The Spirit of the Age
Introduction: The Man on the Bus
Recently I was riding on the Skybus from Melbourne airport into the city, and I began talking with the man next to me. He asked me if I’d always lived in Melbourne. I told him that I’d also lived in Sydney and Pakistan. “Oh, Pakistan”, he said, “that would be interesting. Were you in oil?” I told him I was a missionary. Sometimes admitting you’ve been a missionary can put a quick end to the conversation, but not with my travelling companion. He proceeded to tell me that he had a friend who was a devout Christian who once said to him, “You either get faith or you don’t.” The implication was that he “doesn’t get faith”. It seems that he thought that some personalities are inclined to a belief in God, and some aren’t. Presumably, his wasn’t. He wasn’t opposed to religious faith, he just wasn’t wired that way. For him, it seems that believing in God is like modern, abstract art: you either get it or you don’t. Or, perhaps it’s like hip hop music. You’re either ‘into hip hop’ or you’re into something else, like classical music. He believes that Christian faith is subjective. It’s not a question of right or wrong, or what’s true or false; it’s a matter of what works for you.
I said to him, “I just think it’s true.” It’s not a subjective issue; it’s objective. It’s not a question of personality or culture or the way you’re wired. It is a question of whether or not you believe the truth claims of the Christian faith. I think he looked at me as if I was speaking a strange language. On that bus I had confronted a mindset that reflects the spirit of our age. Indeed, it is the spirit of every age.
The Unchanging Spirit
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says of the Lord Jesus, “for Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Jesus is unchanging. Certainly, he changed in his appearance. The disciples witnessed Jesus the Galilean carpenter. Peter, James and John saw the transfigured Jesus on a mountain. Then after his resurrection the Eleven met the Risen Jesus, who was free from some of the physical confines of his pre-resurrection life. So, outwardly Jesus changed. But he was the same Jesus: God’s incarnate Son; the Lord and Saviour of men and women; the Teacher who taught with divine authority; the miracle worker. Jesus’ divine nature, his words, attitudes, promises, and commands are timeless.
What is true of Jesus is also largely true of his archenemy, Satan. From his first appearance in the Garden of Eden until today, his character and behaviour hasn’t changed. He has always been the father of lies (John 8:44). The devil still blinds the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4). He still holds people in spiritual bondage. And the purpose of Satan’s malevolent work is the same: the destruction of the faith of God’s people (Genesis 3:4; Luke 22:31-32). His essential strategy hasn’t changed in every age: to undermine the truth of the gospel so people exchange the truth about God for the lie (Romans 1:25).
We use the term, ‘the spirit of the age’ to describe the worldview of a particular time and place that shapes the attitudes, convictions, beliefs and behavior of the people of that time and place. Behind the statement is the implication that there is a transcendental force or spirit influencing this worldview. The spirit of the age will manifest itself differently in different cultures and at different times in history. At the same time, given the unchanging nature of the evil one, we can be sure that his assault will always be on the truth about God and the trustworthiness of God’s word. This takes many forms. In some cultures God’s truth as revealed in the Scriptures, is said to be a corrupted truth based on a corrupted text. In others cultures, particularly those influenced by Western thinking, Christian truth is only one of a variety of truths.
If I could select one word to describe the prevailing spirit of our age it would be ‘relativism’, which expresses itself in a pluralistic worldview.
If I could select one word to describe the prevailing spirit of our age it would be ‘relativism’, which expresses itself in a pluralistic worldview. Relativism affirms that there is not one faith, but many faiths. There is not one morality but many moralities. There is not one truth but many truths. My friend on the Skybus reflected this worldview. He didn’t think that my worldview, which was Christian, was right or wrong. It was just my view. It is not his view. It is not better or worse than his worldview, or more true or more false. It is just a worldview that works for me and not for him.
The Emergence of Modern Relativism
Dominic Crossan is a liberal New Testament scholar. He was part of a group of scholars called ‘The Jesus Seminar’, that was highly sceptical about the trustworthiness of the Four Gospels. They have had their hour in the sun, and are now largely forgotten. On one occasion Crossan was asked, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” He replied, “Yes, yes, yes - for Christians.” Do you see the implication in his answer? The resurrection is true and meaningful for Christians but not for Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and atheist. The objective question of whether or not Jesus actually rose bodily from the grave on the third day is irrelevant to Crossan. The Muslim Jesus, who is known as Isa, is true for Muslims. The Jesus who is a wise teacher and nothing more is true for agnostics. The Jesus who walked out of the grave three days after his resurrection is true for Christians. One particular view of Jesus is not right, and another wrong. It is only right ‘for you’.
