The Price of Relevance

Last month we examined the current state of the humanities in universities as an example of what happens when an institution attempts to “evolve” in order to maintain its place of prestige in the world. Too often, the disciplines of the humane letters have abandoned their own characteristic modes and methods of examining reality and human experience in favor of a more empirical model which mimics the popularly productive physical sciences, but which is ill-suited for the study of history, literature, or, most especially, the divine. The humanities attempted a facelift to make themselves more attractive to the world, and the results were about as successful as most facelifts: the humanities disfigured themselves trying to adapt to the world’s latest concept of beauty—or, in this case, truth, narrowly defined as that which is derived through empirical investigation.

The impetus behind such disastrous decision-making was the desire for relevance. Relevance, for all that it is sought, is, I think, little understood. Relevance is essentially a relation between situations and ideas. It is the measure of whether an idea has any bearing or impact upon another idea or a circumstance. My height has little to do with my spelling ability, but it is germane to my skill (or lack thereof) as a basketball player. My large frame gives me no advantage in correctly rendering difficult words, but it does put me closer to the basket—it makes a difference in the latter case.

In many cases, though, the key aspect of the relationship of relevance is misunderstood, misjudged, or not even considered: the question of measure. Between any given situation and idea, what is to measure what? Which of the two should be the standard by which we determine whether the other is relevant? In the above example, it would be nonsense to say that the game of basketball is irrelevant to my height; that is, I can say, “Whether I’m good at basketball can be affected by whether or not I’m tall,” but it would be meaningless to say, “Whether or not I’m tall can be affected by whether I’m good at basketball.” This much should be clear.

The issue seems to become muddled, though, when applied to that area wherein this word appears perhaps more often than in any other context: religion. For the last 500 years, sectors of Western society have asked whether Christianity is still relevant in a world that has been re-fashioned by scientific progress. We can trace the question back even further to the Summa Theologiae, where one of the two objections St. Thomas raises to the existence of God is the ability of science to explain the world without recourse to him. (It can’t, of course, but apparently this erroneous notion is not unique to the New Atheists.) The idea is that religion was necessary to man only when man had no other means of explaining the world around him; now that science has produced the rocket and the hydrogen bomb, we have no need of God as a postulate. Occam’s Razor, it would seem, has cut out the Almighty.

And as with physical explanations, so with ethical ones. If God is not necessary to account for the universe, then neither is he needed to ground our moral principles. Surely we can all generally agree on some list of basic human rights or fundamental moral duties, the root of which can be anything from constitutional mandate to evolutionary expediency. We have no need of a “celestial dictator,” as the late Christopher Hitchens used to label God.

Of course, neither of these claims, either about the physical or about the moral, is valid. As the work of Fr. Stanley Jaki and Dr. Stacy Trasancos has reminded us, scientific inquiry, for all its predictive and productive power, is dependent upon certain philosophical presuppositions which themselves are not susceptible to scientific examination: how do you test for the regularity of physical laws without at the same time assuming it? And every attempt to ground an ethic in anything other than the essential goodness of a Divine Lawgiver has crashed upon the same rock: what can make any moral principle truly universal, truly binding upon all and truly good for all? Any scientific model not rooted in a stable metaphysical principle crumbles into a heap of competing paradigms, and each moral system not rooted in a benevolent Divinity dissipates, then hardens, into what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called “the dictatorship of relativism.”

These two examples demonstrate that we often put things precisely backwards: the faith does not have to prove its relevance to the ways of the world; rather, the ways of the world must prove their relevance to the faith. Whether it is acknowledged or even realized, the scientific mindset is logically dependent upon certain philosophical and theological principles, as is any coherent moral system.

Thus, when the latest proposed moral or scientific revolution in society challenges the tradition of the Church, to wring our hands and ask whether the Church’s notions are relevant to the world’s ideas is as absurd as asking whether my skill at basketball will make me taller. Because the ultimate measure of relevance, for science, society, or the Church, is the truth, and truth is the adequation of the mind to reality. The teachings of the Church are grounded in divine revelation, in God who is the source of all truth. Any idea that is opposed to the teachings of the Church, then, is in opposition to the truth, and thus is irrelevant in the ultimate sense.

Thus, when the culture begins to accept and support divorce, contraception, abortion, and same-sex “marriage,” the Christian communities do not gain “relevance” by acquiescing to the world’s demands and re-casting Scripture and Tradition (or abandoning them altogether) to support these new fashions; rather, they lose their relevance, and fade. They embrace a false interpretation of “reading the signs of the times” which would have the Church see which way the world is going and follow it off a cliff, rather than call it back to safety. The shrinking of the mainline Protestant churches and the splintering of the Anglican Communion attest to this fact. Relevance as the world sees it is enslavement to the present age; but the truth will set you free.

Nicholas Senz

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Nicholas Senz is Director of Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. He is on Twitter @nicksenz and his own blog, Two Old Books.

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