yet in many situations, we see people being led in Scripture based on a relationship with God that surpasses mere words on a page.
For example, God led Abraham to leave his homeland and go to the land which God would show him. Abraham's servant gave praise to God (Genesis 24:27) for leading him in the search for Isaac's wife-to-be. Romans 8:14 talks about us being "led by the Spirit of God". The book of Acts records several situations where believers sought God's leading in a particular situation. For example, in Acts 15, we read in verse 28 that the leaders of the church determined that a particular consensus decision "seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to [them]". This is just to mention a small handful of examples.
Another point worth making at this juncture is the information from God in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31:33 and shown to be applied to the New Covenant in Hebrews 10:16) that there was coming a day when he would write His law on our hearts. This is in contrast to the law that was written by God on stone (and given to Moses to give to the people).
The fullness of revelation (according to Hebrews 1:1-2), as I have mentioned before, is Jesus Christ Himself. And Paul references "Christ in you, the hope of glory" in Colossians 1:27. So, if the pattern in Scripture is an experience that includes both objective and subjective, culminating in a personal indwelling of us by Jesus Christ, why should our position be any different? Why should this point in the story of God's interaction with man be anything less than what went before us?
This in no way advocates a system where there is no accountability for what someone claims God led them to do. We continue to have ways of testing what is said and done (i.e., against the written revelation given to us, against the testimony of the Spirit within us, etc.), and we must use those tools given to us. But at the same time, we should not shun the work of the Holy Spirit in leading those of us who are children of God through whatever means He chooses to use.
Until next time,