The Bane of Subjectivism

As Evangelical Christianity began stressing the motions of the heart and spiritual intuitions, a parallel movement toward Subjectivism in the wider world occurred, from which future generations of Christians would be drawn. As to timelines, it would be difficult to pinpoint. The radical stage of the French Revolution (1792-1794) could provide the seminal event which sparked the realization of the high improbability, even impossibility of acquiring a universal agreement about Truth and the Good through Reason. Consequently, a strain of philosophical thought posited that truth is that which is subjectively appropriated, or indeed personally and self-servingly contrived (existentialism). For Christian and non-Christian alike, that strain flows through the Danish theologian, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who gives intellectual stamp on a common and resonating innate human understanding, placing the arbiter of that which is true upon the subjective faculties (“the truth is that which is true for me”). Reacting against philosophical pontificators of truth, which fail to affect the personal attitude and behavior of the beholder; Kierkegaard stresses the introspective and experiential without regard to external verities, which he believes are subject to doubt anyhow. In Christian terms, he reacts against the remote philosophical god by swinging to the opposite pendular extreme of an intimate personal and essentially self-made god without firm reference or trust in unmovable externals; such as the Word and its proper understanding. It advocates an inculcation of a ‘spirituality’ of sorts; headless, intrinsic and subject to the doubtful and variable motions of the emotions and heart.

It is a personal and pastoral nightmare; one to which I am personally and excruciatingly intimate. It endows only that which is ‘real’ and gives a psychological ‘buzz’; that is, can be felt to be true; as being that which is true. Spurgeon, as do others, bump up against this sentiment. (“Sadly perplexing is that form of inability which lies in a supposed want of power to believe.”1) For faith, like in Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz”, becomes a feeling, a sixth sense, an intuition and instinct (like penguin sex). It produces a perverse Christian journey; where truths concluded and acted upon (with successful outcomes) in prior points of one’s life, become doubted because of the present dryness of the reality of those truths. It produces James’ admonition that “he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does”2. For, ultimately one is building his faith on the shifting and shiftless sand of a variable personal psychology. It is a most subtle form of idolatry; placing one’s psychological faculties as the true God, arbiter and mediator of reality. And subjectivism is that gateway to relativism, existentialism and the various forms of nihilism, of which Postmodernism is one.

But Truth is external to and outside self. And True Faith requires both the ability to subjectively appropriate objective truth accurately and then rely on (live on the basis of) those properly appropriated truths in our day to day life. The experienced and the mature know how tall an order this is. It may require upholding and living upon such Truth even when all the subjective faculties scream otherwise or when they refuse to give psychic sentiment and support to those truths.

However, the infection of Subjectivism is pandemic in the Evangelical camp. It is not only to be found in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles, whose adherents are often in need of the spiritual equivalent of a multitude of drug-induced ‘high’ in order to maintain that feeling of right relationship with God. One reads of new ‘converts’, who walk the Altar-call aisle, half-a-dozen times or more, because previous comings to faith didn’t seem to take. That is; they do not feel differently or detect significant changes to their psyche. Even of the supposedly mature leaders of churches and parachurch organizations, this constant need for signs and sense confirmations of their relationship with God, can be found.

One can see the dangers of both kinds of ‘faith’. One involves the philosophical Christian; often Calvinist in orientation; largely accurate to Scriptural propositions, thoughtful and brilliant; but who I fear has not that personal and interactive relationship with God. On the other hand are the headless chickens. “They are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.”3 This headless faith leads to such travesties as supposed manifestations of the Spirit, such as acting like wriggling carp on church carpets, barking like dogs and laughing like hyenas. Such are prone to say, as Linus to Charlie Brown, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.” Such is an absurdity, akin to a parental admonition to their children that it doesn’t matter how they get to grandma’s house; whether through gentle hills and valleys or through minefields.

In the end, a true Christian faith requires both the ‘True’ and the ‘Real’; an acquisition, comprehension and reliance on the sometimes dry facts, proofs and counsels of Christianity, external to self; and a practicable appropriation and application by one’s Will of those facts and counsels; with or without the psychological ‘buzz’.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Charles H. Spurgeon, From “All of Grace”, published post-mortem 1894, “Alas! I Can Do Nothing”
  2. James 1:6-8
  3. Romans 10:2

 

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