Can Subjectivity Be Chosen?

John Lukacs wrote a fascinating article for the the Winter 2009 Exhortation of the American Scholar entitled "Putting Man Before Descartes." In it he argues three main things: 1) the modern turn to subjectivity in history is dangerous, 2) the subject-object model of thought needs to be overturned by a participatory model, and 3) humanity should once again see itself as the center of the universe.

Despite the wide acceptance of subjectivity in scholarship as a given, Lukacs sees it as dangerous because it is "merely the obverse side of objectivism and objectivity; there is something wrong with the entire Cartesian coin, of a world divided into object and subject, because subjectivism as much as objectivism is determinist." This divided world makes subjectivism deterministic because people cannot control their perspectives. Against this idea he argues that subjectivity is not deterministic because the structure of human seeing and thinking can and must be chosen. Humanity has choice "because thinking and seeing are creative acts coming from the inside, not the outside."

For his second point he argues that subjectivism has its root in the subject-object distinction. This distinction is alive and well in both post-modernism and structuralism. Instead of thinking in subject-object terms, he argues that we need to think in personal and participatory terms. The knower is involved with the known when writing or reading history. Despite conceding that matter does exist outside of the human mind, he pushes back by pointing out that without the mind, "matter" . . . does not matter. The human mind structures matter in ways that overcome mechanistic causality. It intrudes upon the world and "complicates the very structure of events." Yet, this indeterminism introduced by the mind has also now been corroborated in science when physics examines the behavior of small particles. Science today has shown our understanding of the world isn't as settled as was once thought.

The voluntary (chosen) structuring of the world by the human mind leads him to posit as his third point that:
We must recognize, contrary to all accepted ideas, that we and our earth are at the center of our universe. We did not create the universe, but the universe is our invention, and it is, as are all human and mental inventions, time-bound, relative, and potentially fallible.
Taking this claim even further he speculates about the human position in relation to God:
Our consciousness, our central situation in space, cannot be separated from our consciousness of time. Does it not, for example, behoove Christian believers to think that the coming of Christ to this earth may have been the central event of the universe, that the most consequential event in the entire universe occurred here, on this earth 2,000 years ago? Has the Son of God visited this earth during a tour of stars and planets, making a spectacular command performance for different audiences, arriving from some other place and—perhaps—going off to some other place?
The question that must be asked after this fascinating discussion of subjectivity in history is how it affects theological interpretation of Scripture? I will try to respond to each of his three points:
  1. I share his worry that the modern focus on subjectivity as seen in many narrative approaches to Scripture stops humanity from fighting against their determined perspectives. I wonder, however, if the choosing of perspectives is actually possible? Can one choose, by the power of their will, to "see" the narrative of Scripture as true? It seems that such change needs a power greater than human mind: the Holy Spirit. It is a question worth asking to what extent human perspectives are chosen.
  2. The participatory model of history is a helpful move for biblical interpretation away from the historical-critical paradigm. Interpretation is thereby allowed to be of and for the church without being relegated to a secondary status. While this model helps in the fight against phantom objectivity and the historical-critical method, it does not help in debates over radical textual indeterminacy. All participate in different ways and with different ends. The "object" is in danger of being overwhelmed by the "subject."
  3. His final point about humanity being the center of the universe is a theologically insightful observation. I have heard multiple pastors/theologians point to the vastness of the heavens to illustrate the glory of God. Lukacs gives a helpful inverse lens to this position by pointing out that despite the vastness of the universe, God has become incarnate on earth within the past 2,000 years. Time and God seem to be centered around humanity. While the danger of this observation is to make God centered on humanity, the benefit is to point out the importance of humanity to God in that God chose to interact with us here and now. Christians would additionally point to our being created in the image of God as part of why history is centered here.
While Lukacs does not offer the definitive view of history for theological interpretation, he is a helpful dialogue partner where a Christian view of history is being developed.

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