Perspective: Equality, Totalitarianism, and God's Divine Order

In the wake of the ordination vote in San Antonio, the question of biblical hermeneutics is on the General Conference agenda. It is not a coincidence.

What the Theology of Ordination Study Committee demonstrated conclusively is that the issue of ordination cannot be solved on a purely textual basis. My sense is that until the church is willing to engage in a critical encounter with its own, more or less hidden, philosophical-theological presuppositions, and prejudices, debates like these will be divisive, heated, and ultimately inconclusive.

A basic prejudice, as I see it, is the need to define human existence within an essentialist framework of “God’s divine order,” i.e., a strong and absolutist metaphysical theology. The debate over ordination illustrates this. At the one end of the debate, you have headship proponents who argue for a divine order of male headship, established as far back as creation itself. They argue that this is the naturally given, directly from the hands of the Almighty. On the other end of the spectrum, we find the opponents who argue that ordaining women is a moral-ethical issue of equality. They posit that it has nothing to do with a naturally given or divine order. Behind these two positions lies two completely different presuppositions and that is my task here.

My summer reading has been Hannah Arendt’s book “The Human Condition,” and Marieke Borren’s comments on Arendt’s philosophy. I discovered during my reading, unexpectedly, that Arendt has something relevant to say on the present debate over ordination and biblical hermeneutics in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She is a German philosopher, who after World War II spent a large part of her life in the United States, her writing deeply informed by Holocaust and by Totalitarianism.

A basic premise of Arendt’s philosophy is that human beings are primarily “worldly beings,” i.e., situated in concrete, lived experience. She stresses the intersubjective nature of human existence, and that our sense of reality depends upon “sharing a world with others.” Human understanding and knowledge is embedded in our practical dealings with the things of the world and with each other. As “interpretive beings” we try to reconcile ourselves with the world and “to be at home in it.” She asserts that the world is the sole life-context within which human meaning-making unfolds. It is in the world that we live our lives and die. While Arendt shares Heidegger’s notion of the human lifeworld as “being-in-the-world,” she also stresses the component of human plurality: “being-in-the-world-with-different-others.”

From this starting point, Arendt’s launches her critique of (strong) ideologies, which claim a total and absolute explanation of reality. Her claim is that essentialist ideological systems have a tendency to suffocate plurality and leave us with a sense of “unreality.” Here she includes both political totalitarian ideologies and strong metaphysical theologies. Their “specialty,” she claims, is that they try to create a coherent system of rational propositional truths, which they subsequently projects onto history, nature and culture. In her view, the working principle of these ideologies is that they want to explain reality deductively from one (given) basic premise. In the case of the Holocaust, it was race, and in the case of San Antonio, male headship won the day.

Their ideological-theological narratives are based on the premise of a “natural order.” While, on the one hand, these ideologies are seemingly logical, coherent, and consistent, they are, on the other hand, coercive and totalitarian in the sense that they shut off the dialogical aspect of intersubjective reality, i.e., a world constituted by the lived plurality of human experiences. Arendt claims that this may lead to a complete blindness to our common notion of lived reality, a devaluation of the dialogical aspect of life, and a denial of the situated character of our understanding of the world.

Furthermore, Arendt claims, that by asserting absolute truths as the given “natural”—“God’s divine order”—such ideologies annul the plurality of voices, which is constitutive of our common intersubjective world. Such totalitarian ideologies are only friends with unity as a boneless and faceless uniformity of submission, but enemies of unity in diversity of embodied “flesh and blood.” They disable discourse among people, shut off independent thinking, isolate people in their own minds, and undermine individuality. The world becomes one-dimensional and homogeneous.

