A Lesser Disappointment

Similarly, it would be redundant to say that certain leaders are good; of course they are good; their influence as leaders depends on their goodness. We should not say that a leader is bad; we should say, instead, that this person has failed to be a leader. —Paul Woodruff, The Ajax Dilemma In the range of emotions that we experience, disappointment falls somewhere between sorrow and resentment. It does not cut as deeply as sorrow nor does it fester like resentment. It comes from a 15th-century French word, disappointen, which meant, unsurprisingly, ‘to remove from office.’ It brings to mind failed expectations, a setback, something that we wish had not happened. But we’ll recover, given time. It could have been worse. The Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, is a formative part of Adventist history. We pay more attention to it, liturgically speaking, than we do to the resurrection. It forms the crucible out of which we were poured, as a religious community, with a new purpose and justification for mission. In the strictest sense, it is our primary mythos, our origin story. We’ve been carrying our disappointment in our pockets ever since. The Adventist pioneers who had set their sights on heaven suffered deeply, agonizingly, when their end-time prophecies misfired. Many had committed their money to the cause, left their crops to wither in the fields, and sold their possessions, even their homes. They were invested in this in a way that is something of a wonder. It wasn’t so much the loss of material things; those could be replaced. It was the complete dashing of hope, the blackness of night that lasted after the sun rose, the bitter realization that this shadowy and twisted world would hold them in its grip until death after all. This is more than disappointment; it is abject defeat, humiliation, and loss. Perhaps it was the taciturn nature of those New England Millerites that kept the grief taut and held it to ‘disappointment,’ albeit a Great Disappointment. Social psychologist Leon Festinger’s landmark study, When Prophecy Fails, on the Millerites and a UFO cult, introduced us to cognitive dissonance, the state of mind that arises when our deeply-held beliefs and behaviors are at war with one another. We seek cognitive consistency and a reduction in the dissonance. Typical responses to it include rejection, resentment, retrenchment, and reinterpretation. Adventists, for the most part, chose reinterpretation. They admitted they were wrong about the particulars, but right that there was a cosmic event. Once bitten, twice shy. The early Adventists were not about to set a date again for the Second Coming. Everybody can see when you’re wrong on that one. Instead, they reinterpreted the event horizon to something theologically unique, but spiritually moribund — the investigative judgment. While it refocused the energy that had flagged in the wake of October 22, it has been a puzzlement to many members and to theologians from outside the tradition. There is something about failing so spectacularly at the outset that sets a people apart for generations to come. Adventists have a mark of Cain upon them, a collective sense of social inferiority that causes them to trot after celebrity. Sometimes it provokes pity within their non-Adventist or secular friends, but more often it results in confusion. Those who are better acquainted with our eschatology — perhaps through a Revelation Seminar — may hold faint admiration for how we picked ourselves up, reinterpreted our mistakes, and turned defeat into a global educational, health, and religious enterprise of 20 million people. Now, 174 years after we put our foot wrong the first time, we are about to break a leg. In 1844 we looked up when we should have looked within; in 2018 we are looking within, when we should be looking out. In 1844, we tried to get out of this world, when we should have examined the house of prophecy we had built. In 2018 we are condemning our own when we should be helping our world. A house divided against itself cannot stand. But, in a knife fight put your money on the one who wields Occam’s razor. There are probably many theories as to why the Adventist church is at this juncture right now. The simplest one is that leadership’s hostility toward women’s ordination became an issue of divine right to rule. At stake is the question of justice, just that, of what is right and fair for those involved. It’s a minimum standard, what most democratic societies strive for in one way or another, because without it the other civic virtues — freedom, respect, equality, opportunity, honor — are in jeopardy. And if the leadership of the General Conference continues to align with injustice and authoritarianism it will find it has become irrelevant. Regretfully, but decidedly, many of us will turn away to try to live out what the Lord requires of us: To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. The imperatives are simple; the carrying out of them, as always, is a matter of faith and grace. We need a new language, one that can expand our meanings as needed and that just says no to the brittle formulas of authoritarianism, sexism, and literalism. We will live, as disciples, within parable, metaphor, analogy, allusion, indirectness. Anything but a bald, braying literalness whose faint light only illumines disappointment. “A faith-language will be always open enough for a God who has more truth to teach us,” writes Mark Oakley in The Splash of Words, “who ‘speaks,’ not ’spake.’ It will be a language that finally reads us more than we read it, helping us to listen to our life.” We need to rediscover the beauty of the Sabbath, not as a commandment or a ticket to a heavenly excursion to the New Jerusalem, but as a potent symbol of creativity, exodus out of oppression, solidarity in suffering, care for this earth, and blessed rest. We need a vocabulary that can account for “the evil that men do” as well as the weight of glory that humans bear. We need to take seriously the human comedy and to understand tragedy in all its severe beauty and dignity. We need to regard prophecy as a compass that points us to our true north of faithfulness to Jesus’ words and life. We need to see the extraordinary nature of the Bible as revelatory literature and poetry. We need a consciousness that regards women and men as full citizens of creation, engaged joyfully in a circle of work and worship and play, not a ladder of competitiveness and condescension. We need the humility to grasp that the only uniqueness to which we need aspire in this world is that for which all Christians are called — to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We need the empathy which recognizes that our crosses are our own. And we need the steadfastness that keeps us on our journey of faith, even when some would compel us to return to a time that no longer exists. Instead of anger against leaders who divide us, we can regard them with mild disappointment — and continue on. We need to reinvent Adventism for our time. Something leaner and more supple, more informed by faith and imagery and poetry and less throttled by policy; Earth-centered, with a hope that begins here of something eternal beyond. Since no one knows the day nor the hour of the Kingdom still to come, we need to rejoin the work of being Christ’s hands in the world and leave the finishing of it up to God. Like a farmer who works the fields, reading the weather and the land, we can be aware of the change of seasons without the delusion that we are causing them. We can work with diligence, looking ahead of us and around us. And someday, as only God knows, we will be surprised by joy from above in the midst of our sowing. Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Image Credit: Unsplash / Gavin Hang We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9106

