Spirit of God or Spirit of the Age?
When driving through west Yorkshire in England a couple of years ago, we came upon a beautifully rugged small town nestled in the hills. While I remember how beautiful (and cold) it was, I took away one image: A big sign outside one of the stores, “Zeitgeist Hair Salon.” I didn’t think much of it at the time, but then I wondered why anyone would call a hair salon “Zeitgeist.” Maybe they are deep, philosophical intellectuals cutting hair in that place, and there were some beautiful photos of the kind of hair design they could do for you that looked very avant garde and modern, but “Zeitgeist”? Seems a little heavy! It struck me because the whole notion of Zeitgeist is indeed a deeply meaningful philosophical thing dating back to the eighteenth century, although really it was developed in the nineteenth century. It means, “Spirit of the age” or “spirit of the times”. It is German in origin, but it slipped into the way we talk about the spirit of the age and the spirit of the times. It is a powerful word, whether it is reflecting the thoughts of Gunther or Hagel or of Voltaire. Zeitgeist implies that in every era, regardless of where it is, there is a spirit of the age; an attitude and an approach to life that dominates.
You can see, and philosophers have dwelt on this, the power of zeitgeist on political leaders. Napoleon is a classic example of someone who reflected the zeitgeist of his era. As Thomas Carlyle put it, “the great leader, the powerful leader, the innovative leader”, which he was, and that innovative leader embodies the spirit of the age of the great and the glorious leader of the Napoleonic era that others tried to match afterwards. Or, maybe it is in the area of arts and culture that there is the zeitgeist, that is a spirit of the age showing certain patterns, and ways of looking at the world, and that they manifest themselves in a time and a place where people copy them. A classic example of that would be the Impressionists, who were powered by the zeitgeist, a spirit of the age, a romanticism of their time. In different eras different forms of art have taken on the spirit of the age. Perhaps the nearest we can get to it from our generation would be the 1960s, a classic example of where art and music went hand-in-hand with a very strong cultural zeitgeist. It also affects the social mores of the time, the ideals, the things that we hold true and believe are important, our social outlook and our sense of right and wrong. Regardless of whether it is politics or power, art and culture or social mores, it is almost as if the spirit of the age takes on its own voice, becomes a spiritual dimension all of its own, for good or ill, it is powerful. It has a voice that often is followed, as Kierkegaard said “like a mob who attach themselves to it so that everyone is saying the same thing” creating conformity to the spirit of the age.
That is very true, but it is not just true in philosophy over three hundred years; even the Apostle Paul, describes the spirit of the age in which he lived. He talks about the rulers of his age, and the wisdom, but he does so in a negative way. He understands that this spirit of the age is flawed: that it makes mistakes; that it does not understand fully the Spirit of God. For Paul, these two are often in tension with one another, living as if they were independent forces from one another, the spirit of the age and the Spirit of God. Without drawing too great a distinction, Paul says an example of this in his era was the crucifixion of Jesus. Had those who were in power known that Jesus was fulfilling God’s promise, God’s Covenant, and revealing the very power and nature of God, they would not have put him to death. The problem was, either objectively or subjectively, words and the concepts were used to justify his execution. From a legal, objective point of view, there were those who pointed to the law, either the Roman law or the law of the Old Testament to suggest that Jesus was worthy of being executed, for whatever charge there was against him, clearly they did not feel that he was doing the right thing. Similarly, from a subjective point of view there were people like the family of the Herods, Pontius Pilate, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman Governors who felt threatened by Jesus and were able to whip up the people to reject Jesus of Nazareth.
For Paul, this was the supreme indictment on the zeitgeist of his era. The spirit of the age did not see clearly and fully what God and God’s Spirit was doing in Jesus of Nazareth. So, Paul builds an argument around this text (our text this morning). Paul is trying to show that there is a distinction between the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, and the Spirit of God. The great Christian writer, Max Lucado, tells an incredible fable to illustrate how the wisdom and the spirit of the age does not grasp things fully, because it vacillates. He tells this story, and it sounds like an Aesop’s fable, of the woodcutter and his horse. There was a poor woodcutter, who lived in a rural area with only a horse and his son. As he is living his life, he realizes that his white horse is a beautiful creature, but some of the people, who reflect the age in which he lived say, “You know, you are so poor that it would be in your best interest if you sold the white horse. That is all you have to do, and you will be rich.”
