Alden Thompson’s new book, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other (see our review of the book) is here just in time to see him retire from 39 years of teaching at Walla Walla University. Spectrum asked Thompson about his future plans and about how his long career has shaped the content of his new book.
Question: The title of your new book in many ways reflects the legacy of your teaching career. Why are you so passionate about unified diversity in the church? What inspired you to write about it?
Answer: This book is indeed a kind of capstone to my teaching career. Even though I still have a fistful of books I want to write, this one seeks to show how a community of believers can actually celebrate their differences and be better for it. I am an incurable people person, eager for a world where everyone is helpful and where even the animals are vegetarians. But while we live in hope of that better world, I believe we can begin to craft such a world in the here and now.
I suspect that it was Ellen White who really gave me permission to see the diversity in Scripture. And once I had permission, I saw it blossoming everywhere. That has been a great blessing, because many of my friends experience God in ways that differ from mine. The diversity in Scripture validates our varied experiences, and the diversity of our experiences confirms what we see in Scripture. I find that exciting.
Question: You sometimes say that you have dedicated your career to fighting for hopeless causes. What do you mean by that? Do you really believe it? Is there any place in Adventism where you see your dream for unity being realized?
Answer: I see a wild mix of good and scary things happening in the church. But for reasons which are not clear to me, I gravitate toward the more difficult challenges. “Hopeless” is indeed a word I have used myself, though if I thought a cause was truly hopeless, I probably would turn my energies elsewhere.
In some cases, especially in the classroom, the fact that I am now an old codger may be explanation enough for the challenges I tackle. In my view, for example, note taking in class and the reading of books are essential to learning. Alas, we are losing ground on both fronts and I contribute to the decline by providing handouts to make up for the missing note-taking skills. I love the openness and spontaneity of today’s students and their love of drama and narrative. But where and how will they acquire the love of disciplined structure?
In the classroom, but also in the larger church, I am also astonished at the amazing ignorance of Scripture and the writings of Ellen White. Bible stories that left a deep mark on my generation have simply vanished from sight and memory. Significant numbers of my students, for example, have never heard how Uzzah was struck dead for touching the ark (2 Sam. 6:6-7) or how two she-bears mauled forty-two boys for mocking the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 2:23-25). And these are students who have grown up Adventist. As for Ellen White, my students confirm my generalizations: Rigid grandparents, angry parents, and a new generation that has imbibed the anger of their parents without ever reading anything actually written by Ellen White herself.
My own concerns for the church stand over against two remarkable developments within Adventism. First, my eagerness to help people be honest with Scripture contrasts with the amazing popularity of The Clear Word, a “Bible” rewritten to say what we want it to say rather than what it actually says. Second, the displacement of the Bible and the careful reading of the text by TV and video. The prominent role of 3ABN in the lives of older Adventists suggests that we are moving from an era of “Sister White says....” to an era of “Doug Batchelor says....”
At the university level, the “hopeless” causes that have drawn my energies involve the corporate and the devotional. I believe communal events can be a powerful antidote to the secularizing tendencies of higher education. Alas, during the week, university-wide events of any kind, academic or religious, rarely draw much of a crowd. We have simply turned private. We call our weekly required assembly “CommUnity.” But it’s not really “CommUnity,” for only unmarried students under 25 are required to attend, an Adventist version of “send your kids to Sunday School.”
University worship/prayers? We are even more private, with some of the most devout being the most private of all. We’ve tried “worship” at morning, noon, and night, but 7:30 am has ended up as the only time that works at all, and that is for a remnant of some ten to fifteen, usually more students than faculty and staff.
I know of no Adventist campus where the symptoms are any different. We are neither evangelical nor secular, but are caught in a curious no man’s land in the middle.
Finally, my own religious experience has combined with my academic interests in driving me to explore issues which most conservative communities avoid, namely, questions of diversity and change. But both liberals and conservatives remain skeptical. Adventists love the “truth” and the echoes of Malachi 3:6 – “I am the Lord, I change not” – program us to see truth as something fixed and permanent, not something dynamic and growing. Where can Adventists see in print a serious discussion of the differences between the Old and New Testaments? Or, when was the last time you saw in print any hint that Ellen White changed or grew? “Hopeless” may be too strong a word. But sometimes after dark I wonder.
Question: Are you liberal or are you conservative? In which “camp” do you feel most at home?
Answer: In the book I explore three uses of the liberal/conservative labels. In the realm of the mind, my natural inquisitiveness makes me a liberal; in the realm of culture, my fear of my own vulnerabilities make me a conservative; and in what I call the “presence of God” spectrum, God is not some distant force for me; I am a conservative, gripped by the sense of a personal God who is active in our world. Thus I stand on two conservative legs and one liberal. But I have enough impulses loose in my body to enable me to experience a lively dialogue across the spectrum in all three areas.
While personal choice no doubt affects my standing on the liberal/conservative scales, I have concluded that my starting point in each instance has been non-volitional. Thus my use of the word “gripped” in the last paragraph is appropriate. In other words, I did not choose my “camp” and only God knows how much I can change. But I apply the same measure to everyone. I believe the non-volitional nature of our basic impulses is true of every person on earth.
