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Cracks in Adventist Fundamentalism: A Report on the Spiritual Renaissance Retreat


For the nineteenth straight year, as December was giving way to January, the Spiritual Renaissance Retreat brought 140 or so Adventists to Monterrey on the central California coast. Every attendee heard critiques of conventional Adventism and calls for new and more biblically faithful vision for the future.

Event founders John and Joan Hughson, one an administrative pastor in Angwin, CA, and the other a nurse educator, have organized the two-and-one-half day retreat from its inception. The speakers they recruited this year addressed largely older Adventists, many of them medical professionals, some ministers, only a few affiliated with any college or university. The highlights, and the enthusiastic response of retreat participants, suggest that even outside of Adventist academia, the fundamentalist foundations are cracking.

Consider points made in the several plenary and breakout sessions of the Retreat:

A local conference president, Jim Pedersen of Northern California, offered a vision and unity within diversity that allowed room for substantial differences and affirmed without hint of apology the actions taken by the Pacific Union (to which his Conference belongs) concerning the ordination of women.

Stanley Patterson, of the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary at Andrews University, gave a critique of the sort of administrative abuses Ellen White denounced as “kingly power.” Drawing from Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, both prophetic reflections on Lucifer’s rebellion, Patterson argued that the language of sin is that of aspiration to dominance. He applied the point to both current and older expressions, in Adventism, of authoritarian, or top-down, approaches to power.  These always conflict, he argued, with the leadership vision given both in the Bible and in the writings of Ellen White.

Charles White, an Arizona pastor and a descendent of Ellen White, offered inside-the-family stories that amounted to an appreciative, humanizing perspective on her life and ministry.

George Saxon, a physicist from Texas, showed how principles from the consensus among physical scientists lengthens out, relative to conventional Adventist understanding, both the age of the earth and of life itself on the earth. 

In a Sabbath morning sermon for all attendees, Raewyn Hankins, a young senior pastor in Southern California and one of the Pacific Union’s newly ordained women pastors, applied her exegesis of Joel and Acts to the church’s current controversy concerning ordination and gender equality. Doubting that upper-echelon Adventist leaders imagined where their call to “Revival and Reformation” would take the church so quickly, she suggested that God’s promise to pour out the Spirit upon “all flesh” finds fulfillment in recent decisions by several union conferences to ordain women despite explicit opposition from General Conference leaders.  In support of what has happened, she noted that in the book of Acts Peter was baptizing Gentiles before early Christians agreed (at the Jerusalem Conference) on Gentile participation in church life: he was affirming the Spirit’s creative work before unity of opinion was achieved.

Rebekah Wang Scriven, a physician from Kettering, Ohio, presented, in both words and video, her experience, during a reporting trip sponsored by the Versacare Foundation and Spectrum, with ordained women pastors in China. She noted their remarkable success in leadership of congregations large and small, as well as the persisting unwillingness of General Conference leaders even to acknowledge, in public communication, that ordained women are playing a crucial role in China.

At a plenary session on Sunday morning, a panel of seven, including several of the speakers as well as Roy Benton, a philosopher-mathematician, and Cynthia Westerbeck, a professor of literature, addressed the topic of “Witness in a Time of Relativism.” Panelists agreed that postmodern attentiveness to uncertainty and limitation in human knowledge is, in part, an expression of generosity and tolerance, an acknowledgment that people who are different deserve to be respected. But they also agreed that extreme relativism—the view that no one should pass judgment on another person or another culture—falls catastrophically short. It rejects the widely perceived difference between the excellent and the shoddy, the admirable and the obscene, and thus debases humanity. Panelists agreed finally that in a time of relativism witness focused on words, or doctrinal “propositions,” is bound to fail; religious words matter, but have little purchase on today’s imagination except as they correspond to a lived faith that is both authentic and compelling.

If fundamentalism reduces faith to beliefs, resists challenging evidence from science and makes a claim to exclusive grasp of truth, then the spirit of the conference was plainly anti-fundamentalist. It was clear from audience comments and between-session conversation that Retreat participants were substantially at home with perspectives shared by the speakers. 

The remarkable string of nineteen consecutive Spiritual Renaissance Retreats, which involve music and entertainment as well as seminars, will end next year. John and Joan Hughson have announced that the twentieth Retreat will be the last one. Information about the retreat, which will take place on December 27-30, 2013, may be obtained from Hughson at (

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