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Adventism towards the summum bonum

By Alexander Carpenter
Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all. – Jacques Derrida
    The meaning of Adventism lies in potluck.
    Now I’m no pro-potluck advocate. Let’s face it – there exist more interesting things in our church than guessing what’s in the Crockpot. But thinking about how potluck functions for our community gets at why we exist. Why is potluck important? Because it, and other cultural habits, tell us something about who we are and where the Adventist church is going. But first let’s see what potluck reveals about our community. 

  • Potluck is where women participate in decision-making power in numbers that truly reflect their 70% presence in our denomination.
  • Like the textual ingredients of our theology and some social mores, the food is often rooted in the 1950s. Deviled eggs and Special K loaf?
  • Non-Caucasian churches do it more lively, more often, and have larger turnouts in proportion to their over ninety percent slice of the worldwide membership pie.
  • It’s often where the marginal folks of our faith come. Next time you take your culinary chances at potluck look for the almost homeless guy with whom no one really speaks even after he was baptized, or the already-in-jeans teen girl showing up to this last connection to a community that doesn’t understand her like her emo friends do.
  • It’s also where the well-off in church connections or resources rarely show up – for some it’s easier to go through the IHOP than the line after church.
  • And finally, the fact is that other denominations and social clubs have potlucks as well. We don’t exist in a vacuum – despite the “peculiar people” rhetoric, we have more in common with our communities than we realize.

    When I was a kid I loved potluck – in a small church on the first Sabbath of each month I got to skip everything but the sermon in exchange for setting up the tables and chairs. But unlike many of the other kids, I had to stay in my church clothes until after eating. I, of course, hated looking like a dork for an extra twenty minutes. My reasoning – that I might spill on my good shirt – failed to convince my sartorially-unenlightened parents. But to give them a little credit they didn’t see a break between the specialness of worshiping together and eating together. In both sanctuary and the fellowship hall – by breaking spiritual and physical bread together – I see now that Adventism means most when we stick-up for community.
    But who really looks forward to potlucks at church anymore? Most multigenerational Adventists – like me –  head off to college and make friends outside of the local church context. The reality is that more and more Adventists fail to get fed – spiritually or physically – by the religion of their upbringing.
    Some might blame them, or call for hipper music, or more youth pastors with goatees, or ditching a couple of doctrines, by calling for revival, or really letting them know that they need a personal relationship with Jesus, but all this misses the point. In short, the point is that something’s got to change. Now that word change might worry some. But don’t worry, we’re not talking doctrines. We talking the application of our doctrines.
    The reality is that Adventist beliefs mean little if they cannot be applied to the real lives that people live. Missiologists get this – calling Jesus the pig of God in cultures where pigs, not sheep, are sacrificed makes sense. Now some will object, saying that doctrines should change the world. And we agree, but to do that, our faith must apply to the context, otherwise no one cares, especially the believers. The fact is that our beliefs mean different things in different cultures and different decades.
    For example, let’s take the big one: the heavenly sanctuary. Now whatever one believes about it, the reality is that after the great disappointment the heavenly sanctuary gave Adventists faith. It provided assurance that their shaken whole-hearted belief in the biblical chronology was correct and that something really did happen in 1844. As the memory of that experience dimmed for Adventists, the context changed.  As Adventists shifted their faith from chronology to personal faith the judgment aspect of the doctrine actually led some to question their assurance of salvation. Then after Desmond Ford the meaning of the doctrine shifted again as it became a symbol of loyalty to the church, or Ellen White or the various main players in the aftermath of Glacier View. The fact is that it no longer wipes away the same tears in 1844 although it remains an essential aspect of our identity – just in different ways.
    Our Adventist beliefs are supposed to call us to a higher standard of Christian witness. But this witness must speak now, not to the past. We have a great history to draw upon as a guide for the future, and with that we press forward to think carefully about how best to be Adventists. With the church exploding with membership in the developing world while leaking college educated members all over the world, we see challenges. With very real questions of literacy, funding, ethical responsibility, and institutional continuity, we want to think carefully and critically about how to apply our faith in the world we encounter.
    Too many Adventists define themselves by the 28-fundamental beliefs or just a personal relationship with Jesus. While both of those certainly make up a lot of folks’ raison d’etre Adventist, they miss how these function within the structure of Adventist culture.
