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.
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 common good.
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.
That is 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 there love?”
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.