A term much used and increasingly misused in our time is “relevance.” University curricula are under assault for being “irrelevant.” Moral standards accepted by past generations are now being questioned on the basis of “relevance.” The political process is indicted for “insensitivity” and “irrelevance.” Religious doctrine and church organization, once central factors in influencing behavior, are ignored by millions as now being “irrelevant.”
To some, there is substance in this criticism. University curricula and administrations must be responsive to change and not merely provide social cement for the status quo. Morality must be grounded in something more substantial than the particular leanings of a society at a given time if it is to influence succeeding generations. Religious teaching must preserve the purity of its divine origin, with the universality and timelessness that this requires, and yet be sufficiently specific to be meaningful to each generation confronted with different problems.
Yet each new generation must accept much of its knowledge and its institutions from its predecessor. No one is born with knowledge sufficient to ignore the experience of his elders, and no one lives long enough to learn all his lessons firsthand, by trial and error. How, then, does one determine the relevance of the heritage received from older generations?
One critical distinction that many people fail to make is the crucial one between what is relevant and what is current.
The term relevance denotes a relationship between the subject and the matter at hand. In education, this would mean that a curriculum should have a pertinent relationship with the problems to be faced by one throughout his life. A study of current events would at least superficially meet this definition, taken alone. Some scholars say that our world is experiencing a continuing technological revolution nearly every four years. New tools, new inventions, new ways of doing things are continually being discovered.
In generations past, this phenomenon occurred approximately once between major wars: 1870–1914, 1917–1940. The consequences for the disciplines built around and upon this technology—for economics, political science, law, the sciences, and so forth—are tumultuous and often chaotic. The overpowering and inevitable effect of this technological revolution upon academic disciplines is that curricula that are most current are often, consequently, most transitory and soon irrelevant.
In my own experience, I have usually found that classes on current events and so-called “teach-ins” on various subjects from Vietnam to urban problems are more titillating than substantial. Many are taught without adequate background or preparation, and often the approach is biased; hence they are superficially entertaining.
I have found that basic classes in history, geography, economics, and philosophy maintain a relevance to life’s problems long after the particular issues current at the moment disappear and are forgotten. For example: as a professor of law, I deal with current problems, from Vietnam and the control of weaponry to civil rights and urban problems. Still, I have found that classes on international law and international organization make better forums for deep intellectual dialogue on current issues than do classes devoted only to the particular crisis of the moment.
A curriculum must be, to a degree, abstract, conceptual, and universal if it is to maintain relevance in a world experiencing constant change. If a school confuses the current with the relevant, it would, ironically, insure that its subject matter would be irrelevant to future problems. Ten years from now (probably much less) we will probably not be confronted with the problem of Vietnam. We will, however, still be challenged by problems of foreign policy, international and civil strife, weapons control, and international economics.
The same necessity for distinguishing the current from the relevant confronts the Church. I often hear complaints from young people that Church talks are not “relevant” to today’s problems. Of course, not all talks, whether in church or anywhere else, are always relevant. But unfortunately, what I usually discern from this comment is, again, the failure to distinguish between what is relevant and what is only current.
I recently faced the issue of relevancy in my own life. While serving as bishop of a University of Utah student ward, I received an appointment that would take me to the United Nations and later to Switzerland, during the coming arms control negotiations there. I had grave doubts as to whether I should or should not accept this appointment, as it would necessitate my release as bishop and take me from my family for several weeks, pending their joining me at Geneva. I asked my stake president for guidance, and with his affirmative advice, I accepted.
On the last few occasions that I spoke to my ward family, I was forced by the prospect of our separation to speak upon subjects that I considered most helpful to them, as judged from the perspective we shared—that of a common belief in the gospel.
My talks on those occasions were entirely devoid of current events, either domestic or foreign. In fact, as I think back on the year spent as bishop, I do not recall a church meeting in which I spoke on a current event with my ward family. I do not say this to suggest that eternal gospel principles do not serve as guides in helping meet current problems, for of course they do. Nor do I mean to infer that current topics may not, in the proper setting, be appropriate subjects for Church talks and classes. However, given the relatively short time I had with my brothers and sisters, I felt that my time, my influence upon them, the force of my own knowledge, testimony, and priesthood power could better be spent upon basic things, eternal things.
Their lives, spanning more years into the future than my own, would undoubtedly include confrontations with specific problems that I could not now foresee. The best way to arm them to meet these challenges, I felt—and still do—was for me to talk about basic Church doctrine and to leave many current issues for them to resolve on the basis of their own application of gospel principles.
I experienced the same phenomenon with my own family. My only son and oldest child, age eleven, and I went on our stake fathers and sons overnight outing recently, within a few weeks of my departure for the United Nations. I felt so keenly the coming parting that I could not bear to waste any of our priceless time together. He was soon to be ordained a deacon. I could have told him much about current happenings, since my professional training and experience have equipped me somewhat in these areas. But I could not so spend those few hours. Rather, as we lay in our sleeping bags in our pup tent that night, I read Joseph Smith’s account of his first vision. After reading this to him, during a particularly choice time between us, I bore my testimony to him that these happenings were true.
