Regular Faculty

How To Get Out Of The Bubble

Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP

Advent is a time of hope and expectation. But we cannot have hope and expectation without looking beyond ourselves. We will try to understand how modern ways of thinking get in the way of it and will suggest a proof for the existence of God.


Advent is a time of hope and expectation. “Advenire” means to arrive. Something is expected to arrive. Someone is expected to come, and we are to prepare for that coming. Celebrating Advent is such a preparation, and it concludes with Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, who unexpectedly is born of a humble handmaid of the Lord, and even more unexpectedly turns out to be God himself, God incarnate.

On second thought, however, why would we be surprised today about something that has already happened? Why should we expect anything today, if Christ has already come? Not only has he been born in Bethlehem, but he has already died and risen; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. All has been accomplished.

All? Maybe not quite: after all, the world is still suffering, and we are still in travail over the ultimate meaning of history, expecting it to be revealed in an ultimate event. In other words, we are expecting a second coming.

As children we were, of course, all excited and in expectation over all those gifts and presents that would come out at Christmas expected or unexpected, and that colored our Advent. It is therefore easy to miss that the liturgical texts of Advent very much also reflect that Second Coming. “On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry announces that the Lord is nigh.” What John the Baptist announces is a preparation that is still needed today. We still are asked to be watchful and keep our lamps burning brightly until the bridegroom comes, and this time he comes for a final judgment – a judgment about who can be admitted and who has excluded himself from the eternal wedding banquet.

Many generations have tried to live in this expectation already, yet have not witnessed it coming. Still, the Church asks us to prepare, because we all inevitably experience our own personal Second Coming at the time of our death.

Furthermore, even apart from our death, Jesus is coming constantly in our lives – we might want to think of the Eucharist, and also of every grace that we receive. St. Bernard of Clairvaux therefore distinguishes three types of coming: past, present and future. The incarnation we find in the past, the coming for judgment in the future, and even in the present we need to keep our eyes open, ready to receive our Lord wherever he wants to show himself.


Our present culture and the current ways of thinking do not really prepare us for that, and so it takes us an extra effort to get our mind attuned to this message. It is therefore important to reflect on what gets in the way of this message, the message of John the Baptist.

John the Baptist calls himself the “voice in the wilderness.” The world has always been that wilderness, without any straight paths to God. But at least there is a voice. And if John is that voice, then he has something to say, he has a word to communicate. This word is what really matters, it is more important than the voice. Lest we mistake the messenger for the message, the voice, John the Baptist, needs to diminish and decrease, so that the incarnate Word of God might increase.

Now that in itself is a countercultural move. If we think of our own times, we might think of celebrities, who are typically voices without any content that could be of interest. In them, the medium has become the message. We would be hard pressed to say what they really have to communicate except for themselves. Biblically speaking they are “deaf and dumb”, because they are idols of marketing strategies, i.e., idols of our own making and of our projections. They do not bring good news, because there can be nothing new for us in something we have made ourselves. The really new and ultimate word cannot arrive; it is replaced with the apparent newness of changing fashions, alleviating our boredom with the same old things of this world.


But there is a deeper problem. Even if the voice is not empty, even if it speaks words, even if the voice asks us to “turn around, for the kingdom of God is at hand…” – would we be able to understand what the voice is saying? Can God get through to us? Does he have a language to communicate with us?

This problem is not just one of the consumerist pop culture, rather, it has penetrated the very heart of our intellectual and academic culture. It is reflected in our philosophy of language in particular. Can we think without language? might be the crucial question to ask; a contemporary audience will typically say: no; but it is important to realize, that before the 20th century the answer to this question would have been almost unanimously: yes! Of course we can think without language. One of the most obvious reasons is that we can translate something from one language into another. We can, for example, translate the message of John the Baptist, as it is found in the text of the Gospels, from Greek into English. After all, he probably did not proclaim it in Greek himself, so even the Gospels report something in translation. The very transmission of the message of Advent requires us to be able to translate. But that means that the message has to be independent from this, that or the other language. It must be something we hear as pure intelligible meaning in our hearts, and then write or say it again in a different language. Were that not possible, then we would not be able to re-identify the same meaning in different words or languages. How else would we be able even to notice that it is the same or not; or how would we recognize mistranslations as such? Or how would we be able to learn a different language, unless we were able to figure out the meaning apart from both our original and secondary language?

