The Dangers of Subjectivism

Recently I have been doing research on the Emergent Church.  Just in case you are not familiar with this movement, let me give you a little background.  The Emergent Church movement originated in conversations between various pastors, youth pastors and church leaders back in the 1990’s.  They were concerned about certain trends and practices they saw in the church.  They were especially concerned about how relevant and effective the church was in reaching a postmodern culture.  Out of their conversations arose an entire movement which has swept through America, Britain, Australia and other parts of the world.

The original ambitions of those involved in these conversations were noble and good.  However, in their efforts to address the concerns of a postmodern society, they ended up becoming a postmodern movement.  It seems, at least in their thinking, that to be relevant you must accommodate yourself to the culture—even if this accommodation involves sacrificing some of the foundational truths of the Christian faith.

One of their accommodations involves the very nature of truth and knowledge itself.  A hallmark of the Emergent Church is that is rejects objectivity.  Indeed, they assert that there is no such thing as objective reality—whether you are talking about morals and ethics or theology and our knowledge of God.  As Tony Jones, one of their leaders, has stated, “Emergents think objectivity is as real as unicorns.”  In usual postmodern fashion Emergents believe that all truth, knowledge, morality, theology, whatever is relative, uncertain, and completely subjective.  For them, truth is discoverable through dialogue, relationships and experience.  But there is nothing objective to discover—only the subjective existential reality of the moment.

This is a very dangerous position to hold.  In fact, much more dangerous than it would appear at first glance.  Let’s take a moment and consider why I say this.

C.S. Lewis once wrote an essay on “The Poison of Subjectivism.”  Although written in 1943, this essay could be a contemporary commentary on our society, and postmodernism in particular.  Lewis presciently makes many observations about the logical fallacies of subjectivism, and the inherent dangerous consequences of accepting this idea.

First of all, Lewis notes that to speak of subjectivism in morals is not only dangerous but unreasonable.  For example, most people would certainly declare their intent to improve in moral behavior, whether individually or as a society.  Our desire is to do better, to grow in goodness as people.  Yet, how are we to judge improvement?  If there is no external, objective standard or morality by which to gauge our “advances” in moral behavior, how do we know that they are, indeed, advances?  If you are only judging one set of subjective values against another set of subjective values, how can you tell if one is better than another?  There must be a goal you are striving for, an objective universal norm that all men agree upon.  If there is not, then there is no way of knowing if you are making progress or not.  The very fact that we can compare ethical systems, and believe that one is better than another, necessitates an external, objective sense of what moral behavior should look like, and what to strive for.

This logical fallacy also demonstrates the danger of moral subjectivism.  Without an objective norm for morals, then we are left with nothing more than subjective, arbitrary assertions of fallible human beings.  And since we have no objective criteria for judging morals then one moral system is just as legitimate as another.  Without the law of nature, the objective moral standard that comes from God Himself, you cannot rightfully critique one ethos as better or worse than another.  You are left with having to approve of the morals of Adolf Hitler just as much as you would approve of the morals of Martin Luther King.  If subjective experience and personal discovery is your only guide, then the Nazi death camps were as legitimately moral as the American Civil Rights movement.  You cannot have it both ways.  You cannot appeal to a higher morality if there is no objective, absolute standard by which to judge that there even is a higher morality.

There is another very dangerous aspect to subjectivism.  Lewis points out that if there is no natural law, i.e., an objective standard for morality, then some person or persons have to become the legislators of moral standards for a society.  Again, fallible people determine morality—and this is very perilous indeed.  When we accept that there is an absolute right and wrong, and that our understanding of this comes from God, then there is a yardstick for behavior that everyone equally must follow.  This applies to each member of society, no matter how high or how low.  King and slave alike must follow the same moral code.  However, when morals are subjective and arbitrary, determined by human lawgivers, then tyranny and oppression are likely to follow.

Witness what has happened societies which have rejected the laws of nature (and of God) and set up their own ethical value systems.  We saw this happen in Nazism and Fascism.  We have seen (and still see) it happen in Communist societies.  Consider the situation of a common soldier, he could be an SS guard at Dachau or a member of the Korean People’s Army in North Korea.  Let’s say he is ordered to shoot an obviously innocent prisoner.  He may find the act personally reprehensible (natural law does exist).  However, he dutifully follows his orders.  And he justifies it in his own mind because his action is “morally” consistent with the ethical values of his society.  He kills an “enemy of the state” because the Fuhrer (or Eternal President, the specific country or title hardly matters) has deemed this a “good thing.”  In fact, the subjective moral code of his society will actually honor him for the murder of an innocent citizen.

Of course, we recoil at such a scenario.  And rightfully so.  We have been conditioned to think in moral terms that were originally soundly rooted in a Judeo-Christian ethic, an ethos which accepts as a basic premise that there is an object, absolute natural law.  As a matter of fact, not only our personal moral sense, but our entire system of democracy and our beliefs about liberty are founded in this reality.  And without this objective moral code, there would be no freedom in our society.  Notice what Lewis says in this regard: “The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike.  Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy.  We and our rulers are of one kind only so long as we are subject to one law.  But there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators, and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.”

Here we see the great danger of subjectivism.  It appears to give freedom of thought and expression.  However, it actually engenders the opposite.  It becomes the vehicle of control and oppression.  We can illustrate this easily enough.  Consider the current attitude about sexual morality in this country.  At one time our sexual ethics were grounded in the Bible and natural law.  Sexual activity was deemed moral and good if it occurred within the sacred confines of marriage, and a married state between one man and one woman.  But as a society we have largely rejected this moral code.  Now, anything and everything goes!  And we are all supposed to accept this new morality—and not just accept but approve and commend it.

So where does this leave us?  If you are part of the minority of Americans who still believe that adultery, fornication and homosexuality are immoral and indecent, then the culture at large condemns you.  You are viewed as judgmental, bigoted, and narrow-minded.  You are a hate-monger.  You are unloving and unkind.  In fact (they say), you are “immoral.”  And you are immoral to the point that you are also criminal.  If you do not accept the morality of people who are adulterers, fornicators or homosexuals and you act on your convictions, you may be prosecuted for discrimination, or even a hate crime.  (Are we not seeing this occur, and ever more frequently?)  Do you see what has happened?  Those who are immoral (according to natural law and objective norms) are now perceived as being on the “moral” high ground.  And those who are truly virtuous and moral are deemed “immoral” and criminal.  Rejection of the objective moral standards of our society has now resulted in the criminalization of those who hold to that traditional morality.  And so to be a moral person in our society, especially if you are a Christian, becomes increasingly risky and perilous.

Now do you understand why we say that subjectivism is dangerous?  It is a plague on personal moral behavior.  Certainly.  But the plague has infected the very life’s blood of the entire.  We may legitimately ask, can we continue to exist as a society if the plague continues?

 

 

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