I’m not usually one to write things of an autobiographical nature but I suspect my story is one that many Adventists will find relevant or at least interesting. My hope is that my otherwise insignificant exodus from Adventism will be an example of how obsessive doctrinal purity can push the faithful into doubt.
My zeal for Adventism had been unmatched. Since middle school I had led both youth and adult Sabbath School classes and delivered more sermons than I could count. My hobbies as a kid were listening to Amazing Facts cassette tapes and corresponding with non-Adventist pastors trying to convince them of plain truth. I knew one day I would be an Adventist pastor and could imagine nothing else.
It was this fervor for the remnant message that led me from my home in Oregon all the way to Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. Southern, I was told, was the one Adventist school that hadn’t yet apostatized. Yet, the conservatism that I moved across the country to find is what moved me out of Adventism. What follows are four issues raised over my four years at Southern all of which contributed to my rejection of (and by) Adventism.
The Untouchable Sanctuary Doctrine When I arrived at Southern I didn’t think there was an Adventist doctrine I couldn’t defend. So, when some of my friends began to study Daniel 8 and the sanctuary doctrine with open minds I played the role of the apologist. Yet my investigation into this centerpiece of the Adventist faith left me with more reasons to doubt than to believe.
I felt like Uzzah watching the Ark of the Covenant begin to totter—letting it fall or offering correction both seemed like impossible options. After my studies I could not in good conscience accept the eschatological significance of 1844 but at the same time I knew that if I proposed an alternative perspective it would cost me my future career as a pastor.
The message I received from the faculty was that critical thinking was encouraged—sometimes. Some subjects were open for discussion others were off-limits. This experience led me to understand that Adventism is, in general, opposed to finding new answers. The church doesn’t study to find where it is wrong but to prove why it is right.
The pressure that this put on me can hardly be understated. My disagreement with a seemingly obscure point of faith left me in a position where I had to remain silent or lie about my beliefs in order to be able to one day serve the church in an official capacity. Then during this time of personal turmoil I became involved in an unexpected and more public controversy. Homosexuality and the Family of God During the end of my sophomore year I participated in a panel discussion on the issue of the church’s position towards homosexuality. The event was structured like a formal debate. One student and I argued that homosexuality is not sinful, while two other students claimed that it is. We proposed these perspectives, not necessarily as our own, but simply to generate discussion. The School of Religion had rejected our invitation to be involved saying that they wouldn’t support our event unless they had control over the content.
Within just one week’s time the School of Religion assembled another four-person panel (only one of whom was a student) which in many ways imitated what we had done. However, instead of offering a variety of perspectives as our original group had done this alternative panel unanimously condemned homosexuality.
The university’s response left me deeply offended in two ways. First I was hurt by the intolerance that the school was promoting. But I was also upset that the school was refusing to allow debate and discussion on campus. In the time after our panel a lot of healthy discourse on the subject was found all over campus but the school felt obligated to offer the “right” answer rather than letting students pursue truth. This was a recurring pattern.
Jesus is Dead
Assuming I couldn’t be an Adventist pastor anymore I left Southern and attended Portland State University for the first quarter of my junior year. This was the first non-Adventist school I ever attended and the freedom of thought and expression was absolutely refreshing and a much needed relief.
It was during my time in Portland that I was first exposed to higher criticism and historical methods for studying scripture. Nothing had ever made so much plain sense to me. The works of John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, and others allowed me to realize that to be Christian did not necessitate fundamentalism. This was a revelation to me.
Having been reinvigorated by my newfound love for historical criticism I decided I wanted to re-engage my formal religious studies. If I returned to Southern I could finish in a year and a half—anywhere else it would be two to three years more.
I arrived back at Southern excited about my new perspective but disappointed that such persuasive historical arguments were either mocked or ignored altogether by the faculty. I wanted to encourage the students to keep their minds open to new and different perspectives. For example, must we think of the resurrection of Jesus as meaning the resuscitation of his corpse? I believed that both theologically and historically the resurrection could be better understood without such a literalistic approach.
It was this desire that inspired me to write the now infamous article entitled “Jesus is Dead” for the school newspaper. For those who read the article and not just the title I stated plainly that I took the role of the Church as the body of Christ very seriously. In this sense I understood the Resurrection to be true. From my perspective both the liberal and fundamentalist perspectives are within the realm of valid Christian belief. This, of course, was not the reaction I received.
People seemed uninterested in what I said and were simply upset that I said anything at all. Most responded by either complaining that I was allowed to publish or by saying publicly that my soul was lost. I still believed I was a Christian but was told so often that I was not that eventually I believed it.
It’s fascinating to me that the lowest point in my spiritual experience came not when I was surrounded by atheists in Portland but by Adventists in Collegedale. The Adventist culture often says by implication that a person is either Adventist or atheist. The result of this false dichotomy is that those who cannot or will not be Adventists are marginalized. What I hope the reader understands is that when we treat people like lost souls rather than like friends with different views we often create unbelievers.
The Silent Treatment
After some time of reflection I recognized that I could not let people’s categorizations of me change my self-perception. I must be self-defined. So, during my senior year I had the redundant hope that I could interest Southern’s campus in open thinking. I was determined to be more conversational and less polemical. I would use less shock and awe and more tact.
I offered to the school newspaper an article which sought to clarify my position on the Resurrection. In it I asserted unequivocally that I believed in God, that I believed in the Resurrection, and that I was indeed a Christian. Unfortunately, after months of being told that it would be included when space allowed—it was never published.
The president of the university, Dr. Gordon Bietz, told me personally that Southern should welcome the types of conversations that I was trying to initiate but that if I were to be published it should be alongside a traditional Adventist perspective. So, my friend and conservative counterpart decided to write a series of articles dealing with issues surrounding the historical Jesus and to distribute them among the students in the School of Religion. Our request for permission from the Student Ministerial Association, which includes the dean of the department, was denied.
In March 2010 religion students from Southern travelled to Oakwood University where students from both institutions would share papers written on different theological or biblical topics and field questions. I submitted my paper for review months ahead of the other contributors but just weeks prior to the trip I was told that my paper would not be allowed to argue an opinion. My work would only be accepted if I simply surveyed various opinions on a subject but I could not make a claim for one to be more correct than another. Rather than neutering my paper I decided instead to simply withdraw my submission.
The way in which I was silenced at every attempt to enter the conversation only made me happier to be done with the Adventist educational system after seventeen years inside it. I will be forever grateful for the friends I have made and the Christian values I have been taught. But I regret the fact that my college career was so littered with obstacles and that my honest quest for dialogue was so often stymied.
The Adventist church does an exceptional job of maintaining doctrinal purity and purging skeptics from its ranks. My story is simply one such example. I do not write for pity but for the sake of Adventism itself. I tell this story as a warning to those who want to see Adventism grow and prosper and as sympathy to those who find themselves on the fringes. For those of us who have had our faith ignored and been called non-believers I encourage you to find resolve and to not allow others to define your faith experience for you.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2388