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Sectarian or Catholic?

As the years go by, I feel an increasing intellectual tension that I have been trying to resolve. I have been trying to decide whether Adventism is supposed to be, as it is at present, a Christian sect or a universal religion—that is, to be catholic in the original sense of the word.

When ancient Christianity divided itself into the Eastern, Greek Orthodox Church, and the Western Roman Catholic Church, the designation “catholic” in contradistinction to “orthodox” preserved its etymological roots. The word comes from the Greek kata = “according to” and holon = “all,” “totality.” Thus, while the Eastern Church claimed to posses the “correct opinion” (orto-doxa), the Western Church claimed to teach “according to (the opinion of) all,” or at least the majority.

To teach the doctrines certified by “all”—not just a “few”—would seem to be quite admirable. As the proverb says, wisdom is found in the counsel of many. However, to gain the consent of the many may require watering down the substance of what is taught. When there are opinions that ask for fine distinctions it is difficult to arrive at a consensus. Contrary opinions demand attention, and when one is accepted it should be because it has persuaded the community of its worth. The fact that divisions characterize Christianity has been considered a serious blemish. It takes away much strength and credibility.

Between 1955 and 1960, Adventists had a fruitful dialogue with evangelicals. The denomination was making an effort to be part of the recognized Christian world and cease being a sect. It is more stimulating and satisfactory to be part of something greater than oneself. The drive toward “universality” is comprehensible, justifiable, and legitimate. The efforts to dialogue with evangelicals, however, failed due to the vociferous and threatening reactions of those Adventists who wished to insist on their sectarian identity.

The Adventist tradition, without a doubt, is sectarian. In our denominational parlance we are “the remnant.” This identifies us as “the few” who have been rescued from a humanity that will be lost in an eternal vacuum. God is not saving “the many,” “the majority,” “all.” God chose to save “the few,” “the remnant.” It is our privilege to be among “the few.”

Sectarianism can be theological or sociological. The theological sect is characterized by its declaration that Christianity as such is an apostate faith, and by its affirmation that only it, the remnant chosen by God, possesses THE TRUTH. That is, the theological sect claims to have exclusive possession of the truth. Doing this, it overlooks most of the Christian basic doctrines and gives veto power to two or three doctrinal points: the state of the dead, the investigative judgment in the heavenly sanctuary, the correct day for Sabbath observance. Our preaching of these doctrines makes us the only true Christians, the only ones worthy to live in the New Jerusalem. Other Christians readily dismiss claims to exclusive possession of the truth. Spiritual arrogance provokes distrust rather than curiosity in those who observe it.

The sociological sect recognizes that the truth of Christianity is not found primarily in its doctrines. Although doctrines are important, their importance is found in their capacity to influence daily conduct in a Christian people. If Adventism, or Christianity, is not for many or all, the few are not determined, primarily, by what they teach, but by what they profess, by the style of their lives, by the countercultural stance that distinguishes them from society at large.

For a long time, Adventists were known for their refusal to attend cinemas and theaters, for not dancing or drinking tea, coffee, or alcoholic beverages, and for not working, attending classes, or taking exams on the seventh day of the week. They were different not because they upheld the traditional virtues of the moral life, but mostly because of peripheral details. Meanwhile, their educational institutions did not include in their curriculum courses ethics or morals. Under these conditions, it is almost impossible to be the leaven that transforms the predominant society and culture.

Personally, when I find myself defending my membership in a sect, I make clear that I have no sympathy whatsoever for theological sects. However, I do intend to represent a sociological sectarianism. Doing this, moreover, I am aware of the danger of being considered an elitist who awakens distrust. The barrier of elitism is even higher, of course, when the apocalyptic expectations of Adventism cause its members to feel no responsibility to improve the “worldly” society in which they live.

How can those who maintain a sociological or a theological sectarianism have significant influence in the human reality of which they are a part? It would seem that by adopting one of these they neutralize their influence.

The spark that set afire my reflections on this problem was a conversation that Jim Lehrer, the anchor of The News Hour on PBS, had with Mark Shields and David Brooks a few Fridays ago. Lehrer asked for their opinions on the recent tragedy at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., brought about by James von Brunn’s killing of one of the guards at the entrance. Shields suggested that the act of this fanatic said something important about our society. Although it is true that much progress has been made in terms of social justice—and the election of Barack Obama to the presidency underlines such progress—there is still much to be done before we become a society in which the value of each person is equal, without reference to sex, race, color, or religion.

For his part, Brooks made a laconic statement. As a white supremacist, von Brunn belonged to a group at the fringe. His actions said nothing about society. This comment made me think of the risk taken by those who belong to a sect at the fringe of society. Their existence says nothing about the culture and society of a nation. Occasionally, they may cause some discomfort, but they may be safely ignored.

The other day, when I shared with my son my preoccupation with this issue, he suggested that I look at it in terms of my sailboat, and his suggestion immediately opened a perspective that I thought quite illuminating. I greatly enjoy piloting my sailboat on Lake Michigan. The boat goes forward according to my ability to keep tension between the force of the wind on the sails and the resistance of the keel and the rudder in the water. For the sails to transmit the force of the wind, they cannot be vanes. They must be properly set. Otherwise, the sails flap and the boat does not move.

My sociological sectarianism must not give in to my tendency to keep myself aloof from society. I must also prevent my tendency to integrate myself in the environment from succeeding and making me feel vainly stimulated. If I wish to move forward, I must position myself to receive the force of the culture, not allow it to make me flap in the wind. In other words, I must offer resistance to that force from a critical angle.

The culture in which I live values an auto-sufficient individualism, resolution of disagreements with displays of force, possession of wealth as a sign of religiosity and a reason for being. In this culture, hedonism has triumphed and sexuality is under its domain. Religion is carried just under the skin without becoming a part of one’s life.

Moving forward in my Christian life depends on the way in which my sails harness the force of cultural winds and my keel and rudder cut through social inertia. A sect disengaged from society and culture provides its members only illusions of progress and false security. It is anchored in an ideology.

Herold Weiss is a professor emeritus at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. For twenty years, he was an affiliate professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, in a western Chicago suburb. He is the author of A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath Among Jews and Christians in Antiquity.

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