What's Tony Thinking

Freed From Our Subjectivities


In my post this past Monday, the second piece, on books, authors and the culture wars, I noted in conclusion that our subjectivities — what I think, feel, my mood, my judgment of this or that — can become a real burden. We get trapped in our own head, which begins to resemble the maze from which the rat can find no way out. Trust me, I’ve done my share of rattling around in there!

I listened the other day to Teri Gross’s “Fresh Air” interview with author Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried). O’Brien, now 74, had become a father at age 58. His partner issued an ultimatum, “without children she saw no future in the relationship.” Gross asked O’Brien why he had never wanted to be a father. “Greed,” said O’Brien. “Greed and fear.” He wanted his time and life to be his own. Becoming a father of two boys, now in their teens, had, however, transformed O’Brien’s life. Fatherhood set him free from the confines of himself as he encountered these “others” whom he loved more than life itself.

Here’s the psychologist and author, Richard Beck, on how we can get trapped in our subjectivities:

“Ever since Descartes’ turn inward in radical doubt we’ve been trapped in our subjectivies, imprisoned within our wavering emotions, fractured thinking, broken self-images, inner demons, neurotic ruminations, anxious obsessions, uncontrollable impulses, and wayward desires. We’re a mess. And then we try to trap God in this prison as well. We fret over if we believe in God anymore, and drown under the weight of our questions and doubts.

“Trapped in our subjectivites, we’ve convinced ourselves that what matters in life is what we think of God. But the situation is really quite the opposite. What matters in life is what God thinks of us.”

As I noted in that previous blog, at one point in my life I spent a good deal of time and energy asking myself, “Do I believe in God, really, truly?” It seemed like an important question for someone thinking about going into the ministry. And it is. But it runs a risk, a characteristically modern risk — of making me the judge and decider — which may be above my pay-grade. As they say in AA, “There is a God, ________ (insert your name in the blank); and it’s not you.” What a relief!

My friend, Matt Fitzgerald, pastor at St. Paul’s UCC in Chicago, made this point in a beautiful reflection prompted by Nick Kristof’s Easter NYT interview with Union Seminary President, Serene Jones, in which Jones questioned and dismissed some of Christianity’s core beliefs, including the resurrection.

Matt’s comments:

“Same old thing . . . do we, do I, believe in the resurrection or not? Who put us in charge? Well, modernity did, of course. It’s all up to us.”

Or maybe it’s not?

“And thus modernity’s wearisome debate grinds on. We have placed ourselves in a ridiculous bind. Religious sophisticates deny the resurrection and then try to build a flimsy faith on the back of the very symbols that flimsy faith derides. True believers accept the resurrection by putting on a pair of blinders that block out the modern world. You believe, or you don’t.

“It’s a binary argument—but the two sides only seem like opposites. The truth is, both leave the believer in charge. The choice is yours: accept the resurrection or don’t. Either way, you’re the boss. (italics added).

“In regards to God, everyone in this argument seems too committed to what Avivah Zornberg calls ‘the obscenity of understanding.’ And no one in this argument seems ready to acknowledge that God’s boundless work might defy the boundaries of the human mind.”

Kids pried Tim O’Brien out of a self-absorbed life. Hitting bottom with an addiction has done it for others. Encounters with vastness and beauty of nature have liberated still others. It is a kind of death, but the kind that leads to life and to joy. To reprise Beck in conclusion:

“Trapped in our subjectivites, we’ve convinced ourselves that what matters in life is what we think of God. But the situation is really quite the opposite. What matters in life is what God thinks of us.”

And what God thinks of us is suffused with kindness, mercy and love without end. Trust this and live!


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