The Way of Subjectivity

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Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” The royal official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Jesus said to him, “You may go; your son will live.” The man believed what Jesus said to him and left.

John 4: 48-51

Today’s reading from Isaiah offers us God’s promise of “a new heaven and a new earth.” As our Lenten journey deepens, we are asked to contemplate, to recognize the fulfillment of that promise in the person of Jesus, the presence of God among us and our sufferings and burdens. There is healing for the child of the “royal official” but only as he leaves Jesus in faith and with out the “signs and wonders” he sought.

The man who comes to Jesus to beg for the health of his child is no doubt hoping for a “miracle.” He wants Jesus to come with him and to touch and heal his son, to create objectively something of the “new heaven and new earth” that Isaiah promises, where there will no longer be “the sound of weeping and crying,” but always “rejoicing and happiness.” The door to the “new heaven and new earth,” however, is the path of subjectivity. Jesus tells the man to go in faith, trusting in the promise of life for his child. Objectively, nothing changes. How difficult must it have been for the man to leave Jesus without the assurance of some sign, or at least of Jesus’ physical accompaniment of him. He came in hopes of bringing Jesus with him to heal his child, and yet he must leave alone and with nothing objectively different, except the promise of Jesus.

As we enter the last half of Lent, we shall be drawn more and more deeply into the reality of the passion and death of Jesus. We shall be urgently invited not to look away from the reality of his and our human experience. The promise of Isaiah is true, but the only way we can know it is by more fully entering into and embracing the reality of our human condition. “For I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and it’s people to be a delight,” says the Lord. That joy and delight, however, lives within and beneath the sorrow, and suffering, and pain that we all must undergo.

So today, we are invited, as the royal official of the gospel, to return to the pain and urgencies of our lives, but to do so in faith. We distance from our own lives and experience because we are convinced that we are unable to bear our own pain. Yet, to suffer our own lives at their depth is to know that there is One who suffers that pain with us and whose love for us can only be truly known as we embrace all of what we are called to go through.

One does not have to agree with Kierkegaard’s single-minded, hostile rejection of objective thought and objectivity to still consider what he has to say about the cultivation of subjectivity, because that is where his major insights lie. So what about his exhortation to become subjective? Why is there even a need for this? Isn’t it true that, given our experience of life, we already are? It seems that one cannot fail to be a subject, to be subjective. However, as Kierkegaard points out, the mind can flee its own subjectivity; instead of dwelling in the presence of one’s experience, one can escape into alienation; into theorizing about needs, goals and happiness, and live by abstract principles and objective measures. As Freud has described, there are various ways of doing this: by repressing experience, dissociating from it, numbing it, turning away from it.

. . . As Kierkegaard puts it in “Either/Or,” “For one may have known a thing many times and acknowledged it … and yet it is only by the deep inward movements, only by the indescribable emotions of the heart, that for the first time you are convinced that what you have known belongs to you … for only the truth that edifies is truth for you.”

Katalin Balog, “Son of Saul,” Kierkegaard and the Holocaust, New York Times, 2/28/2016

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