How did this ‘spirit of the age’ develop in the West? We have to go right back to the 18th century Enlightenment, which placed human reason as the basis of all knowledge. Reason became the primary avenue for understanding. No longer were things believed because of tradition, or the edicts of an authority like the church. Human reason would guide people to unravel the secrets of life and the universe, and result in certainty in one’s findings. Religious and moral belief was now relegated to the world of personal opinions. Unless an assertion can be scientifically established it cannot be believed with any certainty. The gates were now thrown open to cultural, moral and religious relativism.
More recently, there has been a movement in literature. Traditionally, it was thought that words, either written or spoken, conveyed meaning. The words one reads in a book convey the intended meaning of the author and therefore each person who reads this book could glean the meaning, and the same right meaning, from the text. However, for some modern literary critics words don’t have any inherent meaning. Rather, words reflect the writer’s own cultural context. For example, the word ‘peace’ will mean something different for someone in Singapore compared to someone in Syria. ‘Rich’ will have a different meaning for people in different economic situations. In some places owning a bicycle might mark you as rich, whereas somewhere else it’s a mark of poverty.
The consequence of this way of thinking is that when reading a text there can be no single, authoritative interpretation, simply different interpretations. So, meaning isn’t found in the mind of the sender of a message, or in the words employed, but in the mind of the receiver. Therefore, there are as many meanings as there are receivers. Each person will interpret reality differently. Not necessarily rightly or wrongly, just differently. For example, I might say to you, “A branch fell and hit my head”. I mean by this observation, that due to the force of gravity an object fell and, unfortunately, I happened to be in its path and I must now see a doctor to receive the necessary treatment to correct the damage. However, for someone else from another culture, these very same words may mean that I have offended one of the spirits, and this spirit has brought harm to me through a branch striking me, and now I must go to the local holy man to discover what sacrifice I need to offer to placate the demon I have angered. The same event, but vastly different interpretations. Both these interpretations (and a potential multitude of others) point to different realities; different ways of experiencing and interpreting life. Therefore, in a relativistic world there are no absolute, universal, all-embracing truths. There is simply difference.
You can see this kind of thinking at every turn. Today, people talk less and less about objective truth, since what is true for one person may not be true for another. People prefer to think in terms of ‘preference’ than truth. One has preference in lifestyle, or religious belief, or sexual behaviour. Given that life is about choosing preferences, and not seeking objective truth, there is freedom to mix and match. You can be heterosexual or homosexual, or both. You can learn, at one and the same time, spiritual truths from a Muslim Imam, a Buddhist priest and a Christian theologian, taking the bits that best resonate with your individual understanding of God.
Paul and the Relativists
The first-century world of the apostles was every bit as pluralistic as Singapore today. The New Testament was written to multi-racial and multi-cultural communities. The world of the first century was, like Singapore today, a smorgasbord of religious beliefs. We can be sure that when the early Christians preached the gospel of the Lord Jesus, the world’s Saviour, they were speaking to men and women who imbibed the same spirit of the age as we do.
Acts 17 records the visit of the apostle Paul to Athens. By the first century Athens had lost some of its former glory, but it was still the centre of the Roman Empire for religious worship. There were countless temples, shrines, statues, and altars. There were images of Apollo, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune, and Diana. The whole pantheon of Greek gods was there, made of gold, silver, ivory, marble, stone, and brass. Different towns, villages and countries had their own gods. And many of these were given a place in Athens. The question of their objective existence was irrelevant; indeed, many Romans by Paul’s day had stopped believing in their traditional gods. Athens was like a supermarket of spirituality where a worshipper could pick and choose which deity he or she would be devoted to.
Into this city walked the apostle of God. Paul noticed that amongst the smorgasbord of idols was another one with the ascription, “to the unknown god”. Paul announced that he’d come to make known this God, who is the one and only God. Paul then went on to expose the folly of much of ancient religious worship (17:23). The true God cannot be confined to a building (v.24). He doesn’t depend on the service of human beings (v.25). He isn’t crafted by human hands out of gold or silver or stone (v.29). Paul rejected the pluralistic and relativistic spirit of his age. He didn’t say that God for me isn’t an idol or image. He didn’t say that the gods of trees and stone don’t work for me. Paul didn’t claim that he was wired for monotheism. No, he announced that all other pretensions to religious knowledge are foolish.
