By V. Rev. Fr. Paul Lazor
There is always a lot of talk about the relevancy of religion. Is religion a relevant thing today? Is Christianity relevant to the world in the modern age? Is my Church relevant to me and my needs? These and similar questions are constantly being raised in almost every discussion of religion. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter.
Relevant to What?
In the dictionary, relevancy is defined as "bearing upon or connected with the matter at hand; to the purpose." Relevancy, then, has to do with purpose. To ascertain the relevancy of something one must first locate its purpose. The relevancy of the entity in question will then depend upon its adequacy to its purpose.
What is the purpose of Christianity? Obviously, Christ said it best: "THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS AT HAND: REPENT, AND BELIEVE IN THE GOSPEL." (Mark 1:15)
In the Person of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God is brought near and immediate to us. The Gospel is announced and lived in Him. This is the Good News: in and through Christ, God and man are reconciled. Fallen man is healed from sin and death. He is forgiven. He is restored: given again the full potential to be God's son. Life in its true condition is shown. This is the Kingdom of God.
Christianity, then, to be relevant, to be adequate to its purpose, must always be revealing this Divine Kingdom in our midst. The relevancy of Christianity is determined genuinely only when we check it against this question: does it really reveal God's Kingdom as given in Christ? Or asking the question more specifically, does the Orthodox Church in its worship and official life really remain faithful to the Holy Tradition, to the Gospel, to the fundamental sources of the Christian faith?
When the matter of relevancy is viewed in this perspective, the Orthodox Church comes out looking pretty good. It is indeed very relevant to the Christian message. In fact, it uses the title "Orthodox" (right-believing; right-worshipping) because of its unbroken and unblemished faithfulness, in time and space, to the Christian Gospel (Good News) as given once and for all by Christ, through the Apostles and Saints, to us.
Relevant to Us?
Despite the above, there are those who say that the Christian faith in general and Orthodoxy in particular are totally irrelevant in the world of today. Why?
Those who make this contention usually begin from a completely opposite perspective than that given above. Relevancy in this view begins and ends with me, myself and I.
Life in the world today is completely dominated by secularism. Secularism is the practice of living life as if God were absent. In this self-willed absence, a whole pattern and rhythm of life is developed. Goals are set. Ambitions are honed. Ideas about right and wrong are formulated. Social attitudes are established. Life-styles are developed. All this is done with little or no reference to God and the drawing near of His Kingdom in Jesus Christ. After this whole flow of life is well lodged, along comes the Church. Obviously, it is going to be totally irrelevant to such a situation. We try to squeeze it in here or there. We try to cut it or rationalize it in this way or that. Finally, we drop it in favor of another religion or one of our own making -- one that "fits" better. The last epitaph on the grave marker is: "It wasn't relevant to me in my situation."
When is Christianity Relevant to Us?
Christianity will not be relevant to us as long as we remain in the secularistic framework of life described above. The Kingdom of Christ has drawn near in Christ not to fit into the life of this world. It has come as a shattering crisis: a judgement upon all the life of this world, with all its values, goals, attitudes and life-styles. It has come to bring us to REPENTANCE: a change of our mind and heart about everything we do. For this reason Christ began His preaching with the word: REPENT!
Only in repentance can we receive the Gospel message. The purpose of the Church is to preserve, live and transmit the Gospel to us. It is genuinely relevant to us only when it does this. But in order to receive and live the message we must go through that painful rebirth: that examination of our whole life in view of the Gospel; that inner change called repentance. ONLY WHEN WE CHANGE TO MEET THE DEMANDS OF THE CHURCH DOES IT BECOME RELEVANT TO US. Only then does it serve its true purpose, the meaning of relevancy, to us. WHEN THE CHURCH CHANGES ITS MESSAGE TO MEET US IN OUR SECULARISTIC WAY OF LIFE, THEN IT IS NEVER RELEVANT. It has failed in its purpose.
What Can We Do?
Most of the contentions about the irrelevancy of the Church thus stem not from an analysis of the Church in view of its authentic purpose, but from an examination in view of our own secularistic ways. We want the Church to confirm the values and life-styles which we set in this world, rather than to judge and change them.
As a result, we don't want (and some just totally reject):
(1.) a weekly worship cycle including Saturday evening Vespers (it doesn't fit);
(2.) any Services other than Sunday morning (not-needed--too busy);
(3.) Confession; regular and frequent Communion (why do this?);
(4.) the longer Orthodox Services;
(6.) Easter midnight Liturgy;
(7.) Orthodox norms concerning sex, marriage, baptism, rearing of children, abortion;
(8.) Orthodox views and practices concerning death and dying;
(9.) the Church's way of organization, use of money, giving of and use of money in the Church, views concerning the purpose of life;
(10.) ultimately, the preaching of the fullness of the Gospel with all its implications.
When we reject these and many other things, IT IS WE WHO ARE NO LONGER RELEVANT TO THE GOSPEL. If that be the case, then we lose the most valuable gift which the Gospel, living in the Church, brings to us: the salvation of our souls.
(The preceding article was a guest editorial originally printed in the January 1981 issue of the Dawn. Fr. Paul is Dean of Students and instructor of Pastoral and Liturgical Theology at
St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary.)