The 20th century, however, has witnessed what has been called the linguistic turn, a new attention and focus on language as such. Normally we do not notice language, we just use it. In this it is similar to any other tool: if you are paying attention to the hammer rather than to the task of putting the nail in the wall, you will probably hit your thumb instead. Likewise, if you do not keep in mind the thought you want to communicate, but rather think of the words themselves, you probably will trip over your tongue. Language will end up in some kind of gibberish. And maybe this is indeed what we can now witness not only in much of poetry, but also in philosophy itself, which has switched from a mode of thinking to an obsession with words – words that are increasingly losing their meaning.

Language ceases to be the medium through which we communicate thoughts, thoughts that we might have otherwise and independently from the medium of language. But if there are no thoughts apart from this medium, then the medium becomes increasingly opaque and unintelligible. Again, the medium becomes the message, and that means: it ceases to be a medium, it ceases to communicate; it stands for nothing else but itself. The voice of John the Baptist has then been muted by the idle chatter of the deconstructivists and similar kinds of expression of the contemporary intellectual culture. Nothing intelligible can penetrate the smoke screen of that language, let alone the word of God through the voice of John the Baptist. Nothing can arrive, Advent cannot happen.


But it gets worse: for language does not exist as such; it exists only in the plural, in the many languages of many peoples and cultures. If we focus our attention on the words themselves, we will lose the underlying thought that can be common to all cultures and language groups. Then every language will create its own little ethnic bubble, a kind of worldview that is different from that of any other language. In other words, our thoughts about reality will be relative to the language we speak. The various kinds of “language games” that we play will therefore determine different kinds of realities in which we live.

The truth about reality will depend on our own language, a language which is untranslatable and incommensurable with any other culture or language. As a consequence, we are imprisoned in how we speak.

In other words: in this kind of relativism, language shapes our thought. Ironically, some advocates of this kind of relativism are the first to criticize certain uses of language as politically incorrect. They try to reshape our way of thinking about things by manipulating our language. And undoubtedly, language can shape thinking to a certain extent. But if thought were nothing but that, then there would be no point of view, no thought by which to criticize traditional ways of speaking. In the name of what are we criticizing language, if all critique has no extra-linguistic point of reference, but is just another form of language? What we are left with in this scheme of things, is mere rhetoric, trying to out-talk other people, a replacement of truth and of thought itself by power and words.


By contrast, it is important for us to recognize that the Word that John the Baptist announces is not a word of any particular language. It is the Divine Word, God's very own thought, by which he thinks and grasps himself all at once, the Eternal Father finding a reflection of himself in the Son, the Divine Word which he utters from all eternity. But this utterance is not one made by vocal chords, sound waves, ink on paper or pixels on a screen; it is in the mind of God alone. Although I at times like to think that God speaks Latin, his Word is actually not of any particular language. It is a verbum mentis, a mental word, a thought, which precedes any utterance.

And this Word becomes flesh. It becomes flesh, and not a linguistic formula or a book. It is an Incarnation, not an Inscripturation. Even Sacred Scripture, God's inspired and inerrant word, is only a secondary, albeit inspired, reflection of this primary revelation of the Incarnate Word, in the human minds of the Evangelists.

The Divine Word assumes our human nature. It informs our very being with a new kind of intelligibility, not unlike human thought endowing externally spoken or written sounds and characters with the intelligibility that is characteristic of language. It is this intelligibility that makes language a means of communication, of living in a space of shared thought, of common understood reality.


This does, however, presuppose something else, namely that there is such a common space; that reality itself is indeed intelligible, including the reality of our own human nature. And that is precisely what people deny today. To speak with Michel Foucault: “We should not assume that the world turns a legible face towards us.” In this view, the world has become illegible. The world is not anymore God's language, the “book of nature” through which God reveals himself and speaks to his creatures, but a brute fact, opaque to any intelligibility and meaning. Intelligibility is legibility for human thought.

