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The Ear: Theologian at Work 3


James Londis served substantial periods as religion teacher (at Atlantic Union College), pastor-preacher (at the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church near Washington, D.C.), and health-care administrator (both in Boston and in Kettering, Ohio).  Most recently he returned to teaching at Kettering College, from which he retired this past spring.

His book Faith-Based Caregiving in the Modern World: Four Defining Issues came out 2010, and continues to be used in education for healthcare leaders and as a text for college courses.  He wrote God’s Finger Wrote Freedom, a study of the Ten Commandments, in the 1970s.  He published twice in scholarly journals and numerous times in Adventist publications, including Spectrum.

Londis earned a Ph.D., in philosophy, from Boston University.  Earlier, he majored in religion and English at Atlantic Union College.  “Looking back,” he says, “I find it hard to believe that I have lived so fulfilling a life in God’s service.”

Question: What theologians say or write may seem abstract, theoretical.  How do you connect your work with the actual battle front of human existence, where we confront not only dreams and joys but also disappointments and extreme suffering?

Answer: Because of the vast material to be learned, graduate theological education requires mastery of a relatively abstract discourse. Such discourse is for the sake of efficiency.  A phrase like “divine providence” carries thousands of years of history behind it if one has studied its development.  Even in science, the phrase “quantum mechanics” very efficiently summarizes a complex physical theory whole books have attempted to clarify. 

Theologians are servants of the church.  We are called to coach believers in how to think through God’s relation to the challenges of human existence without resorting to classroom abstractions.  Individuals suffer and agonize over wrenching ethical dilemmas.  They need more than platitudes and superficial advice.

Question: People expect that as an Adventist Christian you will take Scripture as the highest written authority for your work.   How do you respond when the Bible seems to have various perspectives on a topic—on, say, marriage, the disciplining of wrongdoers, the use of violence or some other matter?  What principle of biblical interpretation helps you make sense of all this, and come up with insight applicable to Christian life today?

Answer: I wish we could say one principle of interpretation solves the challenges we face as contemporary Christians. I have found these approaches helpful:

First, revelation is “progressive.” Jesus asserted an unprecedented authority over Judaism when he declared,   “Moses said to you, but I say to you . . .” It is not that Moses is dismissed, but he is significantly enlarged in a revolutionary way.  As God’s supreme revelation, Jesus insists that he understands the implications of God’s will more profoundly than Moses ever did and he proved it by exposing the superficiality and rigidity of the legal scholars of his time.

Second, God reveals the divine self to us in the way and to the degree we can profit from.  When Jesus said the “stars” would fall from heaven, we should not assume that in his humanity he understood modern astrophysics.  Neither did he need to understand that blindness at birth had a possibly genetic source.  He did know what was spiritually most important:  such blindness is not a divine punishment.  Concepts that made sense to the ancient world were God’s means of disclosing truth to us, especially through narratives.

Last, we must discriminate between “principles” and “cases” in Scripture; or to put it differently, the “ideal” which God desires for us, and the “reality” that often frustrates that ideal.  When we evangelize within a polygamous society, cope with divorces based on physical abuse, or try to grasp what is required (or permissible) in bio-ethical dilemmas, I am convinced that we can—as believers—maintain scriptural authority by interpreting the Bible with these distinctions in mind.

Question: Many church members believe Adventism is dealing with an identity crisis, driven, perhaps, by anxieties concerning our eschatology or our relationship to scientific knowledge.  Those who read widely and otherwise interact with the wider intellectual culture see our church going through intense self-analysis about who we are and what our role is.  Where do you think this discussion ought to take us?

Answer: On the one hand, our eschatology is less important for many because they do not see the “elements” needed to make it happen anytime soon.  Sunday “laws” were once a prominent feature in the religious world; now they are almost never mentioned, to cite just one example.  On the other hand, given the global communications network and the increasing fear of terrorism, climate change and economic collapse, no one should rule out any scenario for the future.  Adventists should engage—to use physician language—in “watchful waiting.”

We should be careful not to use science when it helps us (the mind-body link which undercuts the notion of a separate “soul”) and reject it when it seems to threaten what we believe.  Nature—even nature flawed—is also divine revelation.  I admit it is difficult for the church to engage the challenges presented by modern science, but we have no choice. Adventists must take scientific findings seriously, even when it may seem necessary to meet those findings by rethinking our understandings.

Most needed at present is a concerted effort to include the whole church in this discussion of who we are and what our role should be.  For too long, whether at the seminary, the Biblical Research Committee of the General Conference or even the pastorate, large numbers of loyal Seventh-day Adventists trained and ready to contribute to the discussion have been marginalized or excluded.  This has been detrimental to the church, though those who have not been marginalized would almost certainly disagree.  In their view, they have “saved the church.”

Question: You belong to the Adventist Church; perhaps you were born into a churchmember’s family.  But why do you remain Seventh-day Adventist?  In a conversation with, say, your child or a close friend, what would you offer as the most important reason?

Answer: My Adventism began in my teens and was experienced as a “lifeline” to my future.  The evangelist’s proclamation of the nearness of Christ’s coming (1950’s), the beauty and importance of the Sabbath, and the need to challenge the culture on participating in war, living healthfully, and fighting for religious liberty, inflamed my imagination and that of my close friend, evangelist Ron Halvorsen.  We felt called to the ministry as we emerged from the baptismal waters.  The reasons I just mentioned still remain true for me, though admittedly, they have matured in a number of ways. 

Adventism, I believe, still has a unique role to play in history, though how that will transpire in detail remains to be seen. 

And finally, while I remain an Adventist, I do see one thing differently:  I feel a strong bond with those Adventists who are passionate, thoughtful and open to God’s leading, even into change.  But I feel as well an equally strong connection to those of any faith who exhibit the same virtues, including the clergy.  They too are God’s people with whom I can joyfully fellowship.

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