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Growing Up Adventist: Faith and Science


I am an Adventist amalgamation of my grandfathers.  One was a second-generation Adventist pastor, evangelist, and chaplain.  The other was a convert to Adventism while working as a machinist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory and a lifelong enthusiast of Scientific American.  

As a young child, my proclaimed vocational aspiration was to be a, Preacher-man like Bampaw.”  From him, I learned a love for religion and in particular, Seventh-day Adventism.  His deep baritone sermons inspired hope for a better future.  The last sermon I remember hearing him preach was an impromptu response to a question of what Adventists believe.  Opening with, Seventh-day Adventists follow Jesus example in all things…”  He went on to describe each of our unique beliefs and practices in light of Jesuss teaching and example.  He taught me the Bible stories, helped me follow Jesus through Bible studies, and baptized me into the faith.  He had a wonderful sense of humor declaring ice-cream to be his favorite fruit and loved to laugh until tears rolled down his cheeks.  He lived a life of love, grace, and faithfulness.  He defined Adventism.

But there was a dark side to the religion I learned from him.  The beastly statues in his study haunted my nightmares while warnings of an imminent time of trouble terrorized my waking hours.  Discussions of others often included whether they were in or out of the church reinforcing an us versus them mentality.  Since we had the truth, the worst critiques were reserved for heretics who dared to question the foundations of orthodoxy or express beliefs differing from a conservative interpretation.  He warned of the slippery slope which would entrap heretical questioners of Ellen White, the investigative judgment, and young earth creation into an atheistic abyss.  This was the very slope which claimed the faith of his brother who had also been an Adventist pastor.

In childhood, I called my other grandfather Pop Pop.”  Pop Pop was a heretic.  As a machinist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, he developed an instrument to measure and align massive magnets which enabled them to fine tune what was then the worlds highest energy particle accelerator.  His work there among some of the most brilliant particle physicists of the day inspired a lifelong love for scientific discovery and technology.  With infectious fanaticism for the latest discoveries in string theory, quantum physics, and cosmology, he cheered on scientists nearly as enthusiastically as his beloved Yankees.  Unfortunately, this also meant that he accepted the scientific evidence for an ancient universe and the evolution of life on earth.  

He approached religion from an evidence-based perspective, joining the Seventh-day Adventist church after a failed attempt to disprove the seventh-day sabbath.  Yet, I saw him as a nominal Adventist.  While he attended church regularly, he kept his religious opinions to himself, likely a trait of necessity given his heretical ideas.  So, we never discussed religion and instead spent time together laughing at the three stooges, hand crafting furniture in his workshop, marveling at the wonders of the universe, and sharing turkey at Thanksgiving.  

It is tempting to label “Bampaw” my religious grandfather and “Pop Pop” my scientific grandfather.  At the time that split would have seemed right.  Back then, I defined Adventism with a single conservative story.

Later in college I nearly followed my childhood aspiration to become a pastor when Dwight Nelson made a vespers call for multi-generational Adventists to go into the ministry.  However, the religion I had learned from my grandfather and over 12 years of Adventist education taught me that we had the truth all figured out.  I thought there was nothing new to add.  A lifetime trying to figure out new ways to rephrase the same old story sounded exhausting.  Instead, I decided to invest my efforts where I could explore new and unique ideas, contribute to an ever expanding field of knowledge, and make a positive impact on people’s lives.  The fact that I didn’t think these attributes could apply to becoming a pastor is a failure of biblical proportions.

Instead, I pursued medicine.  As a senior biology major at an Adventist university, I took a course which included a joint lecture on evolution and young earth creation.  The different approaches were jarring.  The lecture on evolution revealed the grand story of life in a way that meshed with the findings of physics, biology, genetics, cosmology and geology which I had explored with my scientifically inclined Grandfather.  It was beautiful and faith shattering.  In contrast, the young earth creationist poked holes here and there in the story of evolution.  There was no grand story and no confluence between various disciplines.  

After that lecture, I dug into the evidence and found that it only got worse for young earth creation.  A few weeks later, existential angst had me flattened against the apartment floor of my girlfriend, now my wife.  She asked me if I was breaking up with her and I lamented, “No, I am afraid evolution might be true.”  Relieved, she exclaimed, “Oh, is that all?”

But that was all.  All was lost down the slippery slope forewarned by my religiously-inclined Grandfather.  I had never learned that one expression of faith may need to die in order to prepare a plot for a new stage of faith to germinate into fruition.  Nobody shared that even at the bottom of the slippery slope the insistence of God calls out like a light in the distance toward a path that opens up to new and brilliant vistas.  

Finding the way back to the hope of my youth initially involved setting aside this crisis of faith over evolution to focus on medical school.  As newlyweds facing my medical training in a new city, my wife and I joined a small local Adventist church for friendship and support. The church became a second family in which we led out in small groups.  I was ordained as an elder and after preaching a few times was told I had missed my calling to the ministry.

In the process, my faith became my own and no longer my grandfathers.  I found passion for God through authentic relationships with my church family which led to outreach to homeless people, substance abusers, and even widows and orphans in the local community. This revival of true religion developed a relational faith construct more like a vital web than a propositional house of cards.  As a result, I was able to reconsider previously threatening questions such as evolution without the terror that everything would slide into the abyss if one foundational belief shifted.  

However, given my single story definition of Adventism I still had the sense that I was entering the increasingly popular religious category of the “Nones” who are spiritual but not religious.  When it struck me that this is a bit like being a doctor without practicing a specialty, I decided to specialize.

While my chosen medical specialty of radiology was influenced by my earlier exposure to physics and technology, my religious specialty was inspired by my grounding in the biblical stories, Sabbath practices, and community potlucks of Adventism. These legacies from my grandfathers have converged within me and generated a profound appreciation for the integration of head and heart, science and faith.  I love the incomplete, growing field of medical science and I find the sublime elegance of evolution deeply moving.  I also love the imperfect, hope-filled Seventh-day Adventist church where I grew up and learned to follow the way of Jesus.  

Defining Adventism with a single conservative story is not problematic because it is untrue but because it is incomplete. Different as they were, I have grown to realize that both of my grandfathers were Adventists.  And, so am I.

Brenton Reading is a pediatric interventional radiologist practicing at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.

Image: “Pop Pop” with Brenton’s son – his great-grandson – Logan.

Look for more more Growing Up Adventist stories in the run-up to this year’s Spectrum/Adventist Forum conference in San Diego, California, October 2-5.  If you would like to share your story or know someone who has an interesting story, please send a note to expressing your interest.

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