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The Closing of the Adventist Mind

In Allan Bloom’s seminal work The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987, professor Bloom argued that American youth were in danger of passing by their collective destiny because, pressured by a number of factors which he described at length, they were fast losing the ability to think for themselves; that is if they had not lost it already. Almost overnight the book became a best seller and Bloom’s work was acclaimed by many and soundly criticized by many as well. This post is not about assessing the merit of the book or the lack thereof. However, revisiting it some twenty-five later has created some uncomfortable trepidation as I look at what is happening within my beloved church. I observe clear signs of something similar to the closing of the Adventist mind occurring within our ranks.

Drawing from his knowledge of philosophy, sociology and politics, Bloom paints with precise strokes the historical development of thinking. He postulates that over the centuries the development of thinking experienced ups and downs depending on the social, political and religious climes. The frightening thing, he argues, is that the present landscape in the realm of thinking is as dry and as barren and unproductive as a desert.He ascribes this state of affairs to the failure of Universities because of their capitulation to the prevailing culture. The consequence, he suggests is that Americans do not read.

As an observer of this phenomenon over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the general trend in our church leans more toward the closing of the mind than toward taking the risk of openness. It has been my experience that Adventist leadership does not deal well with thoughtful members who disagree with an official position or issue of concern to the church. In actual fact, intentionally or not, much effort is put into making sure that the church as a whole accepts whatever the leadership determines is valid. I am reminded of a Union President who would simply stand, when he wanted an idea of his to be voted, at which point no member of the Union Committee would oppose him, even if the idea had clearly been shown not to be wise during the preceding discussion.

Whenever a threat to officialdom is perceived, the members of the inner sanctum tend to form a defensive circle that is ready to take on the “enemy”, sometimes willing to use means that will maim intellectually and emotionally if not physically and will attack reputations. This has produced an ethos of silence, which effectively prevents church employees or members from expressing their true opinions about issues. It has also produced a kind of intolerant conservatism in some sectors that feels free to judge, criticise, and often vilify anyone who does not follow the party line on the following topics, for example:

  • Glacier View
  • the demonising of La Sierra
  • homosexuality
  • women’s ordination.

In a subtle manner the church leadership is closing the Adventist mind by what it publishes and more to the point, by what it refuses to publish.  Our publishing houses have for decades been mostly printing books that deal with doctrinal issues and precious little else.  The titles and format vary but the content remains similar. An Adventist scholar friend of mine shared that many of his peers are wary of publishing their research for fear of being labelled. For instance there was quite an outcry when Dr. Alden Thompson’s book Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers came off the press.  The book was original, refreshing & stimulating, opening the Adventist mind to new concepts.

In contrast, the French Catholic intelligentsia recently organised a symposium in Paris that was designed to deal with present day problems that confront the world.  My brother who lives and works in that city attended and was astounded at the number of scholarly papers presented under the title “What does the church have to say?  They dealt with and suggested morally-based solutions to world-wide crises such as the present financial crunch, the AIDS pandemic in Africa, the wars of liberation, the unequal distribution of wealth, climate change, social issues, all of which have a direct bearing on the lives of millions of people.

If and when some Adventist authors venture to write on these same issues they invariably take the “fulfilment of prophecy” approach, which in the end suggests no solutions for the here and now. I would suggest that many Seventh-day Adventist members would not be able to give a well-thought out opinion about these questions except to say that they were signs of the end time. This indicates the paucity of our thinking.
Furthermore our church periodicals will rarely publish articles that go counter to the official stand on issues.

The Sabbath School quarterly is another publication that has had a closing of the mind effect. The long-standing format (questions, Bible texts, EGW quotes) excludes the possibility of intelligent conversation. No appeal is made to engage the intellect and certainly no room is provided for the sharing of alternative opinions. Sitting in and observing the dynamics of a typical Sabbath School class easily verifies this. The general attitude is mostly quiet acquiescence.  The same assessment can be made about the multitude of Bible study guides. The proof texts and short notes format indoctrinate, but do not teach the student to think and evaluate.

Generally speaking, Seventh-day Adventists seemingly choose to live in a cultural vacuum. Relatively few show any interest in literature, the art in its different forms of expression or social issues. This is not to say that the members are uneducated, they simply interpret the concept of the remnant that they are not of this world to mean that everything the world has to offer must systematically be shunned. I remember the horrified reaction of some American students who had come to Collonges Adventist Seminary to study French when they found out that they would have to get acquainted with the works of Voltaire and Sartres among other authors. One conference president I worked with did not find it ridiculous to say that he never read the papers or listened to the news because he filled his time with more serious things.  I believe that Adventists have pushed too far the concept of “This world is not my own, I am just passing through,” resulting in an impoverishment of the mind that is deplorable. Writing about Enoch Ellen White says that

Enoch’s walk with God was not in a trance or a vision, but in all the duties of his daily life.  He did not become a hermit shutting himself entirely from the world, for he had a work to do for God in the world. Enoch was a man of strong and highly cultivated mind and extensive knowledge, he was honoured with special revelation from God.

I would contend that it is almost impossible to connect with people and witness to them unless we can relate on a cultural and intellectual level in ways that are awaret of their life experiences. When the time came to carry the gospel beyond the shores of Palestine God chose Paul over Peter and the others because of his openness and in-depth knowledge of the Hellenistic world.

When you turn away from open, free, rational thinking, impoverishment of the mind follows.  Lately, I have been hearing statements to the effect that Seventh-day Adventists have nothing to learn from anyone else; that we should not read anything not published by the official church press.  This smacks of Middle Ages Catholicism.  Where would Protestantism be if the Reformers had not dared to think out side of the box?  Where would Western Civilisation be if it were not for the Age of Enlightment, in spite of its flaws?  Islam reverted to a dark-age mentality because its spiritual leaders at one point decided to do away with the brilliant thinking and achievement of their scholars who shone during its golden age.  Whenever leaders refer to some special revelation from God to push their personal agenda on the church, the result is always a closing of the mind of the many who blindly follow and a gradual but steady turning away of those who value an open mind and freedom of expression.  Indeed, nothing is left open to examination, debate and assessment when, for example, a leader talking about the direction that the church should follow makes a statement like “God has placed this burden upon my heart and I will not stop until He Himself removes it.”  The result, intended or not, is always the death of intelligent conversation.  Indeed, who would dare discuss a “thus says the Lord?” 

Maybe a sign of hope is the recently born Society of Adventist Philosophers. Philosophy by its very nature and quest calls for the openness of the mind.  My fear is that on learning of their existence certain quarters will begin to pressure the powers that be to curtail their activities.

The Lord gave us a brain that is able to evaluate and judge and make choices. This is a sacred endowment. Any action or word that potentially can close the minds of people is a direct affront to God because the one thing that human beings have that gives them access to the divine is their minds.  Ellen White puts it like this…

“Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do”(Ellen G. White, Education, p. 17).

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