Toward a proper and richer understanding of the word “Relevant.”

120513-Pope copyOne of the recurring words of modern times is the word “relevance” and it’s related form “relevant.” There is great insistence today that whatever is said, taught, or presented should be relevant. Often what this means is that it should be applicable, reasonable, understandable, easily grasped etc.

But there is also a more problematic temporal dimension often added to the concept, so that in this sense, relevance has to do with being in agreement with, or in step with modern times, with the thinking leanings, customs and mores of people today, here and now.

And not only are our ideas, teachings, and views expected to be relevant, so are our institutions, such as the Church. Widespread and often are the demands that the Church should be relevant; that her teachings, structure, methods and views should be up-to-date, and also speak to current issues in peoples lives.

With proper distinctions, relevance does have its place and is important. It is important for the Church to speak to issues which currently engage or beset people. An extended sermon on a Levitical text that explains how animals should be properly slaughtered during the Temple sacrifice might be properly critiqued as being largely irrelevant to the average Christian today. On the other hand, we moderns often face issues unknown to the ancients, such as the morality of in vitro fertilization etc.

Therefore there are necessary adjustments regarding culture and time that the church must make, and people legitimately demand.

However, as with many concepts that are in themselves good and proper, the demands for relevance are often taken too far, and become too strident. What many today mean when they demand at the Church be relevant is at the Church merely reflect the culture around her, that she be more of a thermometer recording the temperature, rather than a thermostat seeking to set the temperature. For many, relevance means that the Church should reflect the views of her members, rather than the views of her founder and Head, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and whose Word endures forever. Relevance to many also means that the Church should cast aside a large number of her most basic teachings and practices.

Thus there is a lot of tension around the words relevant and relevance. It is necessary to discern authentic concerns for relevance, and at the same time screen out inauthentic demands regarding it.

Part of the problem in determining the proper degree of relevance is that the word itself is often misunderstood and misused today. In a certain sense, many use the word to mean exactly the opposite of what it originally meant from its Latin roots.

The Latin etymology of relevant and relevance is re (= again) + levare (= to lift). Hence, the word means, most literally, “to lift up something once again.” And since “re” can mean a repetitive action, it can also mean “to lift up something again and again.”

The impression of the word is that something has either been dropped or somehow cast aside, and that someone reaches down and picks it up again. It is as though something which was dropped, or had fallen away, or fallen into disuse, is then picked up and presented anew, presented freshly. You could even theoretically apply it to something that was cast aside as “old-fashioned,” or out of date, that is taken up again, that is presented anew.

Thus, in a way, relevance, in its Latin roots actually mean something rather opposite of what people often mean today. Rather than referring to something that ought to be dropped as old fashioned or displeasing, it speaks of something that should be picked up!

Now all of this examination of the Latin roots suggests a possible way forward in capturing the word “relevant” and using it today with proper balance.

On the one hand the “re” in the word demands that while the Church must ever lift up  our unchanging truths, we cannot simply rehash ideas in the same way. The idea or truth is still  valid, but the way we express it may need adapting, may need RE-presenting. Obviously as the Church encounters new languages, translations need to be made. As cultures change, or situations and circumstances alter, some of the analogies and images used to express undying truth may need adjustment. So the Latin word captures the notion, that things sometimes do fall away or drop, and they need to be picked up again, and freshly RE-presented, that is, presented in new and fresh ways.

On the other hand the “levare” of Latin root also shows that if something significant has been dropped, it is important to pick it up again. For certain things cannot be allowed to drop or fall away, they must be picked up again and again.

And thus, despite demands that we let some of our teachings drop or that we make them go away, “relevance” and “relevant” in their Latin roots say just the opposite. To be “relevant” we must re+levare, we must insist on picking them up again and again, presenting them newly and freshly, but still lift them up. Even if the culture is dubious and hostile, we must continue to present, to re-present, to lift up again and again the truths that God has given us, which can never die.

And in this sense, to a world that demands we be relevant, we can say amen! We must pick up again and again the perennial truths which God is given us, but we must also accept the challenge to present them freshly and with the seal in a manner that is understandable, even infectious to our listeners.

Relevance anyone?

14 Replies to “Toward a proper and richer understanding of the word “Relevant.””

  1. Disclaimer – Usually when I post on word meanings and etymologies I get at least of few objectors who charge me with what amounts to etymological fallacy. In other words, looking to the roots does not mean that the word every really meant that in a literal sense. I realize that there has never existed an etymology that was not disputed at least by some. Nevertheless, I also understand that the meaning of words change over time and often have several meanings. Nevertheless I still insist that examining the roots can help us distinguish the purer notions that the word contains. In this case I think the roots help us avoid extremes in the use of the word “relevant”

    I am also aware that relevare in Latin can also mean “to lighten” But even in this sense the word can serve to illustrate that although some truths get weighed down over time with cultural disdain or rejection, it is our job often to lighten them from this and show how they are properly carried or understood apart from all the cultural baggage that weighs them down or causes them seem too heavy a burden.

