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The Poison of Subjectivism

The title of this article is not original. It is, in fact, the title of an essay by C.S. Lewis. I think, however, that Lewis makes a point in this article which bears repeating, viz., that moral judgments, judgments of value, judgments about good and evil, right and wrong must be based upon some objective standard. “The modern view,” says Lewis “is very different. It does not believe that value judgments are really judgments at all. They are sentiments, or complexes, or attitudes, produced in a community by the pressures of its environment and its traditions, and differing from one community to another. To say that a thing is good is merely to express our feeling about it; and our feeling about it is the feeling we have been socially conditioned to have.” And, argues Lewis, if this idea is not crushed, our very souls are in danger. For, continues Lewis, Out of this apparently innocent idea comes the disease that will end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its ‘ideology’ as men choose their clothes. Everyone is indignant when he hears the Germans define justice as that which is to the interest of the Third Reich. But it is not always remembered that this indignation is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective standard of good, over-arching Germans, Japanese and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours. If ‘good’ and ‘better’ are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring. (C.S. Lewis – “The Poison of Subjectivism”)
But, you may legitimately ask, what does this have to do with us right here and right now? I suggest that it has quite a bit to do with us.
First of all, the worry of C.S. Lewis has not slackened in the least. Subjectivism, the idea that truth, reality, right, wrong, good, evil are concepts which are constantly changing as time changes and as history moves from generation to generation, certainly is in vogue today. Consider what has happened in the Reformed circles in recent history. The infallible Scriptures have been deprived of their infallibility – a position taken by theologians because “Moses (or some other writer) was writing about his own times, his own standards of right and wrong, and his own unique situation.” It no longer has meaning for us today. Consider what has happened ot the objective authority of Scripture. Scripture is kerygma, it has meaning only if it confronts us and only those parts which confront us actually do have meaning. Consider what has happened to the idea of sexual morality. If it pleases us, and if two people are willing, and if no one else gets “hurt,” well, go right ahead with your lovemaking. What was taboo in prior eras is not necessarily taboo today. People just view things differently is the answer which we get to our “Why is this so?” questions. These, and there are many more, are the results of the losing of the objective standards for our making value judgments and therefore certainly are reason enough for our concern with subjectivism.
Furthermore, we ought to be concerned with the implications of this idea because of its closeness to us. Many times the current ideas floating about the “youth movements” are assimilated to some degree into our own thinking. We, too, hear talk about change and reform, about throwing out some of the old, fuddy-duddy notions of our ancestors (some of whom are not so remote). We hear talk about generation gaps and the “not-with-its” of older generations. It is time, I believe, that we take seriously this idea of the objective standard.
The objective standard to which C.S. Lewis refers is, of course, the Word of God. The point is this: let’s make sure that we keep it that way, let’s make sure that we do not attempt to make our decisions upon our own sentiments and feelings. For if we do, we, too, fall into this same error of subjectivism. Decisions have to be made. Yes, by you as young people, too. We cannot be forever relying upon our parents and superiors to make our decisions must be made about right and wrong, good and evil. Priorities and values must be established. Value judgments are going to have to be made – by you.
If such is the case, that we wish to make our decisions upon the invariable, infallible, inerrant, unchangeable Scriptures, decisions based upon unchanging laws, ordinances, and principles, then there certainly are implications for us in this regard.
First, we cannot make these kinds of decisions if we ourselves do not have an understanding of what that objective standard is. How are we going to decide what to do if we haven’t the foggiest notion of what God really wants us to do? We must be thoroughly acquainted with that Word, that objective standard. This means, then, that effort must be put forth on your part to acquaint yourselves with those Scriptures.
A second implication is that you certainly can expect this decision-making process, this making of value judgments on the basis of God’s Word, to be a struggle. It simply is not an easy process. But, God knows that. There is comfort in this struggle. “We know that all things,” says the apostle, “work together for good to them that love God.” Furthermore, there certainly are aids which you can use- people are available to you as resources. Seek them out. James also assures us that God will provide. Listen to what he says: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”
Think about it. (More about this later)

Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No 10 February 1971