This is the seventh post in a nine-part series for the SPECTRUM Summer Reading Group. The nine posts will be drawn from the chapters of To Change the World by James Hunter. You can find the reading schedule here.
Having lived in Liberia and attended a British elementary school while there, the new sights and sounds of the States took my 11-year-old self a couple of years to adjust to. Words were particularly challenging—I didn’t always get their meaning or, rather, the meaning of those who spoke them. A particular word that frustrated me was “like.” My classmates used it as verbal filler. I initially looked down on them but soon, unconsciously, assimilated.
To maintain my elitist stance wouldn’t have been impossible given my “British English” speaking parents but it would have taken more discipline than I desired to sustain. And feeling comfortable in my peer group was more valuable to me than upholding the status quo of the Lawrence household. Consequently, I began saying, “Hi” instead of “Hello” to my parents, a casual practice my mother tried hard to break.
While the parallels are not perfect, my experience of immigrating to the US illustrates some of the tensions Hunter explores in his analysis of the unique challenges that Christians face. The first, Hunter terms “difference.” This refers to the cultural and religious pluralism that increasingly impacts many societies. It has led to the loss of “the plausibility structures” that make belief in God seem obvious—“when social conditions are unstable or when the cohesion of social life is fragmented, then the consistency and intelligibility of belief is undermined” (202). Those who still believe, believe differently. “The confidence borne from beliefs that are taken for granted typically gives way to belief plagued by ambivalence and uncertainty” (203).
“Dissolution” refers to the general fragmentation of truth and meaning that is the outcome of various intellectual ideas, as well as developments in technology and social media. We can no longer assume that words refer to the world. Additionally, the constant and incoherent stream of information trivializes all information. “The fictional and the real, the comical and the serious, the insignificant and the significant, all blend together flattening out the distinctions among them (209).
The outcome of this is nihilism, “autonomous desire and unfettered will legitimated by the ideology and practice of choice” (211). Freedom of choice is not a problem. The problem occurs when this freedom becomes an end in itself, without consideration of some higher value. If there is no higher value that we consciously and corporately claim, we end up inwardly focused, protecting our interests, merely for the sake of protecting our autonomy.
All this presents significant challenges to Christian presence in the world, undercutting “the capacity to believe, and to believe coherently, thoroughly, effectively” (224). And Christians shouldn’t pretend to be unaffected by these social realities. According to Hunter, there are three main ways Christians react to the threat of pluralism and post-modernism—defensive against, relevance to, and purity from. All three approaches, alone, face significant problems. Hunter claims that the defensive approach leads Christians to become aggressive and confrontational, on the one hand, and culturally trivial, on the other. Seeking to be relevant leads to the loss of distinctiveness. Seeking purity leads to social disengagement and withdrawal (223).
Let’s suppose that Hunter’s analysis about the church and modern society is correct. I’d like to focus on how we, Seventh-day Adventists, have responded within our church to the tensions Hunter describes.
Being a worldwide church makes it easy for us to say that we embrace difference, but true community takes much more than the ability to march into large arenas with a multitude of flags. Are we actually able to relate to each other and can we genuinely relate to those who don’t espouse Adventism at all? Our “I’ll let you be you if you’ll let me be me” North American culture doesn’t seem to suggest that we should get to know and appreciate each other deeply. Deep knowledge of others is optional while peace and civility is normative. We sometimes refer to that as tolerance, an attempt to allow everyone to relate to the world as they so choose.
The three camps Hunter describes are easily found in Adventism. Just look at how we practice evangelism. The defensive among us are door knockers, the relevant among us make friends and the pure among us try to make other Adventists better Adventists. The reality of our diverse methods is, for the defensive, an appalling shift from the past, though that past is very North American and requires a homogenous population in order to maintain. For the relevant among us, the reality of diverse methods is evidence of our inability to recognize the clash between politics and the needs of the people. And the pure see this as a clear sign that it’s scattering/gathering time.
Why are we divided by these different ways of sharing our faith? I’d argue that it’s a matter of values and by “values” I mean the act of considering one thing of more worth than another. We place a high value on our practices, our practices differ and, therefore, our values differ. And what’s important to us is not just that we’re able to collectively say, “Yes, I believe,” but that the expression of our belief looks the same. Though the “purity from” advocates are particularly fond of unity of belief and practice, each group is guilty of wanting others to do as they do. We (highly) value our practices and we’re seemingly ignorant of how our pluralistic culture and our fear of change have caused us to dig in our heels instead of seeking out a different approach altogether.
The attributes of Hunter’s three groups seem to be exemplified in our faith community in other ways.i
We’ll start with the “purity from” approach, a desire for unity of belief and practice. It’s a noble desire, one that we are currently familiar with as the debate on ordination continues. Unity of belief and practice happens every day in households, in classrooms, in fraternities and other spaces that clearly state their contracts and enact significant consequences when the contracts are broken. How do we anticipate mandating and sustaining unity of practice without creating strict controls that end up moving us away from our actual mission as a church?
We can also relate to the “relevance to” approach as we attempt to engage in movements that meet the needs of those who are mistreated and as we seek to celebrate the ties that bind, rather than emphasize our differences. As more of us realize that those we love fit into a marginalized bracket, more of us become part of this relevant group. How do we hold to our distinctive beliefs and practices while seeking to not appear too different? Can we both seek justice and win souls?
And yes, we practice the “defense against” approach, thinking that if we keep up with the times we’ll be able to take back meaning, reclaiming words, ideas, and methods in order to reestablish their proper place in our theology. Other faith groups find themselves in a similar boat, taking the ideas of others but changing titles, fonts and colors in order to make it their own, mimicking instead of trailblazing. How do we hold to what is true while maintaining an offensive stance (keeping the ball) instead of a defensive stance (getting the ball back)?
We’ve created normative behaviors that we hand down to those we birth and to those we baptize. It’s an expected organizational practice. But the more diverse we become, the more difficult this is to maintain. How can we continue to be divided and yet claim the same name? Eventually, it seems, difference and dissolution within an entity leads to demolition.
I haven’t finished reading the book so I’m not sure what final conclusions Hunter makes. I do wonder if he speaks to shifting our focus away from practice to something else. Perhaps when we look at all our practices, we’ll discover that they point to the same higher value in a way that can keep us from the nihilism of which Hunter speaks. And if that’s so, perhaps that value is what should guide the expressions of our faith.
Michaela Lawrence Jeffery is the director of Adventist Christian Fellowship in the Georgia-Cumberland Conference and chaplain of Advent House at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She enjoys music, long sentences, and hanging out with her husband Justin.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4629