Not unlike medieval nominalism, modern thought is skeptical about our ability to understand reality. In its more radical forms it flatly denies that there is such a legibility – let alone that the divine Word could pick it up in the Incarnation. As a result, this kind of (post-)modernity needs to deny not only the intelligibility of reality, but the very existence of truth. If there is nothing to discover in reality, then there is no truth to articulate and enunciate. The only intelligibility is the one we impose on reality by our own language, and this language is not oriented in truth, but in the various and sundry strategies of power, domination or usefulness that we pursue. The very assumption of something like truth is seen as a threat to our freedom – the freedom to make reality into something in our own image and likeness. Objective truth is seen as the imposition of something that questions our presumed autonomy in the face of reality.

The more consequent thinkers of this kind have realized that this implies not only the abandonment of the very notion of truth, nor even merely an abandonment of the intelligibility of reality, but a denial of reality as such. After all, reality is understood to be something independent from our minds, an objectivity that is independent from our subjectivity and thus something that can provide what we call a “reality check” for our preconceptions, prejudices and fabrications. Reality, its intelligibility, truth and even God himself all stand and fall together. The pragmatist Richard Rorty said it clearly enough: we should stop seeking the truth, because – quote – There would only be a ‘higher' aim of inquiry called ‘truth' if there were such a thing as ultimate justification—justification before God, or before the tribunal of reason, as opposed to any merely finite human audience.[1]

And again Rorty: Pragmatists … do not believe that there is a way things really are. So they want to replace the appearance-reality distinction by that between descriptions of the world and of ourselves which are less useful and those which are more useful.[2]

In other words: truth presupposes a mind-independent reality as its measure; i.e., reality as it is independently from our particular points of view, but, so to speak, from God's eye view, a view from nowhere in particular and from everywhere at once. Reality ceases to be reality without this view, and truth, then, becomes nothing else but a useful illusion. This was indeed the position of Nietzsche, when he wrote “that we too, we enlightened ones, we free spirits of the nineteenth century, we still draw our fire from Christian belief, which was also Plato's belief, that God is truth, that the truth is divine.” But, for Nietzsche, precisely this notion is a self-deception. There is no truth; there is no objective God's eye view and therefore no reality. There are only our idiosyncrasies, which may be either useful or harmful. Or maybe our own heroic constructions of reality in which we play God ourselves, but in which we are basically alone.


Obviously, Advent cannot happen, if that is the case. If there is no mind-independent reality, then we are alone, caught up in ourselves; if nothing independent from our own mind, nothing essentially new can ever arrive; there is no basis for any expectation; we are caught in the “acedia” or metaphysical despair of the “same old”. If there is no intelligible message, if there is no truth that John the Baptist can proclaim, if there is no God who transcends our minds and can break in on our minds by the good news; if Rorty and Nietzsche are right, then we are perpetually stuck in our own little bubbles. Or, to say it with David Hume: “we never advance one step beyond ourselves”.

This is not mere theory. Contemporary culture is full of these bubbles. We call them virtual realities, basically: controlled technological versions of the drug culture of the 1970s. People get lost in “second worlds”, computer games and imaginary identities. And who is to blame them, if that is all that reality is anyway: our fabrication? I am convinced that popular culture is just the logical outcome of what has been developing in the minds of intellectuals for a long time.

Ever since Descartes, people have wondered whether reality is not just our dream, and whether this is something we could even know. Interestingly, for Descartes, the way out of the bubble of his own mind was the proof for the existence of God; only God's eye view allowed him to get out of the bubble or even ask the question, whether it is a bubble in the first place. Without God, on the other hand, we are hopelessly stuck in our dreams, our own virtual reality.

Accordingly, philosophers have constructed thought experiments of people who are in reality just brains in a vat, manipulated by crazy scientists to believe that they are in fact something else. But why then should we even care? Could we not just stay in Plato's cave and be happy anyway? Rorty might say (with a phrase that I borrow from one of my students): “stay in the cave; it is good shelter and therefore more practical, plus, you get a free movie!”

