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Doubt vs. Unreflective Loyalty

When religious conservatives defend their positions, the polemic too often turns combative. This adversarial posture is evident as far back as the 1263 Disputation of Barcelona, a formal debate between Friar Pablo Christiani, a Christian apologist, and the medieval Jewish scholar, Nachmanides, on the claims of their two religions. Superficially, the basic instruments of their “warfare” seemed to be just words, but the fierceness of their engagement suggested mortal combat.

It is this pugnacious mindset which orthodoxy defenders too often adopt when facing their opponents. This thinking has also produced entrenched, self-preserving “standing armies” within conservative communities, aimed at defending traditionalist ideology. These groups, frequently composed of bright minds within their denominations, are the first line of doctrinal defense. In Adventism, the Biblical Research Institute serves in this capacity.

Traditionalist apologetics operate with two key, albeit undeclared, presuppositions: (1) God is tribal and chooses favorites, and (2) there is an unchanging epistemology that needs to be preserved. So, whether God’s “chosen” group is a macro entity such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism etc., or subsets like Adventism, Hasidism, Sunnism etc., each group fields its own apologists who are always ready to defend their turf. This might be a partial explanation for persistent splintering within religion.

For much of Israel’s history, they believed their God was tribal. The nation and its greatest warrior-king, David, were perceived as the “Apple of God’s Eye.” By the New Testament (NT) era however, a massive shift had occurred. We see this change in the writings of the nascent Christian movement as they moved away from a parochial, to a universal God. The result is that John’s God (3:16) is non-aligned and loves all humanity. So salvation is now readily extended to “whosoever,” regardless of tribe or nation.

When a people conceive their God in such tribal images they can mistake the way-stations on their revelatory journeys for destinations. It turns dangerous over time if they believe they “own” or are the sole depository of God’s oracles. Then, all is permissible. They can use that god’s name to do very bad things. Thus Samuel justified genocide because his god was Israel’s “private property” and his neighbors, nonentities.  Hitler promoted “Aryan master race” superiority, while also convinced that Aryans enjoyed God’s special blessing. The Holocaust resulted, where Jews were killed like animals. And presently, Netanyahu’s ultranationalist government is slowly starving an entire group to death, believing that a tribal god had deeded them a piece of land.

The second presupposition, epistemic constancy, is summed up by Malachi’s (3:6) God who declares “I am the Lord, I change not.” In other words, all God’s declarations are permanent. This is a spurious position thoroughly rejected by the Bible itself. Scripture reveals a constantly changing dynamic where, depending on the time and circumstances of individuals or schools of writers, God—or his spokespersons—frequently “change” their minds. For example, the Mosaic law legislated death (Num 15:32-36) for Sabbath breakers, but when Jesus was accused of Sabbath desecration, he demurred, insisting the Sabbath was instituted to serve man’s needs. (Mark 2:27-28) The prevailing wisdom within sixth century BCE Judaism was that god punishes sinners generationally. But Jeremiah and Ezekiel (18:20-21) contradicted this claim, declaring: “[only] the soul that sins shall die,” meaning, each individual is responsible for his/her own actions. Similarly, under Jesus’s scrutiny, Moses’s “eye for an eye” law would fall by the wayside.

This shifting ideological dynamic is also evident in the New Testament. Paul, the earliest NT writer, was an apocalyptic. In 1 Thess 4:15-17 he provides his clearest and most detailed understanding of the subject, including the belief that Jesus would return in his lifetime to setup the perfect Kingdom.  But even here we get the sense that Paul was addressing this subject because the Thessalonian congregation was beginning to doubt. The Parousia had tarried, and some of the older members were dying, so the church sought clarification about the order of events when death preceded Jesus’s return.

The fluidity of the Second Coming concept is evident throughout the Synoptic Gospels. After Paul, Mark’s writer was next to take up the Jesus story. His account was written roughly forty years after Jesus’s death. And, like Paul before him, he had apocalyptic leanings and began his narrative with the eschatological proclamation that the kingdom was “at hand.” Matthew and Luke were written a few years apart, some 20 years after Mark. Both show heavy indebtedness to Mark. But Matthew, probably the most apocalyptic gospel writer, perhaps because his primary audience was contemporary Jews, envisaged a Jesus return similar to Mark’s. Not so with Luke/Acts. Whoever wrote these two books might have believed in a “soon return” in the early going, but quickly pivoted to a service-oriented ministry that spanned the ages.

So, while Christianity might have had a Second Coming slant at its inception, the narrators made subtle adjustments away from a “hard” proposition. It is this nuanced “at his appearing” approach that Paul adopted in his 1 Thessalonians discourse, when it became clear Jesus’s return would not be as imminent as they had first believed. Luke/Acts would put even further distance between the apocalyptic yearnings of Mark and Matthew, by suggesting that the Kingdom of God is “among” or “in us.” Then he set up a durable organizational structure anticipating a church that would be here for the long haul, serving the present needs of humanity.