The woodcutter said, “I couldn’t do that. I love this horse! This horse is like a member of my family. I will not sell my horse.”
The people said, “Oh, how foolish you are woodcutter. How stupid you are! You could solve all your problems by simply selling the horse.”
One day, the horse gets out of the barn and runs away. The people come to him and say, “Oh, how foolish you are, woodcutter! Had only you sold the horse when you had a chance! But now, you have lost that chance, and you neither have money nor do you have a horse. You are a foolish man!”
The woodcutter said, “I do not know if I am foolish or if I am smart. All I know is I have lost my horse and my heart is broken.”
A few weeks later the horse returned and brought with it twelve other horses. They came romping into the barn, and the barn is full of horses. The people come up to him and say, “You are a wise man, woodcutter. You have found a way to grow your investments. You are so wealthy you could sell these horses and you could be a millionaire, you could be so rich!”
The woodcutter said, “I do not know whether I am wise or I am foolish. I had a horse, and now I have thirteen horses, and things are good. I do not know if I am wise or foolish.”
Then one day his son decided to take a horse for a ride. As they are riding through the field the horse falls over a bush and the son is thrown off the horse and breaks both his legs and has to come home in splints. The people say, “You are a foolish man, woodcutter. You have allowed your son to go on a horse and he has broken his legs. Do you not know how stupid you are?”
The woodcutter said, “I do not know if I am wise or if I am stupid. All I know is that my son has broken his legs and I am sad.”
Finally, there is news that there is going to be a war. In this war they are going to conscript young men from the community to go and fight, knowing there will be a loss of life. The young man wanted to sign up, but was prohibited from doing so because he had two broken legs. The people came to the woodcutter and said, “You are a wise man! You must have known that this was going to happen and that your son would now be spared.”
The woodcutter said, “I do not know if I am wise or whether I am stupid, but I do know this: there will be young people who will lose their lives, and for this, I am sad.”
The people came back to him when others had returned and said, “You are a wise man, woodcutter. You have had a horse and you have kept it. You have a son and you have preserved him. You have done well!”
The woodcutter said, “I do not know if I am wise or if I am foolish. I have my horse and now horses. I have a son who I love, but many have died as well. Only God knows whether I am wise or foolish, only God can really say which way it is.”
The Apostle Paul realized that the wisdom of this age vacillates, but the wisdom of God is deeper. It is what knows us, our very inner being, as only our spirit can.
What does Paul say about this Spirit? That this spirit in many ways speaks of its own; it speaks in a way that is different. Paul suggests that the Spirit of God is both a mystery and is hidden. It is not there for everyone to see; but is a gift from God. While human reason may at times go hand-in-hand with the Spirit of God, the Spirit is not against reason, it is not constrained by it, and while the Spirit may move our emotions, the Spirit is not constrained by our emotions. The Spirit moves, as Jesus says to Nicodemus, “where it wishes and where it wills”. The Spirit of God is free, free from the constraints of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. It is a gift that is given through faith, and it is a faith that allows us to see deeply within the heart of Almighty God. It enables us to see things that otherwise we would not see in a way that shows us the inner workings of God. It might sound strange to talk about the Spirit in such terms. It sounds almost foreign, yet it is the Spirit, as Paul says, who reveals to us the very power of the things from God: to see with the eyes of God.
Some years ago an artist who lived in the town where I was ministering invited me to his house to see his collection. He was a wonderful artist and sold his work all over the Maritimes. He would do beautiful seascapes and landscapes of the hills. I asked him, “Do you have a favourite amongst all of these?” I was expecting something spectacular from the ocean.
He took me to another room, pointed, and said, “That is my favourite painting. That is the one I like more than any other.”
I looked at it. It was a painting of his house. I thought, “Of all these magnificent paintings why would his house be his favourite painting?”
