On Growing Up Adventist in the Caribbean

(system) #1

By Matthew Hunte, our man in St. Lucia.

From what I hear, the Caribbean islands are pretty well known for their sun, sand and friendly locals; I’ll get around to checking out that scene one of these days. To be quite honest, I’ve lived what some would call a rather sheltered life, though as I’ve grown older, I realized that due to my quite introverted nature–-thank you Jonathan Rauch!–-I would have spent most of my time reading and writing anyway. However it occurred to me that I, with a penchant for over-analyzing, had never turned the lens inward on my own religious community/beliefs.

I should not pretend that the Adventist experience in the Caribbean is monolithic and that I’m in any position to provide an exhaustive account; I can only speak from my position as a middle class fourth-generation Adventist who grew up in a house containing too many books and who also has a possibly unhealthy fascination with Prince and those violent eighties cartoons. I also should add that while Transformers (2007) was underwhelming, I can’t honestly say I was disappointed since my expectations were low as they should be for any Michael Bay film. Sigh…

Outside of a general appreciation for androgynous, star-crossed musical geniuses, my other views aren’t absolute. However, I could honestly say that for the most part, I have thought through whatever position I hold at a given time exposing it to great scrutiny, which perhaps explains why my views are constantly in flux, that and the fact that I’m only in my early twenties. I could tell you at a given point what my political/economic/sports views were and explain why; not so with religion. I never got around to examining my own religious community–-and/or personal beliefs–-with the scrutiny I used on the other aspects of my life. Anyhow, shall we dance? (Figuratively speaking of course…)

The dominant culture within Caribbean Adventism, as I’ve experienced it, is a proud conservatism. Indeed, the greatest compliment that could be paid is that you are steadfast and grounded in the Word. In case you’re wondering, this means strict Biblical Literalism, along with Biblical Inerrancy. In a sense, the use of these terms within the Caribbean context to describe these viewpoints is unnecessary because it presupposes that other viable positions may exist. Fundamentalism is essentially unchallenged, not only in the sense that dissenting views are quickly suppressed, but in that few people think that there is any other way.

There really isn’t much of a discernible intellectual culture within Adventist circles, outside of the pastors sprinkling some Greek into their sermons. However, this could possibly be explained as a reflection of wider Caribbean culture. This is partially due to having a poor and for the most part uneducated population, in addition to the insularity which results from coming from such small places; none of this is unique to Adventism. Thus, one could assume that attending college would be a way for me to be exposed to a whole different side of the church culture.

However, during my time at what was then Caribbean Union College, now University of the Southern Caribbean, I came to seriously question the whole notion of an Adventist higher education. Throughout much of my time at CUC, I felt that much greater emphasis was being placed on getting me to worship services than getting me to think. Of course I was hardly a model student to begin with; home schooling must have wrecked my chances for success within a formal education system. At one particularly cringe inducing evening when there were so many other things happening in the world, we were having a public debate on whether or not women should be allowed to wear pants to class. Often I felt that the school was in its own sort of ivory tower, completely divorced from contemporary world.

To be fair, my rather un-illustrious tenure at CUC coincided with a particularly unstable period; I went through five different presidents during my four years and only once did I have the same president opening the school year and making the address at graduation. Nevertheless, there was a significant intellectual vacuum which seemed deeply embedded within the culture of the institution. Perhaps this was because part of the school’s culture which explicitly saw itself as preparation for service; the few of us who studied the liberal arts, often less than fifteen majoring in English or History at any time out of a population which was then around nine hundred, were either pariahs or simply invisible. (By the way Clifford Goldstein’s autobiography provided me with great solace while early in my collegiate career, I was trying to justify my existence as a student of literature. I figured he didn’t turn out too bad so there was still hope…) Nevertheless, though in many ways the school fit the profile of any other cash strapped liberal arts college, this sure wasn’t a Christian Bennington.

But this is not necessarily to state that CUC was a failure; what I’ve grown to suspect is that my goals and that of the institution were in dissonance. This was a school which was indifferent to intellectual development, not one which merely failed to live up to its pretensions. To be sure, the majority of the student population was apathetic. However the plebes at the bottom could hardly bear the major responsibility in creating an environment conducive to intellectual discourse. During my erstwhile tenure as editor of the school newspaper, I was explicitly informed not to contact the most successful editor in the publication's history since he was said to not have had the institutions best interest at heart. This stems from the paper having run a story dealing with the Folkenberg affair, which lead to an editorial committee being established and the paper being censored until it wilted.

I often used to quip that if anyone in the theology department made any significant discovery, they would by definition be placing their continued employment in doubt. There were relatively few public lectures, book readings or anything of that. I am still not sure whether or not this was simply due to there being no firm leadership during my attendance, whether it is something unique to the institution I attended or if this is endemic within Adventist higher education. (There has been a major spike in enrollment at USC recently with the student population now twenty-six thousand. There has also been the establishment of a scholarly journal and greater engagement with the society with the hosting of a crime symposium for example. Too late for me but still…)

From where I stand, there is little room for dissent within the Adventist community; my growing interest in Bishop Spong wouldn’t gain me any favors among the few who know who he is. (I remember hearing some guy in college complaining about that heretic Richard Rice.) I wouldn’t venture to state that mine is the authentic Caribbean Adventist experience though I suspect that any difference in experience is rooted mainly in my reaction to it. In the mean time, I’m torn between my commitment to intellectual pursuit and a deeper connection to a community which I can’t shake despite my fiercely individualistic nature. So I’m not quite sure where I stand, except that I’m stuck out here on an island.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4085