Secrets and Sins

04-14-2019

By Roger Berkowitz
The New York Times is running a series of articles on privacy called the Privacy Project.  James Martin has an excellent essay on the double way that privacy is addressed in the Bible.

The New York Times is running a series of articles on privacy called the Privacy Project.  James Martin has an excellent essay on the double way that privacy is addressed in the Bible.

So the Bible offers at least two faces of privacy — one as necessary for a healthy spiritual life but also a place where sin can be committed. That double-edged view of privacy is not a bad way to consider its place in the life of the modern-day believer. And questions of privacy increasingly impinge on people’s spiritual lives, primarily because of the influence of technology.

More time online, and more time checking your phone for text messages, means not only less time for private prayer, but also a diminished sense of the importance of solitude. If you feel guilty for not being “reachable,” you may feel guilty about privacy itself. These days, even when people spend time at retreat houses for the explicit purpose of prayer, not checking texts and emails seems almost anathema to them.

Indeed, beyond the spiritual considerations, for any sort of moral formation, some privacy is necessary. To develop human relationships and a sense of the social self, we need privacy. Imagine not being able to keep things confidential within a family or between friends. Imagine a parent not being able to counsel a child in private. The very notion of family and friendship would break down without some degree of secrecy. Intimacy is essential for human beings to flourish.

In the spiritual life as well, some degree of privacy is essential. In my work as a spiritual director — someone who helps people with their prayer and finding God in their daily life — I’ve found that my appreciation for privacy has only increased over the years. What is discussed within the context of spiritual direction (as well as during retreats and in other pastoral counseling settings) is almost always confidential. Why? To grow in the spiritual life, people need to be able to try, to fail and then to learn from these failings and sins.


Hannah Arendt is one of the few great thinkers to set privacy as an essential aspect of human life. For Arendt, privacy is what permits humans to develop as unique and plural individuals and the loss of privacy is consonant with the danger of social totalitarianism. In 2015 the Hannah Arendt Center sponsored a two-day conference “Why Privacy Matters.” You can watch videos from the conference here.