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European Adventism: a “Reasonable Adventism” — Ecclesiological Holzwege III

Religion has been both a problem and a resource for modern Europe from the very beginning. Modern Europe was actually born in the 17th century as a radical critique of traditional religion. But Europeans did not abandon religion completely, they proposed an innovative interpretation of it, adapted to their time. This same dissonance is present in the European Adventism of our day, which is critical of the mainline, radical, and apocalyptic versions of Adventism practiced elsewhere in the world. But, at the same time, European Adventism defends its own interpretation that we might call a “reasonable Adventism.”

This typically European ambivalence finds expression in one of modernity’s founders—Thomas Hobbes. He was an architect of the modern state who, for inevitable reasons related to that historical context, sought to remove religion from the public sphere (Peace of Westphalia, 1648). This began a process of secularization and critique of traditional religion that would continue to the present and give rise to what Charles Taylor calls “The Immanent Frame.” This is the articulation of a religiosity from below, with the implicit presupposition of “Etsi deus non darteur,” that is, living one’s faith “as if God were not there.” But along with this critical attitude, Hobbes developed a new vision of Christianity to defend it in its essence, a vision aligned with his new political project. Indeed, Hobbes is a diligent interpreter of the Bible. In both Leviathan,[1] his main work, and De cive,[2] which preceded it only by a few years, one finds veritable exegetical-theological treatises. In these works Hobbes achieves a true exegesis of the central texts of the Old and New Testaments. He embeds his examination with penetrating reflections in a theological project that produces a clearly delineated and coherent analysis.

From its earliest formulation, and for a few more centuries, Hobbes’s reading and interpretation of the Bible would be both original and grand. It succeeds in elaborating, from the ancient text, a blueprint for a new and unprecedented time. Like any good interpretation, his does not link its time to ancient patterns, but allows the present moment to receive its approaching thrust and legitimacy. Thus, an ancient text can serve as a propeller toward something new. This innovative prospective in reading the Bible is immediately visible in the two books just mentioned.

On the one hand, Hobbes gives birth to a new Christianity based on a creative reading of the Bible (Old and New Testaments) but, on the other hand, this new Christianity is entirely aligned with the modern state. In fact, his analysis serves as the logic of a modern state and reinforces its legitimacy. The Bible, as read by Hobbes,[3] with the Christianity derived from it, is a strange mixture of freedom and captivity.

Hobbes’s biblical hermeneutics breaks with the deterministic logic of a medieval, church-centered approach. It creates an interpretation focused on individual anthropology and a modern state. A Hobbesean state had new characteristics and mechanisms, but it ends up chaining them both to a social contract that must be in service of the state. Unfortunately, this biblical interpretation panders to his Leviathan and thus absolutely and exclusively legitimates the monopoly of political force.

The modern Christianity proposed by Hobbes is more modern than Christian. This is not a problem in itself. Rather, the explanation it is given becomes one. Inevitably, every version of Christianity found in history interprets the Bible in accordance with its own lived context. The problem arises when one wants to represent a specific interpretation as totally biblical. But they are instead circumstantial and, above all, transitory, because they are tied to a particular historical period. Yet the desire is for the specific context to be definitive.

Over time Europe will refine its critique and assimilation of Christianity. Europe has experienced an excessive secularization in recent decades, which also implies a major deconstruction of the assumptions that underpin society and culture. Thus contemporary Europe must try to re-introduce a “reasonable version of religiosity” that can guarantee its cultural project as well as its social cohesion. One of the authors who tries to defend this urgent need for a “reasonable religion” is Jürgen Habermas. Starting from Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde‘s theorem[4] “The secularized liberal state lives onassumptions it cannot guarantee,” Habermas reintroduces, as a necessary element for the survival of Europe, a certain kind of religion—a “reasonable religion.” The state, like a culture and society, cannot survive solely on the basis of organization, policy assumptions, or purely economic and social management criteria.

With this kind of argument Habermas introduced a post-secular vision of European societies, which points to the value of “reasonable” and its validity, not only for religion but also for ethics and politics. A viable modern ethics is not one of all-out relativism, as is prevalent today, but neither is it built on absolute truth and values that would seek to replace it. Habermas’s “third way” doesn’t defend absolute rationality but the reasonableness of “ought-to-be.” His “third way” also applies to politics, which he asserts will take the form of a “deliberative politics.” This will arise, not from secular absolutes, but from reasonable dialogue among various political options. And in the same way, the social structure must be built on the “reasonable,” not on social ideals that often exclude.

