As promised, this week I’d like to spend a few moments thinking about why it is that we so often confuse the two adjectives “relevant” and “practical.” Last week we looked at the difference between relevance and popularity; today we’re considering whether “practicality” is not a rather limited means for measuring relevance—that is, a “significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.”
When faced with the question of relevance, academics tend to turn to the aspects of their work that might be termed most practical: geometrical proofs become important when they’re used to build bridges and schools; Latin is helpful for learning medical terminology; physics provides us with faster and safer transportation and technology. While I would never want to deny that such aims have a good in themselves, I fear that if we only look to the practical benefits of a field or subject of study, we are in very great danger of missing out on many other kinds of relevance the pursuit may have on offer.
The dictionary defines the adjective “practical” as “concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory and ideas.” At first, it may appear almost like common sense that the ability to put something to use rather than just considering or discussing it would carry the greater significance and the greater “demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.”
In many cases, however, it is the correct theorizing of an idea or method that must precede its practical bearing and appropriate use. What’s more, it seems to me at least plausible that in many cases, our culture tends rather to idolize the practical, material benefits of a thing, often at the risk of losing sight of those things which are immaterial, even eternal. In 2 Corinthians 4:18, Paul warns us not to fix our eyes too firmly on the things which are “seen” and are “temporal.”
As Christians, often it can be helpful to pull our eyes upwards from those things which are material and which show immediate, practical benefit. It can be good to contemplate (and even better, to discuss with friends!) the things which are “unseen”—a few of the theories, beliefs, and ideas that lie at the heart of the physical world we see around us. Sometimes the practical benefits of an idea may very well take their time in showing their fruit. Let’s not automatically question the relevance of the unseen benefits of the immaterial.