Facing Doubt: A Review

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"I know that the Adventist faith community is far from perfect. But God is putting up with it – and so should we." This final paragraph of my friend Reinder Bruinsma’s latest book is by far my favourite. By writing this book, Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventist Believers ‘On the Margins,’ Bruinsma has done the Adventist church and many thousands of Adventists world-wide a great service.

Bruinsma shared a copy with me, both in Dutch and English, and I read the English copy quickly and with much interest. The book is well-written and reads easily. Bruinsma has written this book for the people in the church who place themselves on the margins and who seriously doubt if they should or even want to remain in the church. From personal experience, I know that this target audience is large and growing by the day. It is commendable that Bruinsma has taken their plight to heart and through this book attempts to minister to these believers on the margins. Admittedly, Bruinsma is not straying too far from his own field of experience, as he writes ‘I expect this project will also be good for my own soul! For I myself am as much the target for this book’ (p 18).

Indeed, in the introductory chapter Bruinsma shares that he himself has these doubts, but that he wants to keep his faith and he wants to stay in his church. He then – humbly admitting that he does not have all the answers or any ‘instant remedies’ (p 17) – spends the rest of the book putting doubt in perspective and offering some reasons and ways for believers ‘to persevere in their attempts to believe’ (p 18).

Part 1: Questions, Uncertainties, Doubts
After the introductory chapter, the book consists of two parts each containing four chapters. The second part is the most interesting for the topic at hand. In the first part the stage is simply set. In ‘Christianity in crisis’ Bruinsma analyses the exodus from church, that is taking place in the West. Not just in the Adventist church. Bruinsma sketches how history, touching on postmodernism and the reformation, has led to this point.

‘Recent Trends in Adventism’ focusses on the current state of the Adventist Church. In Bruinsma’s eyes, it is very clear that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. He  highlights some trends in contemporary Adventism, always placing them in their historical context, that are worrying for him and many others. Bruinsma truly believes the Adventist church is in a crisis, and that this crisis is not about one or two issues. Fortunately, as history shows us, change is possible.

The topic of evil and theodicy is next in ‘Is There a God, Really?’. The suffering and evil in the world have been part of the New Atheist debate on the existence of God, and Bruinsma tackles this difficult topic head on. Giving a good overview of possible answers, he ultimately admits that ‘I realize that for most people the why-question will not be solved by any academic debate’ (p 69), and concluding that the best answer is probably not rational. The best answer to this non-intellectual doubt is given in a later chapter ‘The Leap of Faith.’ Bruinsma then moves on to other intellectuals doubts that many have, creation and miracles are at the top of that list.

By this point Bruinsma has piled doubt upon doubt, and if the reader was not in doubt before reading the book, she probably is now. Bruinsma rightfully asks ‘What do we do with all this doubt?’ (p 80). Before getting to the meat of the matter and giving some suggested solutions to doubt, Bruinsma leads his readers once more unto the breach. 

‘Can I Still Believe This?’ discusses specific intellectual doubts one might have with Adventism. First, the role of the Fundamentals is treated, and then various theological points pass by in review: the trinity, the nature of Christ, the Sanctuary, 1844, end-time prophecies and Ellen White. Bruinsma discusses these in reasonable depth and raises the right questions. The last topic is a strange one, life style issues such as ‘food, jewelry, recreation, cohabitation and sex’ (p 104). Bruinsma does not discuss this topic at all just concluding ‘At this point I simply want to mention this area of concern. And let me just say that, in all honesty, doubts in this category may (at least to some extent and in some cases) reflect a desire to justify one’s own behavior and are often not really a thoroughly considered, theologically rooted doubt’ (p 104). This statement is, in my view, a bit blunt and falls rather short as compared with the generally excellent discussion. It’s a pity, as this is the last topic in the chapter and leaves the reader on a low note.

