Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    Other Thoughts

    CiRCE Talks: Laura Berquist’s The Poison of Subjectivism

    October 15, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]I[/dropcap] sometimes think that Laura Berquist is someone I’d be very fond of in real life. Part of it is probably because the way she speaks reminds me of my friend Rahime. Regardless, I have to say that I like Laura Berquist, and being that she is one of the only classically-educated women I’ve ever encountered, I respect her as well.

    Her talk takes its title from C. S. Lewis’ essay of the same name {available in the collection Christian Reflections}. The idea is that subjectivism is like a poison — it kills the most valuable things in our culture.

    But first: what is subjectivism? I took it upon myself to try and describe it at the outset, and decided that subjectivism is embodied in our idea that something can be true for me, and its opposite true for you. In other words, it is the idea that there is no capital-T Truth, but rather each person discovers his own local truth.

    Berquist has a better, more insightful definition {as I was dealing mainly with symptoms}:

    Subjectivism is the view that there is no objective reality by which we are measured.

    The ramifications of this are huge. The eventual result is tyranny. If there is no absolute truth, morality and goodness become defined by local contexts. In the end, then, the only litmus test is conformity to what is accepted, and Berquist rightly points out that it follows that what is accepted is what is what the people in charge say is accepted.

    Confusion also follows, because subjectivism is not internally coherent. How is it that one can say absolutely that there is absolutely no absolute Truth? One cannot, and when one tries, logic breaks down. The result of this, sadly, is not repentance, but rather a questioning of logic and reason. Perhaps they don’t exist? Perhaps there is no cause for accepting logic and reason?

    Morality becomes based not upon absolute standards, but upon will and desire, says Berquist.

    And, since our discussion really centers on education, it is important to note that education itself breaks down. Learning become impossible because there is no truth. As Berquist says,

    There is nothing to know.

    Berquist doesn’t exactly put her argument in this order, but after listening to her talk, it became very apparent to me why we have traded a liberating education for a slave’s education. If there is no truth, a liberal arts education is fraudulent at best. Berquist herself says that

    without objective measure, man turns his attention to control of his environment [{i.e., technology}], and he uses his reason as a problem-solver and a deviser of techniques. The concern for true and false, for good and evil, is replaced by a quest for power.

    So we have high schools now that train students in techniques. It may be how to pass a test to get degrees to get a high level academic job {a form of intellectual power-wielding} if you are bright. Or it may be any number of job-training foci. In our town we have high schools {or, at least, we did a few years back — I’m a little out of touch} that train students for nursing, for film, for the beauty industry, whatever. Folks think this is just wonderful. We can only think this because we have traded the truth which can and must be known and which sets us free for the lie of subjectivism. Our only option becomes turning to power, which, when translated into education, means training students for jobs so that they can have money.

    Money is seen as power. Technology is also seen as power, but one cannot have it without the money to purchase it, and so we return to the need for a job.

    The “best” job in this subjective world is then seen as that which offers the most money any particular student is capable of earning.

    And thus darkness conquers America without a shot.

    Just something to think about.

    Now, I’d like to focus on some important thoughts that Berquist that I found helpful. Most of us were educated by a subjective curriculum and teachers who were at least functional subjectivists. We were in a total immersion program, folks, and we picked up the language and thought patterns whether we like it or not.

    Berquist’s ideas, then, can be cleansing.

    • Berquist made a comment about subjectivism which was striking to me. In sharing what a subjectivist high school teacher had taught her {even she had one!}, she explained that his lessons taught them that

      the currently prevailing way of thinking, which was not measured by anything given in the order of nature or grace was what we were supposed to adopt.

      I’d like to focus on the idea here of measuring by something given in the order of nature or grace. The more time we spend knowing the orders of nature and grace, the more we are protected from subjectivism. So, for instance, grace has revealed certain moral laws. When we measure ourselves against these laws, instead of against our own passions, we do well and subjectivism is purged from our morality. Nature, too, reveals her lessons to those who are willing to listen.

    • One of the side-effects of subjectivism is that it has become offensive in our culture to say that one thing is better than another. Is this not the cause of many a mommy war? Berquist gives us a philosophy lesson to aid us:

      To compare two things involves a standard against which both are measured. Something can’t be better than something else unless there’s a third reality that is measuring both things. When one says something is “better” one is saying that it is more like what it should be than the alternative. This means there has to be a third reality against which both are measured.

      Let’s think about this for a minute. This means that we have to study and know that objective, third reality. In recent years, I’ve had folks question our choice to homeschool, or homeschooling in general, saying that “if we all abandon the public schools, it’d be a tragedy,” and so on. For years, I didn’t really know what to say to that. Now, I know that the best response is in using an objective standard. The standard is the Bible’s use of the Greek word paideia in Ephesians 6:4, where fathers are commanded to raise their children in “the paideia of the Lord.” As paideia refers to a form of education that was total immersion, I can confidently state that Christian fathers are commanded to insure a Christian education for their children. Period. Their argument, then, is with God and not with me. Do you see how this lifts us out of subjectivism? Now, instead of saying that my opinion is this and theirs is that, we can go together to the Scripture and discover what that Christian education might look like. And so we see that subjectivism brings to the table a lot of tension, while knowing and studying the objective reality brings peace and community.

