Adventist Philosophers—Swimming in the Deep End

How, if at all, does God-talk matter?

For the seventh time, the Society of Adventist Philosophers gathered today in a hotel conference room for what leader Zane Yi, of Loma Linda University, called “conversation and friendship.” A single question animated interactions among the 25 or so who were attending the Society’s annual meeting: How do human words relate to the Word, the divine self-communication that has given rise to the (biblical) people of God? The meeting formal theme was “Words and the Word: Adventism and the Linguistic Turn.”

Papers and discussion began with reflection on the connection between God and the language of the Bible. It ended with consideration of whether, in a secularizing world, speech about God has any usefulness at all, any importance worth contending for? Today in Atlanta, commonplace Adventist self-preoccupation, normally evident at gatherings of church scholars, gave way to focus on issues that fascinate and disturb all people of faith.

Iriann Hausted, who is studying at Andrews University, began the morning with an exploration of divine involvement in the development of scripture. One school of thought, Calvinist in leaning, imagines biblical authors having a certain freedom even as God “controls” what is said to assure that biblical speech expresses the divine intention “exactly.” Another, represented by Fernando Canali of Andrews University, leans “Arminian,” that is, toward more emphasis on the freedom of the biblical writers and thinks of God as offering supervision and, as necessary, remedial correction. Both fall short, Hausted remarked, of full consistency, and she ended by saying that questions remain. One audience responder offered the idea of the biblical writers as “authoritative witness” to God as possibly helpful clarification.

Jasper St. Bernard, a student at University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, introduced participants to the ordinary language analysis of John Austin, the British philosopher who pioneered what has come to be known as “speech act” theory. When human speak, they intend not just to utter words, but also to accomplish something. The intended accomplishment is the “illocutionary force” of speech, and St. Bernard said that God’s speech, not least through the Incarnation, is meant to clarify God’s intentions for how humans live.

Moises Estrada, a graduate of the seminary now beginning pastoral work in California, presented a summary of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s perspective on the purpose of philosophy and the limits of human language. Philosophy (when it is good philosophy) destroy idols, or the self-assured answers human beings are prone to offer. Anyone who speaks speaks from within a form of life or a “language game.” Thus it is irresponsible for anyone to ridicule people who come from a different place. It is certainly irresponsible, for example, to ridicule religious belief. And all this means that humans must learn to live with “plurality”: differences cannot by resolved (by humans) into a single true perspective. Reaction from the audience zeroed in on the question of whether constructive conversation can even across lines of convictional difference. Estrada emphasized the first obligation conversation partners have is to “look and see.” More effort should go into understanding what others are about.

Attendees at the Society of Adventist Philosophers 2015 meeting.

Cosmin Ritivoiu, who attends Fuller Theological Seminary, opened a window onto Derrida, the French deconstructionist, using the Isaiah 6 as an illustrative biblical text. Derrida is suspicious of all human claims to knowing, not least claims to knowledge of what is good and evil. No human understanding of justice, for example, can be final, and each turns easily into a rationale for “hierarchy” that puts others at disadvantage to ourselves. Here conversation after the presentation focused on how Derrida’s perspective allows for actual rebuking of injustice. Comments underscored his own passion for justice and allowed that in emphasizing the danger of arrogance Derrida was not always self-consistent.

Kenneth Bergland, again a student from Andrews, began the afternoon by invoking Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, as well as contemporary biblical scholars, in order to facilitate understanding the scripture. Does the Bible describe the “real” world or is it just an expression of human ideals? Bergland argued that although the answer is elusive, what most matters is response through “practices of living.” To be convinced of the “divinity of scripture,” the reader must realize that “knowing and doing cannot be separated.”

Keisha McKenzie, a consultant and scholar of rhetoric from Maryland, argued that the “digital” revolution creates challenges for Adventists who have from the beginning been steeped in the centrality of linear thought expressed in sentences and paragraphs. Now word-focus has “limited resonance” with the rest of contemporary society, she said. Even if the Internet, with its visual richness, has not been as “democratizing” as was hoped, it is still a dominant means of communication. It has “decentralized” information, cut down the importance of “middlemen,” and shifted attention toward visual communication. It is thus “game-changing” for everything from the study of scripture to the techniques of evangelism, and a church that resists this truth will be unable, she suggested, to sustain itself over the long run. Discussion included worry that “humiliation” of the word, as one respondent said, could have deeply negative consequences.

