As for man, his days are like the grass;
he blossoms like a flower in the field.
A wind sweeps over it and it is gone;
its place knows it no more.
by Joseph E. Capizzi
My friend David Baer and I recently wrote a piece in which we suggested that our current crises present an opportunity for theologians to reconsider how they speak to a world they hope might be paying some attention. We counseled theologians to abandon the offices of pundit and scold: in our opinion, theology has more than finger-wagging and “takes” to offer. Though the temptations of scolding are difficult to resist, and punditry by definition finds a ready audience, theologians can take consolation in knowing their job well done involves turning their hearers’ eyes toward God, even if only for a moment. In this piece, I speak to my colleagues, to the theologians and academics who find themselves seduced by easy forays into topical and timely speech.
Within Catholicism, the language of the “signs of the times” has been a popular and sometimes effective means of signaling the intention of theologians to speak meaningfully to their communities. We theologians use the language of the signs of the times as a mechanism by which to try and locate—and compete about—this or that social phenomenon deserving special attention. It typically ranges across a spectrum of political and social issues (poverty and inequality, immigration, abortion, gay marriage, this or that sense of social “progress” or decline, and so on). The power of invoking the signs of the times consists in attaching gospel language to important social concerns. Its weakness, however, is built into that strength. By attaching the gospel to contemporary concerns theologians can lose sight of that horizon toward which Jesus directed his disciples. The horizon of the signs of the times is the end of the age (Matthew 24:3). “See to it that you are not alarmed,” Jesus counsels the disciples: do not be misled by false messiahs or become alarmed by events. Stand firm, he tells them, because they know the events point to his return.