Will the camps split, either into warring factions or just to go their own way? I have thought a great deal about that question. The divide would probably split the “presence of God” spectrum, the tension represented by the Adventist Theological Society and Adventists Affirm on the right and Spectrum and Adventist Today on the left. Those who believe in a personal God typically are inclined to be more conservative in terms of culture and with reference to the mind. In other words, they would avoid modern culture and they would rather affirm than inquire.
In my case, I am very much interested in cultural issues, though my personal life-style is quite conservative. I am also very much on the exploratory and inquisitive end of the intellectual spectrum. But my religious experience draws me to the conservatives on the right. So if push came to shove, I would probably have to go with the conservatives and hope to loosen them up. I rarely experience the warmth of God’s presence in liberal circles, even though I write for both Spectrum and Adventist Today. In terms of ministry, my natural home should be workers’ meetings and campmeetings, not chapter meetings of the Association of Adventist Forums. But because of the turmoil over my book Inspiration, I am something of an orphan, often invited to the latter, rarely to the former. I crave a community that is eager to explore but equally eager to worship, and the two don’t come together often enough to satisfy the longings of my heart and soul. But because I have many good friends in Adventism, mine is not a crushing loneliness. Wistful would probably be a better term.
Question: Beyond Common Ground was written in a more vulnerable style than your earlier books Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God and Inspiration. Your last book, Escape From the Flames, was similar. Has this change come naturally or has it been intentional? What effect has it had on your audience?
Answer: The more vulnerable autobiographical style began with Escape from the Flames. I cannot pinpoint the moment when I concluded that all theology is autobiographical. I sense that ordinary people are drawn by that kind of openness. One devout brother who twice made a pilgrimage to my office to labor with me over Inspiration, sent me an email to thank me for Escape from the Flames. “I certainly could identify with many of the personal EGW issues,” he wrote. “I'm determined to go back to Inspiration; now it may make more sense!”
By contrast, I have been surprised by the number of academics who have found Escape less than helpful, precisely because of the autobiographical element. More than once I’ve heard the line, “I was expecting a book about Ellen White, not about Alden Thompson.” In the classroom, however, today’s students are much more open to the experiential and autobiographical style. They probably should get the credit (or blame!) for my greater vulnerability.
I would also like to think that my style now more closely tracks the content of my books. Beyond Common Ground calls for a greater appreciation of our differences. In my own life, two factors have encouraged me in that direction. In Escape (pp. 158-159) I describe the impact of viral encephalitis and Lyme disease on the health of my wife, Wanda, and the results for our life together. Living with her limitations for nearly thirty years now has opened my eyes to all kinds of things I never would have seen before. High energy and low energy people simply view the world and God in much different ways. At our house, we continue to learn a great deal from each other.
The other factor that has significantly shaped my life has been the practice of memorization, especially of Scripture, but also of other authors such as Ellen White and C. S. Lewis. When I recognize an attitude or a practice that I would like to change, focusing on an appropriate passage to memorize does make a difference.
Even more important has been the decision to memorize passages of Scripture that are important for those whose religious experience differs from mine. Since memorization does not come quickly for me, the multiple repetitions necessary for mastery often yield meaningful insights, first from Scripture and then from those whose experiences I am seeking to understand.
Question: What lasting impact do you think your groundbreaking book Inspiration has had on the life of the church?
Answer: For Adventists, the publication of Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (RH 1991) broke twenty years of silence and brought the discussion out into the open. After my four-part series on “Inspiration” in the Adventist Review in September 1985, the Review and Herald Publishing Association officially invited me to submit a manuscript to be considered for publication. Knowing that it was potentially volatile, RH sent out 57 review copies of the manuscript (51 to readers outside the publishing house) instead of the usual six to ten. Of the 28 responses that were returned, 22 recommended publication. When the 51-member RH book committee considered the manuscript, opposing voices spoke up. But when the final vote was taken, no negative votes were cast.
Although RH re-issued the book in paperback, it has since elected not to keep it in print. (Spiral-bound photocopies are available from the Walla Walla University School of Theology.) I have found the two book-length responses to Inspiration to be extremely valuable in fleshing out the discussion. Neither was published officially by the church, but both are still in print: Frank Holbrook and Leo VanDolson, eds., Issues in Revelation and Inspiration (Adventist Theological Society, 1992); and Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, Receiving the Word (Berean Books, 1996).
Inerrancy is the default mode for the vast majority of believers who claim to revere a sacred text. That’s why higher education often has such a devastating effect on faith when bright young minds discover that the Bible isn’t what they believed it to be. I am convinced that Adventists could provide an anchor for faith for those who want to be honest with Scripture and who are drawn to Jesus as the Incarnate God.