    Adventism changes. For an hundred years, with few exceptions, to most Adventists Ellen White was the only prophet in the world and she was the last word on almost everything: doctrine, entertainment, education, health. Then for the last thirty years most Adventists have revised their reading of her. Some Adventists out there will still pride themselves in quoting paragraphs, but for the majority of the boomer generation, Ellen White was a polarizing and – currently – a silent subject. But now “>Ellen White has a Myspace account with 1644 members. It’s not run by the White Estate or a critic – part humorous, part comfort food, it mostly consists of a new generation of Sevies who post comments wondering where their “happy Sabbath” comment was this week or letting her know that after hitting the coffee shop all day to study, they are dropping a Big Frank in the microwave.
    How each generation treats her shows the Zeitgeist. The symbol of Ellen White has helped each generation of Adventism to define itself. She gave the early adherents the confidence to push ahead with this new religion – as they told their new narrative of continuing true Christianity through the ages –  she gave them the confidence to construct a new religion and she kept out a lot of fanatical ideas. If you’re the only Adventist for miles around, it really helped to turn to the Great Controversy or Patriarchs and Prophets and feel surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
    But the next generation came to her with different standards for sourcing and authority. Caught in the big epistemological shift between modern and postmodern standards of truth, Ellen White got split into something she never would have wanted: a test of loyalty to our faith community. The institutional thinking went something like this, in the confusing worlds of the “new theology,” self-supporting ministries, lower standards, Ford, Rae – if the ideas lead away from Sister White, BEWARE  And often it proved true, those who questioned Ellen White often left the church – although it escaped some that for many it wasn’t the ideas but the community that pushed them out. In these times she again functioned as a symbol for Adventist identity and provided security for many in uncertain times.
    My point is this: a new generation of Adventists need the prophetic voice, again.  In a globalized, postmodern world where more and more Adventists navigate a complex mix of identities – ethnic, gender, economic, religious – our faith needs to fit. To just dismiss the past for the future misses the point. Today’s Adventist leader must be self-aware about the process of translating our faith into a new context. The church can either muddle through the retirement of the baby boomer generation, or we can begin to think openly and strategically about how to apply Adventism to the challenges of today – violence, inequality, and irresponsibility.
    When Ellen White and Doug Batchelor have fake Myspace accounts, when kids swap “you know you’re an Adventist jokes,” and when one can still go around the world and make new friends in common faith, it’s clear that our human culture plays a role in our Adventist identity.
    For far too long beliefs have been the only acceptable way of speaking about Adventist faith. In fact, we actually call our beliefs “tests of faith” like they are barriers to mount before joining the community. Beliefs are essential, but think about the language: we test faith with them, wondering at an evangelistic series, “Will the attendees make it through the beast presentation” or “Are they committed enough to us to not wear jewelry? It’s no wonder that for small churches, it’s usually the really poor, sometimes mentally disabled, and the children of members who make up the fruits of the usual evangelistic work. We cloak our community behind truth. All too often the point is that we make community contingent on belief that no longer applies and then we slap ourselves on the back for keeping the standards high.
    Doctrine has become a way that we test obedience in our church. Apparently we must think: “if someone can stick out believing that Ellen White foretold the San Francisco earthquake than they must be safe to be around.” The reality is that communities have to provide ways to distinguish themselves from the larger culture. But I suggest that the future lies less in correspondence to a pre-scientific reality, and more in Adventist work for justice and the common good.  We aren’t changing any doctrines, instead we must now convert our beliefs into habits or tools for action. Thus, in the future an Adventist will not be distinguished by what she know, what what she does for God. By translating what always, already moves Adventism: calling people out of private, empty pietistic faith and meaninglessness into a living movement to realize the kingdom of God of Christ in our culture.
    It seems as though our church’s greatest fear is creative difference. And fair enough, no one likes revolutions in thinking, but frankly we lose both our history and our future if we merely sit around trying to hold things together in the same ways as we have in the past. As Giuseppe di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard,  “If we want everything to stay the same, everything must change.”
