Time to Start Over: Is There Dawn After Decadence?

Time to Start Over: Is There Dawn After Decadence?

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Published:
June 26, 2021

All who bear responsibility for Christ, I salute. Fundamentalists who look after the lonely or abandoned; pastors, administrators, musicians who tend to congregational life; all who raise and educate children, who think hard and write scholarly papers, who run hospitals, schools and other institutions; whoever feels betrayed and disappointed but does not give up; agnostics who sit with their spouses in church, come to the potluck, bestir themselves against indifference. I am grateful to all, of whatever stripe or occupation, who care for the world and its people—grateful to all of you.

Over several months, I have been offering occasional essays under the title, “Time to Start Over.” Here is my last, and I want first of all to say that I aspire to humility even if I stumble in trying. I am attempting to speak the truth in love and hoping to do so without forgetting my own inadequacy and my own debt to all my brothers and sisters in Christ.

If my general title overstates things—we can’t, after all, start from scratch—the phrase is still apt. Much of the church’s present doctrinal substance is unsustainable. In light of realities many are now acknowledging, mere adjustments, mere shifts in emphasis or nuance, can only fall short, like changing a tire when the engine has stalled. It’s “time to start over” because difficulties I spelled out in the first essay require sweeping convictional renovation. We need not nullify Adventist tradition; out of deep loyalty to it, and in full faithfulness to Christ, we must rebuild it.

Obstacles, of course, loom in front of us.

One is that at least since the 1919 Bible Conference, when Adventist thinking took a fundamentalist turn, our shared life has suffered from persistent expectation of uniformity. Whether in doctrine or practice, such an expectation is harmful to Christian community, even suicidal. It cannot, certainly, be welcoming to fresh perspective, and as our pioneers knew and emphasized, fresh perspective is indispensable.

Another obstacle is that the path to revising who we are is perilous. Communities are fragile, with identities that involve Yes and No—living this way but not that; thinking one way but not another. So how can we “start over”—when we all know not everyone will want to—without shattering the agreements that undergird shared life? Won’t we unstick the glue that holds us together?

These risks are real, but we may acknowledge them and at the same time recall—anew—that under God worrying developments need not be paralyzing. As our pioneers knew, few themes appear more often in Scripture than this one: Go forward! Don’t be afraid

A still more challenging obstacle is slippage into sheer hopelessness. Secular culture, now ascendant, takes for granted the iron rule of natural law. Whether in the flux of the starry heavens or the workings of the human brain, the universe is thus seen as fundamentally graceless, indifferent to human aspiration, insidious to human responsibility. This conclusion may be defied at weddings (“I promise…”) or in courts of law (“The defendant is guilty…”) or even in philosophy (“morality is compatible with determinism”), but it gives rise, nevertheless, to cynicism and moral heedlessness, so evident now in politics and popular entertainments. Today even the pious, facing not only secular dogma but also the embarrassment of religious hypocrisy and false vision, may lapse into the feeling that nothing can be done. But for any humanity-improving enterprise, that feeling spells doom. If we do not resist it, we may as well be drunken frat boys who have given up on the semester: nothing really matters.

All this evokes the specter of decadence. Many good things, not least in health ministry, education, and the building up of our membership, have happened in Adventism since 1919. Many of us today recall the blessed childhoods our parents, churches and schools provided for us. Still, the fundamentalism that took hold in 1919 is no strategy, we now realize, for a movement’s long-term viability and relevance. And when a movement’s thoughtful members begin to feel that accretions and close-mindedness have undermined the movement’s purpose, or even to think that futility about constructive change is somehow normal, that movement’s culture is decadent. It is on the wane.

Some 35 years ago, when I was just starting as senior pastor of the Sligo Church near Washington, D.C., the middle-aged daughter of a well-known Adventist family said to me one evening: “Don’t you think Adventism is on the way out?” The question was a jolt. I fought off its effect, and I still want to fight off doubts and cynicism that, like sin, are always crouching at the door.

From the beginning of these essays, I have been arguing against slippage into hopelessness. Obstacles must, and may, give way to constructive urgencies—not urgencies that overwhelm and immobilize but ones that inspire and animate. Earlier I mentioned a moment in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life when his worries about German Christianity caused him, in a letter to a friend, to ask, Will not the church “reach the end of its existence then, if we do not change immediately, speak and live completely differently?” But just then, in the mid-1930s, he was finishing his timeless reflections on Discipleship. In Bonhoeffer, acknowledgment of reality and passion for renewal had joined hands.

Within Adventism I have seen similar nerve, similar refusal of resignation. When I was attending the Seminary, alert students could face problems usually ignored, and hear teachers point toward their resolution. Although some of these teachers, being decidedly not fundamentalist, were later forced from their posts, they continued, in their different ways, to be nourishing to me. Leaping to the present, I may also mention the Zoom-assisted “progressive” Sabbath School classes that right now are standing tall for intellectual candor and integrity.

