For multiple years now Adventist General Conference (GC) ecclesiastic leadership has initiated forceful and categorical mandates for the church to adhere to specific doctrinal and cultural norms, with real consequences for those who might question their presumed legitimacy. This has been most notable with the threat of compliance committees, and is also part of the GC’s Faith and Science initiatives, convening multiple indoctrinational conferences to shore up belief in Young Earth Creationism. But the posture is generic, not tied to one specific context or issue. On the surface these declarations might appear to simply be restatements of recognized Adventist belief, but their framing goes farther.
Some years back I came across an analogy describing religious institutions. There were two contrasting physical analogs. One was to compare the organization to a peach, which had a hard core, meaning essential doctrine in the middle, but toward the outside it was soft. There was a definite boundary, the skin, but it was pliable. The second analog was an egg. Here too there was a defined center but it was all relatively soft compared to the outer boundary – the shell. And, if this shell-barrier was breached, the inner contents would spill out and the egg’s integrity would be destroyed. Thus, keeping the shell intact, even though it was somewhat fragile, was crucial.
Now analogies are always partial and never fully aligned with the original context they are compared to. But two salient points in this analogy are: 1) the essentiality and hierarchy of beliefs accepted by the group; and 2) the nature and strength of the boundary. Adventism, I suggest, has struggled between these models throughout its history. It should not be controversial that Christianity has doctrines that are not all equal. The path to salvation and Christian ethics do (and ought to) have more centrality than some of the more esoteric and cultural beliefs. And, within Adventism, this hierarchy has not always been obvious to everyone (to put it mildly). So historically we have elevated some “present truths” (e.g. eschatology) and cultural norms (e.g. smoking, vegetarianism) that have given the movement a distinctive character. It’s not wrong, of course, to place such secondary characteristics inside the doctrinal cluster, but it is problematic to elevate them to near-equal status with Christian essentials. Thus I would suggest that this tendency, throughout our past, has made Adventism more egg-like than peach-like.
Now I wish, in the core part of this essay, to focus on the boundary problem. But first let me raise a significant conceptual issue. Note that I have proposed a spatial analogy – egg and peach. I’m certainly not alone in making analogies between the church and the physical world. Adventism has, for example, often represented itself as an “ark of safety,” suggesting that that acts of joining and residing are like entering Noah’s Ark, within which you then ride out the storm and are carried safely into eternity. Likewise, “out of Babylon” references an Old Testament event that involved moving from one location to another. And more broadly, in Revelation 3:20 Jesus represents himself as standing at the door and knocking, but this really is describing a decision process. Likewise I used the word “knocking” in this article’s title. We gravitate to these sorts of physical representations of abstract ideas. That’s ok, as long as we don’t transfer the analogy’s physicality into real life. That’s because religion does not really have spatial dimensions, i.e. something that you physically enter into and can thereby keep “the world” at bay. Even though such approaches, notably monasticism, continue to exist. The hymn lyric “shelter in the time of storm” makes an analogy, not an actuality. Yet we have a tendency to reify analogies. This can be part of a legalization process in religious performance. We attend church. We read – or avoid reading – certain literature. It’s not that doing such things is unimportant or bad, but if we substitute physical choices for the inner life of a God-relational religion, we miss the forest for the trees. In part, we conceptually spacialize what is not really physical in nature.
Thus the boundary problem I wish to consider cannot be solved by physical withdrawal, abstention or selective association. Such physical choices do have their place, but beliefs are internal, properties of the mind, heart and will. And, deciding to identify (or not) with a group like Adventism, is also belief-centric. Conversely, compliance identification is external. And restricting discussion of current positions pretends that there is no need to persuade current membership that the views presently considered orthodox can hold up under scrutiny.
With this recognition I now wish to call attention to issues and ideas that I suggest Adventist leadership, and membership generally, is somewhat in denial about. Broader realties that need to be dealt with. Blocking evaluation and investigation is both mistaken and futile since administrative “tools” are largely impotent against ideas. Thus membership would be much better served if leadership would validate acceptability for employees and individuals to think more openly without repercussion. Indeed, the church should ideally spearhead evaluation, rather than engage in position-driven apologetics against these “outside” ideological winds.
I would also be remiss if I failed to note two additional things. One, that often it is the lay membership, not paid church employees like administrators and pastors, who take the lead in this denial. It then becomes doubly difficult to guide people, who do not wish to confront the uncomfortable, into ideas and topics that would well serve their Christian maturation. Two, the “broader reality” I refer to does not mean that issues the church might attempt to erect walls against – are necessarily true. It’s that there is fear of even considering the possibility that they might be true. The ideas have been fearfully consigned to be outside the bounds of investigation due to their presumed dangerous heterodoxy.
Ok. Consider then the following four broad categories. I don’t claim these cover everything or that they are non-overlapping.
Adventism has always believed the earth was recently created, as all Christians once did. But, because of the perceived need to defend the 7th-day Sabbath and the undeniable Ellen White statements supporting a Young Earth position, denominational Adventism has dug in, while some Christians have reconsidered the topic. As the scientific evidence for an old earth has accumulated (as well as different, but also significant evidence favoring evolution), Adventism has become less and less open to a full consideration of the data. The so-called Faith and Science Conferences of the past few years have been an exercise in apologetics, rather than a proper airing of the issues pro and con. The net result of this position-hardening has been to move the church more and more into a broadly defensive, anti-science mindset.