To avoid this “illusory reality of sleepwalking,” she suggests we must distinguish between “equality” and “sameness.” For her, equality is not a descriptive notion of something “naturally given,” because “equality is possible only under conditions of plurality,” but a political “normative notion” that refers to a “moral ideal or task.” Sameness, she claims, is about belonging to the same species—homo sapiens—of a shared biological and existential constitution. Equality does not make us the same, and sameness does not make us equal. Equality is not opposed to heterogeneity, but to sameness. If equality were a description of a given natural sameness, it would destroy the intersubjective plurality of lived experience.

As I understand Arendt, her answer to male-headship proponents would have been that by making their ideology into a strong metaphysical theology of “God’s divine order,” theology becomes coercive and destroys plurality—the “presence of others.” In addition, a natural theology denies the situatedness of the intersubjective aspect of human existence and meaning making, conditioned by time, history, and culture. She would also claim, based on her own first-hand experience with totalitarian ideologies, that by reducing “equality” to “sameness”; by naturalizing and ontologizing moral values, we ruin our notion of human freedom.

Hermeneutics requires more than an archaeological excavation of the “purity” of biblical texts. It is also about the uncovering of our own, often hidden, philosophical, theological and cultural prejudices underpinning our theologies.

Sources:

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958), second edition, published by University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Marieke Borren, ‘A Sense of the World’: Hanna Arendt’s Hermeneutic Phenomenology of Common Sense, International Journal of Philosophical Studies (2013), Vol. 21, No. 2, 225-255.

Ole-Edvin Utaker writes from Norway. He holds degrees in Theology from Newbold College and in Sociology of Religion from The Norwegian School of Theology, along with studies in Divinity through Andrews University, Newbold campus.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7061
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Ole-Edvin (fellow Old Newboldian)

I understand the connection between a belief in the the sovereignity of God and his supposed hierarchical order for the church which embraces male headship of a global clergy class. Hierarchy, male headship and clergy belong together and any thought of them in our theology must be cast into outer darkness.

The Adventist organizational structure is one of wheels within wheels, of concentric circles, spheres of influence and responsibility. We must dispense with any notion of higher levels of authority. Yes, we shall call on counsel from a multitude of counsellors - sometimes from a local circle, sometimes from a regional circle and also from a global circle. There is safety in heeding such counsel. But such is not a hierarchy of power and authority.

Your invitation to examine and understand the “often hidden, philosophical, theological and cultural prejudices underpinning our theologies” is welcome. Yet I do not believe that one needs to embrace plurality.

I rather suspect that Adventists could do well to follow the lead of such Adventist scholars as Fernando Canale and Jan Barna in seeking to build a renewed and reformed Adventist hermeneutic. Both these scholars have been digging at the hermeneutical foundations of Adventism.

We can build a common hermeneutical platform from which to begin to solve some of the most pressing issues among us. We must not splinter into theological pluralism.

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My reading of Canale and Barna does not perceive agreement on how to reform the Adventist Hermeneutic. Can you give me some concrete examples?

Excellent piece Ole-Edvin!!

Ole: Isn’t your “sense” merely “wishful thinking” given that GC administrators Wilson and Ng (when asked) were unequivocal in San Antonio in that these forty-year “debates” were in fact conclusive after TOSC’s thorough and extensive three-year study? Hence, officially speaking, doesn’t the 2015 no-vote appear to have been “ultimately conclusive,” no matter the ongoing cries from pro-ordinationists for another churchwide do-over?

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I appreciate this thoughtful and important essay.

I wish Seventh-day Adventist male headship theorists were able to learn from history. Historically, Seventh-day Adventists have believed that God rejected Israel after a period of probation and replaced it with the church. Do the theorists embrace this Anti-Semitic theology of Supercessionism? Historically, Seventh-day Adventists have believed that the Negroid race originated as a result of the Curse of Ham, as explained by Ellen White in Patriarchs and Prophets, page 117 and onward. Do the theorists embrace this racist Curse of Ham theology? I would expect that the answer to both questions is No, not because the biblical arguments in favor of Supercessionism and the racist Curse of Ham theology are weaker than male headship theory but because Anti-Semitism and racism are regarded in our society as more odious than prejudice against women.