What is done, is done. Quite frankly I do not think it will amount to anything. I am waiting for and looking for the first conference that ordains women to get a mean, non-adventist attorney and file a discrimination law suit against the General conference of Seventh-day Adventist. And yes it will take a MEAN attorney to win, because he will not care about the bad publicity the Seventh-day Adventist church gets. I sure hope this magazine keeps us informed.

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Wonderfully offered, Barry. Hopeful, especially. Many thanks.

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Our compliance is with the Gospel and not the GC. Ordination to the Gospel ministry belongs first to God alone and not any committee, vote or policy.

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Imaginary warriors fighting imaginary dragons. Far too many of us have this notion we are fighting for the soul of the church when all we are doing is kicking against the thorns of culture. Our commission is to spread the Gospel of God to a world in desperate need of redemption.
Whoever hears the call and will submit their all is fine with me. We can only bear witness to what Holy Spirit is doing through the person. We do not confer the Spirit or dictate His blessing.

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As Yuval Noah Harari would say, we surround ourselves with myths, and control ourselves through them.

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Amen, the present spat is all about ecclesiology: church government of the clergy, by the clergy and for the clergy, and all about who gets to be part of the elite clergy. The laity are only there to fund both sides of the battle.

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The Adventist church has never grown up. Many within have, but they are the ones hanging on, waiting for some sign of maturity. All its many issues are superficial - scraping the surface of what it means to be a Christian. At a time like this, who focuses attention on dress, food and all the other petty issue that cry out, “I’m a Seventh-day Adventist!” We have been naval gazing so long that the Gospel has become US; and the Sabbath a point of pride, at best, and ticket to salvation at its grossest.

When the leader of the church can’t mention the name of Christ as a focal point of our faith, instead listing by rote, the many peculiarities that make us unique as if that is our utmost reason for being, and our message to the world, we have a decision to make. I made my decision long ago, but have nostalgically been hoping for something, not even knowing what, to change, and to beacon me to come home. Home is where the heart is and it’s not shuffling among the 28 points of Adventist doctrine.

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This article expressed totally how I am feeling today. I am tired of waiting for the SDA Church to wake up. I do not need them for spiritual revival. That can and should only come from God <3

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Barry - what a blessing this article was to myself and my spouse! Thank you.

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In the spirit of “disappointen”, I say the following.

I had been holding out hope that the Adventist leadership ‘machine’ that had wrongfully ‘punished’ (and by inference if not directly, villified) those whom it deemed to have spoken up for theological views that were ‘non-compliant’ with the doctrines of Adventism - despite these views being compliant with sound Biblical exegesis - would one day, in humility, acknowledge the wrong in the way these people and their views had been handled - and officially apologise to those people.

Now that the formerly ‘underhanded’ principles and practices of those times have now essentially been ‘officially sanctioned’ into working policy, I must lay that hope to rest and embrace “disappointen”.

So, perhaps I will now stand up instead, not as a member of a denomination, but as a member of the universal body of Christ and say to all who have been treated this way, I am sorry that you were treated that way. To each and every one of you, thank you for taking that stand, even though it cost you dearly. Thank you.

Of course, there are many, many, many other areas too where wrongs have been perpetuated. But, I guess one has to start somewhere. So, today, that’s where I start.

Will anyone else stand along side me?

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I was thinking Imagined Communities but you are more descriptive :-),

Imagined communities is a book I am currently reading and has insight along these lines. A good read by the way.

Very well said…when as you stated can’t use Christ as the focal point you’ve…well lost the point.

I think a recently graduated attorney could win that one.

Brilliant writing.
Whilst WO is the catalyst, the danger of an authoritarian and political GC is much broader as evidenced by the other tinkering to the Fundamentals.

To those who aren’t unhappy with recent events I would say wait until more Fundamentals are added and the existing ones massaged again as God’s unseen hand refines His truth.

Scary times ahead if all Church employees are to be judged, by extension, via the new star chamber system.

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Thank you Barry for this very helpful reflection on what it means to be disappointed.

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My deepest agreement with this - I add my thanks.

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Or even worse when the Holy Spirit calls a woman to service in direct contradiction to GC policy. Imagine the gull of that!

Interpretation of Biblical Prophecy is done by mortal human beings. Mortal human beings make errors, it is their nature to make errors. Therefore all interpretations of prophecy should be taken as at most plausible, not as absolute truth.

And even prophecy itself is potentially in error. After all, prophets are mortal human beings, and mortal human beings make errors (to err is human). Therefore the prophecies themselves should be taken as at most plausible and not as certain.

Conclusion — Let the Believer beware.

Been there, done that…remember Merikay v Pacific Press? The church spent tens of thousands of dollars, going up to the highest levels of the court system to attempt, unsuccessfully, to preserve the church’s express intent to compensate women less than a man doing the same job, Nothing has really changed in the intervening 40+ years. What happened this week is a Pyrrhic victory…they may have won the battle, but they have lost the war.

I’m all for ‘reinventing Adventism’, as the author suggests.

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