One of these, the Faith and Reason Class at Sligo, recently invited members to submit “144-word” statements of faith. I have been hinting in these essays at the need for a briefer crystallization of our commitments. And what’s crucial, I’ve been suggesting, is putting practice—the life of discipleship—at the forefront and giving theological propositions the important, but supportive role of correctly expressing the premises for practice. A Christian belief system, after all, is no proper end in itself.

I had thought about such a statement for a long time. Now, prodded by the class, I came up the other morning with 133 words. Intending to be faithfully Adventist, I kept in mind the conversation, described earlier in this series, that took place at the organizing meeting of the Michigan Conference in 1861. So here, with a nod to the delegates at that meeting, is my own proposal for an:

ADVENTIST COVENANT AND STATEMENT OF FAITH

Thanks to the grace of God, we covenant together to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ.

Our promise to God reflects God’s promise to us, made known in the Bible and kept alive in the witness of Christ’s followers. We embrace this Way of Life—this shared discipleship—because we are convinced that God makes us in the divine image, gives us a mission of blessing and peace, forgives and heals us when we sin, persists in loving kindness until loving kindness reigns supreme.

All this came to perfect clarity in Jesus Christ, God’s own self in human flesh. By his life, cross and resurrection, he became our center. In his Sabbath we find rest and renewal. In his promised Return, we find a hope to live by.

I offer this as wholly adequate for any baptismal or other statement of shared Adventist conviction, but I have no corner, of course, on the wisdom we need just now. Still, one thing to notice is that sweeping revision of Adventist doctrine does not require swerving away from distinctive Christian practices that our pioneers embraced. With Christ at the center, we can still hold on to separation of church and state; still renounce violence as a Christian strategy; still uphold, by habit and ministry, health and healing as sacred responsibilities.

We may notice, too, that a very brief covenant can expand our sense of mission—a “mission of blessing and peace”—so as to undergird, not only evangelism, but also common-good justice and peacemaking. These, too, are primary biblical passions, and both have been largely overlooked in fundamentalist Adventism. Neither even appears in the leadership’s current Statement of Fundamental Beliefs.

My proposal ends with reference to our two signature doctrines. But the point is not to lay down a veneer of orthodoxy. It is to underscore what is decisive for any renewal attempt in Adventism. The energy required to be a Christian movement is pointless unless that movement brings a distinctive and indispensable perspective to the Christian conversation.

Here, as I have argued earlier, the Sabbath is essential. It is Jesus’ own sacrament in time, God-made, so he himself declared, for our benefit. The Sabbath, moreover, fosters connection to Christianity’s (scandalously repressed) Jewish heritage. When Christianity is vilified, it is often for moral reasons, for its obsession with individual well-being, its aloofness from earthly goings-on, its inattention to the common good. A deeper link to a heritage grounded in the Exodus and sustained by prophetic passion can help to deliver conventional piety from all of this.

As for the hope of Christ’s Return, it not only boosts energy against discouragement, but also (when deeply comprehended) reminds us that no present institution—no church, for example, and certainly no state or form of government—stands outside the judgment of God. For people fully answerable to the apocalyptic elements of scripture, self-questioning based on Christ’s ultimate authority propels constant reformation and renewal. It makes hope a virtue, a frame of mind at once critical and constructive, reflective and activist.

The specter of Adventist decadence is thus no certain predictor of doom. The pioneers bequeathed us a framework for rebuilding our tradition into fresh relevance. We could, if we only willed and prayed for it, be a movement whose distinctive and indispensable perspective enhances not only the Christian but also the human conversation.

I acknowledge that it would tear our community apart if the reforming spirit elaborated here lost all humility and began sharp attacks on individuals or congregations not yet at home with such a spirit. Even as we may seek wider engagement of the urgencies now confronting Adventism, we must also own a stubborn fact: none of us knows exactly how best, how least divisively, to go forward—except, perhaps, that it should be one by one, congregation by congregation, institution by institution.

In any case, these words from Colossians 3 speak directly to our moment: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…. Above all, clothe yourselves with love.”

A tall order? Yes, but for all who would prefer dawn to doom, these words can only be crucial, decisive, welcome.

 

Previous Articles in this Series:

Time to Start Over: First, Face Delusion, September 16, 2020

Time to Start Over: Christ without Christ, or, How Not to Miss the Point, October 30, 2020

Time to Start Over: The 28 — If Our Beliefs Weigh Us Down, How Can They Lift Us Up?, December 17, 2020

Time to Start Over: Reconceiving Sabbath — A New Case for the Seventh Day, February 23, 2021

Time to Start Over: How to Reconstruct Adventist Eschatology, April 7, 2021 

 

Charles Scriven is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

Photo by Leila Bandringa on Unsplash

 

 

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