Richard Rice offered the keynote address, beginning at mid-afternoon. He told the story of the God-Is-Dead movement of the 1960s, and described how one “secular” theologian, Paul Van Buren, offered a non-theistic expression of the Christian Gospel. Now Christian religious belief must be regarded, not as response to God, but simply as an “historical perspective” on the importance of Jesus. Rice described two theological challenges to Van Buren’s perspective, both of them claiming that widely shared human experience of “ultimacy,” or of “existential trust,” implies the backing of divine reality. Against the worry, expressed in conversation afterward, that today secularity is tending to doubt that life has any true significance at all, he allowed the point. Then he said that in such cases the shortest route to belief in God is believing in humanity: unless a person thinks human life is utterly valueless, that person must consider, at least, the idea that God provide the necessary backing for this conviction.

Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the publisher of Spectrum Magazine.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
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“Keisha McKenzie, a consultant and scholar of rhetoric from Maryland, argued that the “digital” revolution creates challenges for Adventists who have from the beginning been steeped in the centrality of linear thought expressed in sentences and paragraphs. Now word-focus has “limited resonance” with the rest of contemporary society, she said. Even if the Internet, with its visual richness, has not been as “democratizing” as was hoped, it is still a dominant means of communication. It has “decentralized” information, cut down the importance of “middlemen,” and shifted attention toward visual communication. It is thus “game-changing” for everything from the study of scripture to the techniques of evangelism, and a church that resists this truth will be unable, she suggested, to sustain itself over the long run.”

Yep…this change to “visual” communication is not going to change and only increase. One can debate the pros and cons of this change but it is here to stay in this very “visual” world. I think that it is apparent that the church will not be able to sustain itself without a major overhaul of how it has traditionally done things.

@Sirje I am speaking specifically of how a modern generation communicates which is visually. You are speaking from a non-millennial perspective and attitude which I understand. But if Adventism does not change the “medium”…they won’t have to worry about the “message” because it won’t be communicated to newer generations.

@gdavidovic You try teaching without “visual” aides to real humans and see how interesting this will generally be :slight_smile: Accepting his Gift of faith has nothing at all to do with what I said.


…until someone pulls the plug and we’re back in the tent with a candle.

All this implies is that the medium is the message, which is a lazy, superficial way of staying connected. Paul declares that he was only sent to preach the gospel “not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void”. We might add, not with cleverness of modern media. There’s a good reason why Jesus is the 'Word".

The gospel has to contain the power to reach and to teach, all by itself. In fact, descriptive words, themselves, can’t adequately do the job. The power of the gospel comes on a different level entirely. It’s not a depiction, visual or verbal; but an experience, common to all, answering the deepest questions and longings we all have. The entertainment that modern communication provides, actually diminishes God, only scratching the surface. It might make adherents to a given ideology, but it doesn’t reach deep enough to count in the long run.

So, to answer the question presented, human words, themselves, are only the expression of experience. Linguistically, we can dissect the words and try to make them relevant to our culture, but. if we are to take them out of the laboratory of words and make them mean something, we need them interpreted by faith. We need to be able to identify with the writer on a deeper level than just what the words meant then, and what they mean today. The only commonality we have with the writer is our common human experience. If we’re looking for certitude outside of that struggle to “know” we will be disappointed. Adventism understands what that means.


There are some who say,
“God is an Action Word.”

This takes a long time to digest, distill, and contemplate.
But it could be true. And perhaps this is why it is so difficult to grasp “GOD”.
The Unknowing, the Unknowable.


What speech existed prior to the tower of Babal? Remember The King James Bible was written over 200 year prior to 1844. The word cleansed in the Books of Moses is far different than cleansed in Daniel. My what terrorists have emerged from the King of the North and the King of the South. A project for these mind strechers would be to analyze the power point set of Adventist evangelism. The big question is what draws people to God. fear of hell or the Gospel of Grace?

Enough dealing with scaffolding lets us start on constructing a Church with open doors. Tom Z


Will the papers from this conference be available for those of us who did not have the opportunity to attend, but who have a strong interest in the topic? @c_scriven @zane_yi


The title of this article left me bewildered.
Adventist Philosophers—Swimming in the Deep End by Charles Scriven
Did I understand correctly this to mean an implied criticism? A subtle pun?
Please elaborate a bit. I’ve always heard the expression to mean that if you throw someone in at the deep end, you give them a difficult job to do, or a serious problem to deal with, before they have the knowledge or experience for it. Brother Scriven’s musings are usually very clear and full of wisdom. This title left me confused and “sleepless in California”…help me out, please explain!

“One does not have to be a philosopher to be a successful artist, but he does have to be an artist to be a successful philosopher. His nature is to view the world in an unpredictable albeit useful light.”
― Criss Jami, Killosophy


Richard Rice summed it well:

“the shortest route to belief in God is believing in humanity” which is another way of saying that the Golden Rule is the most important of all ideas IF we can truly live by demonstrating that most essential guide that should affect all humans.

Without that, all the words in the OED are without meaning. Yes, we should examine our lives and what is influencing us in words and by all forms of media today. But in the long run, the most uneducated to highly intelligent persons understand its meaning; not in words but in our attitudes toward ourselves and others.


