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Teach Less Better!

Why can over-fussy doctrinal “purity”—on matters like the sanctuary or the interpretation of Genesis 1—be such a dangerous distraction? Why can the message sometimes get in the way of the mission? Chuck Scriven tells us, and calls us to deeper understanding, in remarks made at the Adventist Forum’s annual conference two weekends ago.

Teach Less Better!

When does the Message Get in the Way of the Mission?

November 7, 2009

On a long drive with my wife a few weeks back, I listened to a distinguished anesthesiologist explain why blood transfusions, used in connection with cancer surgery, can have fatal consequences.

Although the surgeon may succeed in removing a malignant tumor, stray cancer cells continue to float through the blood stream. Ideally, the patient’s immune system concentrates on killing these stray cells. But strange blood distracts it — with measurable negative impact on the patient’s likelihood of sustained recovery. Because the distracted immune system pays inadequate attention to the stray cancer cells, they get, in effect, a free ride, and the cancer has a better chance of making a successful new attack.

The physician’s point was that medicine should develop strategies for minimizing the use of blood transfusions.

In Adventism, we’re preoccupied with the “message,” and this preoccupation is actually hazardous, like the overuse of blood transfusions. But before I try to defend that point, let’s try to get our bearings.

Most Adventist leaders, and perhaps most theologians, think the church’s job, in major if not preponderant part, is to sustain doctrinal purity and to communicate that (pure) doctrine to others. The church’s current mission statement — voted into being in October, and little known compared with the 28-point Statement of Fundamental Beliefs — does say that our work is “to make disciples of all people.” So it’s true that this mission statement seems to put a way of life in the spotlight. It seems to say that we are all about following Jesus — and about widening the circle of those who do so.

Still, I think that most of us, here at least, would agree that we are, in actual practice, obsessed with words — with words and doctrinal details and with arguments about these words and details. A huge amount of energy goes into all this, and huge amount of discord, not to mention doubt, comes out of it.

Once within the memory of some of us, the church was divided over whether the sanctuary in heaven is literal or metaphorical — a real, tent-like structure somewhere beyond the blue, or an illuminating verbal picture. More recently, the church was divided (and of course it still is) over whether an investigative judgment began in 1844, with Jesus just then moving from one apartment of the heavenly sanctuary to another. At this moment, a new outbreak of controversy has many Adventists preoccupied again with whether Genesis 1 entails that divine creation occurred some 6,000 years ago, over seven contiguous, 24-hour, days. Some — by far, I suppose, the majority — say Yes. Others, more chastened by findings of modern science, say that Genesis 1 is a true, but in some sense metaphorical, account.

During Christianity’s first three centuries, theologians struggled for a consensus on how to understand the “doctrine” of Christ — how a human Savior could be the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), how a divine Savior could be a true brother to the rest of us. When you read about this struggle, you marvel at the degree of explanatory detail early theologians seemed to aim for. You marvel, too, at how ready they were to denounce their antagonists, even ones who disagreed with them by just a little.

The disease I am going to address this morning involves over-elaboration of doctrine. And it’s not just an Adventist disease. When concern with philosophical precision comes in — as it did through early Christian interaction with the pagan intelligentsia — there is increasing danger of obsession with words and doctrinal details. People give in to the temptation to over -elaborate basic Christian teaching. Trying to tame mystery, they say too much.

What’s wrong with this? Well, the same thing that is wrong as with the reckless use of blood transfusions after cancer surgery. It’s a distraction. When we fret and fret and fret about doctrinal detail, it causes us to pay inadequate attention to things that matter more than the detail. And just as in the case of the unnecessary blood transfusions, this distraction is hazardous. It has painful and destructive effects.

Think of the discord — what I mentioned before — that comes out of all this. We expend so much energy fighting with one another that the fight comes to feel like the point, like the thing that matters most. We separate into rival camps, like church members in early Corinth, and our conversation becomes cynical and bitter and sometimes practically immobilizing. We’ve all been around that kind of dinner table.

We pay inadequate attention, in short, to the basics of Adventist faith — which would surely drive us, among other things, into deeper common purpose. If we focused on the Adventist basics, we would fight less; we would spend more energy working, and even disagreeing, in the same direction.

Discord is not, of course, the only unhappy consequence of our failure to attend to the basics. By fretting over, and fighting over, too many details, we also lose sight of our mission, missing the forest, as they say, for the trees. Not only do we fall short of sharing in a common purpose; we fall short of comprehending what that purpose is.

