A Reflection on the Surprising, Truer, and Original Meaning of the Word “Relevant”

relevantThe word “relevant” is one seen and heard frequently in modern times. Today it seems that everything said, taught, or presented should be relevant. On one level, this means that it ought to be applicable, reasonable, understandable, easily grasped, etc.

But today there is also a more problematic meaning added to the concept: to be in agreement with or in step with modern times, to be in agreement with the thinking, leanings, customs, and mores of people today.

Thus many today demand that the Church be relevant, meaning by this that the Church reflect the culture around her, that she be more of a thermometer recording the temperature than a thermostat seeking to regulate it. For many, this 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. To many, this 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 word “relevant” (and the related “relevance”). It is necessary to discern authentic concerns while at the same time screening out inauthentic demands.

An important point can be made to those who demand that the Church be relevant by setting forth the original meaning of the word. For today, many use the word in a way that is directly opposed to its original meaning.

The Latin etymology of relevant is re (again) + levare (to lift). Hence, to be relevant literally means “to lift up something again.” And since “re” can denote a repetitive action, relevant can also mean “to lift up something again and again.”

The implication of the word is that something has been dropped or cast aside, and then someone reaches down and picks it up again. Yes, something that was dropped or had fallen away or into disuse is then picked up and presented anew, presented freshly. Theoretically, you could even apply the word to refer to something that was cast aside as old-fashioned or out-of-date, that is taken up again, that is presented anew.

Thus, in its Latin roots, being relevant actually means nearly the opposite of what many people intend today. Today, many use the word to imply that something ought to be dropped because it is old-fashioned or displeasing. But the original roots of the word speak of something dropped that should be picked up again!

This examination of the Latin derivation suggests a possible way forward in capturing the word “relevant” and using it with proper balance.

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

On the other hand, the levare part of the Latin derivation shows that if something significant has been dropped, it is important to pick it up again. Certain things cannot be allowed to drop or fall away; they must be picked up again and again.

And thus despite demands to be relevant by dropping some of our teachings, the Latin roots of the word say just the opposite. To be relevant, we must re+levare; we must pick them up again and again, presenting them newly and freshly but still lifting them up. Even if the culture is dubious and hostile, we must continue to present, to represent, to lift up again and again the truths that God has given us, truths that 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 that God has given us, but we must also accept the challenge to present them freshly and with zeal, in a manner that is understandable—even infectious—to others.

Relevance anyone?