Geoffrey Kirk on the difference between objective and subjective thought and the need for an objective approach when reading Scripture
Not so long ago I had a clerical colleague – since retired – who had for long been squatting on the shores of the Sea of Faith. His language tended to the quaint and picturesque. ‘God, as one might say’, was one of his (and my) favourites. In what sense, if any, he believed in the existence of the deity it would be hard to say. Nervousness about his stipend and his pension may well have inhibited him somewhat. But no one could have accused him of being a Christian in any generally accepted meaning of the term.
The issue of clerical infidelity – not to their wives, but to their religion – has rather been obscured by recent controversies. Orthodoxy among Anglicans has come to mean, not adherence to the Apostolic deposit of faith (belief in God, Incarnation, Atonement, Judgement), but conformity to current political correctness about women and gays. But beneath the froth of sexual ‘inclusivity’ good old-fashioned apostasy is alive and well. Close observation, moreover, leads one to the inevitable conclusion that the one is intimately connected with the other.
The link is the modern and uncritical embrace of subjectivity. There are, after all, two ways of thinking. We can think objectively, or we can think subjectively. Objective thought is centred not in the self but in the other. We come to understand ourselves through an understanding of the other, i.e. the truth that exists outside ourselves. Thinking subjectively, on the contrary, engages all experience from the perspective of the self and judges it accordingly. Such thought is centred not in the other but in the self.
There is no better and more succinct way of expressing these two ways of thinking than through G. K. Chesterton’s response to Holbrook Jackson, in which Chesterton is thinking objectively while Jackson is thinking subjectively:
Jackson: A lie is that which you do not believe.
Chesterton: This is a lie: so perhaps you don’t believe it.
Jackson: Truth and falsehood in the abstract do not exist.
Chesterton: Then nothing else does. Jackson: Truth is one’s own conception of things.
Chesterton: The Big Blunder. All thought is an attempt to discover if one’s own conception is true or not.
Jackson: Negations without affirmations are worthless. Chesterton: And impossible. Jackson: Every custom was once an eccentricity; every idea was once an absurdity.
Chesterton: No, no, no. Some ideas were always absurdities. This is one of them.
Jackson: No opinion matters finally: except your own.
Chesterton: Said the man who thought he was a rabbit.
In this exchange, Chesterton is on the side of philosophical realism, a belief that metaphysical things such as love, virtue and beauty are real, i.e. that they exist as an independent reality whether we believe it or not. Jackson is on the side of philosophical nominalism or relativism, a belief that there are no absolute truths or values and that love, virtue and beauty are not things that really exist but are concepts constructed and labelled by the human mind to make sense of its experience. Clearly, these two positions are mutually incompatible. They cannot both be true.
It is becoming clearer that, however it is masked by disputes about the authority of Scripture or of the status of Tradition in the Church, the fundamental division between contemporary Anglicans – liberals and conservatives – is a division between realists and nominalists; between those who hold that truth is absolute (and within limits discernable) and those who do not.
Nowhere is this fact clearer than in attitudes to Scripture. Catholics sometimes wince at what they see as the clumsy and naïve literalism of many Evangelicals, and reject ‘sofa scriptura’ as a simple category error, misunderstanding the very nature of the text. But they have one important thing in common: they believe in the integrity of the text and the possibility, objectively, of determining its meaning. Conservative Christians – both Catholics and Evangelicals – differ profoundly from liberals, about how to read Scripture.
Objective reading is, first and foremost, a discipline. In order to read objectively, we must avoid approaching the text with our own prejudices. A text makes sense before we read it, and its sense does not depend on our reading of it. It enables us to transcend ourselves, and our selfishness, in our engagement with the great truths of the cosmos. It enables us to grow in the presence of the genius manifested in the text. subjective reading, on the other hand, working on the presumption that ‘truth is one’s own conception of things’, will be unable to transcend the self in its ‘making sense’ of the book because nothing makes sense except the self. The tragedy is that the subjective reader is unable to grow the presence of the genius manifested in the text because there is the subjective reader, no greater genius than himself!
Small wonder than that, in defending their new-found certainties, liberal Christians have stooped to fanciful and far-fetched interpretations, which do violence to the text in its plain meaning and verbal integrity. They do so in the fond conviction that it cannot be saying to them anything which they do not already know. ND