The theorists’ writings in opposition to women’s ordination will be regarded by future historians in the same light as the Anti-Semitic and racist writings of Christians in the past. It is surreal, mind-boggling, and weird that the theorists do not seem to care.

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this is an interesting tidbit i’d be interested in seeing developed more, particularly as it was canaan who was cursed, and not ham…moreover, my understanding is that the canaanites were wiped out from the face of the earth by the aggression of israel, at the command of god, leaving their connection with today’s black races a bit dubious…certainly egw doesn’t appear to make this connection in PP:117-118…

i have heard this curse of ham motif justify south african apartheid, even after it was discovered that, actually, ham was never cursed…but then again, and as with headship, what is biblical accuracy when one already knows what the bible says…

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Ole-Edvin’s essay is a true gift, and reminder that truth is not contained in religious vessels alone.

In my view, theology needs conversation partners in the humanities and sciences such as Arendt (and many others) which keep theology’s sense of hegemony at bay and supply the humility that theology is unable to bring to itself. Without such dialogue, theology pretends, totalizes, and disregards the Other.

Whether we call it balance, or broadening or deepening–pick your metaphor–the pretensions of (esp. conservative) theologies with their self-aggrandizing sense of the “biblical”, do not hold up under experience with the world and are found wanting in the scales of history. This point was made by Niebuhr many decades ago, after the world’s experience with Nazism, the thoroughly ideologized theology of person, gender, race and nation. In our time, we see the terrible results of one-sided biblicism without human values in ISIS and radical Islam, yet the Christian versions of fundamentalist thought are only different in degree, not kind. We see it raising its ugly mug in so many places these days.

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Just my own experience : Just now Susanne Kilian : “Dont Let Me Be Misunderstood” - demonstrates some misunderstandings, yet of grammatically correct translations , in her life as an inetrnational translator in UN matters. . Oh my ! And how I misunderstand just the telefone answer of a service hotline, if there is a person of HAnnover or Hamburg answering ! And how I just have been reading the NT with other eyes after two trimesters of ancient Greek ! And now Ihearo f an author with Syrian origin, wrting in German now - after having copied J. W. Goethes “Wahlverwandschaften” by handwritting - to better learn German :, speaking of his native language(s) : “Where the sound of the words is more important than the logics of the sentence” ! Apply this to our Holy Texts , originally written in those languages of the Near East !!

Now this seems to be trivial - but we already have problems with the translation of the Church Manual : "Shall should - are to = sollen - sollten - sind zu - - - .

See, I cannot critizise Canale in any way, I just cannot follow his writings on Epistemology (in AUSS) - having dealt with this for decades - before going to teach others., and having earnestly coped with Popper so his “Conjectures and Refutations” - )- -and also with the transcultural differences in thinking patterns of schizophrenia (for instance).

Did anybody question about the shift in the Lords Prayer, there the different verbal forms ? - This has - had to say something ! (Just for instance, I just am dealing with now, because of being asked.)

God will forgive and evaluate our humble attempts to realize , what He wants to tell us.

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Jesus fully submitted to God in the Spirit. This is the only example which we can trust. Watch Him as He heals the sick, raises the dead, succors the oppressed, casts out demons, washes the feet; all in humble service.

And this in direct apposition to the heretical hierarchic religious structure of His/this day. Which also requires full submission of oneself, not to God, but to the false authority of tradition, to Babylon, to thoughtless conformance, to divisions, to condemnation, to evil.

The Child of God is called by His Spirit to lift his brother and sister that the light of God may strengthen them. Lifting is only possible from underneath, by bended knee, that all may see God’s divine order of love, compassionate benevolence.

Even as we have unique fingerprints, our life experiences are unique, the emanation of the Holy Spirit is unique in each of us such that the Body of Christ is fully functional with all its essential parts, plus an appendix or two. It cannot be assembled by men ignorantly seeking to establish the head without the heart in place.

