Traditional/conventional Christianity solved the “problem” of this obvious transcendence of the subject-object relationship via the concept of the Trinity. I won’t wade into my concerns regarding this conceptualization other than to say it is very “neat and tidy” and offers Man nothing in the way of overcoming the seemingly insoluble subject-object “problem.”
Of course, very few Christians consider subject-object a “problem.” For them, subject-object is merely a fundamental aspect of reality; a logical and ontological organizing principle reflecting the nature of being and Creation. Subject-object is also the basis for epistemology – the core of how we know what we know and what we can hope to know.
Above all else, subject-object is meant to describe the nature of relationships of reality, which always seem to boil down to the basic dichotomies that are so ingrained in language – the observer and the observed; the doer and the receiver, and so forth.
Returning to Jesus as the ultimate subject, we must ask ourselves, how did He, as the highest form of subject imaginable on earth, relate to Beings that existed outside of Himself? As noted above, traditional/conventional Christian theology solved the subject-object problem at the divine level by making Jesus and God, and the Holy Spirit three separate beings that were really one being. But how did Jesus relate to other Beings that existed outside of himself? Moreover, how did Jesus want Beings who existed beyond himself to relate to Him?
The memorable “hell is other people” line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit presents an extremely pessimistic assessment of human relationships within the subject-object paradigm. Sartre recognized that the underlying “problem” in subject-object is essentially a problem of freedom. Relationships within the subject-object framework inevitably imply incessant tension and conflict over freedom.
When we treat other Beings as objects, we undermine their freedom. Conversely, when we allow other Beings to treat us as objects, we undermine our own freedom. One way or the other, the subject-object paradigm always threatens and impinges on some Being’s freedom, which often leads to conflict and struggles for dominance.
Despite his apparent pessimism about human relationships, Sartre did not resign himself to his famous “hell is other people” line. On the contrary, he noted that “hell is other people” is not set in stone, but conditional, with much depending on our approach to relationships. Put another way, Sartre believed that hell can be other people but did not need to be. Everything depends on how we see ourselves, and how we choose to think about and relate to other people.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre presents an intriguing revelation to support his optimism concerning relationships between Beings in the subject-object paradigm:
“These considerations do not exclude the possibility of an ethics of deliverance and salvation. But this can be achieved only after a radical conversion which we cannot discuss here.”
The implicitly spiritual/religious overtones in Sartre’s revelation are even more intriguing when we consider that they emanate from a thinker whose core atheistic intuition informed him of the absence of God.
For the sake of brevity, I will set aside deliverance and salvation and focus instead on Sartre’s notion of radical conversion, which presumably involves a shift from bad faith to a more authentic mode of being.
Sartre used the term bad faith to refer primarily to a form of self-deception people employ to convince themselves that they are not truly free or ultimately responsible for their actions. Put simply, bad faith is the equivalent of making excuses. A convenient way of creating false selves to hide behind and obscure the true self.
Sartre insisted that relationships founded upon bad faith were doomed to fail because they did not aim for any sort of radical conversion that addressed freedom within the subject-object relationship framework.
This brings us back to the questions of how Jesus related to other Beings and how Jesus wanted other Beings to relate to Him. I posit that Jesus achieved and demonstrated the radical conversion Sartre touched upon but never expounded. That radical conversion involved the complete transformation of the subject-object paradigm within Jesus’s thinking.
Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor famously remarked that Jesus increased people’s freedom, and I believe a big part of this increased freedom resides in Jesus’s transformation of subject-object.
Jesus understood that treating other Beings as objects immediately encroached upon their freedom. He also understood that His freedom would be encroached upon if He allowed Himself to be treated as an object. Thus, what Jesus aimed for and ultimately achieved was the radical conversion of the subject-object paradigm into what I can only describe as a subject-subject paradigm.
One way to think about subject-subject is to regard it as the most authentic form of relationship that involves the true selves of Beings. This relationship of true selves transcends subject-object because it seeks to expand freedom rather than constrain or curtail it. This expansion of freedom applies to both subjects within the relationship and includes the freedom of the self and freedom of the other self.
In a 1971 interview, Sartre clarified the glaring pessimism inherent in his “hell is other people” statement by offering the following:
“But that’s only that side of the coin. The other side, which no one seems to mention, is also “Heaven is each other.” … Hell is separateness, incommunicability, self-centeredness, lust for power, for riches, for fame. Heaven, on the other hand, is very simple—and very hard: caring about your fellow beings.”
One of my core metaphysical assumptions is that Creation is primarily about relationships between Beings, with the overarching aim of eternally committing to relationships in which we align our freedom with God and begin to work co-creatively together within Creation while maintaining our authentic selves and supporting the authentic selves of others. Our relationship experiences in mortal life in this world are necessary for us to learn about our freedom and the freedom of others via relationships.
Unfortunately, most relationships in mortal life are anchored in Sartre’s “hell is other people” – in alienation, self-centeredness, lust for dominance and power, and so forth. Much of the problem seems to reside in our subject-object mode of thinking, in our apparent desire to regard and treat other people and Beings as objects and also be treated as objects by other people and Beings. The inability to overcome objectification presents us with a major obstacle when it comes to freedom – our own and others.
To say nothing of love.
I believe the ultimate aim of Creation is not “hell is other people” but “Heaven is each other.” During his mortal life, Jesus overcame “hell is other people” and lived “Heaven is each other” by overcoming the subject-object paradigm through freedom and, more significantly, through love.
Jesus was the freest of the sons of men because he did not encroach upon the freedom of Beings by regarding them as objects and did not think of Himself as an object when other Beings treated Him as such, and He accomplished all of this through thinking motivated by love.
Jesus is the radical conversion Sartre mentioned but never elaborated upon.
Jesus is the transformation; He transcends subject-object and enters authenticity. His radical conversion is available to us during mortal life in thinking, but we are unlikely to find the full experience of “Heaven is each other” in this world.
Lucky for us, we are guaranteed to experience "Heaven is each other" in Heaven; however, we must want it and commit to it, which entails wanting and committing to authentic relationships that go beyond subject-object and enter the realm of subject-subject – which is only possible through expanding freedom generated by love.