    For far too long some aspects of the church have misread the example of Jesus, calling us merely to a personal relationship with Jesus. But this has pushed us into narcism, staring at ourselves looking for Jesus, when he dies in the war zones, prisons, streets around the world. For far too long some folks in the church have unthinkingly repeated that Christ will return when his character is reproduced in his people. And by that they meant themselves. But the example of Jesus calls us to more than just private perfection. In fact, over and over Christ taught and modeled perfection in his work for the common good of all humanity. It is time for an Adventist revolution in witnessing, not in telling, but in doing.
    Now it’s always dangerous to talk practical realities. We all share common goals for our families, our countries, and ourselves. Equality, freedom, righteousness, openness, pure human connection, but how we get to those often becomes messy. We all come to conversation with preconceptions about our point of view (brilliant) and the other sides (dull). And all too often arguments grow over the banality of ill-defined positions and semantics. I don’t want to pick a fight or to foist any political agenda upon our friends and family. We’ve all grown up in this community, we’ve tried to draw upon life experience and the graduate studies that we’ve persued, and the thesis – that we need to move beyond the personal and talk about our public duties as Adventists is what I’d like to pass along to the future.
    We have dreams, too. Wouldn’t it be great if our worldwide educational system became known for turning out the most honest and wise leaders in the world? Wouldn’t it be great if our health system built upon its success and became known for both being financially strong and caring for the least of these. Wouldn’t it be great if there were not another financial mismanagement of a conference or ADRA project? Wouldn’t it be great if the Adventist Society for Religious Studies and the Adventist Theological Society could become one? As a human I doubt, but as a believer, I have this hope. And I believe that we’ll never get close to our character of Christ ideals unless we include our public responsibilities as we talk of faith.
    The reality is that far too many educated Adventists leave the church or mostly ignore it. And I don’t blame them. Most of the weekly sermons, our main method for creating an Adventist ethos, in a word: suck. We fear creativity because that has meant doctrinal change, but instead let’s start thinking about creativity in cultural change. 
    Adventism changes. Everyday in every country the church and its beliefs and practices shift in meaning for every person. Static Seventh-day Adventism doesn’t exist. In some ways we change the culture and in some ways it changes us. Each pastor who retells the three angels’ messages, each child who reads an Uncle Arthur bedtime story, every colporteur who closes a sale by reading The Desire of Ages, each nurse who cares, changes our church just a little bit.  Adventism began as a movement and now its time to  find within our shared faith a common set of values for which we can realize the mission of Jesus in our communities today.
    But this is not easy. For far too long the conversations in the church have been dominated by those who would make a litmus test of a few truths.  Although it may be painful to those who have defined their faith by the theological battles of the past, the end is neigh. If these 28 fundamental beliefs are supposed to be present truth, let’s see if we can really make them apply today – when Jesus talked about the Sabbath or the law he was not abolishing or conserving; instead He was recontextualizing. Everything changes – the key to institutional effectiveness is converting the meaningful ideas of the past into helpful guides for navigating the present and planning for the future. Theologian Karl Barth wrote once, “grace must find expression in life.  Otherwise, it is not grace.”  That is what this Adventist movement attempts to do: exploring ways to affirm our beliefs by employing them as habits or tools for action. Because if Adventist faith fails to make us act like Jesus – blessing and healing the poor, the peacemakers, the persecuted – than we have no reason to believe.
What say you?
•    What does love have to do with (#22) Christian Behavior?  Amid the admonitions to be “simple, modest and neat,” the motivation to love is currently missing. 
•    Is it time to get more vocal about the environment in light of (#6) Creation?
•    Could en-visioning a future of peace and justice grow out of assent to (#18) The Gift of Prophecy?
•    Might a Sabbath (#20) belief include the other neglected statements on the Sabbath as Jubilee? More than a defense of a day, what might it mean to be a Seventh-day Adventist in light of a theology of the Sabbath that includes liberation from poverty and its dis-eases?
•    What might a theology of technology help in reconceiving of (#13) The Remnant and Its Mission?
•    What might (#24) Heavenly Sanctuary theology do for the homeless?
•    Could we create a theology of (#22) Stewardship that would break us from constructing meaning on wealth display and product consumption?
•    In a postmodern world of fluid identities and often subjective truths, what does it mean to belong to (#12) The Church?
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