    • Berquist tells us how she thinks we can avoid subjectivism, and both points above are actually examples of this. She says we avoid it by knowing. When we discover Truth, subjectivity flees before us. She uses Euclid’s Elements as an example. By the time a student has worked through all thirteen books, he knows something that is True in the order of nature. He is astounded, amazed. And any bit of subjectivism that was in his heart in this area fades away. Truth, we must recall, sets us free, and it can set us free from our cultural bondage to subjectivism.
    • Therefore, liberal education itself is a means of combating subjectivism. As Berquist beautifully concluded,

      Man desires to know, and when he knows, he is doing what he was made to do. This is freedom, for freedom is found in learning what one is supposed to do, and doing it. The free man is able to direct his own life and the life of the community. He is not the slave of his passions or of fashion in thought. He recognizes that he should work to come to an understanding of the truth.


    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit


  • Reply Willa October 25, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    So interesting — thanks for writing this out so I and others could peek into the highlights of the CIRCE conference.

    About beauty and personal beauty, I am talking off the top of my head, but I think beauty is so profuse that it’s easy for people to define it too narrowly and according to their own culture and upbringing and personal tastes. My point would be that these “mores” then get confused with objective standards and so the whole conversation gets more equivocal than it has to be. The basic traditional qualities of beauty are proportion, integrity and clarity (from what I understand) but how these standards can be employed seems almost infinitely variable. I grew up in Alaska where the beauty of the landscape is dramatically different from the beauty in, say, Florida. Some might subjectively prefer one type of beauty to the other, but there seems to be some standard that can somehow incorporate both, that probably excludes a war scene or a forest after a wildfire or an oozing swamp, etc….

    In regard to personal beauty I think there is something of the same thing in operation…. my daughter dresses very well (and very creatively, on a limited budget) and I tend to go casual. Both of us try to keep clean and neat and modest, but in different ways. I think those types of variances can be completely legitimate. But I am not totally sure about that — who knows but that my immersion in the 70’s culture warped my impressions in these matters?

    Just a couple of thoughts to add to the mix.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts October 18, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    I think we can fit three more in before we hit the Holiday Wall and call it quits. How does that sound? I’ll post a schedule tomorrow, but FYI nothing this Friday. I have a date! 🙂

  • Reply Mystie October 18, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    I think you’re right on the not-perfect-world thing, and on agreeing with the principle without giving in to guilt. That’s what I’ve been thinking about — that something can be “better” without it being a moral imperative to pursue it. I think also different people focus on different areas to mature in, and that’s ok. Some people have a knack and a love for pursuing beauty (home & self), and that’s good, and some people don’t and that’s ok — and yet it’s not subjective, somehow, either.

    Last year’s CIRCE conference had a talk with the comment that you can’t force maturity, and presenting an argument will not force someone 10 miles down the road of maturity. You need to allow for time and differences of path, both in yourself & others. That’s been a hugely helpful comment to me many times this last year.

    So, what’s next? 🙂

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts October 18, 2010 at 9:13 pm


    Excellent points!

    (1) I, too, have the hardest time with the idea of beauty as objective. Too much “eye of the beholder” nonsense, I suppose. I have to say that if I was going to listen to a talk on the idea, though, I’d much rather have it come from John Hodges. Out of all the speakers, he seems to best grasp the beauty issues (with A. Kern being a close second, I suppose).

    (2) This is such a hard subject. In my own Mommy War example, I think this means we also have to allow sanctification to take place at its own speed. We just can’t force anyone to mature faster than they are ready to, if that makes sense. So some of the Mommy Wars might be a maturity issue

    (3) Your beauty talk touched on something I’ve thought about off and on. There have been times that I haven’t looked as well as I’d like, but there have been good reasons–usually financial (I couldn’t afford the hair cut or clothes I needed, for instance). I read some articles that made me feel guilty about that, so I did the only reasonable thing and quit the reading, trying to practice contentment instead.

    (4) I prefer the idea that we can be governed by principles without needing to be perfect or create a perfect world when that’s not possible. So, to use your example, looking good is better than looking not-good. I think we can all agree that this is so. Using that principle, then, we aim for our best. During the time that I didn’t have a lot of resources, I could still put on makeup and a smile, still cultivate that inner beauty Christ desires from us, and so on. So we move away from ugliness, but in a way that focuses on the goal rather than our failures.

    (5) We had a busy weekend, so I haven’t read your posts yet, but I’m heading over ASAP. 😉

  • Reply Mystie October 16, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    I was a little disappointed that she only dealt with subjectivism in truth and goodness but did not deal with subjectivism with regard to beauty. That’s the aspect I have a harder time with. I hold that there is an objective standard of beauty because I’ve come to that logically, but I have to stop there because I don’t really know what it is or means or implies.

    Ok, yes, so let’s talk about saying one thing is better than another. Somehow we do have to say that objectively one choice is better than another, yet we also have to allow for different situations making the “better” choice infeasible. Mommy war illustrations might abound. Most recently for me, Elly and I have have been talking about personal beauty and style. We browsed a book about colors and styles and cuts of clothes and had a great time, but it was interspersed with wondering about the place of such things. We want to say that personal beauty is important, that being put-together and attractive is better than being dumpy & frumpy, but does that mean it really is or should be important for everyone? Does that mean if I dress attractively I am better than someone who doesn’t? Sometimes I’m afraid of unintentionally communicating that sentiment by dressing nicely (I have been on the receiving end of it, too, feeling bad when in the company of someone who looked put together). There’s a tension in all the non-salvific issues — one thing is better than another, but what can we say about ourselves and others based on that?

    Hm. I better stop now. Maybe this is a post in the makings. 🙂

  • Leave a Reply