Notwithstanding the good intentions, generous words and the formal spiritual paintwork, Ted Wilson’s presidency has a strongly divisive, manipulative and populist character.
- Divisive, because presently it is severely polarizing Adventism, even though one important presidential goal should be that of being president of all Adventists. And the division is external as well as internal. The Adventist Church today looks more and more cut off from the external world, religiously and culturally. It appears allied to the ideological, regressive and shortsighted forces in society. And this is often interpreted as the evident sign of a deeper fidelity to the gospel. Perhaps, but while others can mislead us it's also equally true that others can reclaim us. Because is up to others, not ourselves, to say if we are delusive or not.
- Manipulative because instead of correcting the theological structural imbalances Adventism has, this presidency is hardening them and taking electoral advantage of them. A GC president's aspiration shouldn't be how to be re-elected but how to correct some evident and chronic structural imbalances.
- Populist because, contrary to the general opinion of this presidency’s public discourse, Wilson’s is not a remnant message. It paradoxically says only what the majority of Adventists want to hear. It addresses our survival instinct. In this sense it is unable to create “Present Truth” and its managerial-theological tone is unfitted to cast a vision.
What is the genesis of this religious attitude and leadership? Without becoming obsessed with exhaustive etiological explanation it is nevertheless helpful to re-visit and interpret our past. This presidency's attention to Adventism’s purity/truth/efficiency rather than relations/context/complexity doesn't emerge in a historical vacuum. It is actually the natural extension of Adventism itself. Historically and theologically Adventism has fashioned its own profile. Under this paradigm the validity of an Adventist believer, pastor or church is defined by standing alone and against everyone else. It has represented our way of existing and becoming meaningful. Ellen White’s famous sentence on Adventist education exemplifies this religious orientation:
“The greatest want of the world is the want of men-- men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.” Education, p 57.
I think that fundamentally we were right in modeling Adventism then, after what might be called a “coherence paradigm”. It was the result of a pertinent understanding of ourselves, the Bible and society of that time. But from our pioneers and past history we need to copy the “how” more than the “what”. Uncritically and unilaterally this “coherence paradigm” has been elevated to an absolute dogma. And especially so from this presidency. Here a central question needs to be asked: shouldAdventism adhere so tightly to this paradigm while society today is diversified and has alternative paradigms in an attempt to understand our continually changing reality? All while the Bible and Ellen White both work with diversified and even contrasting paradigms of religious experience?
History has not stopped at 1844, 1888 or 1915. We now have seen: two world wars, global warming, heterogeneous society, fall of the iron curtain, financial globalization, new fundamentalism and the technification of human life. All this in the radically transformed world of today’s Adventism. But equally important, we have changed. Sociologically and psychologically we are not a homogeneous community. Numerically and demographically we have irreversibly changed our structural profile. Thus while a “coherence paradigm” is still necessary it is surely not sufficient to understand the Bible, ourselves and each surrounding society. Particularly, we need to understand that this paradigm, praised in Adventism as the panacea – and diffusely used in this presidential address – has evidenced its limit. An identity can’t be assessed only by measuring itself with itself. We need to add a “correspondence paradigm” that balances and completes our traditional one. This “correspondence paradigm” is both Biblical and consistent with Ellen White’s conceptual categories. Within this dynamic we are not evaluated independently of others or even against external circumstances but also through what we are in relation to others and by the capacity we have to cope with uncontrolled external situations. We can’t always be against everybody, secular or religious. Other churches and civic entities also have missions and ministries trusted to them by God. It’s part of a basic religious and ethical attitude to acknowledge this and also acknowledge that we Adventists are not equipped to do everything alone. For this reason we need to rely also, albeit critically, on other Christians and people led by the Holy Spirit.
Finally, consider two possible outcomes of maintaining our traditional paradigm, as this presidency does.
First, there is what the South-African sociologist Stanley Cohen calls the insurgence of “Moral Panic” (cf. Folk Devils and Moral Panics). This “moral panic” is a public, general and excessive reaction to an issue that threatens or shocks the sensibilities of a pious and right-intentioned community. This is often fanned by sensationalist and selective reporting in the media and exaggerated accounts offered by "moral entrepreneurs" – a category that includes politicians on the make and religious activists in search of a cause. Moral panics can result in what is a real phenomenon being blown way out of proportion or a false phenomenon being widely believed to be real. Moral panics often feature a caricatured or stereotypical “folk devil” on which the anxieties of the community are focused. By seriously considering apostasy, heresy or religious incoherence as real dangers inside and outside the church Adventism should never embrace the reductionism of moral alarm. It almost never helps to prepare an adequate answer to the challenge and worse, it doesn't help to individuate the real enemy.
Second, maintenance of a unilateral and reductive “coherence paradigm”, reinforced by the “Moral Panic” strategy, also damages our theological balance. There are various ways of explaining eschatology. We might define it as the ultimate concern and hope about God's coming kingdom. But eschatology has two structural ways of speaking about this future – an apocalyptic way and a messianic way. While the apocalyptic way underlines “judgment”, the messianic way underlines “fulfillment”. It's not enough to claim to be eschatological. It must be balanced, integrating these two souls of Biblical eschatology: messianic and apocalyptic. While Daniel and Revelation are apocalyptic books, Isaiah instead is a messianic book. And a paradigmatic example of how to maintain both souls together is given by Isaiah chapter two where we find, in the first part a messianic, and in the second part an eschatological picture of God's Kingdom.
There is no doubt that Adventist theology has always had an almost exclusively apocalyptic approach to eschatology. But what could have been relevant in the past, due to particular historical conditions (the euphoric belief in 19th and 20th century progress), is today no longer the case. Although we believe we are following a Biblical paradigm we are skipping something. We continue to hold to an unbalanced apocalyptic eschatology. This is exemplified in the recent GC evangelistic campaign which included distributing millions of copies of The Great Controversy. This noble and generous effort reinforces our unbalanced eschatology, deforming and manipulating our own prophet. Why? Because, in a way similar to the Bible, Ellen White has a balanced eschatology we lack. And while The Great Controversy represents her apocalyptic understanding, The Desire of Ages represents her messianic understanding of eschatology. We should have at least distributed both books together.
The unilateral and stubborn maintenance of a traditional and exclusive “coherence paradigm”, together with a shortsighted “Moral Panic” strategy, doesn't help us toward a balanced eschatology and build up a meaningful theological profile for today. The final result is that a simple administrative intervention, such as the Presidential Annual Council Sermon, evidences a theological anomaly that is sold as incarnating both what we Adventists really are and what we should be preaching to others. And by avoiding with a holy zeal the dialogue and confrontation with others, and by stigmatizing internal experimental alternatives, we don't succeed in correcting our chronic religious imbalances.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6482