Finnish Scholar Offers a New View of Ellen White’s Spirituality

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Many years ago, I noticed how often Ellen White referred to the “soul” in her devotional writings. It was a precious and sacred aspect of the human personality, the object of divine guidance, nurturance, and protection, and “soul-saving” was God’s purpose in the world. When early Adventists exchanged the conventional idea of the immortality of the soul for the more biblical view of the unity of body and soul, they largely abandoned the term soul and substituted the contemporary language of character development. Ellen White, however, remained interested in the soul—along with the human body and spirit—and became Adventism’s chief advocate of holistic spirituality.

In our time, the emerging field of spirituality has ignited research into “spiritual formation” and “spiritual guidance” in the religious traditions. The recent dissertation by Harri Kuhalampi, written at the University of Helsinki, offers an analysis of White’s mature spirituality, slanted toward Lutheran culture of northern Europe, but using the modern academic study of Christian spirituality as a framework.[1]

Dr Kuhalampi studied the key terms associated with personal religion in six of White’s books,[2] written in the 1890s and early 1900s, such as love of God, union with Christ, helplessness, human spirit, character, dependence, cooperation, grace, prayer, will, consecration, and usefulness. The result is a synopsis of White’s projected ideals of spirituality: the images and structures of relations she believed existed between the human and the divine and should be emulated by all Christian believers. The periodic intra-denominational angst concerning perfection of character, or the significance of the sanctuary metaphors, and other Adventist distinctives such as Ellen White’s “spiritual gifts,” hardly appear here at all. Consecration, not sanctification, is the gold standard of spirituality in White’s world.

Dr Kuhalampi acknowledges White’s early Wesleyan leanings, but credits her European journeys of the 1880’s, where she read Luther for the first time, with the seeds of a new vision of personal religion and literary creativity—the spirituality that emerges at the Minneapolis conference of 1888 and is embodied in these six books. He first makes his way through Steps to Christ and uses the structure and themes he finds there to interpret the others. Even though the analysis rarely extends to metaphors, stories, or genre, it yields an unexpected harvest. “In many passages,” he types in a footnote, “White forms her sentences in such a way that faith is the grammatical subject accompanied by a verb in the active voice. Faith according to Ed 253 chooses God’s way instead of one’s own; acknowledges God’s ownership and accepts its blessings; receives from God; enables us to receive God’s gifts....” (111).

His shiniest and most unexpected gem is a view of union with Christ as ontological rather than symbolic or metaphorical, a claim that not only places White close to Luther and Calvin but also to medieval mystics such as Meister Eckhart. As I read it, he believes White attributes most of the possibilities of ontological union with God to union with Christ, achieved through justification by faith. ‘“Christ's character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned,” he quotes from Steps to Christ, p. 62. “This means an ontological merge with Christ into such a union where all faults, failures and imperfections of the sinner are absolutely annulled by the perfection of the divine Christ.” This insight alone should propel Adventist self-reflection in entirely new directions, transcending decades of tired conversations regarding the forensic nature of justification.

The dissertation evokes a contrast between the darker, existential elements of spirituality such as the vulnerability and “helplessness” of human beings, and the effects of divine grace in the soul, mind and body. Only when humans know their “real condition,” face the dark side of their personalities, and realize their “deep soul poverty” can they see themselves realistically and feel their need of grace. This self-appraisal, however, can be blocked by human pride and defensiveness, when the soul is “encased in a self-righteous armor which the arrows of God, barbed and true-aimed by angel hands, failed to penetrate”[3] (66). But if the person continues to “look to Christ” despair will change to release and joy. I found this analysis of the structure of despair and hope very clear and moving.

What is missing, however, are three emphases increasingly important in American studies of religion and spirituality: historical grounding, attention to spiritual praxis or "gifts," and gender analysis. (Every thesis is necessarily limited; so these are not faults per se but indications for supplemental research.) Firstly, when Dr Kuhalampi contextualizes White, he follows the White Estate’s history and interpretations, situating her in the official context of the denomination, rarely paddling into the currents of wider American religious history and spirituality, or observing her in the network of social relations where she functioned as a spiritual mentor. The Puritans long ago divided spirituality into three domains: secret (on one’s own), private (in small groups), and public (in church),[4] and White scrupulously addressed the spirituality associated with each. I wonder if a different kind of holism might have emerged if the dissertation had included biographical information and data from the more private aspects of White’s spiritual world: her diaries and letters, as well as her chains of correspondence with key figures.

The dissertation consciously avoids any discussion of Ellen White’s visions (or of any spiritual “gifts”) and this makes any synthesis of her spirituality glaringly incomplete. This omission, along with that of her letters and diaries, prevents us from asking important questions regarding White’s spirituality: What was her own process of soul formation? What role did her visions play in her spirituality? What were her struggles and vulnerabilities? Did she consider her own spiritual experiences normative for others?

Lastly, White was a wife, mother and special counselor to women; large sections of her books are dedicated to their spiritual concerns. I find it hard to believe that White’s spirituality, especially as a body-mind-soul holism, should be described today in such gender-blind terms as Dr Kulahampi uncritically assumes. What do surrender and yielding mean when written by a nineteenth-century American woman? Those familiar with how American religion has oscillated between “masculinized” and “feminized” spiritualities would be fascinated, I believe, with the kind of balanced synthesis White in fact achieved.

I hope when the book is published Dr Kuhlampi can add historical detail to his lucid analysis and make Mrs White’s spirituality more accessible to those less interested in her as an institutional figure than as a gifted woman writer.

[1] Holistic Spirituality in the Thinking of Ellen White (University of Helsinki, 2010).

[2] Steps to Christ (1892), Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing (1896), Desire of Ages (1989), Christ’s Object Lessons (1900), Education (1905), and Ministry of Healing (1905).

[3] Christ’s Object Lessons, 158.

[4] Tom Schwanda, “‘Hearts Sweetly Refreshed’: Puritan Spiritual Practices Then and Now,” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, 3/1 (2010), 21–41.

____________________________

Graeme Sharrock is owner of Parliament Media, a new interfaith media company.

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 an article by Dr Kuhalampi on the holistic spirituality of Ellen White.





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Sat, 10/25/2014 | Los Angeles Adventist Forum
October Adventist Forum
Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D., A 2014-2016 Mellon Postdoctoral Fell ow in the Peace and Justice Program at Wellesley College (Boston), and a 2 015 Fullbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar, Formerly an Adjunct Faculty Membe r in the Dept. of International Relations at USC, and in the Honors Progra m at UCLA. Topic: "Death Before the Fall?: A Conversation with Ronald Osbor n."

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