In Matthew Mark and Luke, one person stands out for being the exemplary scholar-disciple. You heard the version of his story found in Mark 10:46-52 (see also Matthew 20:29-34 and Luke 18: 35-43) earlier this morning. His name is Bartimaeus, and the story of his encounter with Jesus bears on the issue I am talking about.

Remember that for Mark, the “road,” or “way” — the word comes up repeatedly — is a key theme, a symbol that shines a light on the true purpose Jesus’ followers should embrace.

Now, with that in mind, picture the scene. Jesus, with his disciples, is on the road, moving from Galilee toward Jerusalem, his culture’s capital. He and his entourage resemble a 60’s civil rights march. There is a charismatic leader and his close confidantes. There are edgy authorities. There are the poor and other vulnerable folk tagging along and hoping desperately for change.

But the disciples — I mean the twelve disciples — just don’t understand, or fully understand. Mark lets us know, again and again, that they are pretty much blind to the essence of Jesus’ mission. They are unable, or unwilling, to get it.

Finally the travelers enter Jericho. And as Jesus and “his disciples and a large crowd” are leaving the town, “Bartimaeus, a blind beggar,” is “sitting by the roadside.”

It matters a lot, in the story, that the beggar is blind. In some sense, he is similar to the disciples, who themselves are, in matters of the spirit, blind. But in the beggar’s case a transformation is about to happen — or better, a journey of transformation. This man is about to become, by contrast with the twelve, the ideal—the exemplary, the paradigmatic—follower of Jesus.

You can imagine the beggar’s frame of mind as he sits by the roadside. Life has kicked a lot of dust in his face. And as for his physical infirmity, it is worse than bad. In the culture where he lives, the infirmity symbolizes the condemnation of God. Other people suppose you are to blame somehow, and think less of you for it.

But in spite of this, Bartimaeus musters the courage to shout: “‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”

The crowd stiffens. Many order the beggar “to be quiet.” But Bartimaeus will not have it, and he cries out for mercy more loudly than before.

Now Jesus stops, and pays attention. Just as soon as this happens, Bartimaeus springs to his feet and approaches him. And when Jesus asks what he wishes for, Bartimaeus says, “‘My teacher, let me see again.’”

“‘My teacher, let me see again.’”

Jesus complies immediately. And what makes the story profound — spiritually profound — is precisely that Bartimaeus saw Jesus as his … teacher. The twelve disciples did not yet understand — they were blind themselves — and Mark wants us to interpret the blind man’s request in this light. Sure, he longs to see the sky, the trees, the color of wheat, the curl in a baby’s hair. But he also wants the sight a teacher can give.

Bartimaeus, in other words, wants sight — and more than sight. He also wants insight. He wants to know how to live — how to flourish, how to be the best human being he can possibly be.

What is the beggar learning in Jesus’ company? The Gospel doesn’t offer any detail. It just takes us to the story’s climax. As soon as Bartimaeus receives new eyes — as soon as he receives new insight — he follows Jesus “on the road.”

Follows Jesus. On the road.

Bartimaeus begins immediately, in other words, to take the same path that Jesus does. He determines that he will not drift into self-preoccupation, or wasted time, or atrocious evil. He will see people, and see the world, through the eyes of Jesus. And by living in such solidarity with Christ, he will grow and flourish and become fully alive.

For Mark this man is the exemplary, the paradigmatic, disciple.

The Bible does concern itself with what we believe. Beliefs are the premises for action. So the Bible cautions us against falling prey to “every wind of doctrine.” The Bible writers know that mistakes of doctrine can leave us unworthy of our “calling” (Ephesians 4:1, 14) unable or unwilling to pursue our true mission. But as the Bartimaeus story shows, the right preoccupation is — life; the right preoccupation is — how the person, how the community, lives. Doctrine serves a higher purpose than itself.

Bartimaeus came to believe that Jesus was worth following; he came to an ever deeper understanding of the mission. But what makes him truly exemplary, truly paradigmatic, is that he actually followed Jesus on the road — the road that led to the cross and finally to the resurrection.

From this I draw a very simple conclusion: the message has a practical point, and that point, always, is our calling, our mission. So if any feature of the message, any doctrinal claim, cannot be shown to have practical relevance, it is, just for that reason, irrelevant. And if any doctrinal claim contributes to destructive discord, or gives rise to doubt, it is worse than irrelevant; it is a snare and a delusion.

All this is why over-elaboration of doctrine, like an unnecessary blood transfusion, is a distraction. Fretting too much about details, we pay inadequate attention to things that matter most. And just as in the case of the unnecessary blood transfusions, this distraction is hazardous. It has painful and destructive effects.

