History, and its causes, purposes, and meanings, was on the minds of those gathered Thursday, November 15, 2018 for the Society of Adventist Philosophers meetings in Denver, Colorado. This was the ninth annual conference for the Society, and it preceded the Adventist Society of Religious Scholars meetings on Friday, November 16. The meetings of these two societies traditionally take place just before the national American Academy of Religion and Society for Biblical Literature meetings, which annually draws upward of 10,000 in a multitude of various scholarly disciplines.
The morning sessions began with memory and identity, moved to historical interpretation, and concluded with the exploration of nature, metaphysics, and history.
Ashlee Chism of the Office of Archives, Statistics and Research at the General Conference, in a presentation entitled “Collected and Communicative Memory,” asked if there is a Seventh-day Adventist past, and if so, how is it transmitted — through authentic history or through a collective memory? Chism put forward the idea that Adventist collective memory is that which is reconstructed in the present from that which is handed down from generation to generation. As an example, she recalled J. N. Loughborough’s 1892 book which traced the rise and advancement of Adventism from its beginnings in 1831 to 1844. This ‘rise and progress’ narrative provided a kind of template for subsequent interpretations of Adventist history, most of which shared an arc that began with a small movement facing enormous challenges that God helped it to overcome, and moving from “triumph to triumph.” The aim was to inspire, not to inform. Chism called for an authentic fact-based Adventist history, in dialogue with collective memory, but not bound by it, as necessary to “break Loughborough's narrative mold,” and to present our history clearly, warts and all.
Chism’s paper led into Eric Anderson’s presentation, “What is History? Walter Utt’s Problem — And Ours.” Utt, a beloved and revered Adventist history teacher at Pacific Union College for decades, wrestled with questions of faith and history, and especially regarding a philosophy of history. Should Christian historians make a place for miracles? For divine intervention in the affairs of the world? What is history?
Anderson argued that Utt’s approach to history was apophatic, a method of inquiry that proceeds by negation, by emphasizing, for example, what God is not rather than presuming to posit knowledge of the God who is above everything we can say about God. Accordingly, Utt spoke more of what history is not. He refused to seek conclusions that were more than historical — from outside history — and insisted that while historians see patterns, they cannot predict the future.
Anderson noted that Ron Numbers’ controversial book, Ellen White: Prophetess of Health, began with his claim that he would not appeal to divine intervention as a historical explanation. This ran counter to Loughborough’s sacred history approach in which God’s continual leading and guiding of His people through time is the explanation for historical events. Adventist historians, concluded Anderson, follow Numbers rather than Loughborough. Utt was no exception.
Utt’s fascination with developing a philosophy of history was rivaled by his fascination with debunking conspiracy theories. He did not believe that a small cabal of men were manipulating the levers of events behind the scenes and was fond of pointing out that stupidity, rather than evil intentions, was generally the cause of disastrous actions in history.
Nicholas Miller’s “Naked in the Garden of the Past: Is There an Adventist Philosophy of History?”, neatly dovetailed with the discussion of Utt’s views on doing and teaching history. The truly modern historian, said Miller, embraces a methodological naturalism that “limits the historian to natural, as opposed to supernatural causes, and causes her to use empirical observation and critical inquiry to examine, interrogate, and organize historical sources.”
Miller interpreted Numbers’ methodology as a thorough-going naturalism, which attributed Ellen White’s visions not to divine inspiration, but to physiological and psychological factors, an approach that resulted in a closed, materialistic system. This has implications, obviously, for Adventist historians, especially if the majority of them follow Numbers’ approach, as Eric Anderson claimed and as Walter Utt seemed to exemplify.
Miller provided a spectrum of possible positions for Adventist historians regarding their relation to this question. On the opposite ends are the secular confessional approach and the fideist confessional approach. The former “often reduces religion and religious beliefs to politics, economics, social class, or other secular criteria,” while the latter “is closed to using critical methods on the “insider” community, whatever it is, whether Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Adventist or other.” Neither position, said Miller, is tenable. In distinction to these two closed systems, Miller proposed three open, but critical positions: the open critical history, the critical apologetic, and the critical confessional. These three positions, particularly the critical confessional, are the ones that Miller advocates for Adventist historians. As he said, “We must be apologetic, in using the categories and methods that outsiders can appreciate, as Paul did on Mars Hill in speaking with the Athenian skeptics. But we must also speak to the church and confess clearly our faith in Jesus Christ and His word.”
Aleksandar Santrac, chair of the Religion Department at Washington Adventist University, concluded the morning sessions with his “Jean Baudrillard and the Illusion of the End.” Baudrillard, whose complex and often mystifying theories have had a tremendous influence on the post-modern world, claimed that “Within the realm of hyperreality or simulation, there is no meaning, historicity, progress or purpose.” Santrac seeks “to use Baudrillard’s illusion of the end of history as a helpful and corrective tool for too self-confident Christian (Adventist) interpretation of linear history.”
The afternoon sessions, titled “Nature, Metaphysics, and History,” included presentations on historical method, time and meaning, and the keynote address by Merold Westphal on “Reason in History and History in Reason.”