Part 2: Facing Doubt and Finding Answers
In the second part, Bruinsma gives the meat of his message, and his answers to doubt and his reasons for staying in a church. In ‘The Leap of Faith’ Bruinsma points out you are meant to have doubts, and that doubt is part of faith. He then suggests a surprisingly simple solution: take a leap of faith. Just go for it. If you are doubting whether you should or even could believe, why not give it a go and see where you end up. This may sound simplistic, and in theory it might be, but the discussion of this option is neither simplistic nor superficial. Ultimately, Bruinsma understands faith to be a gift that God will give to those who try to believe.

In ‘Why We Must Remain in Church’ Bruinsma describes the second part of the problem of being on the margins: do you still go to a church? Emphasising that we often talk about the Church, meaning some kind of big organisational structure, in reality all anyone ever is is a member of a local church in a local city or town, nothing more, nothing less. Now admittedly, local churches can be not so great, but you can always try to find one that is better. Bruinsma discusses how a local community and one’s personal faith interact, and the essentiality of belonging to growing in faith. Each believer needs the church, and the church needs each believer.

Having dealt with doubt and staying in or going to church, Bruinsma moves on to the modernist meat: ‘What Exactly Must I Believe?’ Or better yet, if I don’t believe X, am I still a true Adventist. In a chapter that was perfect for including a reference to badventist, Bruinsma shows the traditional adventist aversion to doctrine and how that changed. He argues that not every Fundamental Belief is fundamental, and that being Adventist is not defined by one’s adherence to a set of beliefs. Bruinsma admits that he himself is not a ‘real’ Adventist, and points out that whether or not he agrees with each minutia of the twenty-eight has absolutely no implications for his membership in his local church. Ultimately ‘I am the one who must determine […] whether I have sufficient affinity with the Adventist interpretation of the Christian faith and with the Adventist faith community, to refer to myself as a “genuine” Adventist’ (p 169). In other words, there is no need to be chased out the church because you have some troubles with specific parts of the Fundamental Beliefs. You are the one to decide if you identify with the Adventist heritage sufficiently to remain part of the church.

Finally, in ‘Dealing With Our Doubts’, Bruinsma gives some useful advice to living an Adventist life of doubt. He suggests, to my great satisfaction, giving up studying the Bible and to start reading it. He argues that we need to focus on the message of the Bible, especially when reading hard to accept texts, not on the details. He reminds us that we need to keep thinking and using common sense. He points out that while many people in the church abuse Ellen White’s writings, that does not disqualify their usefulness. He reemphasises how important prayer is, and gives suggestions to start it again. And he shows the reader how she can take a journey of doubting and questioning without being overcome.

In the end Bruinsma shares his personal list of fundamentals, as he’s shared before on his blog. An insightful list to show the reader what freedoms she may take in dealing with the twenty-eight. He finishes with the best part: the quote that I put at the beginning of this review. ‘I know that the Adventist faith community is far from perfect. But God is putting up with it – and so should we’ (p 191).

Some conclusions
All in all, Bruinsma has done an excellent job with this book. Naturally there are some minor typo’s, but for a non-native English speaker surprisingly few strange turns of phrase. The prose reads easily, and Bruinsma makes the reader feel that she is included in a journey together with him. The rather extensive footnotes  are enlightening and useful for interested readers looking for more answers; or maybe more doubts. And, of course the most important part, Bruinsma’s answers to and suggestions for dealing with doubt are both tried and tested and innovative. 

My only true problem with the book, is one that is not Bruinsma’s fault at all. As I read the book, I didn’t feel that I was the audience. Not because I lack doubt, not because I haven’t thought of leaving the church, but because my worldview and thus my reason for doubts are different. Ultimately, I would estimate that this book answers more questions for Baby Boomer and Generation X readers, than for younger ones. Having said that, given the chance to go back in time, I’d still read the book. It enriched my faith and my commitment to my church and I truly believe it will do the same for thousands of others.

See Also Clifford Goldstein's review, "'On The Margins': Reinder Bruinsma's Facing Doubt."

Tom de Bruin is a lecturer in New Testament Studies at Newbold College.

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