The Search for Common Ground on Genesis—II: Present Truth as an Attitude of Mind

(system) #1

In the first installment of this series we considered “Present Truth” in terms of process and in this current installment we will shift focus slightly to consider this subject from the perspective of posture and attitude. With this in mind, let me start off by mentioning that I was born and reared an Adventist in the Midwestern Bible Belt, so I am quite familiar with definitive and categorical thinking on matters involving church dogma — and not exclusively from Adventists. On thinking back to this formative period, I recognize that there are admirable components to a firm and solid faith, but most centered people would acknowledge there is a scale to religious devotion and at the extreme ends it can literally blind an individual.

No doubt attitudes of cognitive certitude are a part of a coping mechanism for people struggling with the human craving for something secure in an uncertain and broken world. To understand it in this way at least permits a more charitable attitude towards those who assume their views to be a sufficiently adequate reflection of reality, that no further inquiry is deemed warranted.

As a life-long learner, one of my personal discoveries has been the humbling experience of acquiring a measure of knowledge in a given area of study only to discover how little I truly know, underscoring the elusive capacity of humans for truly connecting with reality.

Adventist discovered early on that there is a subtle quality to our comprehension of reality and thus coined the term “Present Truth.” It brought to this term the recognition that human perceptions and knowledge modify over time in the light of new information and evidence. This insight made growth and progress possible, with the concept of “doctrine” becoming a part of an open and living document — not a closed and stagnant consensus of a bygone era.

By maintaining this posture towards truth, Adventists have been well positioned to give respect to all sources of knowledge — revelation, logic, and sense data. Yet the current trend in the Church to nail down particulars — suggests that the subtext may really be to rewrite our understanding of truth, making it a closed system. After all, this can easily be accomplished by adding specificities that shut down the possibility of wider interpretations afforded by reason or outside sense data. Yet to proceed down this path cuts the faith loose from any outside mooring, essentially setting faith on a foundation of faith alone with no independent basis of validation.

Some may not like the comparison, but when it comes to great documents there are few more brilliant than the U.S. Constitution, which is largely devoid of substantive specificity, affording it flexibility to mold with the times. In fact, anyone who reviews the history of this founding document will discover that it was created by plurality of centered thinkers, with many of the generalities within it being a direct result of purposeful intent to draft a document that allowed for varying interpretations, creating the possibility of unity among people who gave voice to a spectrum of concerns.

As Loren Seibold, in his recent column, “The Disappearing Center,” points out, the tenor of the times for many social and political institutions is to move away from centered thinking, and thus the challenge for Adventists as they seek to re-craft their statement of belief on creation is to keep it centered by avoiding direct conflict with science. The complicating factor in all of this is, that these issues are complex, and to the extent that we collectively do not understand the significance of the scientific methods and findings that pertain to creation, I suspect it will become easy to dismiss such evidence out of hand — at least this would seem to be a viable possibility. If the basis for this fear materializes there will be a steep price to pay, for as the gulf between belief and the certifiable reality grows it will be a never-ending source of trouble for the Church—sort of on the order of a wound that won’t heal.

On most matters we have a choice of approaching issues by way of a microscope or a telescope, and the approach frequently determines the end perspective. As applied to revelation, we can either proceed with exegetical reductionism or alternatively to synthesize its overarching theme and allow it to be interpreted to some extent by outside fields of knowledge. Both ends the spectrum has an important role to play, if for no other reason than the fact that it promotes a more open posture.

The idea of Present Truth that grew out of our Advent founders was really an attitude of mind that valued evidence and dialogue—something that goes to the core of Adventism. By giving in to the demon of narrow thinking I suspect we loose something fundamental.

Finally, the most important point to be made is that regardless of how compelling some of the scientific data may be pertaining to issues that arise out of Genesis, the reader should understand that the essence of my arguments both explicitly and implicitly can be summed up in the follow two points:

  1. That we redirect our focus to the concept of Present Truth, and away from building walls around our beliefs.
  2. That we recognize the importance of nuance in our stated positions—particularly when science has the capacity to shed light on the appropriateness of our conclusions.

After all, if science is committed to the truth of whatever reality is out there—and they have had a pretty good track record—we can afford to give it sufficient respect so as to not trample on it. This is the attitude of “Present Truth” and it should be the basis for common ground. __ Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.

Here is the first installment in this series. Click here to read Jan's first article for SPECTRUM, "Is the Church Creating a Brain Drain Over Belief Number Six?"

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at