David Hamstra, PhD candidate from Andrews University, spoke first, presenting on “The Value of God and Historical Method,” a critique of New Testament scholar N. T. Wright’s position on the relation of theology and history, what Wright describes as “mutually interdependent ways of talking about the same thing.” Wright has argued that an “epistemology of love” can overcome philosophical and theological objections to learning about theology through a historical framework. Further, Wright believes that both believer and non-believer can study the evidence for Christ’s resurrection historically, without any special or transcendent knowledge of God. Once both believer and non-believer can see the resurrection through a first-century Jewish worldview that was able to embrace historical differences, then this epistemology of love makes it possible to see that there is a moral purpose and meaning to history.
Hamstra applies the thinking of Charles Taylor, an eminent philosopher, to critique Wright’s position. Taylor says that if we begin with an epistemology (how we know reality), then establish an ontology (a philosophy of what is real), and then draw out the axiological (moral) implications, we’ll be blind to the moral and philosophical preconceptions that made our epistemology possible. When this is applied to Wright’s ‘epistemology of love,’ it’s not clear how we could infer a relation to God from the pursuit of human goods, however laudable in itself that would be.
Why is a “this-worldly moral meaning of history” a problem, asks Hamstra. After all, it’s a perfectly consistent viewpoint of many people and of most people in academe. While he doesn’t think Wright’s position is wrong, Hamstra holds that Wright’s epistemology and his ontological ideas about God are not sufficient for finding a moral meaning to history. What is needed is a deeper consideration of the implicit moral assumptions behind Wright’s views of knowledge, God, and history.
Richard Rice, Professor, Loma Linda University, presented a paper entitled, “Time, Meaning, and the Final Future,” in which he offered a critique of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s history and eschatology. Rice compared the eschatologies of Rudolf Bultmann, Oscar Cullmann, and Pannenberg on the question, “Does history need an end?” Bultmann says “not necessarily,” Cullmann says “naturally,” and Pannenberg says, “absolutely!”
For Bultmann, the meaning of history from the point of faith is always in the present and in the choices we make each moment. Every moment can be the eschatological moment if we choose to awaken it. While few would dispute the importance of responding to God personally, decisively, and consistently, said Rice, many in the Christian community continue to see the events of history as God-driven, reaching their climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The kingdom awaits final fulfillment in the future.
One such scholar was Oscar Cullmann, a New Testament scholar, who argued in contrast to Bultmann, that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are the mid-point of history, rather than the culmination. The decisive battle has occurred, thought Cullmann, but the end of history lies in the future. This intermediate time is important, then, but Christians must not lose sight of the end point of the arc of salvation history, which yet lies in the future.
Wolfhart Pannenberg begins his Systemic Theology, with the culmination of history. Only in the eschaton, with the fulfillment of history, will “the full meaning of history appear,” commented Rice, “and the truth about God, humanity and creation be fully manifest.” For Pannenberg, even God’s own inner life, inextricably tied up with human history, will only be complete at the climax and conclusion of history. Strikingly, “the culmination of history,” notes Rice, “terminates history.”
Rice finds Pannenberg’s notion of the final future disappointing. First, if temporality is swallowed up, then it puts “the universe on an indefinite pause.” Temporality is essential to our existence, argued Rice. The succession of momentary experiences, one after the other, gives shape and direction to our lives. Instead of hitting the pause button for eternity, Rice suggests the continuation of the passage of time, so that “The life to come would then consist of an unending series of experiences in a world from which the ravaging effects of sin have been removed.”
A second problem with Pannenberg’s eschatology is that if God deals with us in time, but Godself is not temporal, then God’s relations with us don’t reflect God’s reality. A better conception, suggests Rice, is that proposed by process theology and open theists, in which God is changeless in his character and nature, and supremely temporal in his concrete experiences with us. Like us, God has moment-by-moment experiences which can be defined by certain characteristics. As Rice concludes, “Time is therefore real for God, as it is for everything else.”
The keynote address, by Merold Westphal, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, from Fordham University, was entitled “Reason in History and History in Reason,” in which Westphal compared and contrasted the philosophies of history of Hegel and Gadamer. For Hegel, reason in history is a search for meaning in history, and his philosophy of history is based on a theology of history. History is the growth and triumph of spirit and through reason history reaches its goal, its telos in a kind of realized eschatology.
While Hegel saw history as the growth and triumph of spirit, Gadamer thought of reason as infected by history. Our prejudices constitute our history more than reason does, he argued, and we are shaped by the power of our emotions more than the weakness of our data. “Emotions create their own logic,” said Gadamer. “Anger is the mother of certainty.” Whereas Hegel thought that philosophy and reason alone had the power to transcend subjectivity, Gadamer believes that thought is interpretation resting on assumptions. He advocates for a hermeneutic of suspicion. Reason is always subject to “murkier motives.”
Westphal concluded with a question: “Does that leave us with a relativism that undermines the concept of truth, precisely in those areas closest to the heart of our humanity?” Do our interpretations and our suspicions make us more just, more compassionate? He answered, quoting Augustine: “So if it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood them.” Whether we have a religious or a secular perspective, said Westphal, “it seems we walk by faith, not by sight.”
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.
Image courtesy of adventistphilosophy.org
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