For some time I have become increasing conscious of the fact that the Adventist Church is lurching towards an anti-science and anti-reason posture on matters of Genesis. Such a tone has become increasingly represented in the pages of the Adventist Review, and actions of the General Conference, including the 2004 Affirmation of the Faith and Science Committee, and the recently voted decision to move towards revision of Fundamental Belief (FB) number six.
This particular issue is distinguishable from the typical FB revision about which reasonable people can differ, because most FBs would be sourced exclusively in Scripture and reason, and not in empirical data. FB #6 is unique in this sense because we have solid outside data that should influence how we formulate this belief, yet it seems that we are on the verge of acting in a way that is guaranteed to be self-destructive. In fact, I view this turn of events with a great deal of sadness, for I have a prevailing sense that the Church is headed down a path that will not have a very good ending.
This negative scenario can be minimized if we come to understand that there is but one reality composed of the divine order of things, and that nature speaks through that order. Even with this understanding the problem under which we all labor is human perception of reality. Thus the core issue behind this entire controversy is really a basic need for all to come to terms with how humans acquire knowledge. I recognize that many within the Church operate in a “revelation alone” mode—which I would count as a form of idolatry—and this is the source of much of the trouble.
The current inclination to frame the traditional Adventist understanding of Genesis in detailed language—using words like “recent” (code language for 6,000 years) and “literal, 24-hour days,” etc., represents a perfect recipe for trouble—because it is fundamentally anti-scientific (as differentiated by unscientific). Should such language get adopted, it portends a day of reckoning, for after all, the Christian community has had experience with fighting empirical data in defense of cherished beliefs and we all know how that turned out.
It is one thing to be partial to the concept of a recent creation for philosophical and theological reasons, but quite another to dismiss empirical data that tells us otherwise. What are cognitive beings created in the image of God to conclude when there is compelling evidence that stars existed billions of years ago (as measured by the speed of light and distance). Is this not prima facie evidence that the fourth day of creation week—the day the stars were created—was not recent? What do we do with radiometric dating, which measures the decay rate of radioactive isotope, this process acting as a very precise time clock that can date matter out to billions of years? What do we do with the other time clocks—ocean sedimentation rates, ice core dating, core reef dating, etc.? Individually, these methods are all singing the same tune—that creation is not recent—and when considered collectively, they deliver the compelling message that both the universe and the Earth are very old.
Against these tangible scientific evidences, Church administrators appear bent on a revelation alone approach—but it has its own set of problems. I am reminded of the Old Testament moral order of vengeance ostensibly authored by God—of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Yet Jesus put forward a very different reality, thus raising the prospects that earlier understandings had been impoverished. There is an Adventist parallel to this with, for example, the “shut door” controversy where Ellen White found it necessary to later revise her prior interpretation of a vision, and since she hovers in the background of Adventist interpretations of Genesis we must consider the distinct possibility that just as the biblical authors did not always get it right, she did not get the Genesis issue completely right. The point is, there is not reason not to value revelation, but treating it in idolatress ways will most assuredly guarantee that we will not be connected appropriately to reality—thus the wisdom of it being moderated by empiricism and reason.
When thinking about the process that brings us to knowledge, I like to begin with the overarching principles of revelation—with them acting as a starting point for thought. To do so gives primacy to revelation, providing the fundamental framework for all the large issues associate with reality. But this approach also takes all other sources of knowledge seriously, and makes sure revelation is the starting point—not the ending point.
The fundamentalists within the Church who are intent upon inserting anti-scientific language into FB #6, who belittle empirical evidence and eschew reason, must understand that such behavior comes at a cost, bringing disrepute upon the entire Adventist theological enterprise. If the Church is to remain relevant, and engaged with the larger world, it will have to move beyond parochial interests; otherwise it will lack the ability to connect meaningfully with an increasingly sophisticated world.
As a fourth generation Adventist, I had always assumed that my life on Earth would end with me being Adventist, yet I am now coming to recognize that this assumption could be tenuous. While I am comfortable fellowshipping with individuals with a limited worldview and impoverished in their thinking, it becomes a more difficult proposition when bad ideas gets codified. Thus I, and other likeminded individuals must proceed systematically to see that this disastrous scheme is not successful. This task is complicated by the fact that the Church’s form of government is not really very accountable, and the average member in the pew has little recourse. But there are a few of us I am sure who are motivated to see this anti-scientific agenda defeated, and I am optimistic that we can make a difference. It is time now for us to get about an action plan.
Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.