Then, he said, “Andrew, I want you to look very carefully at it, really look at it.”
Well, you can imagine that is kind of intimidating. I stood in front of this thing and I thought “Well, what wise words am I going to say? I like your mixture of colours. The canvas looks good; it is a nice size on the wall.” I don’t know: something banal and facile like that is all I could come up with.
He said, “No, Andrew, really look carefully at the painting.”
My stress level was rising. I looked at the painting and suddenly, like a bolt out of the blue, I realized what he was going on about. I noticed that in every single portion of it there was an image of the Cross. On the front windows there was a cross. The front walkway was designed in the shape of a cross. On the front door, there was a cross. Even the house itself was shaped with east and west and north and south rooms in the shape of a cross. When you actually go up to his picture of the window you see in the wall behind it one image: the Cross. For Murray, the painter, this was the most important painting. This is what he saw every day he painted. He saw this gift from God in Christ was with him, hidden from certain eyes that could not see. To those who saw with the eyes of faith, it came alive. You have no idea how relieved I was that I discovered that!
This is what Paul is talking about. The Spirit of God as a whole. It is sometimes foreign to the zeitgeist, not always, but oftentimes. The spirit of the age does not always live up to and manifest itself in powerful ways. It is not always true to what God wishes and wills. The spirit of the age can take over, and so we see the world only through the eyes that the world itself promotes, but does not see with the mind of Christ. At times, I feel that in our era the zeitgeist of the idolatry of the self is so powerful and the word that keeps coming to us is “Make sure that you are happy first”, which seems so incredibly contrary to the whole notion of what Jesus himself lived and stood for. It for the betterment of the other, for the betterment of the world, for the happiness of the other that should come first. It is seeking the will of God for the lives of others that should come first. For if all of us were to live our lives putting self first, what kind of world would we ultimately have? A world of despots, egotists, where those who are able to dominate by putting their will and their selves and their pleasure above all else. It seems to me that when the zeitgeist is that, the Spirit of God is entirely different!
At times it is as if we are speaking a foreign language. It seems when you talk about the will of God or the purpose of the Holy Spirit or the person of Jesus Christ people’s eyes to glaze over like it’s a foreign language! When it is a foreign language, you can be belittled. The zeitgeist can make fun of it. It certainly made fun of those who after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus continued to proclaim the Gospel, and it was seen in the world’s eyes to be foolishness, when in fact it was the very revelation of God. It was like years ago when I went with a South African church contingent from Holland to a meeting of a committee of The World Council of Churches. I was sitting with three other South Africans who spoke Afrikaans, (and that as many of you know is the Dutch derivative but with other influences as well) and there was a boy and his father sitting behind us in a booth. As we were talking, I heard the little boy since I understood enough Dutch, say to his father, “Daddy, Daddy, why are these men talking baby talk?” because that is unfortunately what Afrikaans sounds like – baby-talk! It seems we are often talking a different language within the culture that we live in. When we talk about Christ and love and forgiveness and sin and hope, resurrection, it seems our language gets missed. But still, that does not mean that we do not seek what Paul calls “the deeper means of God” and that we do not seek the Spirit’s guidance into the deeper things of God.
A lot of people these days are concerned about the Church and its lack of influence and size within society, and that this has become a narrative of our age. In some ways we are more concerned that we are eight miles wide, but we do not take seriously what Paul calls “the deeper things of God”. The deeper things of God come from the Spirit. They reveal what God’s will and intention is for our lives. I ask you to think about the extent your life is full of the deep, spiritual things of God, and whether this living relationship that Paul talks about of a Spirit that is great and reveals to us the will and the purpose of God is an integral part of your life and your witness. Believe-you-me, the spirit of the age continues to prattle on and always will do, but ultimately to which voice do we listen and to which spirit do we give our lives and our hearts? This is the great challenge of our day. So, I ask you, which spirit is it that you listen to? Maybe, when I go back to Yorkshire next time I might recommend a change in the sign! How about Holy Spirit Hair Design? I like that one! That is where I will go for my next cut. What about you? Amen.