Tuesday, July 14, 2015


One of the things I return to again and again in the Christian life is the relationship between the objective and the subjective.  It crops up in lots of places.  For example, how does one think about a sin committed, and the feeling of guilt that follows?  Should I say 'well, objectively, the sin is forgiven, so move on'?  Or should I say 'subjectively, this guilt is appropriate and should be felt'?  When spiritually depressed, should I say 'objectively, God is no further from you than he ever has been', or should it be 'subjectively, God has withdrawn himself and you need to work through that'?  This same sort of question will arise when we ask about how to read providence, or how we would answer someone who asked if they were a Christian.  In theological history, both routes have been taken, and various balancing acts have been attempted between them.

Perhaps a key touchstone here, and a good way to start thinking clearly on the subject, is with those church ceremonies commonly called sacraments - baptism and the supper.  Take baptism, for starters.  An emphasis on the objective in baptism will tend to lead to infant baptism - because baptism is not about the subjective state of the recipient so much as the objective promise of God.  In baptist circles, meanwhile, there is a tendency to make baptism about my subjective decision to follow Jesus - and in some baptist circles this emphasis has gone so far as to suggest that rebaptism is appropriate if a baptised person later decides that at the time of their first baptism they did not really believe.  Similarly, in the supper, we take bread and wine - the objectivist emphasises the real presence of the Lord, and the fact that all those who partake feed on him; the subjectivist has no interest in the emblems themselves except in so far as they awaken faith in the risen Christ.

I've been thinking about this again, and here's where I am currently.  I think the pastoral approach which downplays the subjective in favour of the objective can be dangerous, because it makes a person's Christianity distant from their own experience.  It does not take seriously what is happening now, or how the Christian feels or thinks today, and consequently can drive a wedge between the objective truth of the gospel and the subjective lived experience of the Christian - and that actually means driving a wedge between the Christian and Christ.  On the other hand, so emphasising the subjective that the objective recedes into the background is also dangerous.  It leaves the Christian lost on a sea of their own subjective impressions and emotions.  And so in that way it breaks the cord which tethers them to Christ.

So here is a bit of 'third-way-ism', starting with the sacraments.  In baptism, there is nothing but ordinary water, and a bit of getting wet.  In the supper, there is just ordinary bread and wine, and some eating and drinking.  These are just normal, everyday things.  But in the context of the worship of the church, they are lifted up into contact with the objective truth of the gospel, and so our subjective experience of them is changed.  It is not that they become anything different (objectively), but neither is it that our (subjective) experience of the action is the all-important thing.  Rather, it is that these emblems, in this context, are lifted to become more than just emblems, and therefore our subjective experience is lifted to become participant in the objective story of Christ.

Back to the Christian's sin and feeling of guilt.  This is, at one level, just a normal human response to something we've done.  But it is possible to view this subjective experience in the light of the objective truth, and to see our working through of guilt and repentance in this instance as a participation in the bigger story.  My daily repentance is lifted into contact with Christ's death and resurrection, and therefore becomes a part of the story of the reconciliation to God which he has accomplished.

The point is that instead of separating the objective and subjective (which effectively separates the Christian and Christ), or of over-emphasising the one or the other, I want to see and understand my experience, and the experience of others, as occurring in the context of the big story - which is to say, in the presence of the crucified and risen Christ.

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