Eschatological Analphabetism

Eschatological Analphabetism

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Published:
October 14, 2021

Ted Wilson, president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, has announced General Conference plans to distribute a billion copies of Ellen White's The Great Controversy. This announcement of what is called “The Great Controversy Project 2.0” was made at the Adventist-laymen's Services and Industries (ASI) International Convention held this August (2021) in Orlando, Florida. “The Great Controversy is a marvelous book. I believe every word in this book. I support it and I promote it—the full and complete book,” said Wilson in remarks that were also posted to his Twitter account.

This news has been received with expected enthusiasm by the majority of the church, and with concern and skepticism by a minority, especially in some territories of the world. The project seems to be an exercise in muscular theology bordering on recklessness and arrogance. It is based on a purely quantitative conception of the church and mission, as it assumes that whoever speaks the loudest and succeeds in doing the riskiest thing is right, regardless of the content. An obsession with the extraordinary makes us often forget the value of the ordinary. And the ordinary, for twenty-first century Adventism, is simply to think more carefully about the advancement of the Kingdom of God rather than making a nineteenth century Adventist tradition prevail. Those who superimpose the Kingdom of God onto Adventism make a gross mistake in perception and in reading history. That there are individual Adventists who make this mistake is understandable and up to a point acceptable, but if the church as a whole and its leading institutions also do this, it is of great concern, regret, and disappointment.

A modicum of prophetic awareness and wisdom should lead us to ask ourselves: what is the nature and meaning of the final message we are sending to others? Sadly, we must see that the problem does not lie solely in the project launched by President Wilson. The problem lies upstream in Adventist eschatology itself. This project only radicalizes something that all Adventism, even moderate Adventism, actually carries in its genes: an apocalyptic view of history. The eschatology of a church can be: a) substantively false when it states things that are wrong; or b) functionally false when it states true things but in a one-sided way. Adventism fits into this second dysfunctionality, and initiatives like President Wilson’s only make the situation worse.

Everything in Adventism is conditioned by eschatology: Sabbath, lifestyle, vegetarianism, mission, ecology, anthropology, philanthropy, etc. And this can be a richness. It’s visible in our very name: Adventism, which means “coming” or “arrival.” As in earnestly waiting for Jesus' second coming. Having an eschatology may be better than not having one, but unfortunately, that doesn't mean it’s right. This is what I call “eschatological analphabetism,” to have an eschatology, but one that unfortunately has become unilateral, self-referential, non-dialogical, and reckless.

There are two kinds of truth, that of “coherence” and that of “correspondence.” In truth by coherence, the accent is placed on the harmony of the elements inside a system. In truth by correspondence, the accent is instead placed on the relationship of the internal elements with the external world. Both are valid and necessary, and they certainly create a tension that is, however, positive because it enables us to learn to live well, not only with our own consciousness and convictions but also with others in an external world. One that cannot be reduced to a world of our interiority or a world we build up in our imagination. Adventism has built its identity according to a strong call for consistency and coherence. This is a good thing, but today that is not enough because a healthy and balanced identity also requires knowing how to relate to the outside world in an exercise of correspondence that necessarily implies an adjustment of oneself to others. The problem is that this necessary adaptation is seen by institutional Adventism as a betrayal of ourselves and the faith. Such is the dominance of the coherence paradigm in Adventism that not only our mission but also our theology and anthropology struggle to enter into the healthy exercise of correspondence with a world from which we cannot escape and in which we must learn to be and live.

This unilateral obsession with consistency and coherence comes at the expense of correspondence and flexibility. But it is easy to show that the Bible includes both. It values the principle of consistency but also that of correspondence. One must know how to be different from others but at the same time know how to be with others. A noble church is one that knows how to criticize the world but also knows how to be in the world. Since the very beginning of our history, we Adventists have had a big problem in knowing how to live in the world. And the current reading of The Great Controversy tends to confirm and radicalize this incapacity and obsession.

In Matthew 5:13-16, there are two parables about how to be in the world: as light and as salt. The Parable of the Light tells us implicitly and structurally that in order to give something to the world we must be detached from the world. The beneficial effect is guaranteed only by this detachment, this distance that the church needs to guarantee and preserve. A Light that is too close, placed under the bed or close to things, loses that necessary distance and cannot illuminate. This parable is therefore a parable in favor of a coherence that preserves itself in maintaining a distance that is necessary for witnessing. This is an ecclesiocentric parable because it underlines the heroism of a church that by remaining faithful to its own values succeeds in better illuminating the world via distance and difference.

