As much, perhaps, as any Adventist theologian, Daryll Ward brings about the marriage of hospitality and honest conversation. Nearly every Sabbath afternoon at his and his wife Adele Waller’s home near Dayton, Ohio, guests gather around a food-laden table for hours of rejuvenating talk. The focus may be faith or politics or popular culture or how to cut down a tree without bisecting your house. Buckley, the year-old Labrador Retriever, and not one to miss out on such pleasure, gnaws on a bone at somebody’s feet.
Guests often include members of the Sabbath School class Daryll and Adele help to lead at the Kettering Adventist Church. Church life matters to them. They work to enrich it, and it gives them great joy.
Ward teaches at Kettering College, where he has been for 12 years. He received a “superb education” at Andrews University, Tübingen University and the University of Chicago, from which he earned a doctorate.
He was a clinician and manager in the field of addiction treatment for 12 years, and also spent 12 years as a business ethics consultant to large corporations. In the latter role he traveled widely and deepened the considerable awareness about business and economics that he marshals against all political proposals (mostly liberal) that he considers misguided or over-simple.
Along the way he had the “great privilege” of pastoring, on the side, the Burr Ridge, Illinois Seventh-day Adventist Church. He led the congregation for 13 years.
Ward’s scholarship tends toward the daunting. He recently presented a paper at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion entitled, “Limning the Ambiguities of the Self: Reading Peter Grove on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Philosophy of Religion.” At the last meeting of the Society of Adventist Philosophers he presented “Communion with Difference: Reflections on Essentialism and Justice.”
Here is his take on being thoughtful and Adventist at the same time:
You are a lifelong Adventist who respects science and disagrees with highly conservative (inerrantist-leaning) understandings of the Bible. You say, in an article on the website this week, that the Gospel is “the best and sweetest thing” you’ve ever heard, and your friends know you as a reliable and passionate Adventist. Some Adventists would be puzzled at how you hold these two things together. How do you?
Ultimately it is very simple. First, all facts are coherent so acknowledging the facts does not create any logical challenges to coherence for the faith of Seventh-day Adventist Christians, mine included. It is a fact that Jesus is alive. That is the gospel in its very shortest form. No set of facts discerned by observations of nature or by reading the Bible can falsify that assertion. And of course the fact that Christ is alive does not falsify other assertions backed up by observation of nature and study of Scripture. Second, I hold these things together out of a lifetime of confirming Jesus’ own declaration that the truth sets us free. And I must add for the tardy discoverers of fallibility who march under the banner of “post-modernism” that I am more than a little aware of the complexities involved in the word “fact.” What is ultimate truly is simple but the way to apprehending that simplicity with any measure of clarity and adequacy requires all the spiritual and intellectual power we can muster. Humility is the essential virtue required for success in our efforts.
What theologians say or write may seem abstract, theoretical. How do you connect your religious convictions with the actual battle front of human existence, where we confront not only dreams and joys but also disappointments and extreme suffering?
As you know I think it entirely proper for theologians to exert themselves in contemplation of the purest and subtlest of abstractions. I don’t think that sort of theological effort requires “practical” justification. But you ask about my religious convictions and I think the one that applies most significantly to the agony of the world is Paul’s conclusion that because Jesus is alive “your labor is not in vain.” As you note, the world is full of extreme suffering but any labor however inadequate to relieve that suffering is not in vain. We can all make a difference and the difference is desperately needed.
You teach and love the Bible. At the same time, you are well acquainted with Western philosophy and with the growing number (as it seems) of faith’s detractors. What do you think the Bible, at its most basic level, is about, and why do you think the biblical vision can stand up to all the criticism that is leveled against it?
It seems to me the Bible is most accurately understood as a collection of witnesses to God’s engagement with human beings. We are, as Hebrews says, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. So the Bible is all about God and the God to whom it testifies is actively engaged with us principally and normatively in Jesus. I think the Bible stands up to criticism because God has been and actually is engaged with human beings so that rigorous examination of the witnesses confirms the truth of their testimony. That examination also reveals ways in which their witness is defective. But the essential insight for faithful reading of the Bible is that it is not about itself and it is not about the people witnessing to the truth. It is about God. Better, it is about the love of God.
One reason you are Adventist is that your parents — your father was a pastor — loved you into a lifelong religious commitment. But for well-read Adventists, membership is certainly not a simple matter. Thoughtful people agree, for example, that our church is facing an identity crisis, a crisis concerning who we are and what our role should be. Anxieties about our eschatology and our relationship to scientific knowledge certainly contribute to this. Where do you think discussion of these matters should take us?
My deepest desire concerning our discussion is that we as a community might discover that our intellectual options are not limited to selection from an already existing menu of solutions to theological problems. The best way for faith to increase understanding has yet to be articulated. It is not necessary for us to repeat the sorry tale of conflict and ultimately alienation between Christians that has played out in so many other denominations. It saddens me to see the forces at work driving us in such a direction. The better we do at thinking, the easier it will be for us to understand one another and our faith, and the clearer it will be that faith and learning can flourish together.