Life in the Kingdom Blog

Normally, I would go on to the next saying in the Sayings Gospel Q, but I'm going to break pattern and write one more post on the Golden Rule. The reason is that it just hasn't let me go. After my two posts on the Golden Rule and Greg's post on "Golden Rule activism," I hope you don't feel wrapped on the knuckles by the Golden Ruler!

As I mentioned to Ken in the comment section of my last post, I've been thinking about how the reverse of the Golden Rule--doing unto others what you would not have them do unto you--is a natural, almost unavoidable, result of what is called the subject-object dichotomy.

As you probably know, the subject-object dichotomy is the notion that I am an experiencing subject. I am directly acquainted with my thoughts and feelings and sensations from the inside. I directly know my own subjective experience. 

However, I don't have this same direct acquaintance with the objective realm--the things and people outside of me. They are not things I directly experience from the inside. I only indirectly experience them from the outside. To me, they are objects. 

So the subject is the experiencing observer and objects are the things observed.

I've been thinking of this along the lines of a different meaning of the word "subject." Google defines "subject" as "a person or thing that is being discussed, described, or dealt with." We all know what this means. If you go to a class, the subject is what the class is about. If you read a book, the subject is what the book is about. The subject, then, is what something is about.

You can probably see where I'm going. Being the subject in the first sense leads directly to seeing yourself as the subject in the second sense. Being the subject in the sense of the experiencing individual leads directly to seeing yourself as the subject in the sense of what it's about ("it" being anything you are involved in).

The same double meaning holds for the word "object." To be an object in the sense described above--the exterior thing or person observed--leads directly to being seen as an object in the sense of "a thing that you can see or touch but that is not usually a living animal, plan, or person" (Cambridge Dictionary).

In other words, the seemingly neutral, structural fact of me being the observer and you being the observed leads directly to an ethical stance that is anything but neutral: Everything is about me and you are a mere object, an insentient thing. This connection is not particularly subtle, as we see in this humorous YouTube video (pictured above), called "Understanding Subject-Object Dichotomy."

To follow the Golden Rule, then, we are trying to overcome something that is built into the most basic structure of our world. Yet this is precisely where Jesus' teaching leads us. The whole Sermon in Q (and thus the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke) is, you could say, calling us to radical identification with another as subject. In Jesus' teaching, we identify with the other so deeply that he becomes the subject; he becomes "what it's about." True, we too are precious subjects, but according to Jesus, God's got us covered (because He radically identifies with us as subjects), so we don't have to worry about ourselves.

It's worth noting in passing that all of this is very closely related to what Martin Buber called "I-Thou" relationship in contrast to "I-It" relationship. I-It is subject-object. I-Thou is subject-subject.

How do we leave the subject-object (I-It) mode to enter into subject-subject (I-Thou) mode? I think that is to some degree the whole journey of the spiritual life, and of life itself. What I have been doing lately, however, is something very simple. I've just been reminding myself:

You are the subject. You are what it's about.

This is not particularly profound, but it never fails to make me feel like I've just woken up to the most basic, the most obvious, and yet the most forgotten truth.

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Robert Perry

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  • Robert, great! I really like the idea of the "subject-subject" mode. Like Greg, I find it is quite easy to see people as objects, sometimes more and sometimes less, but mostly on how they keep on topic with the subject of Ken. I love the simple video explanation and Greg's wonderful example of crossing the divide with communication and the desire to understand. I also like the idea of someone becoming a subject in the "field-of-study" sense, in that, my interest is in them.

    This has been really helpful in seeing how we can really enact those radical teachings of Jesus, where I am no longer consumed with myself as being the center of what it is all about. I am sure the experience will be one of great relief once I really get a handle on it. I really look forward to the day that I cross that divide where I truly see that another's welfare is my focus, which I have had glimpses. I think the stretch for me is with those that are at odds with my interests and wish to pillage my kingdom. If I can be concerned in meeting their deepest need, to be loved and seen as only having worth in spite of their transgression, then this will be proof that the divide is largely gone, even if temporarily.

    I believe the experience that comes from allowing that divide to disappear is the requisite for the realization that that divide does not exist between me and God, Who has always totally loved me as His own. I think your simple statement is powerful, in its simplicity, to help jar me out of the habit and choice to remain in this dichotomy. Thank you!
  • Thanks for this, Robert. It's so easy to see other people as objects. One interesting thing I've observed in my time here in Mexico is how a language barrier can lead to a kind of emotional objectification. When I first got here, I knew very little Spanish, and since we do so much of our communicating of our subjective worlds through language, that meant that I had little exposure to the subjective worlds of the people around me. (They, of course, were having the same experience with me.) These communication limitations meant that on an experiential level, the woman who ran the neighborhood store was little more than a vending machine to me, even though I knew of course that she was actually so much more. (And of course we'd acknowledge our mutual humanity with whatever communication tools we did have, like a smile.)

    But now that I've been here for over five years and know the language pretty well, everything has changed. It's still a work in progress, but the communication barrier is so much smaller, and so I can connect so much better with the subjective worlds of the people around me. Now the woman at the store is Doña Ignacia, who is recently divorced and whose teenage daughter is pregnant and who is worried about our neighbor because the neighbor was recently kicked out of her house by her abusive ex-husband. She is now a subject.

    Now I remind myself: That's equally true of all those other people around the world whose languages and therefore subjective worlds I don't currently understand. I need to remind myself that they are subjects, and so I really like the little exercise you're doing. Whenever I see someone whom I might tend to emotionally objectify because I don't understand him or her, I'm going to remind myself: "You are the subject. You are what it's about."
  • Howard, I think it would be a disappearance of the separate self if taken to its ultimate extreme, yes. I think, though, we would be doing very well to just take a step or two in that direction.
  • This seems to me to be a " disappearance" of the self and ultimately the brain/body; (K/G?)
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