Trust God.

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Very helpful for any discussion of how to interpret Scripture. A key word here, reflective of the points from Arendt that Utaker summarizes, is “humility.” If we acknowledge that our situatedness entails openness to dialogue, what we hope for, in our witness, is a confidence that is not cocksureness.

Conservative (or fundamentalist) religious movements bend toward cocksuress–from which authentic faith must certainly be liberated.

What is important in addition to what Utaker says is the the Gospel itself–the whole biblical story–demands confidence enhanced by humility. Jesus suggested to the disciples (John 16) that they would always be challenged, by the Holy Spirit, to advance beyond present understanding. He himself–see his his encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman–found that dialogue actually refined his own comprehension of God’s will. This is perfectly consistent, of course, with the variety of construals of the Hebrew story that he could find in his own holy scripture.

But it remains difficult for us–difficult even for some trained scholars–to pay humble attention to what scripture actually says.

Chuck

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That was probably an 18th and 19th Century belief – Caanan was to be Slaves to Shem and his brother.
I also heard the same saying when I was a kid in the 1950s.
It has had a VERY LONG life.

Hannah Arendt was critic of placing ideological rationalism above manifest human experience. It seems to me that those who favor female ordination are more driven by ideology than those who oppose it. Who can deny that radical sexual egalitarianism and sameness is the ideology of the ruling cultural and political elites in the developed world? Who can deny that it is just this egalitarianism that has “a tendency to suffocate plurality and leave us with a sense of unreality”? The unreality that is being enforced with ideological zeal and totalitarian thoroughness is that men and women are the same in every essential aspect except the lowest-level biological morphology. Not only does this ideology war against the biblical worldview that sexual differences are created and significant, it wars increasingly against all manner of observed reality.

Ideological zealotry has a tendency to be self-correcting in the long run. Russia’s communism collapsed; China came to rely overwhelmingly on capitalism to keep its “communist” system viable. Those cultures that have adopted sexual egalitarianism are self-exterminating by failure to reproduce, and their populations are being replaced by other cultures that have not embraced a delusional ideology. So everything is self-correcting in the end.

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My 2 cents:

  1. I do not claim to be a bible scholar, so the arguments in the article and in the comments below are beyond me to evaluate.
  2. While I support women’s ordination and do not support male headship, I find this article to be unpersuasive for headship proponents.

Ole-Edvin Utaker is suggesting (if I’m understanding correctly), that those who believe in male headship have it wrong and they have it wrong because their presuppositions are incorrect.

Utaker then explains his point using the writings of Hannah Arendt who’s philosophy that human existence is based upon sharing the world with others and who’s philosophy was influenced by her experience with Nazi Totalitarianism. Utaker then says that the answer to male headship proponents is to tell them that their ideology that says God’s divine order is why men are naturally in charge; - that this ideology is coercive and destroys plurality.

So here are the problems I have with that argument.

  1. This is Utaker’s and Arendt’s opinion. It’s neither rooted in quantifiable fact or in scripture.

  2. It’s insulting. In the article, Utaker essentially equates male headship with Nazism. Aside from that being an improper characterization, it’s certainly not an argument that will win converts to one’s cause. As a modern-day corollary, in the United States, Donald Trump asserting that Mexico is sending it’s rapists to the US is not likely to cause many Hispanic-Americans to support his candidacy for President, regardless of whether or not Trump says that they love him.

  3. The very argument does not address the issue for headship proponents. Their worldview is that the Bible and the Bible only must guide policy and any suggestion that culture or time is a factor is both wrong and a sin. So using a non-Adventist writer as a guide to try and convince a group of people who believe that only the Bible should be used is self-defeating. Utaker says we need to tell them what is right is “uncovering of our own, often hidden, philosophical, theological and cultural prejudices underpinning our theologies.” This is correct from Utaker’s worldview (and mine), but will not cause any change from headship supporters and will in fact make them ever more firm in their belief that the philosophy Utaker espouses is not only wrong, but it’s sin.

