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  • Writer's pictureDr. Benjamin J. Williams

Believe Not Every Zeitgeist

Every era has its own prevailing narrative, mood, values, and concerns. They pivot restlessly from generation to generation, rarely settling. Like popular baby names, the sensibilities of the moment arise seemingly out of nowhere and yet exist everywhere.

Our friends the Germans have gifted us the useful word "Zeitgeist" to describe this phenomenon. "Ghost of the time." Spirit of the age. It is used currently by tech businesses to anticipate and harness the next profitable trend, but the concept runs deeper than that. In principle, the idea is not unlike several biblical expressions. Paul describes pre-Christian life as "following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:2-3). The "god of this age" has blinded us to heaven's good news (2 Corinthians 4:4). The gospel of Paul is not according to "the wisdom of the age" nor its rulers (1 Corinthians 2:6).

Thinking of our cultural norms and moods then prompts me to consider afresh the counsel of John in his first epistle. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1). Believe not every zeitgeist. Challenge our most basic assumptions and our most pragmatic principles. Challenge the spirit of the age. Measure it against the message of the gospel. Recognize that the near unanimous consent of our culture to these ideas does not speak for them but rather against them. "They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them" (v. 5).

In Social Values

An example that comes to mind for me is the modern value of equality. It is simply assumed that greater and greater equality in every facet of society is desirable. However, the definition of equality we typically work with is something more like "equivalent" or "identical," in many cases "uniform." To challenge this concept is so repulsive to us that it immediately provokes cries of bigotry. But who has defined our value of equality in this way? Is this God's vision of equality or is this the spirit of the age speaking?

Is there a kind of equality wherein A=B but A is not entirely the same as B? After all, A and B are different aren't they? They are two distinct symbols, or else we would read A = A. They are equal but not identical.

In cultural terms, how can we recognize that A is equal to B in value, while at the same time acknowledging that there is more than one letter in the alphabet? How can we honor the equality of all races and ethnicities and value their uniqueness? How can we honor the equality of genders while acknowledging their differences? How can we honor the equality of persons while acknowledging their differences? I would suggest to you that we cannot do any of these things as long as the spirit of the age continues to define our terms for us. Trying to imagine that male and female are identical will ultimately prevent us from treating and valuing them as equals. Likewise, believing that we can be color-blind to race and racial-historical experiences will ultimately create ragged inequality rather than our desired equality. The major difference is the Bible values the image of God while the zeitgeist often values the image of uniformity.

In Scientific Values.

Even science is not immune to the zeitgeist. In perhaps my favorite C.S. Lewis essay, he observes that "probably every age gets, within certain limits, the science it desires" ("The Funeral of a Great Myth," Christian Reflections, 85). The storybook of our age tells us that science is the result of an objective investigation, but we should learn better. Science results from asking questions, but who writes the questions? More importantly, who anticipates what possible answers should be considered first or not at all? Lewis - who claims to have no definitive opinion on biology itself - argues that we get our scientific models from our stories:

"Already, before science had spoken, the mythical imagination knew the kind of 'Evolution' it wanted. It wanted the Keatian and Wagnerian kind: the gods superseding the Titans... If science offers any instances to satisfy that demand, they will be eagerly accepted. If it offers any instances that frustrate it, they will simply be ignored" (Ibid., 85-86).

I am no hater of science. I love science and value it tremendously, but we are naive if we believe it can be inoculated against the definitions, stories, and desires of the age.

What Spirit Then?

If the spirit of the age inundates every debate, how can we think or speak without its influences? Again I would point us back to John for direction.

"By this, you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. ... Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. ... We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this, we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error" (1 John 4:2-6).

For John, the goal is not a "view from nowhere," some sort of perfect objectivity without any reference to a cultural frame, but rather the view from Heaven. For John, the goal is not to reject all spirits, but rather to be influenced by the correct Spirit. Of course, we will live our lives according to some grand narrative. Of course, we will function based on some assumed definitions. Of course, we are influenced by spirit! So make it the right one! Our task is to discern, not to ignore. As Christians, we’re called to walk by the Spirit, not by the zeitgeist.

Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Glenpool Church of Christ and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.

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