The New Orientalism: The Cost of Global Adventism

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This article is republished with permission from the C2, Pacific Union College's student newspaper.

I most definitely do not envy Dr. Jan Paulsen’s position as the leader of a “world church.” The latter half of the twentieth century bore witness to the reality that the world is not nearly so homogenous as any organization—be it national, religious, or otherwise—might wish, nor are its people willing to be homogenized. Cultural interaction is a perpetual dialectic, a constant struggle between tradition and the chaos of history, between ideology and complexity. Cultural awareness is the blessing and the bane of the post-Cold War world; it is a river that carries us toward the fullness of human interaction, but one filled with rocks and falls that threaten to upset our formulaic notions of that interaction.

One of the students at the Adventist Intercollegiate Association Q&A with Jan Paulsen on 9 April, in an endeavor to understand the possibility of retaining unity in the church, asked if separating cultural influence from religion might be the key to solving issues like women’s ordination. Paulsen was flustered, not quite sure of how to answer. The simple fact is, one cannot answer that question with anything other than a resounding, “No.” Religion is culture; culture is religion.

When, therefore, we speak of church unity, we are but fooling ourselves. Most American Adventists will admit that “Californian Adventism” looks much different from “Midwest Adventism”—as it should, for they are two vastly different cultures. Even such constructions are further impositions of homogeneity; “Northern Californian Adventism” tends toward a far more ‘conservative’ perspective than “Southern Californian Adventism,” because again, the cultural foundations of those religions differ. How much further from one another, then, are “Californian Adventism” and “Kenyan Adventism”—understanding, of course, that “Kenyan Adventism” is a compiled construction of tribal and communal differences that in many ways are probably less compatible than Occidental Adventism might wish—and how naive is it to wish them to remain homogenous?

I propose that it is not only naive, but dangerous. Religious and cultural conversion are the new colonization; notions of a “world church” are the new Orientalsim. This is not to say that Paulsen or the Adventist leadership are racist, but rather, that they are perpetuating a discourse of pop-colonialism (akin to the pop-modernism straw-man that people utilize when attempting to deconstruct postmodernism), an ill-thought-out ideology centering around the idea that being culturally tolerant means selecting certain points at which “Western” culture conflicts with the culture of the “Other,” and then aggressively defending the “Other” position. Motivated by a desire to prevent the perpetuation of a colonial mode of thinking, pop-cultural pluralists in fact perpetuate the very ideologies they seek to resist. There is in Paulsen’s words a pedantic sense of paternalism, as though we must wait for our “little brown brothers”—General McArthur’s words, not Paulsen’s, to clarify—to catch up with us. Yes, we have the truth, but we have to wait for the primitives to catch up with the morally and ethically superior Occident.

These sentiments are, I hope, in no way intentional. Rather, the Adventist church, specifically because of its desire to be a “global” organization in a world where we find increasingly true Isaiah Berlin’s statement that some cultures are simply incompatible, is stuck between a doctrine and a hard place. If we ordain women, say the alleged seventy-five percent of divisions that would take umbrage, we ignore their cultures; if we wait until they are “ready,” we run the risk of a new discourse of superiority.

To complicate matters further, by waiting, we simultaneously invalidate all cultures. Those who are against women’s ordination are “primitive,” while those who seek ordination are also in the wrong. In an effort to maintain pop-cultural pluralism, we disenfranchise seventy percent of our members for their biology, and any aspect of the population that seeks ordination for being culturally insensitive. The North American and European churches are shrinking—a statistical fact. It should come as little surprise, however, for in issue like women’s ordination, the message we receive is: “Your culture is unacceptable. Conform to the consensus.” Which is more culturally insensitive? To act according to one’s culture if it does not align with the majority, or deny an entire culture the right to construct gender roles as it sees fit?

As I see it, the argument that “those for women’s ordination would be infringing on the cultures of others” is a straw-man, a hollow charade of cultural pluralism. Forcing women’s ordination on another culture would be wrong; forcing our culture not to have women’s ordination is equally wrong. And the longer we tell North America and Europe that their cultures are unacceptable, the more of us will leave.

The “answer” to this quandary, if one exists, is the abandonment of any notion of a global church. We can be unified without being homogenous. Dr. Paulsen himself said that “We are not going to do this globally […] it will be in regions.” For what, then, are we waiting? For Other cultures to become more like the Occident? I shudder to think that this is our underlying motive. Cultural pluralism does not mandate any sort of wait. It is only residual white guilt—the sort that perpetuates notion that we control the world—that makes us pause. The fact is, the Occident is not in control, and any sense that we should be cautious about imposing our culture on Others is based on the assumption that such a binary still exists.

As long as there exists a global church that seeks homogeneity, we will not have women’s ordination. As long as there exists a global church that seeks homogeneity, we will face the inevitability that cultures are not rooted in the same history, the same traditions, the same ideology. We will face women’s ordination, then homosexuality, then evolution, and on, and on. An awkwardly and artificially maintained majority will control the stasis of our church. We must abandon pop-pluralism, abandon our cumbersome efforts at hierarchical cultural navigation, abandon the search for homogeneity. We must move forward in our understanding of one another, or fall into irrelevancy.

Peter Katz is a Senior at Pacific Union College studying English, History, and Music. He is Editor-in-Chief of the C2, the campus newspaper.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at