This issue is deeply buried, away from Adventist consciousness, as it is for most versions of Ethical Monotheism. Throughout history, until somewhat recently, atheism would be a culturally unacceptable view, sometimes punishable. But it will not and should not disappear, as it owes its persuasiveness to what is called the Problem of Evil (POE). This is the deep challenge of reconciling a good God with the undeniable existence of evil in the world. How could God allow evil if He is all good and all powerful? One answer, of course, is that there is no God, and this “evil” just is. And any explanation to exonerate God – called a theodicy – is only needed if you’re trying to get God “off the hook” for being responsible. Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this extensively for much of recorded history. I have tried to read everything I could on the subject because it is a crucial existential problem and most “garden variety” answers floating around churches are so lame. I’ve concluded that there are partial answers but nothing resembling complete satisfaction. If my assessment is an informed one, then it provides some explanation for why many church goers – especially conservative ones – almost instinctively recoil from even a cursory consideration. We humans want clarity in our religion (who wouldn’t) and we certainly don’t like existential risk. The POE produces both, and the option of atheism is distressing, since it means that when we die, that’s it. No future, just annihilation. Still, however distressing this whole topic is, honesty requires attention to it.
This problem is subtle and concerns a subset of Adventism that operates under inadequate hermeneutics. There is a mode of thought within the church that purports to adhere to a “plain reading” of inspiration – whether the Bible or Ellen White. This group also holds what might be termed a “high view” of Ellen White’s inspiration, essentially meaning that everything she wrote is inspired. The difficulty, in practice, is that theological conclusions from such an approach are unfiltered by any appeal to a personal sense of ethical norms. So theology can be produced that conflicts with one’s internal moral compass. This problem is more generic than the Adventist version and is often labeled Divine Command Theory, and is somewhat akin (at least overlapping) to Fideism. Skepticism toward rationality and a desire to listen to what scripture says certainly has both merit and biblical support. But it can produce an oversimplified conclusion and is used to undergird problematic doctrines such as male headship. The flaw, in my view, is that there is minimal recognition that each reader interprets inspiration from their personal world-view perspective. And that re-introduces human error into a process that the adherents think is a ticket straight to mining the divine mind. Further, it can assume that the inspired author is writing and thinking from the same perspective as the reader. That is less risky when interpreting someone – like Ellen White – who lived in the recent past. But it is a dangerous assumption to apply.
4) Outdated Eschatology
Adventism has historically been grounded on, and frequently obsessed with, eschatology. The primacy has diminished somewhat throughout the last 50 years, but the assumptions and narrative have not faced serious re-examination by Adventist officialdom. Yet any reading of a book like The Great Controversy will reveal end-time scenarios that are no longer plausible. In today’s world how would large numbers of Adventists flee to the “rocks and hills” and expect to successfully hide out? There’s little wilderness available and any technologically competent government can find even small groups in time, using satellites and heat-seeking technology. And that’s just a trivial example of a narrative well past its plausibility “best-buy date.” Much more centrally is the present unlikelihood of a totally inoffensive and unrecognized group – Adventists – being persecuted for something like Sabbath-keeping, a practice that is either: a) of no concern to the great majority of the world’s population; or b) a problem that would affect worldwide Jewry far more than Adventism, and thus any persecution aimed at the church would pale compared to the political issue of attacking the practice of a major religion. If Adventists wish to continue to preach such eschatology it needs to pass a believability test. Yet reevaluation seems to be akin to slaying a “sacred cow,” perhaps because it affects Ellen White’s authority. Thus, in my experience, the church “deals” with it by simply preaching it less and less. And when it is preached, the uncomfortable details, with difficult-to-defend implications, are glossed over.
Loose Ends and Conclusion
Obviously this essay has been critical of contemporary Adventism. But I wish to blunt the tendency of some SDAs and ex-SDAs to “pile on” whenever criticism is leveled at the institutional church. People get hurt by the church, as much interpersonally as by doctrinal overreach. They then can nurse grudges. And in a highly polarized world the phrase “constructive criticism” might seem like an oxymoron. But that is precisely the tone I am intending. Criticism can be diagnostic and help improve that which is being critiqued. No human organization self-corrects easily, even when agreeing that God is positively involved. This “broader reality” I allude to uncovers the hardest questions we humans face, and reluctance to deal with the inevitable accompanying uncertainty should surprise no one.
I also think that, within any religious organization, applying the term “leadership” to non-pastoral ecclesiastics is somewhat inappropriate, or at best, overstated. What you more typically see is administration rather than leadership. Ironically, considering my criticisms here, current GC president Ted Wilson has exhibited more actual leadership than one usually finds. Unfortunately, he is leading the church to tighten its boundaries and thus further isolate Adventism from these externalities. But my point about leader vs. administrator is that church members should not expect more of those in positions of authority than is realistic. A reduction of such expectations can and should shift the focus of responsibility toward everyone. Those who wish to see the church grow and prosper must make the task of broadening the Adventist vision a personal priority.
Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.
Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon
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