The return of 1960s theology

There is nothing more depressing in October than the sight of Christmas lights already strung across streets in London’s West End and shop windows full of tinsel, baubles and faux snow. Fleeing, I said to myself: I suppose it is a sign of the times.

That expression is one of those feelgood mantras to emerge from the documents of the Second Vatican Council which is often quoted without any amplification or justification. A Google search provides the following illumination: “ ‘Sign of the times’ is a phrase strongly associated with the Catholic Church in the era of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. It was taken to mean that the Church should listen to, and learn from, the world around it. In other words, it should learn to read the ‘sign(s) of the times’.”

Sadly the phrase is all too often used as a kind of theological-sounding equivalent of the more colloquial Sixties slogan “Get with it” or Bob Dylan’s “The times they are a-changin’ ”. In such a context it has about as much intellectual rigour. As the definition so neatly and ironically reveals when it says “associated with the era of the 1960s”.

The notion that there is a reading of the signs of one’s own times, which somehow allows one to get ahead of the march of history and confirm its arrival, to become a seer with the authority to invest some innovations with retroactive inevitability and status of value by mere virtue of their novelty, is folly of a particularly adolescent temper. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI pointed out, by definition, if innovation and novelty are themselves positive values for you, you are destined to be constantly disappointed by your latest discovery.

The idea of reading the signs of the times makes reference to something Jesus says in St Matthew Chapter 16 where he chides the Pharisees who are asking for a sign from heaven. How is it, he asks them, that you can read the weather and yet you can’t read the signs of the times?

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