The Rushing Wind of the Spirit?  Or the Rumbling Electric Train of the Zeitgeist?

Being a highly unconventional attempt at an exegesis of Matthew 16: 3 — Oh, ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?

I vividly recall being taught a lesson years ago in a college economics class about the way that commodity futures work.  

But first, a tangent about commodity futures: when I worked on an outdoor house painting crew many years ago, we used to listen to AM political talk radio all day long, at least when we weren’t enjoying the classic rock station.  Around midday, the talk radio would give a report on the NYSE, the NASDAQ, the international trading value of the dollar, and the agricultural commodities markets.  For a brief moment, the members of our painting crew would drop everything and listen intently to this report.  As the announcer, with the simulated noise of a newsroom behind him, reported on the day’s trading, we would react to the news as if we were spectators at a sporting event.  

“On the Chicago Mercantile exchange at this hour, corn is down 40 cents…”  We’d moan and groan as if a long drive had just gone foul.  “Soybean futures up two-and-a-quarter…”  A collective shout of jubilation, as if the point guard had sunk the first free throw of a one-and-one late in the second half.  

We’d reserve our largest reactions for one very important commodities category.   Hog futures.  Yes, hog futures.  What a piece of work is man, that he hath thought of such a thing as “hog futures.”

If the mid-day report indicated that prices were up, the shouts and huzzahs would reach new heights.  Someone would shout “HOGS!” and fist-pump; another would cry “OH YEAH!” and do a hot-dog end-zone dance; the rooftops of the posh residential subdivision where we were working would tremble and quiver as the painters’ barbaric yawp sounded above them.  And if hogs were down, the dismayed groans were equally extreme:  “NOOOOOO!”  Think seventh game of the World Series and the home team loses on a missed grounder to first in the bottom of the ninth.  

Sadly, the commodities markets have lost their magic for me since those days of my youth.  I no longer wait anxiously for the mid-day report from the floor of the Merc.  The spot price of soybeans doesn’t quicken my pulse.   I no longer do a leaping mid-air chest bump upon good news about wheat, let alone hogs.  For when I was a child, I spoke like a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things and started to sound like Ferris Bueller’s high school economics teacher.  This is what Max Weber meant when he spoke of the “disenchantment of the world.”  Or something.

Here’s the lesson about futures that I learned in intermediate macroecon.  

Futures contracts are about bidding and accepting prices not for the immediate delivery of, say, hogs or soybeans, but for the delivery of such in, say, six months’ time or so.  The idea here is that a buyer or a seller might be able to get a better price now than he could secure later in the year; I bid $70 now on a raw pork belly in September because I am betting that, when September rolls around, with tailgating season in full swing, I wouldn’t be able to get a raw pork belly (and where’s the rest of that pig, by the way?) for, say, less than $74.50.  On the other side, the seller is betting that he’s getting a better price from me now than he could in September.  And the average of all the prices that buyers and sellers are agreeing upon and registering that day is the day’s hog future price, fluctuating throughout the day.

But futures prices are not really based upon good information or predictions about the future.  They might have something to do with this, like reports of a rare swine flu spreading across Asia and predicted to show up in North America in October, or a severe hailstorm that just wiped out 90% or Indiana’s soy crops, meaning that the fall harvest will be meager.  These are extreme factors that can influence the futures prices, but they are not the usual driver.  

Futures prices are, as a rule, very closely related to the immediate, or spot prices, of those same commodities.  Watch the spot price over a month—as it rises and falls, the future price rises and falls as well.   If buyers are anxious about pork availability right now and are willing to pay more for it today than they were last week, then the futures price agreed upon today  for pork later this year will also be higher than the futures price was last week.   For it turns out that what futures traders are buying and selling are not prophetic predictions about the future, but rather pieces of the present packaged for later use.  They aren’t fortune-telling; they are stuffing pigs in a time-capsule and burying them until the fall.

This is, of course, what we often unwittingly do with our predictions about all kinds of futures, not just porcine ones.  We cannot help but make projections instead, often without understanding of the ways that pseudo-projections are unduly influenced by the present moment.  This is especially true when human beings get into the doubly complex business of making predictions PLUS prescriptions, i.e., “X is happening now, Y is therefore going to happen later, and so we must now do Z.”  Careful thinkers will notice that there are no less than three ways in which we can err here.

Take for instance the following chain of assertions:  “Technology is rapidly changing the way people learn and communicate; therefore, books and paper will soon be obsolete; therefore, our schools should junk the books, turn the former library into a WiFi hotspot with a coffee bar, and give every student a tablet device.”  (Author’s Disclaimer: any resemblance in the above description to actually existing high schools in Phoenix, whether run by Jesuits or not, is not intentional, but rather unavoidable.)

The possibility for triple error is this: one can be wrong about the OBSERVATION or diagnosis of the present state of affairs, about the PREDICTION based upon it, even if the observation is correct, and, finally, about the PRESCRIPTION for action, which, even if observation and prediction are both correct, could be the wrong means to reach the desired end, or could be an efficacious means to reach a wrong end.    (If the wrong end is intended, we can always hope that inefficacious means will also be enacted.)