Indeed, why not? Let's do our own thought experiment:

Imagine someone strapped to a gurney, his eyes are closed. Wires are connected by electrodes to his brain. They lead to a machine at which day and night doctors are at work. They assure us that they keep this man in a state of constant euphoria and bliss, in which he is unaware of his real situation. What is more, they have found a way in which they can preserve him in this state forever.

Now, presuming this information is reliable, the question will be: do you think this man is happy? How can we decide this? One suggestion is to ask a test question: this question might be: would you want to change places with that person? What that means is not: would you be willing to endure it as a sacrifice, or begrudgingly so etc., but: would you like to change places with him? The assumption is that, if we believe him to be happy, then this is something that we would want for ourselves as well. I have to confess that, I am somewhat worried by the fact that increasingly people answer that question positively: they do wish for this. It might be a sign that our understanding of reality has become virtual anyway. Charles Baudelaire somewhere gave a simpler example of the same kind when he asked whether we would want to change places with some drunkard who we see lying in a ditch, and who thought himself to be the emperor of China. For Baudelaire this was a rhetorical question; today the question seems to have become a real one.

However, I want to assume that even those who answered the test question positively did feel at least a slight uncomfortableness at the thought. What might be the reason for that discomfort? I think the reason why we would hesitate to change places with that person is that this is not real. True happiness has to do with reality. Being happy means being real. We do not, for example, really rejoice in awards that we have attained by cheating. We know it not to be a real success, and therefore not reason for true joy. Happiness, even in our very own subjective experience, has to do with reality and objectivity. Happiness is either objective or it is indeed not real.

Aristotle asks somewhere, whether we would consider a king happy, who is dying, but thinks he has won a great victory, while in fact the true message of defeat has just not yet arrived. Aristotle says: no. Happiness is an objective state of affairs, not just a subjective state of belief. It is something that is so not just in our own perspective, but also from an objective outside perspective, i.e. from other people's perspective, and ultimately God's own view of things. It is, if you want, the view that we will have on judgment day, when all will be revealed in its truth and reality. We live and find happiness only in anticipating that point of view.


Sadly, even this outside view is neutralized today. Even our human interactions and views of each other have gone virtual. Facebook and other social networking places or electronic interactions allow us to fabricate our identity, thus preventing a real encounter. Friends on My Space are not real friends. Real friends make us real by real interaction. They are also not measured in quantities (i.e. how many friends do I have on Facebook?) but by how well they know us, i.e. the real us. They are independent from us, and not there to boost our egos by their mere quantity. On its lowest end, virtual reality makes it indeed possible to exploit other people for our own gratification, allowing us to see without being seen, pornography being the most obvious example. Pornography might be gratifying in some perverse way, but it does not make us happy. It rather enslaves us and deprives us of the freedom that comes with being real.

The correlation between happiness and reality might become even clearer, where our happiness depends on the reality of other people's happiness. Richard Swinburne gives an example: if you have a daughter, then the thought of her doing well in school will make you happy. But that will depend on true beliefs, not false ones, i.e., I must regard it as a good thing that my daughter is doing well in school (regardless of whether I believe that she is doing well, i.e. independently from my perspective, knowledge and perception), so that I take pleasure in the thought that she actually does well. In other words: I take delight not in my beliefs, but in her reality. And my beliefs are only a source of happiness for me, if they entail her actual happiness. Believing something is intrinsically linked to the external object that makes the belief true or false. A false belief, then, would imply a false happiness, which is actually a defect, and objectively unhappiness.

This might sound somewhat complicated, but I think it is fairly evident from experience that our happiness is not disconnected from the reality of other people and their point of view or their happiness. In other words: our happiness is relational, and therefore not to be had without self-transcendence. We have to leave our bubble and become real, if we truly want to be happy.


And of course, God knows that. He made us that way. He knows that we need to be liberated from our bubble, from our self-constructed prisons and virtual realities, in which we are only confronted with ourselves, our projections and addictions.

It might be tempting to think of God himself as the crazy scientist (or Descartes genius malignus) who keeps us in an illusion all the time. He would be like the computer wizard who keeps us in a virtual reality, and nothing around us is real. Maybe we are living in Plato's cave, after all, and all we see are the shadows of things. Maybe we are doing nothing else but watching a movie; and God is the director, who keeps us in that virtual reality, complete with popcorn, 3D and surround sound.