We all end up in community. However, we rarely do so by deliberative conscious choices, but more typically by circumstances of our birth and upbringing. We mediate our environments through shared language, culture, schooling, and of course, religion. For most of us our very identities are defined by the guiding beliefs we acquire from these settings, because they give us comfort and a sense of belonging. We don’t usually think much about it, but religion is the one community that we are likely to be born into, and remain in throughout our lives. Christians don’t often study about Muslims, or vice versa. Which suggests we typically adopt what was handed down to us, then often defend it axiomatically, making it difficult for us to objectively assess the merits of what we believe. But we must occasionally reassess what was passed down if we are to take our religion seriously.

How then does a rigid apologetic posture affect our religious practice? I’ll give two examples. It is not a good faith apologetic if it refuses to consider the times or new evidence, when doing so might lose an argument. This, to some extent, is what has happened regarding the rampant homophobia in conservative circles. Over two thousand years ago, some under-informed pronouncements about alternative sexuality were made by Jewish writers. A few of these statements are now preserved in contemporary scriptures. Back then, those writers had no understanding of what we presently recognize as sexual orientation.  But now we do know, and understanding ought to matter. We can’t feign ignorance, especially considering how seriously these incognizant statements impact real people today.

If we ignore current insights, we behave as though the intervening millennia never happened. But it did, and we have an obligation to learn from this legacy. Remember, the edict to kill Sabbath breakers remains in scripture, but do we enforce it today? Yet some contemporary African Adventist leaders, notably in Ghana and Uganda, seem oblivious to the deep irony of ignoring the Sabbath-breaking rule, yet they are supportive of new laws prescribing imprisonment and death for “violations” of heterosexual-only sexuality. They are persuaded that their scriptures mandate such punishments. As these draconian laws targeting homosexuals in Africa play out, church leaders, including my own faith community, have been loudly silent. They allow this distorted apologetic to overrule their humanity. An exception has been Pope Francis, who has characterized the LGBTQ+ community as “our brothers and sisters.”

Secondly, if an apologetic fails to reevaluate its historical premises as prelude to adjusting its belief-sets, it is unreflective, and practices bad faith. We have not done any serious revision of our cardinal Adventist belief concerning the Second Coming since our 1844 beginnings, when the pioneers thought Jesus’s return was “near.” Since then we have beaten down the twin meanings of “soon” and “near” into abject submission, and still keep at it.

Paul and Luke/Acts initially believed Jesus was returning “soon” as well, but when it no longer seemed so, they wisely recalibrated their expectations and shifted their missionary goals—in their lifetimes. Our pioneers similarly believed that Jesus would return in 1844. But unlike those biblical authors, we continue to mouth the same platitudes about a “soon coming,” now 180 years delayed. Our leaders feel no obligation to discuss why 180 years should still mean “soon.” But if they showed some initiative and opened up the apparent delay for a genuine conversation, they might be surprised by its cathartic effects. And, like Luke/Acts, our church might find a better ministry centered more in service for humanity. Instead, we spend limited resources trying to convince a largely skeptical world of an immediately returning messiah, one who’s earthly ministry was steeped in service.

Our leaders and academics are not ignorant of the weaknesses of some of these claims. Many of them attended fine schools and know better. But some are not influenced by better knowledge because they choose to wear blinders. And the single most constraining source of myopia is that they work for the church. When your livelihood is dependent on the organization you work for, you are much more likely to toe the line on denominational orthodoxy. This is why some leaders express divergent views about church positions only from the safety of retirement. It’s what the longest serving editor of Adventist Review, the late Bill Johnson, did with some impact. And yet I recognize the cost of speaking out, and why many struggle to do so. The harm to careers and reputations of those who tried—like Merikay Silver, Ron Numbers, and Des Ford—still remain as counterexamples to a misguided loyalty test.

My aim in this piece is not merely iconoclastic. Adventism in particular, and Christianity generally, have provided me sanctuary throughout my adult life, and it gives me no pleasure to discuss these shortcomings. Ours is a different world from what the pioneers anticipated. We need to face the serious issues that have arisen, which our founders did not foresee. It is only when we are forthright that we can pass on our faith to the next generation of Adventist Christians without resorting to obfuscation and half-truths.

Granted, there are some in our persuasion who are absolutely convinced of our doctrinal exactitude, and for whom any talk of periodic reassessment is a waste of time. They find nothing discordant in any of our 28 Fundamental Beliefs. The concerns raised here will likely not move them. But for those who recognize that there is fallibility to knowing, and are suspicious of certainty, doubt can be a welcome relief. Because the ability to doubt—to say I’m not sure—is a too-rare gift that can propel us to new discoveries, which open up vistas previously unrecognized. We sacrifice our innate curiosity when we cling to comfortable beliefs, and with it, lose the freedom to think beyond current orthodoxy. The risk then is that we would treasure illusions more than truth, and hang on to them as if they were life itself. When our apologetics is unreflective, we risk believing our own lies.

Image Credit: Vladimir Zuhovitsky on Unsplash

About the author

Matthew Quartey was born and raised in Southern Ghana and obtained graduate and postgraduate education in Ghana, Nigeria, and the United States. His academic interests center around post-independence African literature as well as British/American literature of the 19th century. Quartey works in healthcare management and lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan, with his wife Sophia. More from Matthew Quartey.
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