To give a homogeneous and definitive profile of Euro-Adventism is risky and may be even unnecessary. We never get to exhaustively know the people we live with, but notwithstanding we can eventually affirm we may know them truly. The same principle can be applied here to Euro-Adventism. I would like to characterize it with three theological traits that can be variously present in the different European countries.
First, Euro-Adventism works with a particular hermeneutics which presupposes that access to Biblical meaning is not immediate. While mainline Adventism tends to affirm that religious meaning is already there, safely kept in the bible, ready to be picked up in order to be rigorously applied, Euro-Adventism implicitly believes that “interpretation” is necessary and inevitable before understanding and even more before any ethical application. Second, Euro-Adventism is structurally more existentially oriented than mainline Adventism. While this is more attentive to the objectivity of the doctrine, principle or commandment and tries coherently to submit the believer’s existence to these, Euro-Adventism tends instead to proceed the other way around. It reads the relevance of doctrines or rules only in relationship to the real existence of believers. Third, while mainline Adventism tends to have a purist theology of the Christian experience concretized, for instance, in the parallel and exclusivist category of “remnant”, Euro-Adventism is basically ecumenical in the sense of acknowledging spontaneously some religious validity to other Christian communities. Summarizing, while “interpretation”, “existential autonomy” and an “ecumenical spirit” are at least suspected words if not truly heresies for mainline Adventism, for Euro-Adventism they represent some basic concepts of everyday Christian living.
To these three theological characteristics I would like to add three sociological ones already mentioned in a previous column. Euro-Adventism tends to be, sociologically speaking, rationalistic, individualistic and anti-authoritarian. We don’t have here the space to correlate these sociological traits to the above theological ones. It’s enough to say that this particular kind of minority Adventism in the world is not only legitimate but also important. And it is not the by-product of some particular heretical group, theologian or strategy. It doesn’t need to be corrected or converted. At least no more than the American, African or Latin-American Adventism. It just happens to be so. And to my view it represents a blessing and richness for the global Adventist church.
Is this particular and interesting theological and religious profile definitive? No. It needs to be re-elaborated in face of the actual needs coming from within the community and the challenges from the outside reality. If there is one structural sin Europe – and European Adventism – has had in the past and still has today it may be the so-called Euro-centrism. And here the challenge is paradoxical because Euro-Adventism is called to maintain a tension. On one side it needs to defend the possibility to have its own version of Adventism. But on the other side it needs to overcome the temptation to be Eurocentric and narcissistically entrapped in itself. For this reason it appears to me that the main challenge of Euro-Adventism today is not to keep safe the various theological or sociological idiosyncratic traits of its unique profile but rather to work them out in dialogue with other theological projects and profiles. Euro-Adventism, as much as Europe itself, needs to learn to be and to become really dialogical – i.e. to re-elaborate its identity in the face of people and circumstances other than its own. Is that possible? I think it is. This is at least the hope, the dream and the mission of the European Adventist institution I work in – “Villa Aurora”. What does it mean then for Euro-Adventism today to learn to be dialogical? It means to articulate a specific, structural and continuous dialogue at three levels.
First, a dialogue within the Adventists in Europe itself. “Euro-Adventism” and “Adventism in Europe” are not synonyms. Euro-Adventism is this particular Adventism, positively contaminated by the European socio-cultural ethos, that we are trying to reflect upon in this series. Beside this Adventism there are other Adventisms, also European, that are less or not at all sensitive or contaminated by this socio-cultural ethos. The first task of Euro-Adventism is to acknowledge this irrefutable fact. These various Adventisms present in Europe need to learn to interact, dialogue and confront each other with respect – critically, but also with generosity. Historically, Adventism in Europe has always been heterogeneous. Europe itself is irreversibly heterogeneous not only ethnically or linguistically, but also culturally. This is what Milan Kundera tries to remind all those who tend to describe European culture as too monolithic. The typical rationalistic and analytic European soul, amenable to Descartes, is a distinctive cultural trait Europe has disseminated in the world, but it is not the unique soul present in Europe. The other European synchronic soul (after Alain Finkielkraut, comments Kundera) is more than “Romanticism”, it is the anti-rationalistic, anti-synthetic, anti-reductive and somehow mystical spirit present in the European narrative tradition. It is amenable to the first modern European narrative of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote of La Mancha”. So Descartes’ “Cogito” and Cervantes’ “Quixote” go together and cannot be separated.
