Deacon D. McManaman
Very often while serving at a Mass, I will look out at the congregation and reflect upon the fact that there are so many people in front of me about whom I know virtually nothing. I also know that if I were to sit down with any one of them and begin a conversation about their life, a whole world would open up before me and I would never see that person the same way again. They would go from an object before me to a ‘thou’, a concrete subject with a history. In other words, their personhood would gradually come into focus. What this means is that they would become increasingly real to me. I believe this is what Nicolas Berdyaev means when he insists that there “is no greater mistake than to confuse objectivity with reality. The objective is that which is least real, least existential.” What, then, is most real? In short, it is “subjectivity”, or personhood. That is why the more this unknown person communicates, the more he reveals his status as spirit, as subjectivity with a history that is still moving, and thus a subject with meaning. That is “real being”. Berdyaev writes: “…my inward spiritual experience is not an object. Spirit is never object: the existence of that which exists is never an object.”
The general mass of people that I might behold looking out at the congregation is not entirely real for me until each one begins to reveal himself or herself. And so it is in community that the truth of things is revealed, and the truth revealed is that these are not things, but persons with a depth of meaning that always exceeds what I am able to know at any one time.
We live in a fallen world. This means that the community of humanity is broken, and if it is broken, we don’t really come to an understanding of the truth of who we are in and through this community. We, like everything else, have been objectified. We have become less than real in the eyes of others. This or that person standing in line for a coffee is a non-entity to me, I am a non-entity to him, and we tend to forget that an hour or two in conversation will bring into greater focus the existential and subjective density of this person. We know ourselves to be “subjects”, that is, persons of intrinsic worth, but the assurance of that knowledge does not settle upon us until it is reflected back to us through the eyes of others. The “objectification” that impedes this is in many ways the source of a great deal of personal anger and feelings of alienation in people; for anger is a response to a perceived injustice, and “objectification” of the human person is a terrible injustice; in fact, it is the most fundamental injustice.
Years ago I recall showing my “Right to Life” Club the Silent Scream, narrated by Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson. It is a short, half hour film that shows, via ultrasound, what takes place in the womb during a suction abortion. After the film was over, much to my dismay, a young girl in the class burst out in tears. She was clearly overcome by the sadness of witnessing the cold destruction of a real human subject, engaged in a futile struggle to live as the suction tube probed the womb in search of the child’s body. Her tears were deep with emotion, and her sadness expressed our own and perhaps even intensified it.
But I’ve often wondered what it is that happens to some of these girls, as they go off to university, either to medical school or to university nursing programs, that changes them from their earlier pro life position to their current pro-choice stance. There is no doubt in my mind that much of it has to do with peer pressure. Many people simply don’t have the strength of character to stand alone against the larger crowd. Perhaps it is rooted in a lack of conviction regarding the status of their own personhood; after all, that awareness of our own spiritual center, our own subjectivity, is rooted in community, and perhaps the only way I can maintain that sense of my own status as subject is through the approval of the group. And so I capitulate, for the sake of my own personhood, for fear of the alienation that results from objectification, that is, being regarded as a thing, an opponent, an enemy of the state or enemy of the group. There is tremendous irony in this: in order to salvage my own personhood, I join in the objectification of other human persons (i.e., the unborn), refusing to see them as human persons created in the image and likeness of God. The unborn as “person” becomes an obstacle in the way of my right to a life in community.
1. Nicolas Berdyaev. The Beginning and the End. Translated by R. M. French. San Rafael, CA. Semantron Press, 2009. P. 53.
2. Ibid., p. 58. Berdyaev also writes: “There is a tendency in the reason to turn everything into an object from which existentiality disappears. The thing-in-itself is not an object or “non-I”, it is a subject, or ‘Thou’. The subject is not, as in Fichte, the absolute or the deity. The subject, the human ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ are turned into objects and things as a result of a fall in the relations between us.” Ibid., p. 59. Further on he writes: “Objectification is above all exteriorization, the alienation of spirit from itself. And exteriorization gives rise to necessity, to determination from without. The horror which Pascal felt when confronted by the endless expanse of space is the horror of objectification, the horror of strangeness.” Ibid., p. 63