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Scripture Omits Subjectivity

by James Hitchcock
March 30, 2003

MODERN literature (since about l600) is heavily psychological, in that one of its most basic subjects is the depth and complexity of human emotion. Compared with Shakespeare, for example, pre-modern authors like Geoffrey Chaucer tell us only rather minimal things about their characters' feelings.

Although Shakespeare marks an enormous quantum leap in the literary exploration of the passions, his work too is misunderstood if it is approached primarily on that level. The ultimate meaning of his plays lies finally in the logic of the action itself -- what the characters do and what happens as a result.

Most people today have been raised in a culture which thinks that great literature is supposed to reveal the depths of the human soul, and they are therefore stymied in reading pre-modern works where those depths are concealed from us, where indeed the author does not even seem to care about them. The New Testament is one of those works.

There has always been a dialectic between objectivity and subjectivity in Christianity, because on the one hand believers are to respond in faith and obedience to the God, while on the other hand they must search their souls to discover if they have the right relationship with God. Today the balance has shifted very lopsidedly to the subjective side, to the point where, for many people, self-exploration is really at the heart of faith.

Thus when they read the Gospels they inevitably run up against a stone wall. There are accounts of personal emotions there -- Martha and Mary weeping for Lazarus, Peter overcome with grief for betraying Jesus, above all Jesus' own anguish during His passion and death -- but they are merely recorded in a few words, where a modern writer would spend pages describing the complexity of those feelings. In the Gospels people's subjective state is quite incidental to the teachings of Jesus and to the narrative itself, moving inexorably toward the crucifixion and the resurrection.

As a historian I have often felt frustrated that Acts of the Apostles does not tell us more about the early Church. (Most of the Apostles are not even mentioned, and Acts does not even finish its account of Paul's arrest.) But this is not incompetence or inattention on the part of Saint Luke -- he tells us what he thinks it is important for us to know. So also the Evangelists' failure to explore personal emotions is not simply a limitation of the genre in which they wrote, much less literary inadequacy on their part. They do not stress the emotions because the emotions are not that important. What is important is that the readers follow Jesus, both in the sense of accepting His teachings and in the sense of taking up His cross.

Any number of contemporary spiritual teachers, including Christians, now urge people to "get in touch with your feelings", something that is even proposed as the only legitimate starting point for any spiritual journey. But, as far as I recall, Jesus never once even remotely urged such a thing. Most of the time He ignored the feelings of His hearers and, when He did pay attention to His Apostles' feelings, it was usually to rebuke them for their shallowness -- being afraid to walk on water, wrangling over who would be first in the kingdom.

It is common today to distort the Gospels, unwittingly, by translating them into feelings. Thus we are often told that Jesus urged "compassion". He did not. Compassion is a personal attitude that may or may not motivate acts of charity. Jesus said to feed the hungry. He said nothing at all about how we should feel about it. Trying to understand the Gospels as having to do with one's subjective state distracts us from the will of God and keeps us focused on ourselves.

Present-day religion is awash in what has been called the "therapeutic" -- a fervent exploration of one's own subjectivity, with the aim of achieving some kind of inner peace. The Gospels, however, tell us that such is not the path to inner peace, which comes only from putting aside one's subjective self and simply following Christ.

James Hitchcock,
professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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