The Relevance of Relevance
I remain unable to let go of the irritation I feel at myself that I did not think of the name of this strange venture of mine, namely OMG: Center for Theological Conversation.
That spark of creativity and wit came from the fine folks at Insight Marketing, who, after listening to me babble about what I wanted this idea to become, figured out that I believed that it is possible to have a sense of humor and think theologically.
They also had the audacity to think up my (if I do say so myself) cool tagline: Relevance, Reverence, and Renewal.
My problem is usually that I think up a book title and then get stumped by the book. In this case I had the “book,” but couldn’t come up with its title!
Insight did, and I like it.
This idea of “relevance” (namely whether Church/God is ‘relevant’ to a believer/believers) has gotten a bit of press lately. It’s a word that stirs up differing connotations, and it was recently suggested to me that perhaps it would behoove a person (i.e., me) to muse about it.
So naturally I turn to Dr. Martin Marty again, making good use of him before his fine production Context ‘passes on’ at the end of this year.
[insert wailing and gnashing]
So let me begin by laying out the different voices therein exchanging their thoughts on relevance. I know they are long excerpts, but wow they are good.
From Ralph Waldo Emerson (quoted in Context Feb. 2010, Part A) as itself quoted in Barbara Packer’s piece in There Before Us: Religion, Literature, and Culture from Emerson to Wendell Berry).
I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, I thought, where they are wont to do, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snowstorm was falling around us. The snowstorm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had not one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned.
From M. Craig Barnes regarding the question of whether creeds are relevant (itself taken from The Christian Century, but quoted in Context in the July 2010, Part B issue):
A woman in the congregation where I serve wondered [aloud to me] why we repeat ‘the same old creed’ every Sunday….An exasperated first-year seminary student I’m working with asked me, ‘What’s the deal with all of these required courses? When do we get to study things that are relevant?’
Whenever someone starts talking about relevance….the focal point is always the self. The individual is the one, and the only one, who gets to decide if something is relevant. The assumption behind the relevance agenda is that we are on our own to construct life as best we can. Relationships, work, place, philosophies, and religion are all à la carte resources that can, or cannot, be used in building a life that we prefer. Our choices depend on their relevance to our cherished ideal of the self.
Relevance is such an unquestioned idol of contemporary society that many congregations have grown by marketing their ability to provide relevant programs, music, and preaching. It’s as if they are saying, ‘Our church can provide better products than the rest of society as you try to collect the pieces of a life you will like.’
The problem with this success at being relevant is–well, God. The church marketers are claiming that they can make God relevant to you, but when they do this, God ceases to be God and becomes instead just one more optional resource. By contrast, the historic churches and the seminaries that serve them are filled with old theological traditions. Most of them don’t feel particularly relevant on any given day. That’s by design. Their devotion is not to make the gospel relevant to the individual, but to make the individual relevant to the gospel. That’s the function of our creeds.’
From Michael Lee, Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham, taken from an interview in U.S. Catholic in March 2010 (found in Context‘s May 2010, Part B issue):
One of the important ideas coming out of liberation theology is the notion of social sin. It’s a difficult concept, because when you talk about social sin, who’s choosing to commit it? It’s easy for no one to be guilty of it. But when you look at poverty or racism in this country, you can’t say God is OK with that. It is contrary to God’s will. That is the definition of sin.
Sometimes you hear social sin compared to original sin, as if it’s just there, like a medical condition or something. But there is a connection between my personal moral action and racism, for example, even if I don’t feel like I do racist things or have racist thoughts. How do you help people see their place in the constellation that produces the U.S. prison system or the connection between my 39-cents-a-pound bananas and inhumane working conditions in Central America?
The hard part is talking about social sin and collective guilt in a way that doesn’t alienate people who are just trying to provide for their families. In Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, there’s a reflection in which Ignatius invites a person to stand before the cross of Jesus and ask, ‘What have I done to crucify you?’ A liberation spirituality invites us to look at the crucified people of our world and ask them the same question: What do I need to do to bring you down from the cross?
It’s easy to rattle off piously that the church is the Body of Christ. But if you begin to ask how it is made flesh, it spurs reflection. I start my classes with basi question to get this kind of reflection going: What is ‘good news’? What is salvation? I usually get stunned silence from my students. They can’t give a basic answer to what salvation means. It’s just a spiritualized term, and it remains at that level.
And last, from William O’Malley, S.J., at Fordham Prepatory School, taken from his piece in America magazine in the May 5, 2010 issue, and reprinted in Context‘s August 2010, Part B production.
Something vital was lost on the pilgrimage from the Second Vatican Council. Amid all the attempts–laudable or lamentable–to reform a feudal church, what got lost on the trek was the transcendent God. Catholics miss the mysterium tremendum of the theologian Rudolf Otto, the power thundering at Job from the whirlwind: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Moses described that force as a blazing bush that did not consume itself; Isaiah cringed before it; Daniel and Revelation tried to capture this stupefying act of love as an enthroned personage ablaze with light, around whom a hurricane of voices swirled, shouting, ‘Holy! Holy! Holy!’
