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A Disruptive, Bottom-Up, Adventist Ethics – Ecclesiological Holzwege VI

From its inception, Adventism has embraced a theology that has privileged ethics. All the other load-bearing categories of Adventism—the Sabbath, the Second Coming, lifestyle, etc.—have been reworked, put into perspective, and refined by this ethical sensibility. It has probably happened for several reasons.

The first is an understandable reaction to the major Protestant and evangelical churches in their efforts to disentangle themselves from Catholic collaborationism regarding salvation. They had heavily subordinated ethics to second place in the believer’s experience. They also completely detached it from salvation itself, which happens only by God’s grace. Adventism had the right insight to understand that, while safeguarding the exclusivity of God’s grace in the order of salvation, ethics was not so foreign to the salvific process. It was enough to understand how to connect ethics with salvation by trying to avoid the over-identification of both, as does Catholicism, but also its over-separation, as happens in Protestantism.

The second reason was a contextual one—nineteenth century “puritan” America. This strongly pragmatic and moral context heavily conditioned the Adventist profile, which was born in this period and which, despite its explicit efforts to demarcate itself, was instead heavily conditioned by its ethics and theology.

Therefore, contra an optimistic and spiritualizing tendency, Adventism played the sanctification card. The salvific process is thus incomplete if the “justification of the sinner” is not joined by the “transformation of the sinner.”

However, as often happens in history (and particularly the history of Adventism), over time the solution becomes part of the problem. The sanctification that was meant to complete the salvation process ends up deforming it. Instead of being an ally, sanctification becomes a hindrance to the believer’s flourishing. The resulting salvation is one-sided and overly predictable. The Adventist version does not save believers but congeals them into being more distrustful, compulsive and cynical about life and others.

Adventism lacks a serious effort in differential diagnosis. The theological anomalies are not only by default but also by excess. While Adventism is more attentive to the former, it is very naive with respect to the latter. Instead, to have a careful and critical ethics of paradox, it is important to recognize that vices are not the only difficulty, but virtues are also a problem. People’s lives are often ruined, not by vices, but by unmonitored virtues. Doctrinal errors aren’t the only way to warp the path of faith, unmonitored biblical truths can also distort it. Often people’s spiritual experience isn’t compromised by errors, but by biblical truths that have become schematic and excessively one-sided.

This is the case in contemporary Adventism. It is warped less by wrong things than by biblical truths that have paradoxically become an iron-cage for the Spirit, life and common sense. This happens through excessive zeal, compact conviction and blind militancy. These are the hallmarks of a reductive, pragmatic religiosity.

This reductive spirit is the cause and consequence of an inability to dialogue. Those who are excessively pragmatic and want to achieve results immediately cannot waste time in dialogue. It forces them not only to slow down their path of “progress,” but possibly to even revise it. But more fundamentally it is this unwillingness to dialogue that drives the believer into a convinced but one-sided militancy. The problem is even broader because it also affects how one reads the Bible. The pragmatic spirit sees only what it needs to see in the Bible. It completely loses sight of the tensions, paradoxes, and alternatives.

In contrast, European Adventism, which is slower and numerically negligible, has always had a greater respect for human dialogue and consequently also for the plurality of meanings within the Bible. And this reality, which some consider a defect, instead makes it more alert and connected with reality.

The typical “top down” ethic of sanctification puts the yardstick outside the believer (In God, the Bible or the church). In contrast, European Adventism embodies a “bottom up” ethic, which puts the starting point in the believer himself. Even to mention this possibility seems sacrilege to mainline Adventism.

The ethics of sanctification is necessary but insufficient because of its constant call to be like someone else (like Paul or like Jesus, etc.). It asks us to be what we are not yet, and what we could be. But it also easily falls into denial of the believer and what the believer is, by virtue of the gifts God has individually given.

A “bottom up” ethic, cultivated across the board by European Adventism, is one that doesn’t deny sanctification but nevertheless puts it in context with what we might call an ethic of “flourishing.” Massimo Recalcati[1] , a well-known Lacanian psychoanalyst, in one of his presentations in our Adventist School of Theology here in Florence, reminded us that an ethics of “flourishing,” (which he calls an “ethics of desire”) is where the believer counts. An individual’s words, questions, gifts, sensitivity, rhythms, doubts, and slowness—all count. We are not called to be like the apostle Paul or like one of our pioneers, but is simply called to be ourselves, because each of us must be faithful to that gift, that character, that calling which God has placed in our identities. It is what Spinoza[2] called “conatus,” that is, persevering in our being, trying to be ourselves. And which, in a provocative way Lacan[3] , at the end of the 7th seminar, articulates in the following dictum: “The only thing one can be guilty of is giving ground relative to one’s desire.”

In this ethics of “flourishing,” each believer is called to make a case for what they are before God. Indeed, God demands it. To God’s project believers present their own responses, and the guarantor of this possibility, of this tension, is God himself. If believers, therefore, are called to assert their own being before God, even more should they do so before Adventism, especially before institutional Adventism. Indeed, true Adventism, like true God, is the one which will be able to listen to and consider that personal project.

European Adventism is, in this respect, more Spinozian and also more Lacanian than Whitean. And this should not be imputed to it as a fault because that ethic of one’s own “flourishing,” though a minority in the face of the massive ethic of sanctification, is nevertheless a model we find in the Bible. For example, in Psalm 1:3,

It will be like a tree planted along waterways ,
which will bear fruit in its own time
And its leaves will never fall;
it will succeed in all its works.”

The tree reaches its life goal, not when it avoids sin, but when it communicates life through its budding, its flowering, and its fruit. Flowering is a typical bottom-up model. The tree must bring to fruition what it is. It is called to be itself. And every fruit, like every life, is a miracle—that is, a transgression. True life, like true love, is always transgressive because it knows how to go beyond what is logical, what is convenient, what others expect, what seems possible. So is the life-giving, incommensurate, over-the-top love of a father for a handicapped child, of a doctor for an irreversibly compromised life, of a teacher for a failing student.

This love would not be possible if we as Christians clung only to the model of sanctification, of movement transformation. Taking up one’s territory, taking root, knowing how to remain still, is a condition for flourishing. The stillness of the tree, like the stillness of a life, has its own dignity, its own value. A healthy faith must be able to recognize and appreciate this. Indeed, it is the antidote that this Psalm proposes against a compulsive faith, obsessed with the goal, the result, and the change.

At this point, the church model also changes. The goal of a faith community can no longer be the all-out walk. The mad rush toward seemingly religious but mechanically and artificially updated goals at the cost of detaching ourselves from everyone and everything. The goal and purpose of the believer is also to slow down the pace in order to be more with others in our community but also with others outside it. Someone who is a “tree” does not belong only to a particular species of trees but also to the whole forest. This metaphor proposes a new model of living—and living together. A model of balance. Balance between the roots pointing to the earth and the branches pointing to the sky. Balance between the leaves that highlight its own strength and exuberance and the fruit that is always for others, never for the tree itself. Through its own fruit the tree says, “the best of me is not meant for me but for others.” The blossoming also becomes a noble way of witnessing where, without words, the tree offers the best of itself, its fruit, to those passing by.

[1] Massimo Recalcati, In Praise of the Unconscious. Twelve arguments in defense of psychoanalysis, Mondadori, Milan 2007l.

[2] Benedict Spinoza, Ethics, Penguin, London 1996, (Book III, Postulate 6), p. 75.

[3] Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Seminar VII, Routledge, London 1992, p. 395.

Title image: George Bakos on Unsplash

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