Why do we care about words like “objective” and “subjective”? This isn’t a grammar site. The words aren’t particularly theological, but they do come into play when talking about our faith. Many people opposed to the faith see it as a subjective matter. Your beliefs are true to you, but they’re not true to me. Many opposed to our morals sees them as subjective, as well. Your morals are good for you, but they’re not good for me. Don’t impose your opinions on me.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “objective” originally meant “considered in relation to its object”. In other words, a statement is objective when it has to do with some object out there, with something outside of the person making the statement. “Subjective”, in turn, means that a statement is considered in relation to its subject, to the “I” who is speaking.
If you remember your grade school grammar, these terms might sound familiar. The subject of the sentence is who or what the sentence is about. A subjective statement is based on who is speaking. An object is the person or thing that an action is directed toward, the one receiving the action. An objective statement has to do with the thing you’re talking about — the person or thing out there.
So what does all this mean? When we’re speaking subjectively, we’re making a statement that’s dependent on the speaker, dependent on our thoughts or feelings or beliefs. “It’s too cold today” is a subjective statement, as it depends on who is speaking. It might be true for me, and I would say it. It might be false for you, and you wouldn’t say that. We can disagree about it, because the truth is within each of us.
When we’re speaking objectively, we’re making a statement about something out there – some person, place, thing, or idea outside of ourselves. “The temperature is 70 degrees” is an objective statement; it relates to something outside the speaker’s mind: the temperature of the air. “The pizza hasn’t arrived yet” is also objective. It relates to something outside (hopefully right outside, if you’re hungry!). We shouldn’t disagree about these things, because they don’t depend on our beliefs or feelings. That temperature reading is true or false; it doesn’t matter what I prefer. The pizza has arrived or it hasn’t. I might be wrong, but whether I’m wrong doesn’t depend on me.
What does this have to do with our faith? “Your beliefs are true for you but not for me.” Is that so? Are our beliefs objective or subjective? How about one of the most foundational beliefs: that there is a God. We hold that God exists “out there”–not in a physical place, per se, but at least outside of our own minds. When we say that we believe in God, we mean by “God” something outside of ourselves. The discussion about our belief in God, then, is an objective matter. If God is “out there”, then He’s “out there” for everyone — there’s only one “there”, the world in which we all live. That means that, as a starting point, we should be able to agree that the discussion is objective — that God’s existence is true or false for everyone together. It is not a matter of opinion or belief, at least in the way that we mean “God”.
Next time, we’ll think about relativism and absolutism–another important pair of ideas when sharing our faith!
Copyright 2017, Joe Wetterling