By David Hegg
First, let me lay out what I mean by “subjectivity.” Subjectivity exists when my tastes, feelings, desires, or opinions define my assessment of the quality or reality of something. If I insist my column is the finest example of thoughtful writing in the world, you have every right to laugh, howl, and choke out, “That’s your subjective view, and you’re nuts!”
We are inundated with the tyranny of subjectivity. All around us, people insist we affirm the meaning they have chosen in their lives. While claiming personal autonomy as masters of themselves, they have become slaves to the acceptance, approval and applause of the rest of us. Tragically, those whose search for personal meaning depends on the response of others are like parkgoers in Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous illustration in “Being and Nothingness” (1943). Suppose I’m walking through a park and see many things I can assign meaning to. I see flowers I can smell, pick, or ignore. I pass a bench I can sit on for a few minutes of rest, or jump up and walk on, or pass it by altogether. I can admire trees, or I can dislike them for dropping leaves all over the pathways and making a mess. In every case, they are objects of my subjectivity. I am assigning them meaning. What they mean to me is dependent on how I feel about them. That was Sartre’s point.
But Sartre made a more significant point. What happens when another person comes around the path I’m on and now faces me? I feel her gaze. She is assessing, critiquing and measuring me against her own standards of meaning. Suddenly, I realize I’m no longer the source of meaning but am under the power of her subjectivity. She is assigning me her meaning!
If you’ve read Sartre, you’ll remember he used this illustration to ground his view that existence is the foundation of meaning. It is from our existence that meaning exists. He put it this way in his play “Dirty Hands” (1948): “Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.” Sartre’s existentialism was grounded on the premise that, by existing, we are responsible for making our meaning.
Yet, today’s followers of Sartre’s philosophy find that being the “meaning-makers” of their lives is more complicated than they thought. They, like Jean-Paul, have been unable to disconnect their sense of worth from the gaze of those coming toward them.
While proclaiming to have found their “authentic selves,” they secretly understand their chosen reality is only a function of their subjective opinion. So, they are driven to have their authenticity validated by the world around them. Ironically, their independence from the rest of us must be fed by affirmation. They are slaves to subjectivity.
We learn from all this that real meaning must be grounded in objective truth, not subjective desires, trends, or wish dreams. That’s where Sartre made his grand mistake. He wrongly believed the park’s flowers, benches and trees were given meaning by those walking by them. This just isn’t true.
Consider this: The true meaning of a bench is found in the purpose for which its builder created it. The bench doesn’t care if you sit on it; it’s still a bench. The same goes for flowers and trees whose meaning came from the landscaper who chose and planted them according to his plan. Smell or not, like them or not, they are still flowers and trees by nature, and their meaning and purpose in this world remain in place regardless of how passersby see and assess them.
The same is true for us as well. Sartre was half right. Our existence grounds meaning, but he was wrong in believing our existence occurred through a combination of time and chance. Like the bench, flowers and trees, we’ve been crafted as human beings through the intentional action of a loving, intelligent, eternally existing and almighty God. As God’s creations, we bear his image, which makes human life sacred and filled with intrinsic dignity and meaning.
But, since the day Charles Darwin declared he could account for reality apart from God, we have seen the steady disintegration of what it means to be human. Human life has been downgraded from a sacred possession to that which can be conveniently thrown away. Now we’re seeing the rapid acceleration of this disintegration. Those who have discarded our connection to a supernatural, personal Creator are unable to define what makes a woman a woman. We’re being asked to accept all kinds of untruths as truth simply because our subjectivity is crucial to another person’s false “authenticity.”
Where do we go from here? Let me be clear. We must tell a better story, live out a better ethic, and do so winsomely. That means compassionately refusing to support another person’s addiction to what is false, with an intentional determination to be kind to all, patient when wronged, and gentle in dealing with those enslaved by this world’s subjectivity. It won’t be easy, but it is the loving and ethical thing to do.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.