Now, in that scenario, would we miss something? Is there something that does not appear in the movie? Yes, there is. What usually does not appear in the movie, is the director. There are exceptions, of course. You might know that Hitchcock delighted in walking personally through some scene in each of his movies, putting his trademark on it, typically in the beginning. This, however, does not make the movie into reality. For that, he would also have to step out of the picture and start to engage us.

And now this is exactly what God does: he, too, appears in the beginning, engaging Adam and Eve. And he never really leaves; he never steps out of the picture again. It is we who step out of reality; and in doing so we make reality into make-belief. Listen to this: (Gen 3, 8:) And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" God is not a crazy scientist who hides from us, rather he keeps calling out to us, but we are hiding from our relationship with God, and by doing so we become unreal. The God who called us into being, into reality, now says: “where are you?” I.e.: you are not anymore, you have become unreal; you have stepped into your bubble, into your own virtual reality. You are like the proverbial ostrich putting his head into the sand, pretending that nobody else can see it, just because it cannot see anybody else. But God keeps seeing you and seeking you. It is not God, but you who have stepped out of reality into a mere picture.

But God does not leave us alone. He calls us out of our own bubble, in which there is nothing new, and so he says to Abraham: [Gen.12, 1f.] "Go out from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. In other words: come out of your usual bubble, and I will make something new, I will make you real.

All the patriarchs have lived in that faith and expectation and hope for a final arrival, that would burst the bubble once and for all. That is, when the director steps right into the bubble to burst it; that is when God becomes man, the Advent of the Messiah, the first coming. After that it is once and for all clear that creation is not a virtual reality, but real, because we can encounter the real God. He restores our relationship with himself, and through that with our neighbor; he makes our relationships real. Advent is the coming of a Messiah, who victoriously breaks in not just on the forces of evil in the world, but who breaks down our very own walls in which we have imprisoned ourselves. The incarnation is the ultimate reality check. If, according to Richard Rorty, reality is constituted by how God sees it, by God's eye view, then it is this very view itself that has become incarnate; God's timeless vision of time has entered time itself: before Abraham was, I AM. It is the God who is He Who IS, ipsum esse subsistens as Thomas Aquinas says, it is He Who Is Reality Itself. And if reality itself is entering our bubble, then it must burst. He is in himself reality as self-transcendence, because he is a community of persons, a Trinity. And as such he is re-opening our communal public space as well. It is then a space in which we have a language that can communicate, a language sanitized by the Divine Word, so that we can live in true relationships.

One can only speculate what it does to civilization, if afterwards this Divine Word is taken out of the public square again, banished as politically incorrect. Is it surprising that our politically correct language becomes confused, that it ceases to communicate, that it makes us into paranoid individuals, suspicious of each other, fixated on language rather than on truth, and being left to manipulating each other in cyber space?


The corruption of the best is always the worst. God has finally burst the bubble, and ever since we have tried to get back into it again, trying to live without God, creating our own reality, according to our own image and liking. In this we are not imitating the second Adam, who left himself open and vulnerable on the cross, but the first Adam, who hid himself from his creator behind bushes and fig leafs.

This is the very structure of sin; the scholastics called this incurvatio in seipsum: the turning in on oneself; self-centeredness; egomania; retreating into the bubble. We all do it to varying degrees. And it is not that God did not foresee this; he was not surprised by it. Rather he provided for it. We call this confession, the sacrament of reconciliation. It is no accident that this season of Advent is also celebrated with penance services. We prepare to step out of our bubble and hear the Baptist's cry by counteracting the lies that we have been living, and by starting to live in the truth again.

Being in the bubble, on the other hand, does mean to live a lie. Lying is its own kind of linguistic turn: we turn in on ourselves, making language into a barrier to our interior rather than into a means of communication. If we lie, we say one thing on the outside, but believe and think something else on the inside. We do not mean what we say, and language becomes meaningless. It ceases to communicate; it is not transparent to reality, it does not open up a public and common space of persons.

