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Is a Militant Adventism Healthy? Ecclesiological Holzwege VII

Militancy is an essential ingredient for the birth and growth of a religious experience, whether individual or community. If militancy were not there, the component giving consistency and stability to a faith experience would be missing. At a theoretical level militancy entails beliefs and values; at a more practical level it involves consistency and discipline. And yet militancy, when it stands alone, not only fails to ensure healthy growth, but also runs the risk of deformation. For this reason militancy must necessarily be accompanied by healthy reflection. But militancy does not like reflection, or only likes “reflection” that confirms, not contradicts.

True reflection is not that which confirms militancy, but undermines it, with troubling questions. If reflection is not disturbing, it is not reflection at all. This is why Max Weber[1] described the true political leader as one who can hold, or learn to hold, the indelible tension between militancy and reflection. Between, what he called, “charisma and responsibility.” Here responsibility means the ability to reflect with enthusiasm on what we do. It involves evaluating, not only one’s convictions, but also to critically analyze the resulting effects. This especially includes unintended consequences that conviction often minimizes, or tends not to see. 

If, as noted in my previous articles, Adventism tends to be an ethical theology, one of the categories—both ethical and theological—will necessarily be militancy. Indeed, mainline Adventism overwhelmingly privileges the figure of a militant believer. Not only does it fail to see other profiles as equally worthy, but more importantly it fails to perceive the anomalies in its own model. As happens with models that have become ideological, discomforts and anomalies are attributed to the failure to apply your model consistently. So, you try to correct this with an updated dose of the same model that caused those anomalies.

Adventism, paradoxically, did not invent the model of a militant ethics, but inherited it from modernity itself. Wolfahrt Pannenberg reminds us of this[2] when he says that, from the typical religious foundation of pre-modern ethics, modernity replaces it with an ethics detached from God. We might have expected the decay of ethics in modernity but instead, Pannenberg continues, we find its reinforcement through two paradoxes. First, that ethics does not decay but is reinforced. Second, that the classical subordination of ethics to dogmatics is succeeded by the subordination of dogmatics to ethics. That is, those theological statements that have a practical ethical effect will validate faith. The testing ground of theology and its validity becomes ethics. In this sense all contemporary theology is an ethical theology. And an ethical theology foundationally secularizes faith, so the mystical dimensions that hitherto characterized a faith experience tend to disappear. Thus Kierkegaard, in reaction, tries to safeguard the religious dimension from the invasiveness of ethics and its excessive rationality.

The militant, by virtue of his or her obsession with application at the expense of reflection, has then a profile of perfectly practical rationality, even when railing against speculative faith. Adventism has merely adopted this distinctive feature of modern and contemporary Christianity, by giving it a uniquely different justification. The experience of faith involves action—to act correctly and consistently. So Adventism creates a perfectly practical rationalism that tends to erase, not only reflection, but anything else that contradicts the linearity of militancy.

For mainline Adventism therefore, only the one who acts—with determination and avoiding distraction—is a consistent believer. Any interruption of the desired action is necessarily perverse because it diverts us from the goal. He who knows and does not act is necessarily inconsistent, because the knowledge possessed does not lead to concrete action. Adventist ethics has always been shaped as strongly prescriptive. In today’s church, instead of mitigating this, it is being reinforced and radicalized.

Such a strongly prescriptive ethic presupposes two conditions. First, that the historical context be transparent. Second, precisely because it is so clear, there is then only one possible action to follow without delay. This prescriptive ethic has not faded with time but has paradoxically strengthened.

Today the Adventist prescriptive ethic has become more radical—for two reasons. First, for evangelism. One cannot convince “the world” with a confusing and complex message. So, to evangelize, the gospel must be reduced to clear and convincing slogans. Both ethical and theological complexity tends to be worn down by this obsession with a warped version of witness. Second, because of administrative homogeneity, Adventism stubbornly wants to reinforce a greater efficiency. A true church cannot indulge in the luxury of hesitancy or uncertainty, much less doubt or repentance.

European Adventism breaks away from this model, not because it considers it unnecessary, but simply because it considers it insufficient. Instead, European Adventism has always favored an “elective” ethic instead of the “prescriptive” ethic of mainline Adventism. This elective ethics presupposes two particular conditions.

First, the complexity of the situation. It is not always possible to know what to do because the situation has become complex from both a religious and human perspective. European culture is not only complex, but Europeans are generally aware of this complexity, and therefore wary of reductive slogans. Moreover, this attention to religious complexity is not new. It belongs to the ethics of the Prophets, as opposed to the ethics of the Torah, which appears decidedly more compact (Deuteronomy Ch. 28).

Second, there is no single option for one’s action. Therefore, before I can act I must necessarily understand. Prescriptive ethics has become, in European Adventism, a reflective ethics, one which tries to understand. The typical Adventist ethic of obedience is then accompanied by attempted discernment. How could we apply a principle if the contexts are not clear?

But ethics from morality can become an anthropology. Indeed, ethics is not just about the action, but also the ethical agent—a person and his or her complexity—behind those actions. Militant ethics tends to focus on an action’s effectiveness while engulfing the person behind it. Reflective ethics takes charge of the person, and even their feelings.

And at this level European Adventism suggests a new criterion: “orthopathy.” Biblical beliefs (orthodoxy) and consistent, disciplined behavior (orthopraxis)—are no longer sufficient. A third register is needed that takes into account the health and balance of the believer. Orthopraxis is the register of a healthy interiority, of one’s attitudes and feelings. A believer “who knows” and “who can” could perfectly well be a worn out and anxious agent personally, as well as within their community and the world.

This is what psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas[3] describes when, in his book “Meaning and Melancholia,” he reminds us that militancy without reflection hides a self that is worn out and suffering. But also divided. This is because, in the face of militancy’s own internal suffering, it is incapable of stopping for self-care. It therefore proceeds by compulsion. And compulsion makes the militant appear even more performative, without realizing that such militancy is a compensation mechanism of concealment and dissembling. Often militants cannot read themselves, and their own suffering and misery, but have unfortunately internalized a pattern of action that saves and condemns them at the same time. It saves because it makes them feel useful, redeems them from insignificance and anonymity. Yet it perpetuates their discomfort and existential asymmetry.

Militancy today has unfortunately become the polite and decent word that describes a worn-out and suffering believer who nevertheless cannot do without the reassurance and comfort of their compulsive rituals. This is a kind of addiction. Even when those actions, tasks, and goals, are not needed, militants must ritualistically perform them or feel lost in their own suffering, which they do not want to see.

The religious militant is thus often a serial compulsive, especially when they are at the top of the decision-making power of an institution or community. This is why Christopher Bollas speaks of the “manic” tendency of pragmatism in today’s performance societies, of which the militant believer is merely an extension. Militancy is a modern phenomenon. It does not belong to the biblical record, despite continuing intentions to ground it in scripture. But this compulsion to act is even more dangerous because it is instantiated as a mechanism for hiding one’s suffering and attrition. In many ways, Adventism has not only become compulsive, but unfortunately also manic, in its ethics and eschatology. This is why European Adventism, for the reasons briefly described above, is not only not a threat, but is part of the solution, for both Adventist ethics and paradoxically also for a renewed conception of witness and evangelism.

[1] Max Weber, Politik als Beruf, (Frankfurt: Anaconda Verlag 2005).

[2] Wolfahrt Pannenberg, Grundlagen der Ethik: Philosophisch-theologische Perspektiven, (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Verlage 2004)

[3] Christopher Bollas, Meaning and Melancholia. Life in the Age of Bewilderment, (New York: Routledge 2018).

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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