The Personalist Project

Accessed on August 23, 2019 - 2:16:55

Taking Subjectivity Seriously (without sinking into subjectivism)

Devra Torres, Aug 31, 2015

The recent Courage conference--"Welcoming and Accompanying our Brothers and Sisters with Same-Sex Attraction"--was by most accounts remarkable.

For me, the title is literal, since one of the speakers, Joseph Prever, is my own much-loved younger brother. 

Unfortunately, my husband and I were moving our umpteen children and our preposterous overabundance of goods and gear from Michigan to Maryland at the time of the conference, so even though it took place practically in our old backyard I haven't yet heard the talks.

I mean to do so at the first opportunity, though, and I urge you to do the same-- especially since a brouhaha about the inclusion of my brother and some others associated with the Spiritual Friendship blog threatens to overshadow what the speakers actually said there. (I'm told the talks will be available soon through Ave Maria Radio and will let you know the details when I learn them.)

My impression of the talks will have to wait till I've heard them. But the post-conference conversations have made me want to address a much broader topic: the difference between subjectivity and subjectivism.

Taking subjectivity seriously is crucial; falling into subjectivism is fatal (and futile). 

Here's what I mean:

By "taking subjectivity seriously," I mean welcoming and really listening to people's descriptions of their lived experience. And without leaping immediately to the question of whether they fit neatly into the truth we already know. Really listening: not just figuring out how to use someone's experiences as Exhibit A for the truth we're defending, or the falsity we're refuting.

By "falling into subjectivism," I mean denying any truth, any principles, against which real-life experience can be measured. Or acting as if real-life experience trumps principles.

So my topic is a lot broader than the question of people with SSA, but just to put things in context, what got me thinking was Deacon Jim Russell's opinion that certain speakers shouldn't have been given a platform at the conference. As he puts it:

...Simply said, being “gay” is not enough; being a “gay Catholic” is not enough; being a “celibate, gay Catholic” is not enough. And even being a “chaste, celibate, gay Catholic” is not enough. To be a credible public witness, one must both “embody” and articulate the “truth-love” of Church teaching and pastoral care related to same-sex attraction from a position of confidence, clarity, and certainty, with an undivided mind, heart, and purpose.              

One problem with such stringent criteria is that this particular conference was aimed not so much at articulating Church teaching as it was at helping those who work pastorally with people with SSA to understand and support them. Rightly understood, that will inevitably involve listening to their testimony--even if they have not altogether arrived at "confidence, clarity, and certainty." (All the speakers, as I understand it, were committed to chastity and to Church teaching. This wasn't a question of sneaking heterodoxy in, disguised as doctrine, but of people candidly describing their experience and exploring what it does and doesn't mean.)

But whether the topic is same-sex attraction or anything else, the trouble is, people sometimes see lived experience being taken seriously and jump to the conclusion that subjective feelings are being treated as trumping objective truths.

It's understandable. Lots of people think the leap is inevitable. I'm reminded of a politician we ran into once at a New Hampshire county fair. As the poor man trudged across the vacant lot under an August sun towards the throng of prospective voters, carefully avoiding the cow patties, we confronted him about his pro-choice position. He replied that he used to be pro-life, but he had come to see things "through his wife's eyes." Her experience trumped his principles. Or maybe it just served as a convenient excuse for abandoning them. Either way, it was one or the other: real-life experience or principles. It couldn't be both. 

So, sure, some people give "accompaniment" and "encounter" and "dialogue" a bad name. Some think we should abandon the truth for the sake of the person we're "accompanying," as if that would be doing them any favors. Others, more manipulative, go through the motions of making a person feel "accompanied" or "dialogued with" and then do whatever they were going to do anyway. It's a ruse, a strategy, a counterfeit of real respect.

So what happens when someone proposes listening to people, asking questions like "How do you experience your situation? How do you experience the Church's efforts to help you? How do you experience people's descriptions of you and conversation about you?"

Often, well-meaning, orthodox people respond something like this:

Look, what's the point? We know the objective truth about their feelings, their experience. Why bother poking and prodding into their subjective state of mind? The way to help them is to tell them the truth, and  the best way for them to help themselves is to live according to it. Anything else is just sentimentality and relativism; we'll end up sowing confusion, which is harmful to them and everybody else. "Compassion" and "dialogue" and "listening" and "subjectivity" have been tried already; they've brought us to the mess we're in today. The best service we can render to any person is to present him with the objective truth and its requirements.    

There's a very basic confusion here, though. People hear the buzzwords and buy the idea of pitting experience against truth--when in fact it's a legitimate--even an unavoidable--way of coming to truth. We "objectivists" are not just saying that real truth is out there, but that it's accessible to us--that the mind can really "see" it: not just by discursive reason, or by accepting the word of an authority, or by some kind of blind faith. If we reduce experience to misleading sentiments, or to something only a relativist would pay attention to, we miss out on all kinds of riches.

If we're really on the side of truth, we need not fear lived experience, any more than we should fear scientific discovery or the genuine insights of modernity (though of course we need to be wide awake enough able to identify sentimentalism, manipulation, pseudo-science, and all the other caricatures of truth).  

The truth shall set us free, and one of the things it sets us free from is living in needless fear of all its counterfeits.