There is something attractive about a list of dos and don’ts. Lists have durability because they simplify, provide certainty and reassurance, and give us something to measure ourselves and others with. The Judeo-Christians’ sacred books contain some memorable lists, including the 613 laws in the Torah, the Ten Commandments, and Jesus’ summation of the goal of all laws – love of God and neighbor. Not to be excluded, our own faith tradition has the 28 Fundamental Beliefs.
We sense a yearning for a list in the earnest plea by Paul’s jailer in Thyatira. His question was simple and direct: “What shall I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:4). The question was in response to Paul restraining the suicidal man’s hand. Awakened by an earthquake and presuming a breakout, their jailer was ready to take his own life. Paul and his band of prisoners assured him that they had no intentions of escaping. Recognizing that Paul and Silas were God’s emissaries, the warden fell at their feet and raised the important question about salvation.
Paul and Silas’ harmonized answer was equally simple: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Unfortunately, their imprecise response did not explain what it meant to “believe.” This has been the unfortunate undercurrent for much splintering within Christianity, as different denominations, trying to pin down the essentials of salvation, have generated countless lists.
What does it mean to “believe?” And even more crucially, how do we know that our beliefs are worth believing in? Much to our loss, the jailer failed to ask Paul these clarifying follow-up questions. But we should ask such questions to test our understanding of what and why we believe.
Basically, a “belief” in anything presupposes our acceptance that a proposition is “true.” Sometimes the idea is empirically provable, like the belief that the dead do not act purposefully. In that case, any living, breathing person cannot pass for dead. But we can’t always prove the “truthfulness” of a belief in this way. Rene Descartes pointed to his conscious mind as proof of his existence. His clever dictum, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) is reassuring when faced with doubts of reality, not only of our individual being, but of existence as we know it. If we recognize our thoughts, Descartes contends, we know we exist.
But Descartes’ formulation raises its own questions. What happens when our minds fail us, and we cannot think? When mental diseases rob us of our abilities to think “straight?” Do we cease to be “ourselves” when our minds are no longer ours and we can no longer trust our recall or remember familiar faces? Is our humanity predicated only on our self-awareness that we possess thinking, discriminating minds? And what about the quality of our minds? Are some of us born with “weak” minds that can only think so far and no farther? I recognize that questions equating the mind to being itself risks a precarious turn, but we should persist since salvation itself is tied to thinking.
In religious discourse, where important concepts – existence, reality, God, death, salvation etc. – are stable, the mind is by necessity the vehicle through which these belief systems are built and conveyed. When we proselytize, the built-in assumption is that our hearers would weigh our presentations and make conscious decisions for or against Jesus after “thinking” through the ideas presented. Ideas are important and so are our capacities to grasp them. This, in part, is why we should periodically reconsider our understandings. What do we convey when we assign labels like fundamental, core, or unchanging to our beliefs?
Once we designate concepts as fundamental, we seem to lock them in and rarely reappraise them. We may add beliefs but seldom retract or remove any from the list. This leads to a hardening process ending in inerrancy, with beliefs that must be defended at all cost. Then dissenting members must simply walk away. By insisting on infallible truths, we’ve sometimes been led to hold on to ideas that were founded in and for a different era. Because we hold them to be eternal, we don’t change conceptions, even if outdated. Consequently, the denominational hemorrhage of those who question continues unabated.
But how do we assent to a belief? Does the mind “instinctively” or independently appraise ideas on some sort of merit in order to accept them as truths? That is, does the mind recognize self-evident propositions and automatically coalesce around the “right” ideas and ignore “wrong” ones? So, does what we believe save us?
I contend that our values don’t arise from ideas only, they arise from life, from experience. And these experiences, often influenced by formal or informal education, or by our proximity to other communities of “believers,” provide the perspective to sort through conflicting ideas. And as our needs change, so too do our ideas and values. We go from believing, in one generation, that other humans could be bought and sold and used and abused by their owners, to accepting, in another generation, the improbable proposition that all humans are equal.
The truths of religion are not unlike the truths of science in that both serve human needs. Therefore we should hold truths in these spheres with cautious embrace until we find something that works better, in the sphere of science, or attain better insight, in the religious domain. In both science and religion the new “better” often uses previous knowledge as a stepping stone. So Jesus would say of the law that he came “not to abolish…but to fulfil” it. Sometimes the new truth completely overturns an established one: “You have heard it said…but I say unto you.” At other times, it is an insight whose time for implementation has come: “I have much to tell you, but….”