The same diagnosis can be applied to Adventism in Europe. So, the first dialogue Euro-Adventism needs to start immediately, not only for the benefit of Adventism in Europe but also for its own best survival, is this dialogue from within. Lately, this European heterogeneity has increased with the arrival of Adventist immigrants who paradoxically represent a resource but also a risk for the survival of Euro-Adventism. These Adventisms in Europe can be polarized and described as being progressive or conservative, from North or South, reflecting the German spirit or the Latin one etc. All these labels are partially true but are surely over-emphasized. The difference that, to my view, is more useful to underline and understand is the following. While these various Adventisms present in Europe tend to consider Adventism only as a resource or as the solution, Euro-Adventism tends instead to have a paradoxical view of Adventism, considering it also as part of the problem. It can help but also destroy. This critical approach to religion in general is not new. It goes back to the 17th century, to the “War of Religions” and the aftermath of the Westphalian peace treaty.
Second, a dialogue with the other Adventisms in the world. Reasons valid for a dialogue within Adventism in Europe are also valid here. But, in addition, Euro-Adventism needs to combine two difficult new attitudes. On one side it needs to be “theologically sober” about its own profile and on the other side “theological emphatic” to other Adventisms’ theological pretentions. In order to achieve this Euro-Adventism needs to interact directly with these imported non-European Adventisms and not with the image it has of them. These images are often reductive and full of prejudices. According to such images non-European Adventists are conservatives, sectarian, prosaic and apocalyptic. And particularly this interaction needs to be done at various differentiated levels, not only on a theological or administrative level that Euro-Adventism usually uses to interact and to assess other Adventisms because they represent and correspond to its own particular forces. And, more than with North-American Adventism, Euro-Adventism needs to dialogue with what might be termed the “Adventism of the Future” – the Adventism from the South Hemisphere. This Adventism from the south is not reducible to a transient and exotic social, ethnic or evangelistic phenomena. They have a theological agenda even though implicit and often rawly expressed. This southern Adventism has a different theological and sociological matrix Euro-Adventism must not banalize and dismiss too quickly. Especially because they roughly already represent 90 % of today’s Adventism.
Third, an honest and open dialogue with European society. While the two previous dialogues are difficult but still possible, this one appears impossible. This fact is somewhat in consequence of the chronic theological anomaly Adventism has in its genes, Euro-Adventism included, even though in a lesser degree. According to this deep Adventist assumption, religious faith experience, individually and collectively, has an auto-generative character through Revelation and can’t be a relational and social generated phenomena. At best Adventism accepts the relevance of society as a secondary phenomenon. As the necessary space wherein one might amplify the meaning of faith but not as the initial component of faith itself. With such an epistemological presupposition it is no wonder that the dialogue between Adventism and Society not only doesn’t exist but isn’t even desired. Adventism’s communitarian life, evangelistic initiatives, educational programs and pastoral training are heavily conditioned by this simplistic and myopic theological conviction. Euro-Adventism and Adventism in Europe need to listen to, and dialogue continuously with, European society – not only to evangelize it better but also to understand ourselves better. Adventist society is historically insular – the way we dress, eat, think, feel, pray and sing. We try not to be influenced or contaminated by surrounding society. But fundamentally, we are still part of this European society. And, in carefully observing today’s European society, we can’t avoid being also ecumenical, lay and political. Ecumenical, because we are not the sole Christian community trying to follow Jesus and have a mission. Beyond mere acknowledgment of other Christian communities, we need also to recognize they have a particular mission. Lay, because on one side there are noble and meaningful human and spiritual initiatives outside the church we can learn from, enriching without losing our own identity. Additionally, because not all religious initiatives, included ours, always edify and help. Sometimes they just provoke too many spiritual collateral effects. Political, because we don’t live in a divided reality. The various differentiations, spiritual/material or ecclesiastical/existential, are just technical and functional, not ontological. Taking care of the common good has become today an inevitable priority in Europe.
Is this compatible with the intuitions and funding perspectives of Adventism and the Bible? Yes, I think it is. And the only way to assess the validity of this is by becoming more dialogical and experimental at these three levels, not by merely being uniquely an affirming community.
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.