Have you ever contemplated stepping away from church? I have. Beyond that, I have even been invited to leave by remote acquaintances in online exchanges and through the pages of the Adventist Review. So, why am I both inclined and invited to leave?
Well, I am far from perfect; but, the issue at hand is not gross immorality, sexual indiscretion, substance addiction, or some other cherished sinful behavior. I am far too introverted, in love with my wife, busy with kids, and lead a much too conservative lifestyle to bother with any of that. Rather, the reason for concern is more intangible. I think differently.
While the majority of Seventh-day Adventists believe that the earth or at least life on earth was created by God through a divine push of supernatural power within the last 6-10 thousand years, I think God is lovingly calling life forward into the future allowing freedom within the constraints of natural processes which have been operating over the 13.8 billion year existence of the universe. Most Seventh-day Adventists hold that any type of same-sex sexual activity is a sin. I find that sexual intimacy in a loving, monogamous, same-sex relationship does not necessarily violate the biblical proscriptions against lust, domination, coercion, or any of the other 50 shades of damaging sexual activity. Many Seventh-day Adventists understand that the explicit or implied male headship model found throughout the biblical texts precludes the possibility of women as leaders in the church. I see the full inclusion of women in all areas of the church as a faithful expression of the principles progressively applied throughout the biblical narrative.
But, these divisive topics which we argue ad nauseam are merely symptoms of much deeper differences in our understanding of inspiration, interpretation of sacred texts, and location of authority. Some have described these differences as the religious response to a philosophical shift from enlightenment-inspired, foundational, modern thinking to a post-foundational, postmodern perspective. Others explain that massive sociopolitical, technological, and scientific revolutions necessitate a rethinking of authority and a reformation of faith. But, no matter the reasons or descriptions for this shift, religious institutions as repositories of shared traditions tend to resist it. On the other hand, spirituality which follows the Spirit where it will beyond institutional borders has flourished in the diminishing hegemony of modern rationalism. This has led many to proclaim that they are spiritual but not religious which may in fact be true; but, unfortunately is like claiming to be a linguist without speaking a language.
Given that we must speak a language to communicate, flourish within familiar contexts, and express ourselves best through the cultural institutions we know, Seventh-day Adventists such as myself who find ourselves on the bleeding edge of postmodernity have generally not felt the need to sever faith connections over differences in thinking. Rather, we appreciate the way religion can re-connect diverse perspectives into a unified whole. Further, we even seek to re-articulate our familiar Adventism by digging deep into our own religious denomination to discover the underlying aquifer which connects and nourishes all traditions.
Mining the depths of Adventism has revealed a new found emphasis on the centrality of Jesus’s love to our practices and beliefs; an inclusive vision of who is called to serve in the church; a deeper appreciation for the continuity, blessing, and social justice of the sabbath; a desire to care for God’s ongoing creation; a more profound and scientifically appealing sense of the holistic nature of human beings; an empathetic understanding of the need for intimate relationships regardless of one’s orientation; a humble and inclusive emphasis on what it means to be God’s remnant; gratitude for our denomination’s birth in brokenness which inspires authentic empathy for all other broken religions; and hope for a more immediate experience of the always coming Kingdom of God.
Excavating these ideas in a Seventh-day Adventist context yields insights not possible from any other perspective. These progressive insights are most faithful to our Adventist pioneers in doing what they did rather than believing what they believed. An emphasis on orthopraxy is inconceivable and exasperating to orthodox believers and the result is inevitable conflicts which have flared up into current hot button issues.
Understanding the reality of these issues and the underlying reasons, what advice would you offer? Is there a way for us to maintain unity amidst diversity? Can we appreciate the need for a variety of stories within Adventism? Or, should those who think differently leave the Adventist church? Which side leaves, the majority emphasizing believing what the pioneers believed or the minority seeking to practice what the pioneers did? Inviting those with different opinions on these issues to go find or found another community may achieve more comfortable uniformity; but, at what cost?
Surveys focusing on the millennial generation indicate that the most common reason for young people to leave faith communities is that they are perceived as anti-science and anti-gay. Pushing one another out of the church over these surface issues only further alienates young Adventists. This excludes them from the joy of discovering new insights and deeper spirituality within their own tradition.
But, not only are those who are pushed out of Seventh-day Adventism at a loss for the opportunity to dig deep in their own context. The entire community also loses the vital tension that diversity brings. Without the conservative ballast or the liberal sail, the communal Adventist ship will either overturn or slow into stillness. Only by working together are the traditional bridge and the progressive tuning peg prepared to hold the string in tension so that the stillness can be filled with beautiful music.
Brenton Reading is a pediatric interventional radiologist practicing at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, and a member of the Spectrum / Adventist Forum Board.