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Theological Pluralism and Denominational Loyalty


Pragmatism, an American Adventist inheritance, brings us too often to look for solutions before we have framed the problem. We are accustomed to speeches on different topics presented in self-affirmative ways, that include answers that anticipate doubts. I consider this to be a weakness. I believe we need, first of all, to identify the problem, or, at least, list some of its aspects and categories.


Pluralism is the result of an historical process generating a revival in our believes who are increasingly placed in the field of private choices. Pluralism requires the excercise of tolerance that often we interpret as indifference, in the live and let live attitude, that it’s the failure of human solidariety and it weakens the conscience.


The problem between pluralism and solidariety can be extended to any type of social relationship: in the family, in friendship, in work settings, in our neighborhoods and in the church. It’s evident the difficulty is in accepting the need for compromise. I think the reason lies in the complicating call to the absolute, which grounds our faith. This leads to a process, even partial, of identification with divine infallibility, causing relational conflicts. This loving, great God who became a man who loved even the dissenters, becomes an inflexible guardian of abstract principles. This is the problem.

The question of truth

In the last century we have witnessed a change in the methodology of the perception of truth whereby reason is no longer the only or major criterion, but individual and social experience are strongly enhanced. All of this has had a significant influence on theology.

Our religious tradition tends to conceive truth as a revelation which is perceived rationally; it is an attitude generally positive because it combines the divine with the human but tends to become absolute, rigid and very prescriptive precisely because of the nobility of the sources from which it draws. Christians are called to follow the “truth of gospel” (1 John 1:6; 2Co 13:8; 1 Co 7:17-24); but it does not come to us pure, but in different cultural contexts and traditions; it is not identified with any specific culture, but we do.

I believe that Christians possess only fragments of the truth and must connect to understand the infinite truth of God. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann[1]says: “I believe truth to be dialogical for us. Only in dialogue can we discover the truth, because only by being in relationship with others do we build our identity.” The idea of owning the truth, sets up, instead, the foundations for a violent attitude, of a mastery exercised in the name of the owned truth. Even today, we can see it in the world which is populated by many crusaders, each one blessing his own flags in the name of the same God. The church, each church, is not escaping this peril. A Christian reflection on the  concept of truth I think should  consider some elements:

·       The idea of truth as horizon, which conceives eternity as the only place of truth, means that no appraoch, neither any path, can assume to identify itself with the truth. Hans Kung says, “ … we, here, now, today, cannot say where, in the last analysis, may be the truth. We are all walking… We are walking only toward the conception of the truth, as it is really, and that will reveal itself only in the end”.[2]

·       The duty of the pastor is to put the believers on the path toward that direction, recognizing that it is not a goal to reach, but a life-long pursuit.

·       Truth is never ending and it can never be possessed by what is finite. Bruno Forte writes, “… If I would be thinking to have the truth, than I’ll think the others to be unecessary, altogether, to my research; if I know that the truth is always overcoming me and that I am only its servant, than anyone is coming toward me is, somehow, a messanger of the truth and my effort is to listen to him and to listen to the voice from the inside that, by him or her, is reaching out to me”[3].

·       Truth makes its way by iteself, never imponsing itself, it doesn’t need to be aggressive. Behaviours impose themselves, and sometime need to do so, but not so with faith in Jesus–that is an experience of freedom.

·       Christians, in their attitudes towards other religions, have not always taken into account the fact that revelation is an act of God’s love and have been disrespectful of others.  Adventists have done it as well against other Christian denominations. Within the church, too, often we are shocked by theological differences, much less for moral falls.

·       Fundamentalism, even inter-ecclesial, involves a withdrawal into oneself, a rejection of the history and rights of others.

·       We must keep alive the tension between truth and freedom. On one hand,freedom questions the truth of Christian revelation; on the other hand, the revealed truth questions critically the freedom of men.

The relevance of the doctrines with human existence

The value of a doctrine, the real truth of a statement, should not be abstractly assessed but based on its relevance to human existence. Human existence is subject to cultural conditioning, relational, social, making it always a little different, sometimes very different from others, even though geographically close. One aspect of pluralism is even this: I feel that a statement of faith is true because it touches my life.


In a society where the value of privacy and personal faith is increasing, I think that the pastor needs to move progressively from the category of outreach to the one of witnessing. The witness shares what he has seen and understood.

We must learn to come tiptoeing into the homes and lives of others and spend a long time to learn about their lives. Those who accept the truth quickly often need to escape from something else and they see the Gospel as an analgesic. We need to make listening more than a tactic. It seems to me, evangelism has tended to create generations of intolerant and superficial believers, a sort of Adventist pasdaran.

Sensationalism and fundamentalism

We should be watchful, because there is risk with authoritarian positions of developing intolerance, of ignorant fundamentalism, of uncontrolled and aggressive emotions dominating the conscience; with the explosion of personal needs at the expense of ethics and of the true prophetic passion for justice in society, which is appealing to human intelligence and sensitivity. The answer to legalism is not the sensationalism that seeks a miracle, but the recovery of the world of feelings, the intense and prudent look to the human existence, the reflection on the pain and concrete joys, a reading of the Bible, that might not be liturgical or literal or exegetical, but that might be existential and meaningful.

On Unity

Ellen White noted that “when the authentic spiritual life declines, people tend to become conservative, avoiding discussion and worshiping what they don’t know”[4]. We should, perhaps, establish a framework of fundamental beliefs and observances, leaving the rest to be regulated by the several fields in which the church is divided all over the world. Enlarging upon that is the problem that comes from having the same Church Manual all over the world. I believe that the outline of this gap between an official regulatory framework and its practical application creates more problems than a clear recognition that certain differences do not threaten the unity of Christ.

Adventism is facing enormous challenges, to which its tradition seems to have not properly prepared it. What kind of Adventist church can we see in the future? My hope is for a church built on a foundation that’s ideologically identified with the Adventist theological tradition connected by concentric conversations about new and diverse ways to share our values around the world.

—Giampiero Vassallo is the pastor of the Adventist Church in Lugano, Switzerland.

[1] Jurgen Moltmann, “Chi è Cristo per noi oggi?”, Quereniana, Brescia, 1995, p. 115.

[2] Hans Kung, “Perché un etica mondiale?”, Quereniana, Brescia, 2004, p.22.

[3] Bruno Forte, “La fede e il problema della verità”, p.1.

[4] Ellen Gould White, “Counsels to Writers and Editors”, Southern Pub. Ass., Nashville, 1946, p. 39.

Image: Andreas Gursky, Rhine II, 1999.

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