Holistic Spirituality as a Key to Understanding Ellen White

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Distinct points of concentration can be found in the voluminous literary production of Ellen G. White. As examples of these topical areas I will mention only four obvious ones: First, a considerable amount of her writing was prompted by her prophetic vision – her desire to examine various religious topics from a superhuman point of view. Secondly, she examined a number of theological and religious topics because she wanted to bring clarity to the understanding of some of the doctrinal matters or to confirm positions already taken by the church at large. Thirdly, a considerable portion of her writings can be defined as practical advice and counsel. Finally, she wrote extensively as a spiritual guide, which means that she primarily wanted to spiritually help or guide her readers.

There has been a seemingly endless debate over Ellen G. White’s prophetic gift and her authority as a representative of a prophetic voice on the basis of this special giftedness, her visions and dreams. As a result there is a clear division in opinion either rejecting her as a prophet or alternatively approving her as such, as a God-appointed authority. A strong emphasis on her prophetic role forms a basis for appeal for those who have a positive attitude to her being a prophet. Those who reject the idea of White’s prophetic gift have this as a reason to relate negatively towards much of what she says. Surprisingly, the emphasis on her role as a prophet has weakened her credibility as a religious writer and a spiritual guide.

As far as doctrinal views and positions are concerned, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has made a decided effort to base its thinking and teaching solely on biblical sources. If that is the case, one is forced to ask, whether Ellen White does, in fact, have a convincing role in the present theological discussion about doctrinal matters. She herself was not happy with a position of doctrinal or theological authority. In the case of practical advice, a strong emphasis on their wisdom and factual correctness unfortunately diverts attention away from her essentially spiritual views and ideas. Instead, special argument is needed before all such pieces of advice (e.g. her dietary ideas) can be seen as essentially religious by nature.

This leaves us the option of estimating the spiritual dimension as one of Ellen White’s major fields of concentration. In the body of her writings and in the later production, in particular, there is plenty of material contributing constructively to the spiritual well-being and growth of her readers. An analysis of the text of such books as Steps to Christ, Christ’s Object Lessons and The Desire of Ages indicates that their purpose and intention is primarily to guide, enhance or encourage the personal spiritual experience of those who allow the text to speak to their inner person.

The spiritual dimension of Ellen White’s writings is of particular importance as it forms a common platform of interest with all those who are interested in spirituality, regardless of their religious attachments. In addition, White has an important point of view to offer to the debate concerning the general nature of spirituality. Her holistic approach to the Christian faith has the potential of widening the understanding and providing an opportunity to bring the spiritual dimension into the realm of everyday life.

Ellen White can be regarded as one of the foremost representatives of holistic spirituality for several reasons. First, her view of human beings is holistic, which means that in her view there is no separate soul apart from the physical body. Thus spirituality concerns the whole person and not only some individual and obscure inner realm. Secondly, her interest is not only in those individuals who have already made considerable advances on the spiritual path, but she also effectively guides those ones who have not even touched the rudiments of spirituality. She has important things to say to people at every stage of their spiritual journey. Thirdly, she sees spiritual significance and meaning in all experiences of life. The entire human life and its various experiences form an integral part of a balanced and fruitful spirituality. Fourthly, according to her, there is no separate location designated for optimal spiritual growth, but instead all our environments are equally part of God’s world.

Quoting John Swinton, spirituality “is the specific way in which individuals and communities respond to the experience of the spirit.” Accordingly, Swinton sees the human spirit as an entity in us, as “the essential life-force that undergirds, motivates and vitalizes human existence.” Spirituality, therefore, must be seen as a fundamental dimension of all human beings and not only as a Christian quality, as an indication of religious activity or piety. It seems, on the contrary, that some of the most religious persons may be pitifully lacking in spirituality – such was the case with the Pharisees in the time of Jesus.

This gives us a useful point of view to examine Ellen White’s thinking on spirituality. Her emphasis on the holiness of the Sabbath means that it is possible for anyone, anywhere to enter into and experience the sacredness of that day, because it was God who has set the day apart to fulfill his purposes. In the form of a holy day God brings his holiness in the midst of everyday life and within the reach of all people. But other than that, White does not recognize the separation between the ordinary and the religious spheres of life, but in her thinking spirituality should be an integral part of all our interests and activities. For her there is no distinction of a holy realm from the common which means that all our experiences can be a source of influences, impressions or ideas which contribute to our spirituality. For example, our primary human relationships or our work or leisure activities can constitute an inexhaustible source of meaning, value and connectedness, and other features general to spirituality.

Ellen White’s holistic spirituality simply means such an approach to oneself and to life in which everything is under continuous examination and reflection. While defining prayer as “the opening of the heart to God as to a friend” she expresses in a revealing way the essence of what Christian spirituality is all about: being undisguised in the presence of God, facing him openly and candidly. Whatever is within is confronted with the full awareness that God sees all: feelings, memories, ideas, intentions, motive, attitudes, relationships, experiences etc. A person of this attitude must also be honest to the self and face all aspects of one’s experience and inner life as well as every feature of one’s personality and character. This is possible only when a person is fully aware of God’s unconditional love, grace and acceptance. This idea on spirituality emerges as a radical opposite to the religious formality which White so strongly resists.

Ellen White’s holistic spirituality is based on the idea that the deeper meaning and purpose of life are to be found through constant reflection and contemplation, not by external faithfulness to God’s expectations. Even if we might (wrongly) regard ourselves as clever and well informed, our perceptions about God and his will may yet be quite misguided due to our human limitations. Our connection to God and to others, our sense of hope and security as well as our values, growth and transformation are a result of a constant and profound encounter with God at the level of the innermost being. This is why White speaks so much about the role of character in authentic Christianity. But while this process may be painful, toilsome, frightening and tiring, it is at the same time the appointed way to an experience of peace and rest, joy and happiness.
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Harri Kuhalampi, ThD, completed his doctoral dissertation at the University of Helsinki in 2010. A copy of the dissertation can be obtained by contacting Dr Kuhalampi: kuhalampi@luukku.com. It is also available at the university's website: http://ethesis.helsinki.fi.

Click here to read Spectrum's interview with Dr Kuhalampi.

Click here to read a review of Dr Kuhalampi's dissertation by Graeme Sharrock.

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