Every year the Oxford Dictionaries announce a new word of the year. It’s a word that attracts a great deal of interest in that year. The most famous word in recent years was ‘Selfie’ which increased by 17,000% in 2013. Just eleven days ago on 16th November ‘post truth’ was announced as the international word in 2016. It is widely associated with US president-elect Donald Trump’s extravagant and untruthful assertions and the working-class people who voted for him nonetheless. This word also had a spike around the Brexit vote last June, thus making it popular both sides of the Atlantic. The word ‘post’ in post-truth doesn’t mean a kind of post mortem where the truth comes out afterwards. Rather it’s something that one posts on Facebook and what is posted appeals more to emotion and what one would like to believe rather than objective truth. The most notorious post was that Pope Francis endorsed Trump. How misleading is that! Could you ever find someone more different from Trump than Pope Francis!
Sadly, whenever personal opinions and prejudices take precedence over objective truth we have a problem. It means we have lost the plot and it points to a deep malaise in society at large. This is what Pope Benedict is getting at when he criticises the culture of relativism where I have my truth and you have yours and let’s settle for that. Thus, objective truths have become less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
When every and anything is paraded as truth, then we shouldn’t be too surprised that we are now living in difficult and uncertain times. One of today’s problems is information overload. We get so many facts and statistics that there simply isn’t time to digest them all. But information is not wisdom. Wisdom has to do with how to live one’s life, why we are here and what is the purpose of life in the first place. The old penny catechism tells us that we were made to know, love and serve God and thereby find our happiness. I’m afraid this priceless nugget of wisdom is all too easily swallowed up in today’s vast sea of information.
Today’s gospel is quite modern and up to date in this regard. The people in Noah’s time were busy eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, without any reference to a spiritual dimension in their lives. So wrapped up were they in everyday events that they were stone deaf to the warnings Noah had given them about spiritual realities. And so, when the Flood came they were all swept away. If that was a problem then how much more so in today’s far more hectic world. To quote Pope Benedict. “At the heart of all temptations is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives.” As we enter the season of Advent and prepare for the coming of Jesus, this is what we have got to learn again, namely, God is not secondary. Instead, a lot of stuff we busy ourselves with every day is what is secondary. And God is telling us not to sweat the small stuff. If only we could relax that little bit more, realise things are never going to be perfect on this side and allow an opening for the God of tenderness and compassion to companion us – what a difference that could make!
The people whom Isaiah addresses in the first reading have learnt their lesson the hard way. They are in exile in Babylon because of their disconnect with God. Now, in their misery, they realise the error of their ways and are willing to allow their prophet to lead them back to basics and to a renewed relationship with God once more. Notice how God centred this reading is. The invitation is to climb God’s mountain. Personal or egoistic ambitions have been put to one side. God is at the centre. Then comes the real reason for climbing which is that God may teach them his ways and they may walk in his paths. The final sentence adds the same sentiment: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
Back to Pope Benedict. He is very aware that when we get too caught up in this world, not only do lose sight of God, but we also begin to live by our own lights and not by the light of God. “Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation, refusing to acknowledge anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion – that is the temptation that threatens us in many varied forms.” (Jesus of Nazareth). Living by one’s own lights is to retreat into one’s own world of personal likes and opinions which this year had made post-truth the international word of the year. It’s not something to be proud of.
We are currently experiencing a crisis of individualism where the self-made, self-sufficient, autonomous individual stands by himself or herself, not needing anyone else and not beholden to anyone or anything. Selfie and post-truth have come to define this state of affairs. But there is hope. One of the great things about the Bible is that we can start again and again. All we have to do is imbibe the reading from Isaiah. Let us join those in exile at the bottom of the mountain. This is easy enough because today’ for today’s individualistic world has alienated us from each other and disconnected us from God. Let us set ourselves to climb God’s holy mountain together. The closer we come to God, the closer we come to each other. Let us celebrate the fact that we need both God and each other. None of us can claim to be self-made. Then in all humility let us cease living by our own lights and be open to be taught by God so that he can teach us his ways and we can walk in his paths. Then let us joyfully walk in the light of the Lord.
Sunday, 27 November 2016