Example: technology might not actually be “changing the way people learn”—it could be changing the way people suppose that learning occurs, but not changing the process itself.   It could be deceiving people into mistaking visual stimulation for learning.  

Paper and books might not be headed for the dustbin of history or for the dumpster behind the school after all, but rather may remain with us because sensible educators have come to understand that they are necessary for the healthy and un-short-circuited intellectual development of embodied creatures, or perhaps because they can’t afford to junk them all and upgrade to tablets.  

And finally, there is the prescriptive problem.  Perhaps it is true that technology is, in effect, changing the way children learn by making them shallow, sub-verbal, and unable to sustain attention for more than 5 minutes.  And it could very well be true that the culture in general is moving towards the rapid elimination of paper and print, and that the printing of new books will cease in our lifetimes.  But the prescription of “this is the zeitgeist, so we’d better get on board” does not strictly follow from those premises alone.  There is a hidden and unstated assumption somewhere in there, something along the lines of “and it is useless or even self-destructive to attempt to resist the zeitgeist,” or “information technology and screen-culture are matters of complete neutrality with respect to the human good”.   These premises may be hidden even from the innocent maker of the argument, to whom it has not occurred to wonder if the headlong-rushing spirit of the age can be questioned, let alone evaded, let alone resisted.  (The evasive route seems much less risky than jumping onto the tracks and trying to stop it alone.  It is far less risky to take shelter from the thunderstorm than to strip off your clothes, run outside, and to rage impotently against it, like King Lear upon the heath.)

How should a Christian think about the zeitgeist? What does it mean for a thoughtful disciple of Christ to “read the signs of the times”?  Does it mean merely to observe what is happening, for good or ill, and go along with it?  To jump on the train with everyone else?  Surely not.  

Overlapping with thoughtful and principled magisterial critiques of intellectual, political, and social fashion in the last 150 years, from theological modernism to an arid manual-scholasticism cut off from scripture and patristics, from socialism to untempered liberal democracy to fascism , from 20th-century communism to triumphant, unbridled post-Cold War capitalism, Catholics have also perpetrated their own share of enthusiastic zeitgeist-riding in the last half-century.  Walter Cardinal “Everybody’s Doing It” Kasper’s personal take on the theology of the body, and the now apparently undeniable intention of Amoris Laetitia (which, as a sardonic commentator has pointed out, would be a very accurate Latin translation of The Joy Of Sex, the title of that exemplary handbook to the zeitgeist of 1970s American swinger culture) are not coincidentally in harmony with the spirit of the age in the 21st-century West, which is polyamorous and antinomian, just as surely as the mass expropriation and expulsion of Jews in golden age Spain was consonant with the spirit of its time and place.  

Closer to our own place and time than church-state collusion to enact an ethnic cleansing policy in 16th century Iberia was the American conservative Catholic lay commentariat’s enthusiastic support of the Bush administration’s Iraq war.  It just seemed like the post-9/11 thing to do at the time, as then-Sens. Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, John Edwards, and Tom Daschle (all Ds) could attest.   

A bit farther back and less dramatic but no less destructive has been the suicide of the American Catholic college and university in the last 50 years, exchanging the truth of Tradition for the lies of secular postmodern relativism, multiculturalism, and victimology, and then having the audacity to declare that the Gospel itself mandates such a total dismantling of Catholic truth and tradition—which just happens to be what the secular, postmodern zeitgeist mandates as well.  

A variety of unlatreutic practices in Christian worship, from modern dance to Jumbotron screens, from slick rock music and hippie folk-masses to priests doing comedy-shtick banter on the headset microphone during the homily, have all been vehemently defended  by bishops, pastors, and “music ministers” alike as an expression the Pauline mandate to “be all things to all people” or even as an act of Catholic social justice, the exercise of the “preferential option” not for the materially impoverished,  but for the preferences of the comfortable bourgeoisie, whose aesthetic sensibilities have been formed and constrained by the products of the entertainment-industrial complex.  Is it a coincidence that all such practices are also consonant with the late-20th century’s central cultural commandment of Thou shalt entertain me?  Is this the spirit of liturgy?  Or the spirit of the pop zeitgeist, the catchy, repetitive, formulaic piped-in music for the passengers on the train?

Anyone can step outside and tell which way the wind is blowing, meteorologically or culturally speaking.  But to really read the signs of the times, and to discern exactly what the Gospel calls us to do in response to them—that is something entirely different and far from obvious.   I doubt that evangelical mandate is “all aboard”.

Any grave errors, exaggerations, distortions, misrepresentations, or scandal-causing, diabolically-wrongheaded private judgments in the above essay are entirely the author’s, for which he humbly entreats forgiveness from the Almighty.  Any truths, partial or otherwise, unwittingly hit upon, are expressly not the property of the author, who claims no credit for them.

Andrew Ellison