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Adventist Philosophy: Promise or Peril?

A new intellectual force for good, truth and beauty is organizing in Adventism. Toward these ultimate ends, and for fellowship, dozens of folks of all ages have gathered in San Francisco for the second annual conference the Society of Adventist Philosophers. The papers and panel discussions focused often on the official topical question, does educating Seventh-day Adventists about philosophy offer promise or peril? Losely connected with the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, which meets as a part of the massive Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion meetings, this small group of Adventists interested in philosophy drew papers from faculty and administrators at a variety of Adventist educational institutions, including Southwestern, La Sierra, Pacific Union College, Kettering College of Medical Arts, Loma Linda University, Washington Adventist University, Andrews University, Canadian University College, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines.

Significantly, the society is helmed by a new generation of academically-trained graduate students and young professors, seventy-five percent of whom teach at universities outside the denominational educational system. This perhaps reveals that the “peril” of the title is not merely rhetorical. But, and perhaps unsurprisingly, almost all presenters agreed that philosophy offers more promise than peril to the church. Excitingly, a few fault lines did appear along Analytic and Continential traditions, the question of a unique Biblical or Adventist philosophy, and relatedly, discouses around foundation/anti-foundationalism. The society appears to have worked hard to include a variety of ideological voices in Adventism and the resulting healthy disagreement revealed once again that asking philosophical questions is essential to understanding in good faith.

  • Some paper titles included:
  • “The Other of Revelation: Philosophy as a Pedagogy of Truth in Maimonides” by Abigail Doukhan
  • “Untying the Knots of Thinking: Wittgenstein and the Role of Philosophy in Adventist Education” by Aleksander Santrac
  • Philosophy in the Adventist Context: Peril, Promise, or Both? By Richard Rice

Society officer Zane Yi presented a paper, “Legitimization, Articulation, and Critique: Adventism and Three Modes of Practicing Philosophy” which neatly captured the promising spirit of the conference. I will quote his final paragraphs below.

. . .the uncertainty generated by critical philosophy, makes genuine faith possible. As Kant claims, denying reason makes room for faith (1). It does so in two ways. First, critical philosophy clarifies what can be counted as knowledge and what lies beyond the scope of reason, and therefore, must be affirmed by other means. Secondly, it aids in the recovery of an understanding of faith that is more consistent to the way it is described in Scripture. Rather than being conceived of as cognitive certainty about beliefs, it becomes trust in a God one does not fully understand.  As Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, “[I]t is not of their own strength, reason and will that people believe in Jesus as the Christ and hope of the future as God’s future…It is not faith that makes Jesus the Christ; it is Jesus as the Christ who creates faith. It is not hope that makes the future into God’s future; it is this future that wakens hope. Faith in Christ and hope for the kingdom are due to the presence of God in the Spirit” (2). The uncertainty generated by anawareness of the fragile nature of our beliefs and rational abilities can lead to a deeper trust in the God who reveals, but ultimately transcends words, concepts, and thought.

The critical mode of philosophy, I have argued is an essential to the teaching and practice philosophy, providing an indispensible condition for a genuine encounter with truth.  It, however, is not the only aspect of philosophy, and its tension with the constructive aspects of philosophy that have been examined above prevents philosophy from reaching excessively skeptical conclusions. As criticism protects one from blind or naïve legitimization, as well as uncritical attempts at communication, the two other modes of philosophy protects those who engage in philosophy from nihilism and relativism. Chastened by criticism, with time and effort, reason can still make advances, eventually coming to an adequate understanding and well-reasoned conclusions on some issues. These conclusions, however, in light of philosophy’s critical mode, must always be understood as provisional, fallible, and incomplete. Philosophy teaches one to be constantly open to present truth.

  1. Kant’s exact words are “I therefore found it necessary to deny reason in order to make room for faith.” Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd edition, Bxxx.
  2. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 1st ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 195.
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