European Adventism with all its diversity and irreducible heterogeneity represents today a particular and unique kind of Adventism in the world church. According to some this is an atypical and weak type of Adventism, numerically and theologically. Numerically because, compared with non-western or even with other western SDA Divisions, European Adventist membership appears as a small and negligible reality that keeps decreasing. The two European divisions, TED and EUD, have together less members (250,000 Adventists) in comparison to the Adventist membership in a medium size Latino-American country like Peru (400,000 Adventists). Theologically the situation would be even worse. Mainline world Adventism might be seen as dynamic, mission oriented, spiritually engaged, eschatologically coherent and even anthropologically devoted and authentic. Conversely, European Adventism would be a religiously condensed form of theological unreliability and socio-ecclesiastic disengagement. Thus European Adventism can be at best tolerated, and at worst necessarily changed and radically transformed. This presumably noble goal for the salvation of European Adventism has become the mission of all kinds of mystic, enthusiastic and erratic itinerant preachers and Gurus – un-official and official – who take advantage of normal spiritual-theological uncertainty of the Euro-Adventist soul to gain an audience. This fact wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in a religious free-market of proposals and strategies to foster religious renewal. It becomes a problem when European SDA leaders themselves shortsightedly choose it as the strategy for renewing the church and trying to prevent presumably inevitable spiritual agony.
These convictions and strategies are rooted in a naïve assumption – the necessity of social and religious homogeneity within a single faith community. But history, as well as the Bible itself, broadly teaches that there is not just one way of being a believer. And, in this sense, there is today no one universal Adventism, culturally neutral and valid everywhere. There are rather various Adventisms, complementary, coexisting, but also irreducibly in tension with each other. European Adventism legitimately represents one of them. While in the past we may have felt more comfortable among Adventists no matter the nationality, today many feel more comfortable with persons of their own geographical and cultural area, more than their religious convictions and affiliation. This is not necessarily a loss. It could be a tremendous opportunity to fashion an Adventism in relationship and dialogue with a more concrete socio-cultural expression of the Christian faith. To be a believer, individually or as a group, would depend more on the faith ingredients in combination with a specific context rather than to their intrinsic absolute value. In other words the truthfulness of European Adventism paradoxically need not be bound to the defense of an “authentic” Adventism but rather a “culturally contaminated” Adventism. Contaminated with the European reality and challenges.
European Adventism presently doesn’t represent a mainline Adventism. It’s a minority Adventism and I postulate that it will never become the majority perspective in the world Adventist family. But must a minority Adventism necessarily be non-Adventism? I don’t think so. And while European Adventism is not perfect the imperfection is not necessarily where SDA leaders usually think it is. It resides more in not being what it is “called to be”, i.e. fully European rather than force-fitting models and strategies foreign to its own historical profile. European Adventism represents a real treasure that the world church should preserve with care and promote with trust and vision for the benefit and theological balance of Adventism in general. European Adventists should stop feeling ashamed of their specific Adventism and should resist the temptation to apply reductive, pragmatic and manipulative religious and evangelistic strategies which might work elsewhere but if applied here constitute an abandonment and denial of its soul. This doesn’t mandate closure to other Adventist initiatives in the world. There should be continuous and honest dialogue with them. Nonetheless Euro-Adventism must, in the end, accept the challenge to build up its own mandate and approach.
European Adventism has three significant characteristics: theological disenchantment, religious individualism and suspicion toward institutions. The various other traits, specificities, trends or accents are linkable to one of these three. All three sound very negative, not only for external missionary work but also for the church community life. But they are not as negative and detrimental as they might first appear. Their opposite: theological obsessions, religious populisms and institutional arbitrariness, have and can still cause more damage than we might imagine. And, in building its identity, European Adventism is not necessarily as reactive, confrontational or elitist in its affirmation as other geographical Adventisms (e.g. California, Australia) might be. Such traits are almost always culturally rooted and above all are pervasive – even within the more conservative circles. But these Adventist pluralities are at risk of disappearing and that would be an irreversible loss for the church in general. Also, these three characteristics are distinctive of European culture in general (R. Bellah), from the Enlightenment up to the hyper-modernism of today (A. Giddens). This suggests an inevitable mutual influence between Religion and Society, between Adventism and Europe. Every inculturation process is more implicit than intentional, and beyond the control of institutional strategy and planning.
The risk of losing religious and theological uniqueness is what I call the “De-Europeanization of European Adventism”. And I would like to consider briefly three mechanisms through which this occurs. First is “Demographic Change”. This is a process that has been going on for twenty to fifty years, depending on the country. One need only visit the Adventist communities of Paris, London, Oslo, Madrid or Milan to immediately recognize the tremendous ethnic change. The majority of Adventists in Europe have become non-western in origin. While this process is present in other geographical areas in Europe it is more dramatic in the major metropolitan areas due to the reduced number of native Europeans resident there. This demographic change is, in one way, enormously positive because it has literally saved some churches from dying. But it is a double-edged sword because many Adventist communities that now praise, preach and live in Florence, Strasbourg or Amsterdam do so as if they were in Lima, Kinshasa or Accra. They live their faith without considering at all the religious needs of a healthy and positive European inculturation.
Second is the “Administrative change”. The demographic change eventually begets the corresponding administrative power shift. Non-European Adventist communities don’t want to remain voiceless. And they pretend to exercise power and be determinant in addressing the various problems Euro-Adventism is facing. But without Euro-centric sensibilities. In some countries administrative change has not yet occurred. In Italy for instance more than fifty per cent of the Adventists are not ethnically Italian but the administrative leadership is still one hundred per cent Italian. The problem is not whether an African or Latin-American pastor becomes president of the French or Italian Adventist Union. That’s not only possible, it could be desirable. Under one condition – that they behave as Europeans. The paradoxical risk would be to have European leaders, even with names like Rossi, Dupont, Smith or Schumacher but who think and act as Brazilian, African or Peruvian – giving up completely the necessarily European vocation Adventism should have in Europe.
Third, the “theological change”. The diffuse and irreversible demographic change has not only initiated a parallel administrative shift but consequentially moves to drastically reorient the theological European Adventist paradigm into the mainline Adventist one. After this the European specificities will no longer matter. They could even be potentially dangerous and deviant. What matters then is to align oneself to the standard, trans-cultural Adventist model. The vast majority of non-European Adventists living in Europe want to be theologically heard and have espoused a crusade to liberate European Adventism of ecumenism, theological curiosity, religious experimentation or cultural sensibility and friendliness. This militant homogenous Adventism is contagious and spreads itself not only among non-Europeans but also among Europeans themselves, which paradoxically induces ethnic Europeans to be propagators of this non-European Adventism. Can we passively acquiesce to this depletion and religious impoverishing of Euro-Adventism? I don’t think so. But the strategy of resistance must not be reactive, but positive and creative. That is what we will try to do in the next number of the series “European Holzwege”.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.