This is true even for what people sometimes call “white lies”. I don't really think that there is such a thing. Any lie is destructive of our relationships with other people. Untruthfulness is a poison that destroys human relations; even small lies begin to undermine the fabric of human life; they get us used to separating inside and outside, separating our own little bubble from reality – from the reality of other people, but even from our own reality, which is never without the reality check of other people. The origin of these allegedly “white lies” is usually just a matter of convenience; it begins with taking shortcuts to save ourselves a possible awkwardness; it is an act of cowardice for our short term convenience, ignoring what it does in the long run. People sometimes say, that we “do not owe the truth to everyone”; but that is very dangerous, because it can be misunderstood: we certainly do not have to tell everything to everyone, but that does not imply a right to lie to anyone.

According to the Catechism, lying offends against justice and charity. I think that is true even with regard to ourselves: we end up isolating ourselves from the outside, living in a world of egocentric convenience, with a lack of true human interaction. We start to get used to ignoring reality, living in a bubble without reality checks, and indeed living a lie. We deceive our very selves, by cutting ourselves loose from reality. We start to develop forms of pride and narcissism as a consequence, in which we cannot acknowledge our wrongs anymore, but rather portray ourselves as victims. We develop addictions so that we do not have to face a reality that does not obey us and thus hurts our pride. It is again, the very structure of sin; it is turning in on ourselves, and living in the bubble.

I want to suggest that the true antidote to this is confession: confession might be one of the few places left, where people can still acknowledge that they have done wrong, that in fact they have become wrong, and have lost their moorings in reality. And confessing this can be a real blessing, because it allows for a true growth in self-knowledge, in realism. Confession does this by being the reversal of our lies. In confession we put what is usually only on the inside into the outside. While a lie is a speech act that disconnects our inside from our outside, confession does the reverse: it puts the inside back into the outside, by confessing our interior, wrong intentions that we would rather hide from the world.

Hiding our intentions from the world might be possible, but we cannot hide them from God: Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? is a question Jesus asks the Pharisees and he asks us as well, and the hypocrites of all ages, to whom we all belong to some degree. It is in God's eye view that we find reality; God knows the truth, he knows the whole story, he knows the inside and the outside. And by confessing the truth to him, we allow him to restore us to reality as well. The speech act of confessing, of putting the inside back into the outside, is answered by a reverse speech act: the words of absolution. Its effect is, again the reverse of what happens in lying: God unites inside and outside, he makes us whole and real. This is what we all expect to happen at the Last Judgment, and then on a universal scale: It is a public judgment after all, one that restores the public square in truth. Already now, every time the Gospel is proclaimed, the truth about this world is proclaimed, namely that it still lives in the old heaven and the old earth, in the virtual realities of our own making, in the cave. With God's ultimate Word about our lies, the Incarnation that we are preparing to celebrate, this bubble has been burst, the director has walked on the stage, he has been born into Plato's cave: in the cave of Bethlehem. Yet, we keep trying to close that bubble, but the second and final coming of God's Word will be the word of judgment, the truth about these attempts. It will be a public judgment, because it restores the truth and establishes maybe for the first time a true public square: the public square of the heavenly Jerusalem. The Church as the kingdom of God is the anticipation of this heavenly Jerusalem, making present the Word and the Truth, in words of proclamation, of confessional forgiveness and restoration – and indeed in making the very ultimate reality itself present through the words of consecration in which the Word Incarnate becomes present on our altars.


And so the word of God, that the voice of the Baptist proclaims, is a word of repentance and final judgment as well as one of hope and expectation. The Word of God is a word of forgiveness and with that a word of restoration for reality. Without this word, our language will crumble and become a lie. It will not allow for self-transcendence and the open space of reality, in which we can live in common. It will bring us into the world of Richard Rorty and Friedrich Nietzsche, in which there is no real world, except the one that we make – a reality in which all is just relative to us and our perceptions; a world which is just a bubble.

Fortunately, the very language that we speak will not allow us to retreat into the bubble. The very grammar of our language is a grammar of Advent, and grammar of hope and expectation, of self-transcendence; a language that is indeed suitable to the voice of John the Baptist. The very structure of our language speaks of God and his future coming.