In the business world, I have learned that if you want someone to change their opinion it requires two things: 1. A reason for them to change their mind, some new fact or evidence that they haven’t considered, and 2. A way to save face.

Calling someone Totalitarian, telling them their worldview is wrong and telling them that they are unwilling to uncover their prejudices does neither of those.

Jesus challenged the orthodoxy of the day, but he rarely did so through arguing philosophy. Instead he spent his time demonstrating the value of his worldview by healing the sick and ministering to the downtrodden. Finally, he made the ultimate sacrifice to show his worldview was not about abandoning the law and the prophets, but in fulfilling them and exceeding them in ways that church leaders of the day never imagined.

We won’t convince a male headship proponent that the Scriptures are bigger than they think by pointing out to them what we believe to be the error or their ways. But we may convince them by loving them and showing them a better way.

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By so saying, the use of “higher criticism” is given support, a concept which subjects Biblical truth to human reasoning, the latter being elevated above the former. Mrs. White speaks to this issue.

Comparing San Antonio to the Holocaust is irresponsible. They are far from similar. The Conference in San Antonio represents God’s will and manner of leading His church. The Holocaust represents Satan’s will and manner of destroying human lives.

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The bevy of blind men describing the elephant comes to mind, comparing the smoothness of the tusk to the length of its trunk. If, as Charles Scriven has suggested, they had “dialogued with humility” they would have formed a more accurate picture of what an elephant looks like.

The monkey wrench to “humble dialogue” is human nature. There will always be someone, or some group, that claims “special knowledge,” be it prophetic; or gnostic; or intellectual. True dialogue does require humility, as Scriven opines; and as we all know, that is in short supply in any association. Education might seem like the answer, but then we have to ask, “educated by whom?”

There was a time I had embarked on a quest to find the roots of my Christianity by ignoring all the influences that had made me a Christian - a futile endeavor, obviously. I found that while we can’t ignore the steps that lead us to the point in the path we are presently standing, we can, with “humility” listen to other voices with perspectives far different from our own; and come to new revelations and renewed perspectives of our own. If we, as we walk that path, try to muffle and discard the other voices, we erect walls of separation in which “dialogue” is meaningless.

In this age of instant communication and far reaching communities, it’s futile to attempt to muffle those voices. In fact, this might be just the time the Bible describes, when the gospel can reach every corner of the globe; but that gospel may not be coming from the ecclesiastical fortresses we have erected, along with their official pronouncements. The gospel may come from the simplicity of ordinary lives struggling to just “get through the night” of human existence.

With regard to the proliferation of knowledge through the 21st century community, specific to our little corner of ecclesia, we can expect consequences to what just happened in the life of the church, as pastors, ordained by blessings from San Antonio, will be preaching to rows of increasingly empty pews. And as dialogue is suppressed, the remaining voices become only echoes bouncing from the walls of fortified ivory towers.

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Perspective: Equality, Totalitarianism, and God’s Divine Order
3 September 2015 by Ole-Edvin Utaker said;
“I discovered during my reading, unexpectedly, that Arendt has something relevant to say on the present debate over ordination and biblical hermeneutics in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”