But the Parable of the Salt implicitly and structurally tells us that in order to give something to the world, we must mix with the world. Salt has no value if it remains separated from food. It has to co-mingle with the food, to become part of the food itself. The task of the church is also that of knowing how to be in the world. And knowing how to be in the world means knowing how to be with others: understanding, dialoguing, and interacting with them. And above all, to know that if we give something to them, it is equally true that they also give something to us. The principle of reciprocity applies here. We improve them and they improve us. The fiction of a pure Adventism that a certain reading of The Great Controversy promotes is not only a psychological illusion but also a theological and prophetic aberration that Adventism needs to get rid of. Our presumed purity of Faith has no biblical foundation when it is promoted unilaterally. Faith is difficult precisely because it must be both pure and hybrid, coherent and corresponding, autonomous and relational, at the same time. To erase this tension is to deform Faith and make it domesticated, transforming it into an idol. The Parable of the Salt is in favor of the correspondence that abolishes the distance between us and the world and pushes us to know how to be in the world because others who are in the world are loved by God as much as we Adventists are. This is not an ecclesiocentric but a world-centered parable because it underlines the value of the world. It addresses the service and humility of a church that by remaining faithful to the world created, maintained, and loved by God, succeeds in its mission by becoming flexible, empathic, and relational.

But the tension between knowing how to differentiate oneself from the world and knowing how to mix with the world also finds an eschatological formulation. And this is given by the two types of eschatology that we find present in the Bible. Old Testament eschatology for instance, as in the whole Bible, has two versions: Apocalypticism and Messianism. “Apocalypticism,” or the apocalyptic worldview, is a distinctive combination of several core axioms, including a conviction in the imminent end of history related to the central act of “Judgment.” The first great explosion of Apocalypticism dates from the Hellenistic era and included the early Enochic literature. But the apocalyptic worldview, in reality, preceded this period. The major completed expression of it was already found in the biblical book of Daniel, and even before in the Prophets. All the Prophets built partial Apocalypsis through the categories of “the Day of the Lord,” “Judgment” or “God's Wrath.” That's the case for Isaiah's so-called “little apocalypse” (chapters 24-27).

“Messianism” instead represents the second way of understanding the future, which is not based in the category of “Judgment” but in the expectation for an end-time agent (Messiah) who plays a positive, redemptive role. Therefore, the main messianic categories are: “Fullness,” “Fulfilment,” and “Flourishing.” And it's important to note that the Messianic worldview doesn't start with Christianity. Messianism certainly explodes with Christianity because Christ is the long-awaited Messiah, but the messianic worldview is already present in all the prophets. And the most messianic of all Old Testament books is Isaiah (See Chapter 11:1-9).

Even though Apocalyptic and Messianic traces can be found well before Isaiah, it's only with the biblical prophets that Apocalypticism and Messianism are articulated for the first time in a coherent and complete way. But the explosion of Apocalypticism and Messianism in Hellenistic and Christian eras introduced an ambivalent situation. Both worldviews blossomed but at the same time tended to become unilateral and disconnected. Old Testament eschatology remains instead as a foundational paradigm, not only for its openness to the future but above all for its extraordinary capacity of maintaining the connection and balance between its two forms: Apocalypticism and Messianism. For this reason, no eschatology can be balanced if it unilaterally privileges one of them. And perhaps the best example of this Old Testament balance is given in Chapter 2 of Isaiah. There we find—together in the same chapter—a “messianic” description of eschatology (verses 1-5) and an “apocalyptic” version of it (verses 6-22). Both coexist side by side. And the New Testament will still wisely maintain this balance. The messianic aspect of Christianity is incarnated in the fourth gospel (Luke 4:16-21) and its apocalyptic dimension, not uniquely but mainly, is visible in the book of Revelation.

Adventism has always been and still predominantly is apocalyptic. Our “eschatological analphabetism” consists precisely in not having been able to make both adequately coexist. And the current reading of The Great Controversy has made the situation worse.

Emotional illiteracy does not mean not having feelings, but rather experiencing only one kind of feelings or overlooking feelings that connect us with others. Likewise, eschatological illiteracy does not mean being indifferent to the end times or the return of Christ but simply having perceptions that are one-sided and compact. Beliefs that fail to interact with the various components of the kingdom of God in the end-time experience.

The Adventist ethos—and particularly the eschatological Adventist ethos—has unfortunately learned to live and feed itself only with conviction, consistency, and militancy, without the ability to add flexibility, relationality, and dialogue. The result is an eschatology that is true but dangerous, relevant but one-sided, convinced but unwise. And without wisdom, the world does not improve. In subsequent articles, I will try to elaborate a more balanced cultural and theological reading of The Great Controversy that doesn’t represent an ideological apology of Adventism and an ungenerous criticism of those who are not Adventists.

 


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Image Credit: Rich Hannon, Spectrum Magazine

 

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