It is in this context that an extraordinary dialog took place[5] between Jürgen Habermas and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, two of the most significant intellectual figures of the time, both in Germany and internationally. It was a major event in itself, as the meeting and discussion was between two singularly influential personalities in the intellectual world of laymen and believers. But it also had even greater significance when one carefully analyzes the two talks. Amidst the secularist temptation to brand all forms of religious culture as irrational regression, and the fundamentalist desire to authoritatively impose the truths of a single religious faith, Habermas and Ratzinger opened up the prospect of a post-secular society[6] in which secularists and believers find that dialogue isn’t simply an instrument of necessary compromise, but a method for self-discovery.

Thus Habermas’s “third way” builds on the value of “reasonable” to overcome both relativism and fundamentalism. As such, it not only sobers both religion and the state, but more importantly makes them inclusive. In both fundamentalism and relativism the typical exclusionary absolutism is configured and survives intact, though reversed. In fact, a deliberative politics of the “reasonable” has, as its first characteristic, that of inclusiveness. And in many ways inclusiveness precedes reasonableness. In the face of societies and churches that have become structurally heterogeneous, multicultural, and pluralistic, the sin to avoid is “worshiping” the true and absolute. The need to recognize those lives and ideas which do not resemble our own, but have the same right to life and recognition, necessarily leads to the transition of “true” to “true-like,” and “rational” to “reasonable.” The Truth and the Rational can easily become idols we compulsively worship in our cities and churches. The bond of human and religious respect for each other forces us to a change of register. This is both theological and human wisdom.

A militant call to compact truth risks the exclusion of others. It’s a paradox that such exclusion occurs through a sincere but myopic call to truth. With Jesus, truth is structurally inclusive and flexible precisely because its center is not doctrinal propositions but concrete persons. From this viewpoint, mainline Adventism expresses a contradiction in terms. In order to save an eschatological propositional truth, it is willing to erase everyone. And in doing so such Adventism doesn’t realize that it not only erases real truth, but also itself.

In this sense European Adventism is the most eschatological of all expressions, because it tries to flex its eschatology, not to abandon, but to include others. And especially included in these others are its own children, who often no longer attend our churches. European Adventism is a “reasonable Adventism” because it is inclusive. And even though Southern Adventists criticize European Adventism for its coldness, in reality this most inclusive Adventism is rooted in Europe—not elsewhere—precisely because of this “ideological reasonableness,” that others see as a flaw but is actually a great virtue. The other various militant Adventisms, beyond their merits, are perversely exclusionary, insensitive, and indifferent to people, as the “great” and “efficient” prophet Jonah was.

It is not Habermas who invented the idea of reasonable identity as a mechanism that promotes coexistence and inclusion, it is a reasonable Europe that invented Habermas. And it is this same Europe that has unwittingly evangelized European Adventism into making it “reasonable.” Europe has given to Adventism at least as much as Adventism has given to Europe. In missionary interaction both the hearer and preacher changes. And that is what has miraculously happened with European Adventism. It is no accident that Habermas’s treatise on political theory has, as its title, “The Inclusion of the Other.”[7] The true goal of politics, and even more so of religions, is to include people, not to stigmatize and push them away. In other regions of the world Adventism is numerically larger but paradoxically is qualitatively smaller, because it is isolated and exclusionary. European Adventism, on the other hand, is qualitatively strong though numerically smaller, because Adventist friendships are often more outside than inside. The strength of European Adventism thus lies not in the church but in the culture and societies that gave birth to it.

Part one of this series, “Ecclesiological Holzwege,” is here:”Is there a European Adventism?

Part two of this series, “Ecclesiological Holzwege,” is here:” The Unbearable Lightness of European Adventism

[1] T. Hobbes, Leviathan, Rizzoli, Milan 2013.

[2] T. Hobbes, De Cive. Philosophical elements on the citizen, Editori Riuniti, Rome 2014.

[3] T. Hobbes, Leviathan, see especially Parts III and IV. Cf. De Cive. Op. cit., see especially part III on religion, chapters 15 to 18.

[4] Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, The Formation of the State as a Process of Secularization, (Brescia: Morcelliana 2005).

[5] Organized by the Katholische Akademie, on January 19, 2004, in Munich.

[6] Joseph Ratzinger, Jürgen Habermas, Ethics, Religion and the Liberal State, (Brescia: Morcelliana

[7] Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other. Studies in Political Theory, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998).

Title image: George Bakos on Unsplash

About the author

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy. More from Hanz Gutierrez.
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