In all of my books, beginning with Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Paternoster, 1988), I argue that Scripture represents God’s “radical accommodation” to the needs of twisted human minds. David Wright, church historian at the University of Edinburgh, who was instrumental in getting Who’s Afraid? published by Paternoster, told me that InterVarsity Press, UK, an evangelical press, would never touch the manuscript because the note of accommodation was far too strong. But I am convinced that only by a strong doctrine of accommodation can we be honest with Scripture and honest before God. For that very reason, I would love to publish a book for the larger Christian market with the title: There Are No Problems in the Bible: A High View of Scripture Without Inerrancy. The keynote passage for such approach is Isaiah 55:8-9, the first text quoted in Beyond Common Ground: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
I believe Adventists should learn about history, literature, psychology, and sociology – then use their disciplined intellects in the interest of faith. A rigid fundamentalism has little use for the disciplined intellect. That’s not where I want my church to go.
But the alternative extreme is even more troubling for me. Adventism could become a watered-down sabbatarian mainstream Protestant church, where God has slipped beyond the horizon and the Bible turns into mere literature. As Ian Markham, the dean of a “liberal” seminary (Hartford) put it, “It takes a remarkable liberal Christian to get out of bed to go and join a group of people who are worshiping nothing.”
I am a fervent Adventist. My experience with God is central to my life and I cherish the Bible as his Word to me. I have dedicated both my head and my heart to him. And I live in the fervent hope of his promised new world, where no one will “hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9).
Question: In your opinion, what has been your greatest contribution to Adventist thought?
Answer: The work I have done in describing the growth and development of Ellen White’s experience and theology is something I hope will benefit the church. The Sinai-Golgotha series in the Adventist Review (Dec. 3, 10, 17, 24, 31, 1981; July 1, 1982) laid out the basic parameters of my position, namely, that Ellen White moved from fear to joy in her experience, from an emphasis on God’s power to an emphasis on his goodness.
I present the biblical pattern for that movement in Who’s Afraid?, arguing that the entry of sin devastated the human understanding of authority. As a result, humans looked on God with fear and trembled before his great power. Beginning with Abraham God led his people on a pilgrimage toward the story of Jesus and the recognition that God’s handling of the great struggle between good and evil has been motivated by his goodness, a goodness seen most clearly in Jesus Christ. When the light of that goodness dawns in the heart, joy replaces fear.
The most accessible list of examples of how that movement from fear to joy is illustrated in the writings and experience of Ellen White is found in chapter 10 of my book Escape From the Flames (pp. 137-150). Here I will cite just one example, the reshaping of the story of John the Baptist, a convenient and vivid illustration of Ellen White’s pilgrimage from fear to joy. In Spiritual Gifts (1858) John’s life is grim and humorless: “John’s life was without pleasure” (1:29), she wrote. But by the time the second volume of the Spirit of Prophecy was published in 1877, John was at least having fun at work. Note the striking addition (emphasis added): “John's life, with the exception of the joy he experienced in witnessing the success of his mission, was without pleasure” (2:69).
Twenty-one years later, in Desire of Ages (1898), Ellen White transforms the entire tone of the passage by deleting the phrase “without pleasure”: “Aside from the joy that John found in his mission, his life had been one of sorrow” (DA 220). But just one year earlier in an article in the Youth’s Instructor (January 7, 1897), she accents the emergence of joy even more pointedly. Instead of John’s life being “without pleasure,” she wrote: “John enjoyed his life of simplicity and retirement.” A one-liner from a student wonderfully captures the idea: “You mean the more Ellen White enjoyed her relationship with the Lord,” he blurted out, “the more John the Baptist enjoyed his!” Precisely.
At a very practical level, however, Ellen White’s growth toward joy points to a significant development with dramatic implications for Adventist life. In short, she moved toward an attitude of cooperation with other Christians and away from the kind of confrontation symbolized by the 2nd Angel’s message: “Babylon is fallen!” (Rev. 14:8) and “Come out of her, my people!” (Rev. 18:4). Her most explicit statement in this respect is her counsel to a brother embarking on a mission to South Africa. This is how she counseled him to work with the people: “Speak to them, as you have opportunity, upon points of doctrine on which you can agree. Dwell on the necessity of practical godliness. Give them evidence that you are a Christian, desiring peace, and that you love their souls. Let them see that you are conscientious. Thus you will gain their confidence; and there will be time enough for doctrines. Let the heart be won, the soil prepared, and then sow the seed, presenting in love the truth as it is in Jesus” (Gospel Workers, 119-120 ; Evangelism, 200; cf. “Letter to a Minister and His Wife Bound for Africa” [June 25, 1887 = Letter 12, to Elder Boyd; almost verbatim “original” of the Gospel Worker quote] in Testimonies to Southern Africa, pp. 14-20).
If Adventists could internalize that concept, it would transform how we do evangelism.
Question: What do you hope to do now that you’ve retired?
Answer: I’m delighted that I will still be teaching half time. I can’t think of anything more fun than working with bright young collegiate minds. But I also want to do more writing. Furthermore, the books and papers that have accumulated in our basement are inviting my serious attention. I’m especially intrigued by books. I’d like to read some.