    1. Yes, old can be new again! Good! But please, I beg you, don’t bring back Lawrence Welk!

  2. You are the Renaissance pastor. From square dance, the classics, Scripture to variety entertainment. You are truly relevant.

  3. Thanks, The meaning of Christmas, told by Venerable Fulton Sheen, in ‘Sawdust Brains’ is an example of relevance. (We children loved the dolly song).

  4. From Yes Prime Minister:

    Humphrey: “The Church of England is trying to be more relevant.”
    Hacker: “To God?”
    Humphrey: “No, of course not, Prime Minister. I meant in sociological terms.”

  5. Behold I make all things new Rev 21:5. May GOD grant us more like you, Fr. Robert Barron, Prof. Scott Hahn, Ralph Martin, Jimmy Akin, Fr. Wade Menezes, Tim Staples and all apologists, new perspectives on the ever relevant Scriptures that will open minds, hearts and spirits to the Wonder of GOD!!! Ad Majorem DEI Gloriam.

  6. What can be made relevant that is in the darkness, that can not be seen. Only in the omnipotent Light of Christ is the Church made “relevant”. Today’s (Dec. 6) readings help me understand this. The Lord is my Light and my Salvation.

    “On that day the deaf shall hear
    the words of a book;
    And out of gloom and darkness,
    the eyes of the blind shall see.”

    “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”

    “And their eyes were opened.”

  7. Your references to the etymology of the word, “relevant” and the necessity to consider in its purest and original form is highly relevant to the needs of what awaits us (according to the actions with which we invited the one of many options) after our brief period in the worldly.
    However, I ask myself, dare I attempt to broaden this? Well, I’d be hypocritcal (by implication) if I didn’t admit that I had already decided to do so.
    If one were to take the parable of the widow’s mite; Mark 12:41-43 and Luke 21:1-3; as an example of what is relevant and what is empirical then we can observe how her donation in its worldly measure (empirical) would provide much less funding for the maintainence of the religious institutions of the time or, indeed, of most any time. However, that is in the worldly but – when God the Word who was present in the world as God the Son looked He saw the greater and relevant value in that she had given all of her purchasing power; while the large quantities of wealth from the rich were but a small part of what they had available.
    If she wished to buy the cheapest, yet durable, pair of socks with her funds (instead of donating it) she just didn’t have enough funds. However, had the wealthy each bought a dozen pair of luxury and high fashion socks and given them away; that would have barely made a ripple in their finances.
    So, what can the purchasing agent do with her bits of copper in order to support the institution? Probably nothing unless those bits were combined with the overall donations.
    So, she may not empirically measure up in the worldy measure but she’s given 100% while the others gave but a small percent. How have any of the donations helped God’s need for finances? Not at all. He has all He needs, it’s all His and donations cannot be assessed in the empirical by wordly standards.
    But, then there’s His relationship with us, His creations. In the form of the Son He has declared a greater measure to the tiny bits of copper.
    So, one might say that the empirical is appropriate to the world and the relevant appropriate to the Spirit or else we are dealing with a confusion of measures. Like, how many grams in a litre of fluid? A litre of mercury – quite a bit. A litre of hydrogen at sea level standard of 15 pounds per square inch – not very much at all. On a relevant scale both litres are, presumably, full or equal in one of the concepts of 100%.
    Now, some may dispute this in many ways but, are those ways very encompassing, as opposed to being of “insufficient data” The waves of an ocean are many; such as those which struck the Phillipine Islands a few weeks ago to those that ripple as a gentle breeze crosses a tidal pond.
    In demands that a long standing church be relevant to the static society which seems to be evolving into place – can those demanders claim a relevance or, a small part of a worldly empirical. Where have static societies gone? Serfs, fellahin, slaves, etc. dependant on the benevolent whim of an over lord, or suffering due to the very unbenevolent whims of the same overlord? Is this what the demanders who talk about “revelance” to a partial empirical wish?
    All I could manage is this sub-hypothetical set of thoughts. So little time amid the distractions which are provided by those who have given up their attempts to dissuade me from seeking truth with their “facts” that don’t stand up to scrutiny and who tell me I’m so wrong to scrutinize those “facts”.
    Poetry was mentioned so, maybe I can do better with my first ever Sonnet – in the English rhyming pattern.

    Do angels grow along with us
    As they help us, younger sibling race?
    Do they know when to sit and when to fuss
    When helping us find a pace?

    Does Father smile down on all
    And guide with nudges just enough?
    So as to insure we never stall
    Does He never make the lessons over tough?

    Not knowing now we carry on
    When in our earthly class
    As we pray for guidance onward drawn
    And meet whatever comes to pass

    Both angels and us above and below
    Do we help each other to spiritually grow?

  8. This world is caught up in attempting to make the Church (Christ) irrelevant. While it appears they are succeeding, they are not. As more souls have discerned the emptiness, the vacuuity of our world, they are turning back to what and who matters-Jesus Christ The Pope knows this well and i praise him for his attempts to get us out there, because we are highly relevant and needed and bring souls home to Christ.

Comments are closed.