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Speaking of Babylon and Love in the City by the Bay

It was a time for the sharing of ideas and questions, for networking lunches, academic presentations, and community building as Adventist scholars of religion recently gathered in San Francisco for their annual meetings. Charles Scriven and Alexander Carpenter have already shared some thoughts about the sessions. There has been a lively conversation from readers, too. I would like to add some details and impressions.

First, some information for those who have been asking about where to learn more about these societies. The Adventist Society for Religious Studies is an organization that exists for the one weekend each year when its members gather. Its website is hosted by La Sierra University. Recently it has begun posting papers that are presented at the meeting and there are two already up on the site from this year’s meeting. The Adventist Theological Society has two publications and a podcast. The Society for Adventist Philosophers also has a web site that incorporates comments.

Secondly, the context of the meetings should be noted. The Adventist sessions have grown out of the much larger meetings of the American Academy of Religion, the Society for Biblical Literature, and the Evangelical Theological Society. Adventists gather for a day of meetings together and then participate in these other society meetings. There is an opportunity for the Adventists to bond during their sessions and also to participate in the scholarship of the larger religious community. It is always an invigorating time.

This year I came away with new thoughts about what a very specific Biblical text: Luke 18:17. To explain, I need to describe some of the keynote speeches.  

Denis Fortin, dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary at Andrews University, opened the ASRS meetings with an address on “Coming out of Babylon and Christian Unity: Continuity and Discontinuity in the Adventist Discourse about Other Christians.”

“In my case, he said, “some personal experiences I’ve had have caused me to ask myself some questions about these boundaries and how we got to where we are as Adventists. . .

I perceive that at the root of our tensions and inconsistencies is our understanding of the concept of Babylon and of church unity. For Adventists these two concepts appear to be antithetical. Our teaching about who forms the entity of modern Babylon has led us to a strong sense of separation from other Christians, at times allowing us to have a rhetoric of violence toward others.

Yet, he noted, we have also attempted to establish good relations with other denominations through dialogue and participation in various society meetings—the current sessions in San Francisco of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Evangelical Theological Society, for example. Additionally, for 13 years, he has been the official Seventh-day Adventist representative of the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches. (The Adventist church is not a member of the Council or the Commission, but has been invited to send a representative and he has served in that capacity since 1999.)

At the Commission he has developed friendships with other church representatives, and experienced the Christian community that comes through praying together over personal concerns.

In contrast to these positive experiences, he spoke of his journey with the concept of Babylon. “Perhaps no event in my career illustrates better the Adventist tensions and inconsistencies in our discourse toward other Christians than the reactions I received following the Swallen Mission Lectureship at Andrews University in April 2008,” he said.

Two Catholic scholars who have written on methodologies in spreading the gospel in non-Christian cultures were invited to lecture at Andrews that year. When word of the lecture went out, a student opposed to the invitation of the Catholics created a media sensation by cutting and pasting together a document, from newsletters, photos, quotations from Charles Spurgeon and Ellen White, plus letters from selected church officials who raised objections to the event. Then this document was circulated via the internet around the world.

When Fortin began receiving scores of e-mails, he drafted an academic response explaining the context and purpose of the event. “Most church leaders gave me their wholehearted support,” he said. “But for scores of other people we had apostatized. Many emails I received were simply hate mail, filled with animosity toward Catholics and me for inviting two Catholic priests to feed the ‘wine of Babylon’ to our students.”

Few people knew that Fortin grew up in a Catholic home, and that his experience as a Catholic was a “beautiful and positive one.”

So this hate mail I received after the Swallen lectureship was a shock to me and to some extent still is. Not that I didn’t know about conspiracy theories. What troubles me is the level of hate, fear and mistrust many Adventists have toward Catholics. That surprised me and deeply troubles me. For the first time, I came to realize that many people in my church have a problem with loving people who are not like us. The rhetoric of violence, of mistrust and fear many Adventists have toward other Christians, and particularly toward Catholics, is itself honestly anti-Christian and defamatory.

“How do we reconcile this rhetoric of suspicion and hate with Christ’s words about love for one another and for others who are different from us?”

To answer his question he went to Adventist historical interpretation of the first and second angels’ messages in Revelation. It was in the common heritage with others and a genuine sense of continuity within Christian history that he saw hope. “For a people who treasure the truths of Scripture, there will always be a need to speak of discontinuity and of Babylon, but I wonder if we might be heard a little more if instead we spoke more clearly the language of belonging and continuity.”

The next evening at the presidential dinner meeting where the presidents of both ASRS and ATS gave addresses, the topic again turned to love for one another.

Southern Adventist University Professor Donn Leatherman (the president of ASRS) examined the character of Christ’s kingdom in a passionate address. He said, “The message of Christianity has often been presented in a highly individualized and spiritualized form: Jesus came to die for your sins; you must accept him as your personal savior; this will guarantee you eternal life. This may be true but it constitutes only a small part of Jesus’ message. Most of Jesus’ public proclamation was not about personal forgiveness but the ‘good news of the kingdom.’”

Carefully defining politics, state, and nation, he spent his time on the nature of that kingdom as a community of love. “Jesus taught his disciples to live in a way which was in distinct contrast to the way of the empire, and he offered them a vision of society, and a rationale for that vision, strikingly at variance with the vision espoused by the agents and beneficiaries of the empire.”

He suggested that how we relate to others in society is more important to Jesus than how we worship. “Forgiveness is so fundamental to his kingdom that there is no place within it for one who does not live by this principle.” The ethics of the kingdom value relationships over accumulation, of people over things, of service over domination, and of love over power. “More simply, these ethics valorize community above control. They imply that what matters in God’s kingdom are not the ways in which members of society are compelled to operate, but the ways in which they voluntarily choose to relate to each other.”

Citing Luke 17:20-21, Leatherman said, “Jesus dismisses the question of when the kingdom will come and preempts the question of where it will come. It does not come with observable signs—as a worldly kingdom would—but it is among the hearers. It consists of relationships between them and Jesus and between them and each other. Thus, the kingdom of God is not located in history, nor even less, in geography; it is located in community, in the relationships among its citizens.”

Just who are those citizens? I was particularly fascinated by his noting the text in Luke 18 which says, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

In the discussion that followed his presentation, Leatherman noted that children are particularly good at asking questions and have no pretense of having the answers. They are willing to sacrifice opinion in search of truth.

The ability to embrace a life of questions had been noted significantly at a third keynote address by Bruce Benson of Wheaton College. His presentation “Christian Philosophy as a Way of Life” was given to a joint session of all three societies.

Beginning by saying that our hope is not in ourselves but in Christ, Benson said that just as Christianity is a way of living one’s life, so, too, is philosophy.

Philosophy is meant to teach one how to live a joyful inner life. Philosophy teaches one how to think and to ask questions—particularly of oneself. An important part of learning something is learning what we do not know.  

As Benson talked my thoughts had turned to the Biblical text about the need to become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. And Leatherman solidified the point for me.

The text in Luke 18 is not about becoming naïve or simplistic. It is about that (childlike) openness to questions and ideas, acceptance of other people, joy in the secure love of God.

The Adventist Society meetings this year had that Kingdom feel to them. There was an acceptance of others, questions and open discussions flowed, joy in being together predominated. And in the prayers, one could sense the community’s security in the love of Jesus.

Next year’s meetings of the AAR and SBL will be held in Chicago, Illinois. The Adventist Society for Religious Studies has chosen to address the topic of ordination in the papers that will be presented. The theme for the Adventist Theological Society will follow that of the Evangelical Theological Society: “Caring for Creation.” Their meeting will be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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