And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.-John 3:19-21A great theme of our national life this past year has been the question of reality. I realize that's hard to believe that a nation not well known for dwelling on metaphysical issues has spent quite a bit of time arguing about what is real and what is not real. Yet, it's true.
In this election year in particular, although the discussion spread far beyond politics, we have spent almost as much time talking about what constitutes reality as we have our preference for particular policies. In particular in the aftermath of the election, when it became clear that at least some partisans had not just bought but embraced a view of reality that was contrary to fact, we argued amongst ourselves over the whole question of fact and reality and perception and that poor, tired, overused truth.
Which is why I'm so fond of Richard Rorty. Too often misunderstood - neo-metaphysician David Weissman once chided Rorty's claim of "anti-realism" by insisting the claim boiled down to pretending there is no snow while one is freezing to death; I have never quite known whether Weissman was being deliberately obtuse or really is that stupid - Rorty's position can be summed up in simple terms: common sense. Why worry about the foundations of existence or the nature of how we know things or whether there's some deep connection between the way "things really are" and the way we human beings "know" them? For Rorty, the provenance of the answers to these questions isn't philosophy, but science, a way of understanding the world that is remarkably successful in figuring out the answers to these questions in a practical way. For Rorty, the only thing philosophy should concern itself with are questions of how we live with one another, and how to do that in a way that doesn't involve pain and suffering.
Rorty's dismissal of so much of the Western philosophical project is rooted in a kind of silly, gesturing obviousness. Of course the things we see and hear are real. In an age after Darwin, we have the explanation to the hoary old problem of the "correspondence" between the world around us and our perception of it. Of course human beings are constituted in such a way that they can figure out the world; how else could we have survived as a species?
Yet we have been living through a time when claims about the world become matters of contention. We find ourselves as a people engaged in discussions involving the constitution of the world, what reality is and in not, and whether some choose to believe it possible to live in worlds that are, to put it in shorthand, self-constructed. And the discussion continues, sad to say. The refusal to grasp the common sense idea that the world is, and is as it is, certainly creates fodder for hilarious and frustrating internet dialogue.
There is, however, something more sinister at work. There are those who would deliberately create confusion about the whole question of reality. The "debate" over global warming is a marvelous case in point. Most global warming deniers are, I am convinced, well aware they are snake-oil salesmen, handing out patent medicines to people desperately wanting to believe it really can't be true we are in need of radical action to make the world habitable for human communities. There are, however, millions at least here in the United States, who firmly and honestly believe the whole thing is a hoax, a sinister plot being executed for any number of reasons. That they are being lied to is obvious; that they accept the lie is sad, to say the least.
Like the people who insist that Pres. Obama is a socialist when socialists are more critical of the President - because their criticism is rooted in fact - than any on the right, your run-of-the-mill global warming denier is the victim not just of tendentious fraud. They are buying a lie sold to them by people who know it's a lie. Those who lie in this way, and then lie about their lying, are like those Jesus speaks about above. They are people who love the darkness. They run from the light, deny the world that surrounds them, a world that proves their lie again and again. In the darkness, they tell one another they are in control. In the darkness, they tell one another that it is possible to create confusion about things that should be obvious; by doing so, they gain power.
These folks were dragged in to the light the night of November 6, when the silky comfort of their alternate reality came crashing around them. Having convinced millions of Americans not only that Mitt Romney would win, but win big, when the exact opposite occurred - an event whose probability had been tracked for months in public, in ways anyone could understand - many stood around and asked, "Why?" So, too, as we watch event after event, whether it's drought or hurricane or record heat or whole communities swallowed by a rising ocean, people are starting to wake up and demand an answer to one simple question: Why?
The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel knew the answer: For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. The light of the world, the Incarnate Son of God, is the same light, we are told in the Revelation to St. John, that will one day beam out of the new temple, filling the new heavens and new earth. There is no hiding from this light. I picture it as a light so all-pervasive there are not even shadows; it is everywhere, all at once, just as the God who creates and creates anew is.
Yet, we live in a time when it is still possible to hide in shadow. If one is clever enough, one can move around, continuing to conceal oneself from the light of love that is the Son of God. Like Adam in the garden, however, God demands to know why we are hiding. We cannot hide forever; even less can we hide if we are pretending the world is other than the way it is. It isn't divine intervention that brings to light the multifarious lies that do so much damage. It's reality that dope-smacks the creators of unreality.
As we prepare ourselves for the blessed event of the Incarnation, we should remember that the light that shines from the manger of Bethlehem will one day fill all creation. In faith, we can follow the light and see all the ways some wish to hide, refusing to come to the light because they know the things they are doing are wrong. Let us gather together in Bethlehem knowing we too carry darkness within us. Let us take it to the light so that the baby lying in the feeding trough can remind us that he came to this world not to condemn us, but that all of us, the whole world, would be saved through him.