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A Case Study in the Closing of the Adventist Mind

In the December 8, 2011 issue of the Adventist Review (AR), Mark Kellner, News Editor at the AR authored a column under the title, “If the Account of Creation Isn’t True…” He frames his discussion by referencing a recent New York Times op-ed authored by two evangelical scholars who lament the rampant anti-intellectualism among many evangelicals as well as many who compose the political class in the United States. In their own words, the call is made for Evangelicalism to pursue “a biblically grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectually engaged, humble and forward-looking.” As they put it, “evangelical Christianity need not be defined by simplistic theology, cultural isolationism and stubborn anti-intellectualism.”

Though the Times op-ed does not address specific scientific data that can influence our interpretation of Genesis 1, it does make the two following points:

  • That some Evangelical scientists such as Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller have found ways to incorporate Darwin’s insights into their Christian faiths.
  • They question any interpretations of Genesis that Creation was recent.

These points obviously became the catalyst that motivated the AR article referenced above, and regardless of where the reader’s sympathies reside on these two points Kellner takes sweeping liberties with the conclusions suggested by the op-ed when he makes the follow statement:

If the Bible account of Creation isn’t true, as Giberson and Stephens imply in offering to ‘incorporate’ Darwinism in Christian faith, what must logically follow? If there’s no Creation . . .

• Where, and how, did sin enter the world?
• Why do we need a Savior?
• From what did God, if He even exists, rest?
• Why should we rest if, absent Creation, there’s nothing from which God rested?
• How can we believe anything else in the Bible?

Really? Does the op-ed piece really force such questions? Where does it conclude “no Creation?” More generally is there no middle ground? Must our choice be only between a literal reading of Genesis on the one hand, or conclusions that there was “no Creation?” The reader, of course, is offered no broader discussion of the range of middle options, where, Kellner fails to acknoledge, most Christians actually rest their faith.

Mark Kellner, the author of this piece is a friend of mine whom I have known for a number of years. We have dined together, and Mark and his wonderful wife have been guests in our home. For that reason alone I am sorry I find it necessary to speak up publicly on this matter for it certainly is not intended as a personal affront.

My main motive for this article is to speak to the damage I see being done by the AR for the ongoing credibility of Adventism in the broader world. For the past few years now I have witnessed a shrinking commitment to Christian charity, serious scholarship, and careful conclusions in its articles, particularly those intersecting faith and science—instead we find a steady stream of words:

  • That incite division rather than unity, sometimes through taunts and name-calling
  • That presents false either/or dilemmas
  • That fail to offer an honest or comprehensive discussion of the issues informed by good scholarship

Unfortunately, the AR has been co-opted by a few in General Conference leadership bent on focusing the energy of the Church on a few divisive issues.

As seekers of truth we may need to admit that we do not have an answer for how we fit the traditional Adventist views of Genesis, over against a very sizeable amount of scientific data that seems to be saying something else on a number of points. Consequently many of us live with ambiguity. Others have turned to dogmatism—and incidentally it can come from either end of the spectrum.

There may be a temptation for editors of a flagship paper representing an ecclesiastical body to present definitive answers to complex issues, but what the leaders of the AR really owe its readers is a full discussion of the data. And humility on these matters—not hubris.

A few days ago I contacted Mark Kellner on another public forum and reacted to his article by proposing the need for humility on Genesis related questions. His response:

Either one accepts the Word of God as being true, or one does not. Data, as you very well know, can be (and is) manipulated to support any number of ends. The Word is the Word, and either it’s true or it’s false.

Yet none of this acknowledges that Scripture is also subject to interpretation and manipulation, and I am still searching for the humility in that response.

Let me close by stating that navigating epistemology demands humility of all of us. As genuine knowledge and understanding emerges from the shadows of opinion and belief, it frequently offers up surprises. Beyond the Word on the page, exists the Living Word, and the history of humanity is one in which either/or dogmatism gives way to transcending truths. For beyond any interpretation, the weight of evidence has a long history of getting the last word.

Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.

Image: Nicola Guida, Objects in rear view mirror may appear closer than they are, 2011.

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