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One of the most common claims you will hear in our ongoing national conversation about faith is the notion that faith is “personal” and therefore not a fit topic for public discussion.
BY Mark Shea
One of the
most common claims you will hear in our ongoing national conversation about
faith is the notion that faith is “personal” and therefore not a fit topic for
The only guess I can make about why
people would make such an absurd assertion is that they simply don’t know what
the word “personal” means. For, of course, precisely what makes faith a topic
for public discussion is that it is personal.
What is “personal” is that which has
to do with the person. Persons are fundamentally public and social beings, not
private and subjective figments of the imagination. Indeed, persons are, by
definition, rational beings in relationship with other rational beings and not
atomized “individuals” with no relationship to one another at all.
I get this understanding from Pope
John Paul II, a philosopher who spent most of his adult life thinking and
talking about the meaning of personhood. Unlike most of our culture, he
realized that “person” is not interchangeable with “individual.” But because of
this, we must realize that one of the central notions of our popular culture is
absolutely totally 180 degrees dead wrong.
I speak of the notion that what is
personal is “private” or “subjective” or “esoteric” — unknowable and
incommunicable to others.
Much of our political life is based
on this false notion of “personal” subjectivity.
Identity politics lives on the idea
that if you are not a member of “my special group” you can’t possibly know “how
I feel” and therefore you have no right to speak. If you are not black, you
have no right to speak about pathologies in the black community.
If you are not a woman, you cannot
speak about feminism or women’s rights. If you aren’t homosexual, you cannot
address the question of “homosexual marriage.”
Even Catholics fall for this sort of
identity politics. No small part of what fueled the disaster of the abuse
scandal was the notion that “outsiders” (like, for instance, civil authorities)
could not comprehend what it meant to be Catholic and therefore should not be
alerted to priestly abusers within the tribe.
Of course, such thinking is folly.
Nobody with cancer picks their doctor on the basis of whether he has
“experienced” cancer and therefore has a “right” to treat it. Nobody asks their
car repairman if he knows how it feels to be in an accident. What matters is
their understanding of the relevant information and how it relates to the
But this idolatry of subjectivism
nonetheless still spills over to our religious discourse. People often tend to
talk as though “spiritual experiences” and other such “peak moments” are things
experienced in total isolation and are impossible to share with others.
However, everyday experience
confirms once again that this is actually false. The reality is that what is
personal is also what is common. The most intense and the most profound
experiences, the most exalted, glorious, horrible or poetic experiences of our
lives — these are not incommunicable mystic moments known only to initiates of
some rarified revelation reserved to the few.
On the contrary, we communicate
about such profundities every day, because all of us have experienced love,
betrayal, abandonment, hope, hunger for meaning, despair and doubt. These are
the core experiences of life and they are not reserved only for the illuminati.
We all have tasted them, and our lives revolve around them.
why a jury of peers can sit in judgment of a man who has robbed a bank, or
committed a rape or shot a man. For every
one of them knows what it is to feel the temptations of money, sex, anger,
power, rage, lust, greed, pride or fear. Indeed, the only thing that ultimately
separates them from the criminal is that, feeling such things, they have not robbed,
raped or killed.
In the same way, people need not be
great artists to appreciate great art. For the great artist is great not
because he makes people feel something no one has ever felt, but because he
makes them feel something everyone has always felt.
In just the same way, religious
matters will eternally be fit for discussion in the public square precisely
because they are entirely about questions like “Who am I?” “Where am I going?”
“What must I do?” “Is there a God?” “Is there meaning?” “Is there hope?” “Is
These are not the questions of
mystics, enlightened types and philosophical specialists. They are the
questions of truck drivers, little boys and girls, half-drunk men at the local
bar and the bank executive who just filed for her third divorce.
Only when such questions are
eradicated from every human heart will there come a day when religion will be
extirpated from the public square.
Mark Shea is senior content
editor for CatholicExchange.com.