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Memo to Elder Wilson

Because my counsel is unbidden, it may never reach you, or if it does reach you, it may seem obtrusive. But we share the same thankfulness for divine grace and the same passion for faithfulness in witness. From the faith standpoint we are brothers, and that fact makes me bold to offer perspective on two of the challenges you are embracing.

One is revival and reformation. You pray for it and preach on it. A 2010 Annual Council appeal on this matter came out under your influence. It lifts up the Gospel promise of Holy Spirit power. It puts the love of Christ at the center. It calls us to humility before God and in our relationships with one another. You are helping to make all of this a matter of urgency.

One great pastor who wrote in a time of revival was Jonathan Edwards. An astonishing eagerness for God was sweeping across New England, and it struck him that this was exactly the time to pose the question of authenticity: How do you distinguish the mere appearance of piety from genuine renewal? How do you test whether the spirit of Christ, or some other spirit, is actually at work?

Edwards considered this at length. I think you would identify with his conclusion. A revival is authentic if it produces love. Mere religiosity is nothing. Revival is authentic if its result is what Paul famously referred to as the “fruit of the Spirit.”

When Paul spells this out in Galatians 5, he says not only that the fruit of the Spirit is love but also that it is longsuffering, gentleness and meekness. And all of this strikes me, just now, as crucial. One reason is that another of the challenges you are taking on is how to uphold the doctrine of creation. On this point you have thrown your influence behind a movement to re-write the church’s Fundamental Belief on this matter, so that creation is said to have occurred some 6,000 years ago, over “seven contiguous, 24-hour, days.”

Our conviction that God made heaven and earth is crucial, and this came to me in a newly full-blooded way a few weeks ago. My wife and I (so lucky we are!) were peeking into some art galleries in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, and the last one we had time for was exhibiting works by Max Ferguson. He creates ultra-realistic paintings of people and their surroundings inside of New York City — inside of shops and eateries, apartments, laundromats and the like. One of them was displayed on an easel instead of a wall, so you could look at the back of the painting as well as the front.

As Ferguson told us — we were surprised and pleased to meet him — he has a quirky little habit: he puts notes or clippings of quotes and pictures on the reverse side of his paintings. The back of each thus constitutes a kind of diary of his thoughts during the several months he spends on it. While he was saying this, Becky and I were standing behind the painting at the center of the room, and just then my eye landed on these words from his own hand: “When you removed God from the equation you removed the sanctity of human life. Once you have accomplished that, you are wiping your feet on the door mat of Auschwitz.”

I had considered this before, but never the precise image, and never as I was standing beside the person who had done the writing. The moment was compelling. Atheists would offer counterarguments, of course, but the record of the most powerful atheists — besides Hitler, think of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot — is utterly vicious, and in scale utterly unprecedented. If it is true that atheists in our society can be “good,” you can certainly argue that they live off moral capital built up over centuries of theism. True giants of the human spirit — Dostoyevsky most famously — have declared, after all, the same worries that the New York City artist was declaring.

I admit complexity. I know very well that New Atheists are all-too-successfully pinning the blame for violence on the religious: bad faith, and abuses stemming from it, sadly abound. Nevertheless, if you re-write the Bible to say, “In the beginning was non-sense, and the nonsense was with God, and the nonsense was God,” you just do, I think, open doors to devastating consequences.

On this you and I — and I suppose all our fellow believers — agree. But did creation occur just 6,000 or so years ago over “seven contiguous, 24-hour, days”?

Here I wish you yourself would allow for complexity. In the scientific domain, you and I and nearly all ministers are laypersons. We have not undergone the work of doctoral study in biology or astrophysics or any other natural science. We cannot fully comprehend, therefore, the intellectual struggles that have led most believing scientists to focus on the spiritual meaning of Genesis — and to allow that this meaning comes wrapped in mystery that is, from the human point of view, simply irresolvable.

In this light, it is surely doubtful whether we Adventists are in a good position to insist, for creed-like purposes, on improvements to the book of Genesis. I love the creation story just the way it stands. I am sure you do, too. Although Genesis just the way it stands is what we currently affirm, I do understand the fears that make us want to insist on more than the Bible insists on. But do those fears justify meddling (not literally, of course, but in practical effect) with Holy Writ?

I know two young Adventist couples who embrace both the life of the church and the work of advanced study. In both cases, one of the spouses has, or will soon have, a doctorate in physics; in both cases the other spouse is earning a doctorate in the study of literary texts.

Wouldn’t you be pleased if all four of these Adventist young people continued with both of these commitments? For a community devoted to Bible study and evangelism, and also to medicine and other kinds of human betterment, both commitments matter.

A few Saturday nights ago I asked one of these young people — his physics doctorate is from Harvard — how he was holding on to his faith. He had studied and worked in what he saw as faith-unfriendly environments, but had realized, he said, that any ultimate point of view, whether secular or religious, is “essentially unprovable.” In is partly in this light that he finds strength to continue to be Adventist.

Although this young scientist’s point should not make us indifferent to evidence, it does underscore the relevance of humility, or as we might say, based on Galatians 5, teachableness. The Greek word behind “meekness” — one characteristic of true spirituality — evokes both of these ideas. And doesn’t this fact take us right back to your message of revival and reformation?

Some Adventists see mystery where others see only information. For them, faith is too deep for words — too deep, that is, for the words a technical writer might deploy. But those who insist that creation occurred some 6,000 years ago, over “seven contiguous, 24-hour, days,” sound precisely like technical writers. They make the sublimity of scripture into something as ordinary and uninspiring as a passage from a common manual or handbook. And if they pursue this language for creed-like purposes, they exclude, or at least marginalize, some of their own brothers and sisters, the ones who find this extra-biblical language to be a stumbling block.

For importance, nothing outranks the ideal of human sanctity based on the divine Creator’s gracious regard. Every committed Adventist shares your passion on this point. But if some are more attuned to mystery than others, your passion for revival has an immediate relevance. True revival, after all, entails meekness, an eagerness to listen and perchance to learn. It entails, too, the longsuffering and gentleness of which Paul spoke. In essence — unless Jonathan Edwards got this wrong — true revival is about love.

When those who want to re-write the church’s Fundamental Belief about creation know very well that the proposed language is troubling to many creation-affirming Adventists, and when they know very well that it is in any case extra-biblical, the effort seems not to pass the test of true revival.

I don’t expect these words to be widely persuasive, or even widely considered. I live by hope, not optimism. But I do hope, of course, that you will consider them.

— Charles Scriven

This is a draft of my editorial for the print version of Spectrum. Although I am impatient with cynicism — we get a good bit of that on this site — I will pay close attention to comments on the tone and logic.

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