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“Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other”

You can also read Spectrum’s interview with author Alden Thompson.

We’ve all heard the aspersions. Liberals are worldly, pleasure-loving free thinkers who play fast and loose with God’s word. Lax in moral principles, wishy-washy and double minded, they would do away with God’s Clear Word and do as they please. The Ten Commandments are mere suggestions, and everything in the Bible that’s inconvenient can simply be disregarded by applying that diabolical historical-critical method of biblical interpretation. Liberals are out to destroy the church and all the precious last day truth. These are clearly the people Peter warned about in 2 Peter 3:3. Plus they probably voted for Obama. What more evidence is needed?

And the conservatives. Narrow and judgmental, they would wall off the world and enforce doctrinal purity according to their slavishly literalistic understanding of the Bible. When confronted with any evidence that challenges their traditional understanding of inspiration, they simply stop thinking, blindly accepting glaring contradictions in an inerrant Bible. After all, God said it. I believe it. That settles it (for them and everyone else). Apparently, they don’t have the intellectual rigor and ability to think in higher, abstract ways, so they settle for simple fundamentalism. Their favorite colors are black and white. Matthew 23:24 is speaking directly to these folk. Plus, what can you really say about someone who voted for W and listens to Rush Limbaugh?

Enough of the divisiveness and negative stereotypes says Alden Thompson in his book, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other. Rather than conservatives demonizing the worldly liberals and liberals dismissing the simplistic conservatives, Thompson suggests something different: believe that each camp is honest and brings something valuable to the Adventist table. Celebrate and build upon the strengths each side brings — don’t throw rocks at the other side.

In the opening chapter Thompson sets the table for the more detailed discussion to come: “For conservatives, it is terribly important to sense that God’s steadying hand is on the wheel of history and that he is active in our lives… For liberals, it is terribly important to look at all the evidence and to be honest with it.”

Conservatives who crave answers. Liberals who love questions. Can we really get along? Thompson says yes, but doing so will require that we appreciate each other’s differences while affirming three common anchors: The landmarks of Adventism, the law of love, and Jesus.

Liberals and conservatives in the church may differ on the particulars and applications, but Adventists hold at least two anchors in their name: the Sabbath and the Second Coming (and Thompson points out that in the context of the larger Christian world, no one who affirms the literal return of Christ can be counted liberal). The other anchors are the keeping of God’s commandments, and the faith of Jesus. Anchor two is the law of love, a favorite theme of Thompson’s, and anchor three is the person and example of Jesus.

For Thompson the law of love is the ultimate command — most perfectly represented in the person of Jesus and then demonstrated in Christ’s command to love God and love your neighbor. Then come the Ten Commandments and all the myriads of other rules and regulations intended to make specific — and possibly unique — applications of the commandments. He earlier termed this perspective “The Two, the Ten, and the Many.”

While Thompson’s book delves deeply into what makes liberals and conservatives tick, don’t expect a handbook for navigating any of the typical flashpoints like gay marriage or young earth creationism. Where Thompson checks in is mostly at the level of scripture and inspiration, a legitimate hot-button topic of its own. Indeed, Thompson is no stranger to controversy. His book Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers created its own small contretemps some eighteen years ago. His limited use of the historic-critical method and his outright rejection of inerrancy as a guiding light for understanding scripture has placed him in the crosshairs of a particular type of conservative Adventist, particularly in the northwest where he has taught at Walla Walla University for nearly 40 years.

In one somewhat lighthearted section, Thompson makes use of the Myers/Briggs personality inventory classifications to illustrate combinations of qualities liberals and conservatives share — or not. In a nutshell, conservatives and liberals see and sense differently and can be placed at different quadrants of a pie chart. The categories are:

1. The intellectual spectrum: conservatives who love answers, liberals who love questions.

2. The lifestyle spectrum: conservatives who head for the hills, liberals who run to the city.

3. The presence of God spectrum: conservatives for whom God is a powerful, personal presence, liberals for whom God is a more distant reality.

In this rather too-handy grading scheme, individuals are grouped according to their placement along the three categories above, resulting in four groups: two with complementary liberal and conservative qualities, and two with double liberal or double conservative quadrants. Thompson says, “Somehow, the church needs to find ways of cherishing both kinds of people — those who ask the crucial questions and those who cherish life-changing answers.” He also urges that Adventism urgently needs both the impulse to embrace human culture and the desire to flee worldliness and seek God earnestly.

Where does Thompson himself land on the liberal/conservative continuum? His willingness to interpret scripture through the historical lens wouldn’t be called conservative by any means. But it may be equally difficult to call him liberal. Certainly his use of Ellen White as an inspired authority — albeit interpreted through the same historical lens that he would apply to scripture — takes him out of the liberal camp. And perhaps that’s the way he likes it — just enough of each quality to confound and frustrate the other side. And perhaps it really just doesn’t matter.

In Thompson’s earlier book Inspiration two chapters were omitted. “The Angels Aways Say the Time is Short” and “The Adventist Church at Corinth.” The Corinth chapter is present in the current book, and it may be the one most likely to generate a response. Here, he makes his strongest — and some might say most controversial statements for unity.

Using the backdrop of 1 Corinthians 1: 11-13, Thompson makes the metaphorical match between the messages of Cephas/Peter, Paul and Apollos with major currents and perspectives in Adventism. Peter is the concrete thinker who makes a list and then carries it out. Perfection is a possibility so long as the list is specific about what to do and not to do. Paul finds life more complex and perfection unattainable, but thanks be to God for Jesus, the great Substitute who stands in his place. Apollos is optimistic and philosophical, He sees God more as a father than a judge. Jesus is more important as God’s message of love sent earthward than as a sacrifice sent heavenward.

Thompson’s book provides thoughtful answers to why liberals and conservatives see spiritual things so differently; however, I’m still left with a number of questions. For one, who will actually read (and potentially implement) Thompson’s message. Would it be readers of Spectrum? Adventist Review? Our Firm Foundation?

As a teacher (now recovering) I learned (finally) that the same activity that opened the eyes of one student caused another’s to glaze over. Is the liberal conservative question really a matter of “spiritual learning style?” And if so, as good teachers, how do we present the subject matter so that each student finds the right fit to learn and grow?

Does one church do well with Peter’s learning style, and another with Paul’s? Do we have evangelistic campaigns that speak strongly to one learner type while leaving another aghast? Does the musical selection, Sabbath School class or sermon that thrills the very soul of one cause another to leave and look elsewhere for spiritual food?

Who is right or wrong? For Thompson, the views and perspectives — including the “moral influence” view don’t represent faulty theology to be corrected — just different views of God, influenced by the individual’s need to see God in a way that invites worship and wonder. In the end, what really matters for the individual and the church is not that we all use the same lens to view God and inspiration. Rather, what matters is whether we can each see and worship God clearly using whatever lens provides the greatest clarity.

Daniel Akers writes from Oceanside, California, where he and his wife Darlene love being Opa and Oma to their new granddaughter Lily. He also enjoys ocean kayaking and hopes Lily will be able to join him soon.

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