"It is what it is?"

by Berry Friesen (December 29, 2015)

Most of us living in the West take pride in having a realistic approach to life.  “It is what it is,” we say about the situations in which we find ourselves.

Our patterns of speech disparage those who fail to reflect a proper realism.  “They have their heads in the clouds,” we say; “they don’t have their feet on the ground.”  A person who believes things that are inconsistent with “reality” is described as “delusional.”An individual with severe mental illness is described as having experienced “a break with reality.”

Of course, “reality” varies across cultures and across the centuries.  This simple fact reminds us to be careful not to assume the same uniformity in our social world as science has taught us to expect in our physical world.  Yet that assumption can be difficult to resist, especially in an era like ours when the scientific method has demonstrated such universality, global travel and communications have knit aspects of the social world into one culture, and the forces of imperialism render irrelevant so many important differences.

To put the problem another way, we easily make the mistake of assuming social reality is as subject as the physical world to immutable laws and principles.  This blinds us to what sociologists call “the social construction of reality.”  It obscures the fact “that reality is not fixed and settled,” as theologian Walter Brueggemann puts it in Israel’s Praise:  Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology. 

The empire knows this and exploits it to the hilt.  During the first term of President George W. Bush,  Karl Rove, a close advisor to the President, explained to author Ron Suskind how this all works: “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Religion is equally comfortable with the view that social reality is created; indeed, one can make the case that when religion is at its best, it is all about creating a new world in which its highest aspirations are realized.  Of course, religion attributes this creativity in the first instance to its god. But the faithful are co-creators of this new creation, especially when engaged in the rituals and practices of worship.

As Brueggemann puts it, “World-making is done by God .  . . But it is done through human activity which God has authorized and in which God is known to be present.”

This insight brings into focus the contested ground between religious faith and the empire.  Each recognizes that social reality is not fixed.  Each claims the authority to create the social reality in which we live.  And to one degree or another, each proceeds to carry out its claimed authority.  Do we recognize their respective handiwork?  Do we participate in their world-shaping rituals and liturgies? How did we decide which has the higher claim on our lives?

If Not Empire, What? touches on these questions throughout.  It asserts that the very first written biblical text—the story of David and Solomon—attempted to unite the Hebrew tribes behind a Jerusalem-based clique.  Though much of the story was not true, it gave birth to a social, political and economic reality centered on a god who ruled his people through an earthly king and promised to make his people into an imperial power. The book of Exodus, the writings of the First Testament prophets, the teachings of Jesus and the letters of Paul attempted to correct the misrepresentation of YHWH found in the story of David and Solomon and to call into existence an entirely different social reality, what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God” and Paul called “a new creation.”

In short, when it comes to social reality, we’re fooling ourselves if we conclude “it is what it is.”  Reality is constantly being shaped and remade by powers that claim the authority to do so. For each of us, the key question is which version of reality we are helping to create.