So, Paul proclaimed, “in the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (v.30). Notice two things. First, Paul refused to give any credibility to an alternative religious viewpoint. All sit under the banner of ‘ignorance’. Both in Paul’s day, and in our own, this would appear to be both arrogant and offensive. It stands in stark contrast to the spirit of the age. But Paul recognized that there is objective truth. There are facts about God which need to be accepted and acted upon.
Secondly, Paul’s challenge is universal: “all people everywhere”. Paul permits no exceptions. No matter your religious, national or cultural background, God’s command to each and every human being is to reject the foolish belief of worshipping any god other than the one, true God of heaven and earth. And people are to worship this God because there will be a Judgment Day when people are called to account for all their behaviours, including their religious commitments. What’s more, we can be sure of this because of the historical, objective reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
A Word About Tolerance
In many Western nations today there is one unforgivable sin, and that is the sin of intolerance. Singapore is a multi-faith society and tolerance is the glue that keeps such a diverse group of people together. I think most of us, rightly, would agree that tolerance is a virtue, and something that Christians need to demonstrate, and even excel in.
The problem, however is that ‘tolerance 2017’ is markedly different from ‘tolerance 1997’. In twenty years we’ve seen a subtle but significant shift in the meaning of tolerance. This shift has been driven by the spirit of the age.
The word ‘tolerance’ comes from the Latin tolerare, which means ‘to endure’ or ‘to bear’. It has the sense of putting up with pain and trouble. You might tolerate arthritis, or your teenage son’s loud music, or your husband’s obsession with basketball. You may not like it very much but you put up with it. More seriously, you may tolerate a company’s work practices although you consider them unreasonable, or you may tolerate aggressive drivers although you think they should demonstrate more courtesy and patience while driving.
That is true tolerance, but today that meaning has been jettisoned because it implies value judgments. This is particularly the case when it comes to cultural or religious differences. This older, truer, view of tolerance implies there is right and wrong. Today, it is maintained that as the bedrock for our society we need a new kind of ‘tolerance’. Not a tolerance that puts up with, but a tolerance that accepts. Today when people speak of ‘tolerance’ they usually mean ‘acceptance’. It is a recognition that what you believe or do (within, of course, some limits) is right for you. It is a generous, non-judgmental embracing of attitudes and beliefs that, while different from your own, are no less true or valid.
So, for example, people will say that you have a certain religious faith because that’s the way you were brought up. That particular faith works for you. However, it doesn’t work for me. So we need to accept one another. I cannot say that I am right and you are wrong. Both of us need to be true to ourselves; we need to be true to our culture, faith tradition, sexuality etc, and not judge others who are different.
It is a costly thing to resist the spirit of the age.
Since acceptance is now the attitude prevalent in our society, then those not prepared to accept the views of others are outsiders. It is a costly thing to resist the spirit of the age. This puts many
Christians in a difficult position, because there are some things we refuse to accept. We can tolerate other religious viewpoints but we cannot accept them as equally valid. We cannot compromise on the truths about God and Jesus. Quite simply, there are true beliefs and false beliefs. There is true worship and false worship. There are true revelations from God, and false revelations. To affirm, as Christians do, that Jesus is the unique Saviour and Lord of all people is a dangerous assault on the spirit of the age.
Communicating Christ to a Relativistic World
In his second letter, the apostle Peter reflects back on his time with the Lord Jesus, when he saw him transfigured on a mountain. Peter writes,
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty...we ourselves heard this voice when we were with him on the sacred mountain (1:16-18).
In other words, this was not a subjective experience. Peter wasn’t ‘wired for transfigurations’. Peter is stressing the objective truth of the experience. He witnessed there an objective testimony to the true nature of the Lord Jesus. What he writes is not a personal opinion. He is not passing on a belief about Jesus that he simply inherited from his family or culture. He is not expressing some preference for a way of looking at Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ is true. It is rooted in verifiable historical events: Jesus’ birth, teaching and miracle-working, his transfiguration, his death and resurrection.
I am not a Christian because this particular worldview works for me. I am intellectually and morally bound to commit myself to that which is true. In being a Christian I’m not, primarily, ‘being true to myself’. I am firstly being true to God, and the revelation he has given to all people, supremely in his Son, the Lord Jesus.
We are called by God to treat other people, whether they agree with us or not, with love, kindness, understanding, compassion and respect. Or, as Paul says, if it is possible and as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18). But in a context where the spirit of the age tells us to reject notions of right or wrong, and to accept as true any view that is sincerely held, we must stand firm. Our gospel is true. Our world needs to hear of the One before whom one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess he is Lord. Let the apostle John have the last word:
This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that will acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. (1 John 4:2-3).