What’s the most important word in the English language? Indeed, what is the most important word in any language?
The most important word will be the word that gives every other its meaning; the most important word will be at the root and origin of all language; our candidate word will be the foundation on which all further meaning is built.
That most fundamental word, upon which all other concepts derive their meaning, is person. If we get the concept of person wrong, our entire metaphysical universe collapses. If, for example, the person is defined solely by positive law, then the person will be purely a political entity. If, on the other hand, the person is defined as a being rooted in an objective archetypal reality, then person will not be simply something we define, but something we must discover: it will be something revealed in history, something not of our own making, and something we must adhere to or face total annihilation.
Justice is about what persons owe; political thought is a statement about the relationship of persons to the wider community and authority; right reason is about how persons should think and what constitutes wisdom; faith is about how persons interact with the divine; love and friendship are about how persons live. All of our most important concepts flow from a concept of personhood. It stands to reason therefore that to get the notion of personhood wrong is to get wrong everything else that flows from the foundational concept of what is means to be a person.
If we have the wrong concept of person at the outset, it is impossible to develop a coherent notion of justice, virtue, love, feeling, friendship, faith--and even God. The person conceived in individualistic and rationalistic terms will invariably understand morality and justice in a relative sense. Faith, according to individualism, quickly becomes fideism. Love becomes reduced to the level of feelings.
Looking about the world today, we find a host of issues that both divide the nation and pit people against one another in ideological battles that threaten to culminate in violence. At their root, all of the hot-button issues we’re dealing with today have at their heart and origin a fundamental, if not always articulated, disagreement about what it means to be a person. The key challenge of our age, therefore, must include promoting a dialogue of personhood and to retrace our steps to see where we’ve got it all wrong.