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Hope in Adventist Societies

Due to age and jet lag, I spent the very early Sabbath hours, just a week ago, reading essays by Barbara Kingsolver, ruminating on Adventist scholarship, and lapsing into rage as well as gratitude. But mostly gratitude. 

To the west, from below my window, the lights of low-rise San Francisco were winking up at me. The TV (“that extra blabbermouth in the room,” says Kingsolver) was not even a temptation.  For the past couple of days I had been listening to Adventist philosophers—yes, philosophers—reflecting on why philosophical discourse adds both interest and depth to higher education.

Within my hearing Adventist theologians had had their say as well. Two nights before Denis Fortin, dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, had given a remarkably straightforward assessment of difficulties associated with Adventist eschatology, and, in particularly, the book The Great Controversy. On Friday several speakers considered hard questions—what the “remnant” idea can mean today, the scientific consensus regarding natural history, the diminishing allure of doctrine for young Adventists—in strikingly honest ways. The night before Donn Leatherman, from Southern Adventist University, had explained in a lovely and transfixing exegesis why the New Testament Gospel is “essentially political.”

I was attending meetings of three organizations: the Adventist Society for Religious Studies, the Adventist Theological Society (more conservative in stripe) and the Adventist Society of Philosophers. This latter is the brainchild of several young Adventists who just a few years ago met for the first in the basement of a New York City Church. They decided, almost then and there, to jack up our community’s commitment to the questioning way of life, and quickly got other philosopher friends into the conversation. Now, for the second time ever, Adventists trained in philosophy had been sharing papers in the setting of a formal academic meeting.   

The Leatherman paper, and another one by Stephen Bauer, had been the scholarly focus on a Friday-evening banquet that brought into one room members of all of these societies. The speakers were presidents of their respective theological organizations, and each, as it turned out, reflected on the theme of inclusion and exclusion. Bauer addressed challenges associated with the New Testament theme of Jesus as the single key to human salvation. Leatherman elaborated on his theme by showing how Gospel politics concerns “the entire web of social relationships within a community.” According to the New Testament vision, he said, the life Christians share is God’s way of rescuing the world from “statist politics,” from the “hierarchical structure and top-down authoritarianism of the kingdoms of the world.”   

Considering all of this, I thought: Adventism could matter if it only let the deeper truths of Scripture—and of its own lively (though flawed) heritage—sink in. From the beginning, the pioneers, unbewitched by stale orthodoxy, had made an ideal of “present truth.”  From the beginning the pioneers had seen that, for all its pomp and self-congratulation, ordinary politics is exclusive and corrupt. If flashes of rage interrupted my early morning reverie, it was only because honest thoughtfulness, of the kind I had been hearing, is so widely resisted inside of Adventism.  It is not too much to say, for example, that today “hierarchical structure and top-down authoritarianism” constitutes a clear and present danger not only outside of the church but also inside.

Still, I was energized when I took the bus to the church, out near the University of San Francisco, where the Adventist Society for Religious Students was gathering to hear two presenters before the Sabbath worship service. The day was brisk and clear, and so, it turned out were the papers.

Two young Adventists held forth. Janice P. DeWhyte, a doctoral student at McMaster Divinity College in Canada, argued that in Zechariah, God’s “exclusive” devotion to the remnant has “inclusive point”: the prophet envisions ultimate reconciliation, with Israel and even enemies in solidarity and peace. With her first words, listeners sat up in their chairs: DeWhyte’s command of spoken discourse was simply compelling.

The second presenter, Ante Jeroncic, a young member of the undergraduate religion faculty at Andrews University, said that he was rising to the podium after everything that needed to be said was already said. But if everyone agreed with the compliment, none doubted, once Jeroncic was through, that he was bringing both clarity and passion to the Adventist conversation. His theme was how the Bible’s “language of exile” might help Adventist reconsider their “ecclesial identity.” The paper was replete with learned references—not least to the Anabaptist John Howard Yoder—and led, like the one before, to heartfelt and enthusiastic applause. 

These are young people (or young by my standards). If the Sabbath’s early hours had helped to make me grateful, the mid-morning had brought me—and lots of others—a sense, if I do not exaggerate, of pure joy.  And all of this is worth reporting, not just because the ideas Adventist scholars are considering really do matter, but also because gratitude and joy renew hope. 

And hope, that thing with feathers, as the poet said, is what we deeply need just now.

Art: Andrew Schoultz, Three Caged Beasts, 2011

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