Such immensity tempts one to humble one’s intelligence, like Eastern mystics before the ultimate–before whom all words fail, even is. Western theologians effectively stifled the awe of the theolphanies that had been the core of all religions before the Greeks came along.
If bishops wonder why Catholics are not going to church, this is the reason: They don’t find there a personal connection to that enthralling God, which is what the word religion means: to connect.
So here you have four different guys (yes, I’m aware of that: does it count that I’m female and weighing in?) each with a different view toward the relevance of relevance.
Emerson is bugged by a pastor with no passion; no demonstrable proof that he has experienced, well, anything other than piety.
His parting shot, “The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned,” captures the gist of his grumbles.
Does this business of God which pulls us out into the snow make any difference (i.e., have relevance) or not? If this stuff of religion concerns itself at all with our essence, do we have an essence for it to meet (and how does it do that?) and does religion bear at all upon the essentials of life, like love? hope? reconciliation? justice? mercy? grief? vocation? avocation? pain? loss? parenting? loneliness? alienation? connection? emotions? addictions? doubt? brokenness? health? relationships? renewal? rebirth? joy?
Barnes is rightfully concerned that the questions about relevance can become another expression of self-obsession.
Goodness knows, one can argue (as Barnes is, obviously) that in its quest to attend to the essentials of peoples’ lives, the Church has lost its essence.
Sometimes one can get lost on the way to the sanctuary when the congregation’s gym, child care center, coffee shop, and auditorium get in the way.
It does seem as if the priority of “church marketers” is (to steal a phrase from Sister Act) to get butts in the pews instead of preach a gospel which, when really heard well and right, ought to make people run.
His parting shot quarrels with Emerson a bit: “[Traditional seminaries and churches’] devotion is not to make the gospel relevant to the individual, but to make the individual relevant to the gospel. That’s the function of our creeds.”
I tend to agree with his assertion that churches appear almost desperate for people to “like” them, much like an awkward teenager who will do anything to get noticed by the popular crowd.
That said, the gospel is itself something, and if it seems for all the world to be nothing more than eventual pie in the sky by-and-by, well, I’m with Emerson. There must be a reason to listen: that point is manifest relevance.
Lee hunts up the idea. “It’s easy to rattle off piously that the church is the Body of Christ. But if you begin to ask how it is made flesh, it spurs reflection.” Watch out: here is a new way to think of relevance. Body made flesh. In other words:
What does the cross mean? What are its implications? Does it affect only the sinners or the ones sinned upon? Does it have anything to do with love? hope? reconciliation? justice? mercy? grief? vocation? avocation? pain? loss? parenting? loneliness? alienation? connection? emotions? addictions? doubt? brokenness? health? relationships? renewal? rebirth? joy? The flesh of life? Its essence?
If not, we have spiritualized the incarnate. I can’t think of much more that could be relevant than God incarnate, and to help figure out what that means to the rest of us incarnate folks.
And last, O’Malley, distilled in this sentence of his: “If bishops wonder why Catholics are not going to church, this is the reason: They don’t find there a personal connection to that enthralling God, which is what the word religion means: to connect.”
Like O’Malley, I’m not afraid of advocating for a personal connection between a believer and God. Perhaps the objection which Barnes raises stems from the “me-and-Jesus” phenomenon. True, we say in Baptism that Jesus knows us by name…but as a key nod to Barnes, that does not suggest that Jesus does not know everyone else’s name–and I mean everyone.
It’s not as if Jesus learned my name and then had to forget yours to make room for mine.
Feminists have done much for theology by speaking about the relationality of God. God has a relationship within Godself, and with God’s creatures, and invites us to be in relationship with these others and, naturally, with God.
There is a fine notion of relevance. Relevance has everything to do with relationship…contra Barnes. It is not fundamentally about the self, but is about the self and its relationship to others and to God.
What do our worship services, our “mission statements,” our rituals, our prayers, have to do with relationship? Even a relationship with ourselves, an entity which can become remarkably un-religious, as in the sense of being un-connected.
My hope for congregations and denominations in these days is that we discover that relevance has nothing to do with marketing.
It has everything to do with relationship.
God’s word relates to us.
How, specifically (well, as specifically as is possible) is helpful, and, I would argue, essential.
If not, then worship–let alone a general benevolent belief toward a higher power–is akin to shopping at Wal-Mart, where a person can get something of what one needs, while finding a lot that one doesn’t….all the while realizing that one can get pretty much the same stuff at a Super Target down the way.
So, now I am eager to hear: does this post bear any relevance at all upon your life of faith or congregation or denomination?