It follows then that even when we make a commitment or assent to a given set of truths, we should do so knowing that such affirmations are tentative. Regardless of how fundamental we consider our truths today, the experiences we encounter tomorrow could render them obsolete or even scandalous. Change comes because we learn new things about “settled” positions which then necessitate correction.
For centuries, Newton and Newtonian physics held sway, that is until Einstein. And the church taught that the earth was the center of the universe until Copernicus showed it otherwise. We read accounts in the Bible that seem to affirm behavior currently universally eschewed. We have believed in the past that some humans are not good enough to participate in civil society and we acted on that belief by disenfranchising them. Historically, women and minorities everywhere have been discriminated against in this way. There are still a few Christian churches in this twenty-first century who teach that womanhood is not compatible with unconstrained service in gospel ministry.
Is there an objective truth? Only in the context of a postulated God who alone “holds true positions.” All human “truths” and understandings are imperfect because, as Paul reminds us: “we see through a glass, dimly.” I share Kierkegaard’s view that ultimately the truth that matters is subjective. Everyone should embrace their current truths in passionate inwardness as long as future “truths” and insights are not walled off. Therefore, attempts to “conserve” in perpetuity, is an exercise in futility. We can only manage what experience throws at us. The limits of our management successes have usually depended on our willingness to let go of what no longer applies. It is in this sense that E.G. White is right: “The truth of God is progressive.”
Generally, humans, over time and in all environments, have adopted and adapted models of what works and points us forward. And our ideas have generally tracked a progressive course and expanded the ideal of liberty. We have not always succeeded in eradicating many avoidable social ills – e.g., misogyny, xenophobia, discrimination – because often opposition justifies itself on grounds of conservation.
Here is where nature, in a micro-evolutionary sense, is instructive and shows us that change is necessary to survival. We recently learned of adaptive changes observed in elephants in Mozambique and South Africa. Under pressure from poachers who indiscriminately kill these majestic behemoths just for their comparatively insignificant tusks, females in Southern African elephant communities are now evolving tusklessness. A truly heartwarming development.
How is all this relevant to our church today? In a charming and uplifting way it recalls a time when our leaders changed positions on a cardinal doctrine because we gained new insight. Consequently there will always be a before-and-after 1888 tipping point in Adventism. This was the year we unambiguously became Christians. In 1888 our understanding of the meaning of “law” in Galatians 3:24 KJV, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith,” underwent a sea change. Those were the “innocent” days when church publications were not constrained by an official line and published different, and sometimes opposing, views on the same subject, even in the same magazine.
Two years earlier A.O. Johnson published his article “The Two Laws,” in the Review and Herald, arguing that the law identified as “schoolmaster” in Galatians is the ceremonial and not the moral law. This publication prompted E.J. Waggoner, editor of the Signs of the Times, to write a nine-article series arguing that the “schoolmaster” reference was equally applicable to the Ten Commandments. At some point the debate began to expose a serious rift within the church community and Mrs. White, who was living in Europe at the time, became concerned enough to write a gentle rebuke to the “combatants” that essentially called for a cease-fire.
The excitement of the debate notwithstanding, our pre-1888 position aligned with Johnson’s in that we believed it was the ceremonial law, not the moral, that was the “schoolmaster,” and had been nailed to the cross. After A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner’s Righteousness by Faith presentations at the Minneapolis General Conference session, the church would shift and include the moral law in the schoolmaster role. Ellen White, who was conflicted and indecisive on the subject during the presentations, would be more categorical eight years later: “In this scripture [Gal 3:24] the Holy Spirit through the apostle is speaking especially of the moral law. The law reveals sin to us and causes us to feel our need of Christ and to flee to him for pardon and peace.” (Selected Messages, vol 1, p. 234)
For the first twenty-five years as an organized church, we believed that we could be saved if we obeyed the moral laws perfectly. In 1888 we came to a different and liberating understanding. But the ensuing 130 years have not completely cured us of our legalistic tendencies. Last Generation Theology demonstrates our continuing flirtation with individual perfectibility. We also have in our midst Headship theologians who insist on taking the church back to Old Testament patriarchalism. They take isolated passages in scripture and E.G. White to argue that women have proscribed roles that revolve mainly around motherhood. Our youth shake their heads and walk out the church doors as soon as possible because these beliefs are inconsistent with their life experiences.
The importance of the 1888 law debate is what it teaches us: that no belief is so settled it cannot be seen in another light. Time and tradition are no substitutes for new experiences and insights which require re-evaluation of our beliefs. This should be a survival issue for the church. We cannot continue to exchange the mass exodus of our youth from the church in favor of rigid “right beliefs.”
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.
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