Zeitgeist und Heilige Geist

I like languages. I’ve always been fascinated with the way we use sounds and scratches on dead trees to convey meaning. And I like people who like languages, too; I once dated a girl who was fluent in six or seven different dialects (which put me to shame, and I’m no slouch myself). Today’s title borrows a word from German without an English equivalent (and so I thought, why not put the whole thing in German): zeitgeist. Literally it’s a compound word of “time-ghost” (which sound a bit wibbly-wobbly), and so it refers to what we think of as “the spirit of the age,” or “the spirit of the times.”

Every age in history has its own zeitgeist, its own particular cultural consensus as to how it views the world. Think of the Roaring Twenties and its accompanying sense of decadence, or the relative prudery of Victorian England, or the unflagging courage and valor of the Greatest Generation, or of the “flower power” of 1960s America. These are examples of the spirits of the age. They arise in every time period in every culture. They may even be in competition with each other depending on where one finds oneself; academia may have one prevailing wind, as it were, and rural areas another; Europe may be in opposition to Africa; you get the idea.

So what’s our current American zeitgeist? What’s the spirit of our age and area which defines how our culture looks at the world? It arises out of a confluence of different factors, but we can look at several of them. The political landscape, foremost on people’s minds this election year, is just a mess. It’s a combination of optimism and sheer horror.  (As one anonymous commentator on the Internet has said, “It’s like this is the final season of America and the writers are just going crazy.”) I think it’s also tinged with a bit of xenophobia, with the “other” being whatever is appropriate for your context: immigrants, homosexuals, Republicans, Gen X-ers, Christians, Muslims, what have you. Then we have to take into account a rampant individualism, especially as evidenced in the proponents of abortion, LGBT advocacy, the quickly-declining marriage rate, the steadily-rising divorce rate, the preference of young adults to rent rather than own homes (and thus not be tied down, among other reasons), the ubiquitous selfie, etc. Many, many things which point to the Self as the Golden Calf of our times. If I had to characterize our zeitgeist in two words, then, I would choose these: fear and narcissism. We love ourselves, and we’re scared of anything that a) isn’t us and b) might prevent us from being who we truly want to be.

One man’s opinion.

The problem with any spirit of the age, however, is that it must ultimately deal with the spirit: the Holy Spirit, the Heilige Geist from the title. An unchanging God will not bend to the personal preferences of particular people, nor will He kowtow to the whims of those who wish Him nonexistent or a carbon of themselves. God is God — and He is a holy God. A Holy Spirit cannot get mired down in the sins of the world without ceasing to be holy. And so God can participate in neither the fear nor the ego of our current zeitgeist. He stands as loving Father and final Judge of this age and all others. When the spirit of the age comes into conflict with the Holy Spirit, our loyalty must always be to the latter. We can’t let ourselves get so caught up in the world we lose sight of the holy; we can’t focus on the temporal to the exclusion of the eternal. And so we rest our identities and our souls in the one who stands outside of time.

Our worship should do the same. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating for solely traditional worship, and I’m not suggesting we should move into the purely contemporary (my thoughts on the so-called worship wars will come later). But we shouldn’t let our Christian practices of worship be dictated by popular opinion. We must continue to do what is holy and what is sacred. We continue on with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, regardless of rhythm; we continue to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the lost souls in a dark world; we celebrate the Table and we baptize those who come to saving faith; and we take our renewed bodies, hearts, minds, and souls out to the highways and hedges and compel them to come in.  That’s the real point of worship: to ascribe blessing, honor, glory, and power to the God who deserves it and to invite others to a place where they can do the same.

The church must continue to be a community called from among the world, called away from the zeitgeist, but then it must always go back out to the same world to offer it a different Spirit. The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit from a holy God of holy love.


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