Maybe in a small way this helps all of us to understand why our parents take up with us the things they do. They may see some things as eternally relevant in contrast to momentarily relevant.
As Latter-day Saints, we have one overwhelming truth that gives us great advantage over the world and an almost overpowering duty to the world in determining the relevance of issues confronting the world. We know the purpose of this existence we call the second estate. We are here to prepare ourselves, in ways we could not in our Father’s presence and without physical bodies, to return to our Father in greater likeness of him. This pearl of great price enables us to separate the relevant from the current and to distinguish ends from means.
Let me present my own short list of points I consider most relevant to this probationary part of our eternal lives. This list is not exclusive. It is formulated not in order of importance but in a rough sense chronologically.
The Things Most Relevant to Me
First is the knowledge that we always have existed, that intelligence was not created or made and indeed cannot be; that though the Father is the father of our spirits in some way that I cannot comprehend, man was in the beginning with God. The agency of man is dependent upon this fact. (Read D&C 93.)
Second, we had to experience the problems and the joys of a physical body before we eternally possessed one. This, according to the Father’s plan advocated by his Son Jehovah, had to be accomplished away from the shielding and protecting presence of the Father. Hence, an earth was organized upon which this could be accomplished. (Read Abr. 1–5 and D&C 88.)
Third, Jehovah, the Son of God, performed a central role in the process of creation and later guided his brothers and sisters through their probationary earth lives through prophets whom he had chosen before.
Fourth, Jehovah was born in the flesh as Jesus the Christ to acquire a physical body and accomplish the plan of his Father. At this time he restored truths that previously had been taught through the prophets, truths that had been lost during periodic stages of apostasy. He organized a church to propagate these truths. (Read D&C 110.)
Fifth, and most important of all: Jesus was crucified and was resurrected; and in some way that I cannot fully comprehend (and providentially do not have to comprehend, as the process is, in its most important respect, self-executing), he effected an atonement for the sins of all mankind, with the result that all men who have lived upon the earth will be resurrected, with their physical bodies and their spirits joined throughout eternity.
Sixth, the church that Jesus founded disappeared from the earth, and the gospel principles that he taught were corrupted in the process of an apostasy.
Seventh, there occurred a restoration of priesthood power and gospel principles through the Prophet Joseph Smith, beginning with the appearance of the Father and the Son to Joseph and continuing through the ministration of angelic messengers from the Father, bringing principles of truth and priesthood authority back to the earth.
Eighth, those truths are had within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today. This organization is the unique repository of the priesthood power, or agency, of God.
Ninth, Jesus Christ will come again, literally, in the flesh, to govern this world that he organized under his Father’s direction. And though much in the world appears chaotic and ungovernable, and though at times the world may appear to be heading deterministically toward its own destruction, its bounds are set, and the purposes of its creation will be fulfilled.
And finally, following a judgment of our lives, individually and personally, we will inherit that degree of glory for which we have prepared ourselves. If we are to return to the Father’s presence, we must have perfected ourselves sufficiently to be in some degree like him (see Matt. 5–7); we must have made our family units eternal entities through the ordinances of the temple (see D&C 132); and we must have conformed to celestial law and therefore be capable of enjoying a celestial society (see D&C 88).
If these truths are among the most relevant in determining our activities and goals during earth life, then it follows that a particular responsibility to preach them falls upon those in possession of both these truths and the priesthood authority.
As I understand it, the descendants of Ephraim, whether by blood relation or by adoption through baptism, have a unique calling: that is, to preach those truths, and to administer the ordinances attached to them, to the world.
To me, it seems probable, therefore, that the world will continue to produce the greatest scientists, the most learned lawyers, the most gifted artists, the most powerful politicians. These people will continue to make great contributions to our happiness, our security, and the quality of our lives. And it will be hoped that Church members will actively engage in these various professional pursuits with distinction.
But, when the “crunch” is on, when the establishment of basic priorities is forced upon us, Latter-day Saints must remember the special mandate given us to preach the gospel and administer its ordinances, because, in an ultimate sense; the world can never finally reach the level of happiness it desires without conforming to the purposes of its existence. Only when one is in harmony with ultimate truth can one find the peace of which Jesus spoke.
The world, for want of knowledge to do anything better, can profitably deal with things current. Even at best, this is first aid for the symptoms. We in the gospel have the relevant truths that are the cure for the world’s ills. And we are assigned to carry these truths to the world. It appears that in the eyes of the Lord, there is nothing more relevant than this basic call to preach the gospel.
Few young Latter-day Saints have had the impressive governmental experiences of Ed Firmage, now professor of law at the University of Utah. Formerly a White House Fellow on the staff of Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, Ed recently served as an official observer at the United Nations, studying how mankind arrives at “peaceful settlements”; he is now in Geneva, Switzerland, as an official observer of the disarmament talks.