Say that we become preoccupied with whether the heavenly sanctuary is literal or metaphorical. The answer, I am convinced, can make no practical difference with respect to the main point, which is to follow Jesus. Say that we divide over the significance of 1844. The answer can make no practical difference with respect to our true vocation, which is to follow Jesus. Say that we fight over when and how God goes about being maker of heaven and earth. Some may argue, I suppose, that differences on this point could have practical impact on how we take up the cross and live out our hope. Certainly, however, that difference has to be demonstrated, and I have never seen it demonstrated.

My point, to repeat, is that over-elaboration of doctrine is a distraction. And it’s not a harmless distraction, either. It has unhappy effects.

One of these effects, of course, is pointless discord. I do not claim that focus on Adventist basics would eliminate all discord. I do claim that it would eliminate pointless discord — discord that lacks even the potential for some new increment of moral and spiritual growth.

Another of these effects is unnecessary doubt. Living as we do in a culture where the feeling that the universe is indifferent and devoid of meaning is widespread, doubt is a temptation as it is. But if we if insist on doctrinal detail that makes faith, and makes faithfulness, even harder, we do real damage to the mission.

The protagonist in Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, is John Ames, a retired pastor. At one point he is having a conversation about the doctrine of predestination, and the person he’s interacting with objects to something he has said. The old pastor replies, “‘I’m just trying to find a slightly useful way of saying there are things I don’t understand. I’m not going to force some theory on a mystery and make foolishness of it, just because that is what people who talk about it normally do (154).’”

It’s best to attend to the basics. And even when attending to the basics, it’s best to place some limits on our eagerness to explain. There’s no point in making foolishness of a mystery. But that happens when try to say too much, whether about the heavenly sanctuary, or the atonement of Christ, or God’s creation of the universe.

Of course we have to say something. In the current outbreak of conversation about the doctrine of creation, both sides agree that God is maker of heaven and heaven. That much, certainly, is crucial. But there is disagreement over the details. One side declares a literal reading Genesis 1 to be crucial; the other thinks the details matter less than the main point. As you know, people who favor a literal reading consider the debate to be a key battle in the struggle for doctrinal purity. But I am arguing that this debate may be a harmful distraction. I am arguing that it may be better not to impose too much theory on a mystery.

The author of Ecclesiastes remarks in chapter 5, verse 2: “God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.” Why not take the Bible seriously on this point?

Everything I’ve said so far is about preserving, and enhancing Christian faithfulness — our own Christian faithfulness. But it also about passing our vision on to others, including those others in the generations that follow ours.

We live in what Charles Taylor calls the Age of Authenticity. The defining attitude of the age, he says, is this: we each have the need and the right to realize our humanity in our own way; we need not, and must not, surrender to some account of who we are that is imposed on us from without — “by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority” (A Secular Age, 475).

The roots of this attitude go back at least to the eighteenth century. But it became widespread during what we call “the sixties.” And this means that now we cannot expect anyone to accept what we teach just because we are older, or just because we have some position of authority. So more than ever, foolishness just doesn’t work. One way to root out foolishness, I am arguing, is to teach less, and then to do a better job with what we do teach.

But for saving faith, and our responsibility to pass it on, something else matters.

As I have been arguing, doctrinal over-elaboration, or over-fussiness, distracts us from the mission. It distracts us, that is, from the Christian life. The point, after all, is the love of God and neighbor; the point is following Christ; the point is keeping the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.

So besides minimizing foolishness, what else matters when we wish to make disciples of others, including our children? It is the Christian life well-lived. This, surely, is our best hope against the pull of a culture increasingly hostile to faith. As it is the exemplary life that matters to God, it is the exemplary life that attracts others to our point of view.

Some of the best things that Ellen White said make these points. She wrote that the “strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian” (MH 470). Christian life was so important to her that she imagined Christ, on judgment day, commending generous people who “may have known little of theology” (DA 638).

So let me sum up: it’s time to for Adventism to shift attention away from what we might call propositional clutter. It’s best to teach less better.

And that’s not anti-intellectualism; it’s what we have to do to get our priorities straight. Current, official attitudes toward women, and toward Christians and the military, break more or less entirely from the spirit of the Adventist pioneers, and also, very arguably, from the spirit of Christian scripture. Many champions of doctrinal purity today, including most of the strident ones, are oblivious to this. They thus underscore the relevance of my point.

Teach less better! That’s one formula, at least, for giving the basics their due. It’s one formula for diminishing pointless discord and unnecessary doubt. It’s one formula for keeping the importance of well-lived life at the forefront, where it can enable to make a better case for Adventist faith.

And it might, it just might, help us pass the torch to the next generation.

Charles Scriven is Board Chairman of the Association of Adventist Forums

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