What do I mean? Something that might sound complicated, but only because it is something simple, something that is so very close to us that we find it hard to notice. Something that requires us indeed to make a linguistic turn in the positive sense, paying attention to the means of communication, but so as to discover the indication of a deeper meaning in it (I am taking the following thought from my professor, the German philosopher Robert Spaemann, to whom I am indebted for a number of other insights as well). As my closing point, let me try to show this to you.

In our use of language, we talk about states of affairs; about these we make claims such that something or other is the case, i.e.: real. Now, grammatically, all these ways of speaking are structured temporally; that is, they do have a time index: past, present and future, the grammatical tenses. Likewise, if we want to express that we consider something real, we use time indicators: in order to say that something is the case, we use the present tense. This is the case, i.e. now, as opposed to: this was the case, or this will be the case. Neither the past, nor the future is real, but the present is. However, the three grammatical senses of time (past, present and future), cannot be without one another. Something that is always and only in the past or always and only in the future, but never in the present, in fact never was and never will be either. If we say that something was the case, we mean by it that at some time it was present, and someone then could have spoken about it in the present tense. And the reverse is true as well: what is the case now, namely that I am now writing this, will tomorrow be in the past, and that means we can say: tomorrow it will have been the case, that I spoke to you today. Every present implies a future perfect. We are using the future perfect, the futurum exactum, to express that what exists now, once will have been; and what once was, was then something that would be in the future. The very word “once” seems to indicate both the future and the past senses that are implied in the future perfect or futurum exactum, in which we anticipate a future point in time, at which we will look back at it as past.

Furthermore, not only the past and the future are here mutually implied, but also the present: to say about an event of the present that it will at some point in the future never have been, means to say that in reality it in fact does not exist now either. If my writing this at this hour right now, will not be true tomorrow or some point in the future as something that has been, then it is not really the case now either. Another way of saying this is: it will always be true that I am writing this right now. It will always have been the case, or: it is eternally true that I am writing this right now, or else I am not writing right now. It means that nothing real will ever be lost; no pain and no joy can fall out of this perspective in which it will once be true that something has happened “once” in the past. The very ambivalence of the word “once” unites the past and the future in a timeless view from nowhere. In other words: our very grammar requires us to speak from the viewpoint of God, or else nothing will ever be real.

Notice that our language does not even limit itself to our own existence, or to anybody's existence. Even if the planet Earth would be destroyed tomorrow, the use of the future perfect implies that it will have been the case that the Earth will have existed the day after tomorrow. Nor does it even depend on the persistence of the universe: even if the world would come to an end tomorrow, it would still have been true that it existed today. But for whom would it have been true? Not in anybody's virtual reality, because all these bubbles will have ceased to exist. Just as the past reality as reality is entirely independent now of the fact that we recall it, so it will be in the future. Yet the past is always the past of a present; for whose presence will it be past after the end of the world? It can only be so for the eternal present of God himself. Thus, in our very way of speaking we are living and being in the very presence and perspective of God. Nietzsche understood this when he complained: “I fear that we will never be free of God because we still believe in grammar.” It is not at all absurd to think that something that is now, will not be anymore in the future; but it is absurd to think that it at some point will not have been anymore, because that would mean that it is not real now either, including ourselves who try to think this thought. We cannot cease thinking of at least ourselves as real, even if we are in the bubble; and we cannot suspend grammar, without crossing ourselves out as well. God is embedded in our very language, and if we make a linguistic turn that makes us aware of that, then it might be worth taking it; this turn is not a turning in on ourselves, but a turning ourselves inside out, and opening ourselves up to the one reality that alone can make us real.

This is the language in which the voice of John the Baptist can reach us, in which the view from nowhere, God's very own Word can become incarnate and burst our bubble forever. Advent means that in the future it will have been true that we are here now today. Living in expectation means anticipating that view from eternity that shelters the past and makes all things new. Being watchful like the wise virgins, keeping our lamps burning brightly, means to awake from the bubble of our dreams and step into the bright daylight of God's own reality.


[1] From “Truth without Correspondence to Reality”, R. Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, (Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1999). Back to article.

[2] Rorty, ibid. Back to article.