Perhaps, swimming in the deep end might suggest calm, practiced ability to discuss questions of deep significance to Seventh-day Adventist Christians, as contrasted with inability (flailing about and gasping in panic) to even consider such questions.


I think you are entrely missing the mission of the Holy Spirit, it is He (not modern visual aids) who teaches our understanding and who converts our hearts, but we must first accept His gift of faith - John 14:26.

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North Koreans as a whole know little or nothing about God. In the recent book Escape from Camp 14 Shin Dong said he had never heard of God or Jesus. Accounts of survivors reveal very little human kindness or goodness that would lead to theistic faith.


I have been able to find the Golden Rule as a common denominator in talking even with athiests who don’t believe in God.
Love your neighbor, and treat others like you want to be treated is the basis of any belief system that would avoid most of the worlds problems. Determine to leave the world better than you found it will win hearts, when argument and force will flounder and repel.


The Case of Martin Heidegger, Philosopher and Nazi

The second type of response, represented by Derrida and his followers, is to acknowledge in general that there is a problem with Heidegger’s philosophy insofar as it allowed him to realize its implications by becoming a Nazi.

But then Derrida tries to turn the tables on Farias by insisting that the ultimate cause of Heidegger’s turn to Nazism was the fact that Heidegger had not sufficiently emancipated himself by 1933 from pre-Heideggerian ways of thinking, particularly rationalism and humanism.

According to Derrida’s tortured logic, once Heidegger succeeded in liberating himself from “metaphysics” following his post 1935 “turn,” his philosophy became the best form of anti-Nazism.

This perverse viewpoint was aptly summed up by one of Derrida’s students, Lacoue-Labarthe, who said that “Nazism is a humanism.” By this he meant that the philosophical foundations that underpinned the Enlightenment tradition of humanism had as their consequences the domination of humanity in the service of an all-encompassing universal-totalitarianism.

Such thinking has become a common stock in trade of Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe and their followers. The notion that Nazism is just another expression of Enlightenment universalism has recently been expressed by the Americans Alan Milchman and Alan Rosenberg. They write, “This principle of sufficient reason, the basis of calculative thinking, in its totalizing, and imperialistic, form, can be seen as the metaphysical underpinning which made the Holocaust possible.”

From this premise, Lacoue-Labarthe builds a sophisticated defense of Heidegger.

A Normal Nazi

In 1987 Victor Farías’s Heidegger et le nazisme dropped like a bomb on the quiet chapel where Heidegger’s disciples were gathered, and blew the place to bits. The myth Heidegger had concocted after the war—that he supported the Nazis briefly and only to protect the university—was shattered by the evidence Farías mustered of Heidegger’s deep and long-lasting commitment to National Socialism, his blatant anti-Semitism, his blackballing of colleagues for no more than holding pacifist convictions, associating with Jews, or being “unfavorably disposed” toward the Nazi regime.

Badly shaken, the Heideggerian faithful struggled to piece their beliefs together again

Of Spirit: Heigegger and the Question, by Jacques Derrida

“I shall speak of ghost, of flame, and of ashes.” These are the first words of Jacques Derrida’s lecture on Heidegger. It is again a question of Nazism—of what remains to be thought through of Nazism in general and of Heidegger’s Nazism in particular. It is also “politics of spirit”…

In his 1985 book The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Jürgen Habermas wrote that Heidegger’s lack of explicit criticism against Nazism is due to his unempowering turn (Kehre) towards Being as time and history: “he detaches his actions and statements altogether from himself as an empirical person and attributes them to a fate for which one cannot be held responsible.”

So, was Heidegger’s “turn” good or bad, then?

Yes, well, sometimes “swimming in the deep end” conveniently blurs certain issues.

The reader may wish to draw particular parallels to Adventist intellectualism.

I don’t understand why replacing one axiom “human life has value” with another “God is the reason human life has value” is progress. If you can accept the second, why can’t you accept the first?

I certainly agree that the intent of much communication is to induce some change in the hearer, and that short audio-visual communications are replacing long word-based ones.

Perhaps this is because the long word-based ones are themselves usually basically a string of non-sequitors and emotional appeals DISGUISED as logical arguments, and requiring too much work to show their logical deficiencies.

If illogical emotion-based appeals induce the required change, one may as well use the medium that is most conducive.

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I am at a loss to understand the point of this comment in relation to Scriven’s report on the Society of Adventist Philosophy. Is it meant to show that philosophers can be inconsistent; ergo, they should not be read? Is it meant to illustrate the futility of Adventists reading philosophy or trying to grapple with its challenges?

I’m sorry, James, Spectrum no longer allows public conversations, so it would be pointless for me to respond to your questions, though I would like to.

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