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A Material Church?

Anticipating Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart’s presentations at the Adventist Forums conference last September (which is now available in the current issue of Spectrum) triggered the following (very) random thoughts—which are now almost a year old….

One key contribution that Bull and Lockhart have made in deepening my understanding of Adventism has been to show me how physical and this-earthly we really are. The Adventist view of reality is indeed very physical. The Adventist conception of the human nature is essentially a version of physicalist monism. Human nature is supposed to be an indivisible union of matter and spirit, but that spirit is so often conceived of as life force or energy. Andisni isn’t energy ultimately a physical phenomenon? The Adventist emphasis on health, clean and unclean meat (down to whether tunas and anchovies have scales or not), jewelry, dress, hair, beard, sex, masturbation, dancing, country living—they all show Adventists to be intensely preoccupied with the physical. It doesn’t always seem like it because Adventists have approached them from the perspective of denial and restraint, but the preoccupation is real.

Could it be that it is this underlying physicalist view of reality which has undergirded Adventism’s continuing literalism in the reading of the creation account in Genesis and the book of Revelation when so many in the evangelical world who are otherwise conservative in their reading of Scripture have embraced the evolutionary account of the origin of life and have been far more open to symbolic, idealist readings of the Apocalypse?

Adventism’s physicalism extends to God and heavenly places. God lives in a particular place in the universe beyond the belt of Orion. There is a heavenly sanctuary that has two apartments, and Christ is—by the plan of redemption—confined to the first apartment until October 22, 1844 and then moves to the second. There, in the Most Holy Place, Christ pleads with the Father on our behalf, “My blood, my blood.” You can see the scars that remain on Christ’s palms, and they will always remain. And we expect to see all the gems and jewels that form the 12 foundations and gates of New Jerusalem. This seems to be more than nineteenth century anthropomorphism or mysticism. It’s more than Scriptural literalism. Reality for Adventism is truly physical—corporeal and spatial—all the way to the throne of God.

In addition to Bull and Lockhart’s brilliant insights on the syn-co-pated nature of the Adventist conception of time that differentiates this community from the rest of America, I wonder if Adventism’s materialist view of reality shouldn’t be looked at more closely. At a time of high modernism and scientism, nascent evolutionism, and political materialism, Adventism began offering a similar yet competing vision of reality and materiality. Thus, as much as Adventism has been an alternative to America, Adventism may also be an alternative to secular materialism.

Or … it may be that the founding vision of America is materialism, informed by common sense realism and particularism. America meta-narrativized its particular experiences, and so has Adventism. Could it be that it is rugged physicalism—the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness in this space with the brand new raw material of this new world—that drives both America and Adventism (and Mormonism as pointed out by Bull and Lockhart)?

And a dangling thought…

One irony of Adventism is that while a key focus lies in the “blessed hope,” pessimism reigns. This pessimism is directed toward not only the general condition of the world and the American nation, but also toward Adventism itself. In the end, Adventism has taught, when the observers of the true Sabbath are persecuted by the lamb-like beast of America, there will no longer be Adventism. Instead, it will simply be the invisible body of true believers, known only to God. Even before that demise of the visible movement, Adventism is supposed to be the lukewarm Laodicean church that will require a severe shaking. I may have missed it, but this dimension doesn’t seem to get much play in Bull and Lockhart’s analysis of Adventism. It’s important to recognize that Adventism is both the self-assured Remnant and the self-doubting Laodicea. In the end, it is a community that is set to expire before the end. The question is: Do Adventists around the world really, truly believe this?

An assistant professor of religion at Loma Linda University School of Religion, specializing in Adventist studies and historical theology, Julius Nam blogs at Progressive Adventism.

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