“Yesterday I sat down in my favorite spot at home and surrounded myself with books and articles and began to draft a new article on personalism and sociology, a topic I have already written about on BW&G. Why do I care about personalism? Every once in a while, it’s good to step back and reflect on our theoretical understanding of key concepts or objects of study. If we don’t, we are prone to making errors in our explanations.
An interview I conducted about halfway through my fieldwork for my book on Haitian immigrants, Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora, illustrates one such error I made about persons. Sitting in the suburbs of Montreal one afternoon, I interviewed Lucien Smarth, a Haitian priest who also had advanced degrees in sociology and anthropology. How would you reply to the Marxian critique that religion is the opiate of the masses, meaning that people flee to religion to alleviate their real suffering, which for Marx, was material deprivation, I asked him?
Smarth stated forcefully that although intellectuals separate out material things from spiritual things, for Haitians they are all related. As I quoted him in my book:
“For me, that’s what religion is in general. We feel our limits, we feel our weaknesses, we feel our inability to change things. And then we call on another force, a divine force, to give us more strength and greater capabilities. I find it completely legitimate that people turn towards religion to solve their problems. Because that’s what I take to be the meaning of religion….So they [believers] have the task to make life down here more beautiful, so earth becomes more like the image of the beautiful life they await on the other side” (Faith Makes Us Live, p. 133).
One key idea of personalism is simple that the person is a whole. As Smarth pointed out to me, intellectuals tend to analyze separately the mind, body, and spirit, but he cautioned that such analytical abstractions do not correspond to how most people experience themselves in the world.”