A friend told me a few years ago, “I find so much to be attracted to in Judaism. “Sometimes more than in Christianity.” “Why?” I asked. “It’s such a rich, beautiful tradition,” she said.
Of course it is. Especially are the performed metaphors lovely. Think of Fiddler on the Roof. Yet most of what people admire about Judaism isn’t found in the Hebrew Bible. What we find distinctive about Judaism owes more to three millennia of passage through various cultures and experiences than it does to Genesis through Malachi. People gave meaning to the text by filtering it through experience, and created a religious tradition. As charming as Judaism appears in a Sholem Aleichem story, that doesn’t come from the original Hebrew Bible. If my friend looked farther, she’d see that the same text is the seed for quite dysfunctional forms of that faith, such as those in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, or New York’s Borough Park and Kiryas Joel. This is evidence of the texts’ flexibility: it’s only by what human beings make of them, emphasizing some passages and ignoring others, that a religious text spawns a workable faith, and occasionally even a good one.
I was taught when young that there was no other way to understand the Bible than the way we Seventh-day Adventists understood it. If you could find a person who was a perfect tabula rasa, someone with no religious preconceptions, pretenses or prejudices, and you handed him a Bible, he would arrive at precisely the beliefs that we hold. Anyone who would see it differently was deceived or dishonest. I now have more appreciation of the effect of culture, and a much clearer understanding of the latitude that religious texts allow. I’ve come to believe that there is much in religion that’s less about the sacred text than about what its followers make of it.
Take worship, for example. I once attended a Coptic church service, and though it had a certain alien beauty to it, there were few touch points to make it meaningful to me. Yet they use the same scripture that we do. We might accuse the Coptic faith of relying more on tradition than do we Adventists, though that’s arguable. Both have been shaped by the cultures in which the text was used and read, where meanings and customs took shape.
I hope you’ve had the chance to read Graeme Wood’s important piece in the March Atlantic (recommended reading—online in its entirety here, main points summarized here) about ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Many of us over the past two decades have defended Islam against bigoted attacks, saying that what the terrorists represent isn’t real Islam. But, says Wood, ISIS follows the Quran and the hadiths, albeit with a medieval restorationist hermeneutic. “People want to absolve Islam,” Wood quotes scholar Bernard Haykel. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! [Islam is] what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts.” I added the italics, because this point is crucial. Islam need not necessarily be violent—the vast majority of Muslims aren’t terrorists—but it would be a mistake not to recognize that violent Islamic movements are rooted in Islam. The texts allow a violent interpretation, or a peaceful one. It all depends on the cultural hermeneutic applied.
I have often explained to my congregations that the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is that Catholics give greater authority to church leaders and the tradition that the church creates than Protestants do. Protestants have church leaders and traditions, but we always subjugate them to the Bible. The Bible is all we need. James White’s and John Loughborough’s warnings against standardizing our beliefs are too familiar to need to be quoted here. Should God want us to see something new, said White, we’d be locked into our creed and unable to respond to His leading. They were afraid that we’d become like the Catholics, where we had to ask the church what we should believe.
But we do now have a creed: an authoritative, formulated statement called the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. We Adventists regularly meet and ask the church what God’s truth is for enforcing upon all of us, without any apparent sense of irony or contradiction. That we vote on God’s opinion is more evidence that a religion isn’t created by the text alone, but by the people who read the text. The text is only a starting point. What makes it a religion is the interpretations we bring to it.
It’s the failure to account for the human element that has led so many of us to be so opinionated about what we think the Bible says. Let me try to illustrate this by going back to my friend’s fascination with Judaism. The Hebrew part of the Bible contains some beautiful thoughts, some profound ones. Some of our Adventist distinctives can only be given form there. Yet there are parts of the Old Testament that I find deeply disturbing. In the Old Testament God is said to have told his chosen people to wipe out entire populations, to practice infanticide, to enslave conquered people, to treat women like salable property. What do you do with these texts? We might say that these things don’t apply since theocratic Israel was replaced by Christ’s kingdom. Yet a God who had ever had slavery, genocide, or baby-smashing as tools in his management arsenal is impossible to harmonize with the Savior of the New Testament. Could it be that some of these things that God said He really didn’t say, and the authors are attributing Him because it seemed sensible to them in the time and place in which they lived? In other words, cultural?
Now, there are those among us who believe that God really said these things and meant them, even if he doesn’t intend them to apply now. That they’re quite sure that that’s how God really is—an inconsistent despot who demands that people follow commands explicitly even if they appear immoral—helps explain how they can make a smattering of weak texts into “thus saith the Lord” and insist we all follow them. Why, in a recent case, they think God has denied church leadership to the best of half of those created in his image in favor of even the least competent of the other half just because of their differing roles in reproduction. They’re unaware that this is a hermeneutic they’re bringing to Scripture, an interpretation laid over the text—one that makes God look stern, unreasonable and quite unlikable.
The appeal of the literalist point of view, that it is somehow purer and nearer to truth is, it turns out, based on false premises. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes, “that fundamentalists claim to be taking scriptures more literally than their Christian rivals gets read as evidence that they really are going back to what orthodox Christians once all believed, and that they’re right to regard non-fundamentalist forms of Christianity as theologically compromised relative to their own purer, back-to-the-beginning approach. Which is sometimes the case, but quite often not. Both Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are traditionalist in some respects but quite modern in others, and some of the most important elements in their back-to-the-sources vision tend to be only comprehensible in a modern political-intellectual context, both as reactions against and imitations of secular trends and patterns and ideas.”
That is to say, the idea that the earliest forms of a religious faith were woodenly literal, and that modern interpretations came as a result of later worldly compromises, is simply not true. Even Paul, when he quoted the Old Testament, didn’t always insist on using the passages in their literal sense. Nor did our Adventist pioneers. Compare the attitudes that led to the crucial vote at SA15 with this far more generous one from James White: “We object to that narrow-souled theology which will not allow the old ladies to have dreams because the prophecy says, ‘your old men shall dream dreams;’ and that will not allow young women to have visions because the prophecy says ‘your young men shall see visions.’ These stingy critics seem to forget that ‘man’ and ‘men’ in the Scriptures, generally mean both men and women. The Book says that it is ‘appointed unto men once to die.’ Don’t women die?”
Please don’t misunderstand me (though I’m sure someone will insist upon it) that I’m saying the Bible is merely human, or that there aren’t any clear teachings in Scripture upon which we can settle, or that I’m ignoring the Holy Spirit’s guidance. I’m not saying any of those things.
What I am saying is that our divided church’s struggle to unite on some Biblically-ambiguous points is evidence that not every question can be addressed by the kind of proof-texting done by the TOSC. Modern Adventist fundamentalists, those “stingy critics,” are as much products of the culture as the progressives are, and in some cases more.
I am suggesting that rather than the literal reading of Scripture being the way to find God’s will, we need to start owning some of these disputable opinions (for that is all they are) that make up our faith. Then we can move them into the realm where they can be talked about, compromised with. Where they can be studied in terms like psychology, leadership, culture, capabilities, organizational politics, rather than only “What’s God’s precise demand upon us?”
As Haykel says of Islam, Seventh-day Adventistism is what Seventh-day Adventists do and how they interpret their texts. To say God is on my side alone is, it seems to me, just what the third commandment warns about: using God’s name to enforce a human opinion. Which means that humility, not blustering arrogance, is the necessity in any effort to hear God’s voice through the cultural noise.
Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.
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