My Brother Utaker, Hannah Arendt has nothing of relevance or value to say to our church or any Christian person, and your analysis is seriously flawed for ignoring her anti-labor, anti-semitism, rascist, pro-Nazi, ideology. Your article’s claim of relevance to a serious issue within our church lacks intellectual integrity.
On the subject of labor Hannah Arendt claims that because the activity of labor is commanded by necessity, the human being as laborer is the equivalent of the slave; labor is characterized by unfreedom. Arendt argues that it is precisely the recognition of labor as contrary to freedom, and thus to what is distinctively human, which underlay the institution of slavery amongst the ancient Greeks; it was the attempt to exclude labor from the conditions of human life.
Letters from Hannah Arendt and her longtime Nazi-sycophant lover, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, were published within 10 days of each other last month. These extensive writings can be found in the respected London’s Times Literary Supplement on Oct. 9. It was titled “Blame the Victim—Hannah Arendt Among the Nazis: the Historian and Her Sources.” Arendt—the German-born refugee intellectual, author of the influential The Origins of Totalitarianism and the controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil—has come under fire before for “blaming the victim” in her Eichmann trial book, but the author of the TLS piece, the distinguished British scholar Bernard Wasserstein, breaks new ground here with material I found so pro-Nazi and shocking. In a long, carefully documented essay, Wasserstein (who’s now at the University of Chicago), cites Arendt’s scandalous use of quotes from anti-Semitic and Nazi “authorities” on Jews in her Totalitarianism book. Wasserstein concludes that her use of these sources was “more than a methodological error: it was symptomatic of a perverse world-view contaminated by over-exposure to the discourse of collective contempt and stigmatization that formed the object of her study”—that object being anti-Semitism.
There is nothing to be gained by studying or being inspired by a pro-Nazi sympathizer. The issue of WO doesn’t need that kind of support!

Mr. Geli, I have read your comments, carefully. I respect that it is perfectly possible to have different perspectives and interpretations of Arendt’s writings, and her relevance for issues within Adventism. I’m not pretending to be an expert on her philosophy, but I would like to point out that the way you paint her is not compatible with my knowledge of her writings. I have not read Bernard Wasserstein, except for a couple of book-reviews of his books, but I understand that his interpretation of Arendt is very controversial.

To answer your accusations would require another essay, so I think, I will leave it at this.

I appreciate your comments and critique of my article.

Two points of clarification, though. First, I’m not trying to convince headship proponents, but to critically engage the premise of their conclusion, leading to, as I see it, a discrimination of women. Second, I’m not equating male headship with Nazism. Far from it! What I’m trying to do, however, is to point out that some of their philosophical premises are in principle totalitarian in nature, but their means are completely different.

This does not imply that I, in any way, identify headship proponents with the atrocities of the Holocaust.

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I have just finished rereading–“The Shaking of Adventism” The humility was lost with the Post Answer to Questions and Post Brinsmead. the Review crowd adopted the Model Man concept with under pins Presidebt Ted Wilson’s agenda. Imagine language such as "Dire Consequences and by Recebpnt I mean 6000 years. Not a trace of humility. The game changer came when the Geberal Conferebce twisted Ellen White to say that the Geberal Conferebce was the highest authority of God on earth–Papal to the core. not a trace of humility. Tom Z

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What percentage of SDA really place the WO issue or accurate hermeneutics on the priority list at the top? Unless there is a survey with a very large sample size, one can only speculate. Only the concerned and/or compassionate activists and agitators will continue with this crusade. I was delightfully surprised this past SUNday because the senior pastor at the NON-denom church, I sometimes attend, implemented a short 6 question survey/review/feedback form in their bulletin that could be quickly filled out and put in their offering plates at the end of their THREE services. Here is a pastor who really wants to know what the people think of his sermons and the worship service. The success of that church and the pastors job security is tied to the satisfaction level of the audience.

On the issue of hermeneutics, who is to decide what is accurate, when there are SDA scholars and seminary professors who are on different pages as far as views of the atonement? Evidently this is not such a simple matter.
John 7:17 " If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself." I have found it that when pastors or SS teachers mention , “the will of God” they don’t give any detail as to what it really is from the bible. How many teachers just assume that the audience understands what they are talking about?
The SDA denomination is just another group that is contaminated by clichés and religious expressions that are ambiguous and just keep being parroted to no edification.
“Let go and let God”, “power in the blood”, “keep your eyes on Jesus”, “total surrender”, "accept Jesus into your heart"
Pastors and teachers need to have NEH 8:8 plastered all over their environment.

What is anyone going to do about the present culture of complacency and cynicism in the church?