“For God does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us.” —Martin Buber
“What a fickle web we weave,” a friend of mine expressed while recounting stories of her encounters with church members. Last year, I recorded my own moments of shock and befuddlement in Part 1 of this series. Now, I can see the main issue within my examination of how the church clashes with pluralism—or more realistically, crashes into it. We, as Adventists, do not know what our community is; we don’t know how to define it. We may have 28 statements of identity, but pluralism can only be built by a community that knows itself well enough to be honest—with itself and with others. We all know the truth about “the unhappy 20% making 80% of the noise.” Why do we let them? Is it fear? Or is it something more foundational? I have come to see that it is a lack of integrity that holds us back from the benefits of a pluralistic framework. These observations come from a life lived among the many Adventisms, and as a reporter might say, “the facts on the ground.”
We love saying good things like “we show God’s love here” or “to love people and the world beyond” or “all are equal before the cross.” But do we know what these statements look like in actuality, or are we like the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, concluding that “some are more equal than others”? What keeps us remaining in fear? When we don’t know ourselves as a community and we allow the loudest voice to win, we turn into what my former teacher calls “adult children,” unable to see another’s point of view. Because we have created a church culture dependent on knowing the right stuff (with too many parallels to Gnosticism), we cannot see beyond our own denomination. No wonder I’m not allowed to argue for befriending a Muslim without the need for converting them.
Our diction, sometimes called “Christianese,” can also keep us from being part of the larger society past church walls. Pluralism requires us to not only see beyond ourselves but to also define ourselves without self-referencing. Imagine the frustration in looking up a word’s definition only to see the word itself. That kind of circular logic is ever-present, ever guiding us, and many lifelong Adventists might even be unaware of it. No wonder we are unable to sustain a platform for conversing with other faith traditions, as defining ourselves without self-referencing takes us out of our haystack comfort zone. As I have said before, we don’t encounter God, live the gospel message, and build outward-reaching connections from a place of personal comfort.
Without integrity, we have allowed space for un-trinitarian thought and conspiracy theory breeding grounds. At the same time, as even my non-Adventist students have pointed out, the largest tithe givers often have the greatest voice. We are afraid to lose people from our church, so we bend and break for the loudest group. We are content to split churches as an accommodation tactic, which further generates a culture of “he said, she said.”
Within our culture, we have maintained a paradox, finding guidance in unspoken assumptions. When leaders or laypeople have no reason, no logic for their actions other than preferences, we have failed. When honest requests for clarification are seen as a rebellion or challenge to authority, we know we have lost the love. The safety net of our preferences will always result in a closed church, one unable to live out its Christ-like character by accepting the Other. As Adventists, we have created a beautiful self-image. We even give it a name: remnant theology. As cute as it looks and as warm as it feels, this self-given privilege generates pride, for it places our hope in human logic, not in God. Worst of all, hope in human logic blocks us from people. The flip side of pride is fear; our fear stems from possibly losing our self-made statues.
Where can we go from the doom and gloom I have presented you? Our reality may be thus, but our calling is this: Jesus showed us his truth to be his people. To get there, we have to realize that we cannot raise ourselves up as a community while holding onto fear. Pluralism aims to overcome fear by pointing out, as Captain Jean-Luc Picard has said, that fear is an incompetent teacher.
What if insted of being driven by fear, we followed theologian Esther McIntosh’s question and framed community in terms of belonging rather than believing? It becomes a dangerous question when we have constructed our faith system on knowledge rather than a faithful relation forged by picking up our crosses and following Jesus. Perhaps we can look to a non-Christian friend or classmate, following Jesus’s example, as he often used outsiders to show his followers how to live.
My graduate friend Greenwood said it best: “To truly know someone is to see their beauty.” I wish I could have thought of that line, for it shows the heart of our faith, for it magnifies the reality pluralism is trying to point out. We are here for “the good of all our fellow creatures,” as Saint Gregory of Nazianzus once wrote. Integrity involves taking a stand, not about hymns or praise music but on real matters of community. When we allow people to become our focal point again, the outlying, extra stuff becomes unimportant. The worship service won’t need to conform to our preferred pattern, and the pastors can be allowed to truly lead. Personal needs and preferences may become, as I have discovered, non-essential to the point that we too can say: “I must decrease so he may increase.”
Notes & References:
 Esther McIntosh. “Belonging without Believing,” International Journal of Public Theology 9, no. 2 (2015): 131–155.
Previous Articles in this Series:
Pluralism: The Reality Adventism Can No Longer Ignore, April 26, 2021
Pluralism: Educating That We’re Better, December 12, 2021
Kevin R. McCarty is writing on the topic of Seventh-day Adventist interfaith education for his master’s level thesis. He is an Adventist teacher in beautiful British Columbia and an advanced graduate student in Indigenous & Interreligious Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology.
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