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The Unbearable Lightness of European Adventism: Ecclesiological Holzwege II

Milan Kundera, the Czech born and naturalized French writer, published his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, [1] in 1984. In this book he narrates the paradoxes of love between the main character Tomas and his fiancée Tereza. But this text does not just describe the paradoxical adventures of a young doctor who loves and betrays, works diligently and is libertine, and preserves and innovates his own tradition. Italo Calvino, in his book, American Lessons,[2] takes it as an example of the true novel because, hiding behind the theme of “lightness,” its true goal is actually a reflection “on the inescapable complexity of living.” It is a book about life, its heaviness, and the insurmountable difficulty of being able to reduce it to a sentence, a formula, a synthetic theological or moral judgment.

This Holzwege is made up of multiple and recurring existential paradoxes and juxtapositions that intersect and overlap in life and faith, without the possibility of arriving at a final synthesis. It is distinguished, not only in this text by Kundera, but in all European culture, according to the writer himself. European culture, Kundera reminds us in a small but dense book of essays, The Art of the Novel,[3] is not homogeneous or monolithic. Yet Europe has been continually tempted to perceive itself as a dynamic but homogeneous culture. The other side of dynamism is the homogenization of a life or institution. There is an inversely proportional relationship of one to the other. The more you lose in complexity the more you gain in dynamism. The more dynamic one becomes the more one glosses over and forgets complexity.

Europe will not shape itself as a culture of order and efficiency when it discovers a new epistemology, science, or politics, but rather when it detaches itself from “others.” And “others” should be understood not just as different populations, but also different species. This mechanism is a continuum in the history of modern Europe. Only when we detach ourselves from others, and from the complexity that those lives introduce into reality, do we become truly and finally efficient and dynamic. Byung-Chul Han reminds us[4] that progress, whether cultural or social, has a hidden face, which is the exclusion of the “other.”

The presence of others always introduces an element of confusion, opacity, and disorder that prevents a perfect social order. And the same mechanism occurs at the level of church and theology. The clearer and more dynamic a church and its theology becomes, the more we tend to gloss over and ignore the complexity of a faith experience.

Others always slow our pace and act as disturbing obstacles through the incommensurability and opacity of their mystery. In the narrative of modern man this element is decidedly neglected, and the drive for an orderly future and growth is exclusively seen as a virtue. Instead, this passion for an orderly and efficient world is the sign of a loss, an anthropological loss, the loss of the Other. It is marked by a structural ambiguity because, on the one hand it has certainly given rise to an incredible organizational and creative dynamism, the basis of Europe’s progress. But on the other hand, there is a dark side. From the beginning there has been minimization, discrediting, and finally oppression and exploitation of other peoples. And paradoxically, the attrition and alienation of its own project of civilization.

The European epistemology, and the culture to which it gives birth, is basically an anthropological problem. In reality it is the “thermometer” of detachment and estrangement from other peoples, notably from the Global South. Anomaly is therefore present from the beginning in its foundations, in the European DNA. Michel de Montaigne already said in 1580 that Europe was being born as a new world under the sign of a new rationality and efficiency, but also with two basic structural anomalies. In the “Apology of Raimond Sebond,”[5] the philosopher mentions a Europe that is breaking away from other peoples, whom he contemptuously calls uncivilized and primitive. But Europe is also breaking away from nature (that is, from other species), to create, by manipulating them, wealth and progress. Montaigne sees not only the correlation of these two phenomena, “racism” and “speciesism,” but manages to glimpse, in the birth of Europe, the seed of its perversion and self-destruction.

The merit of Kundera, and the texts cited above, is to remind us that Europe, despite this historical tendency toward homogenizing dynamism, actually has a dual soul. If Descartes represents the soul of ideation (“Clear and distinct ideas”), later to become clarity of social and political action, then the soul of complexity, according to Kundera, manifests itself mainly in the modern novel. And the prototype novel was Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. So, what distinguishes this 17th century story as insightful into this other European soul?

The first chapter of Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes”—earlier published in The New York Review of Books under the title of “The Novel and Europe,”—is devoted to the mad self-creation of “Don Quixote de la Mancha” by the novel’s Alonso Quijano. Kundera summarizes the profile of this second European state of being, which is more forgotten but has always been present. It has tempered the euphoria and mysticism of the European visionaries fascinated by a culture of scientific and social progress. This second soul represents sensitivity, listening, and perception of the indelible complexity of life that often hides behind the “lightness of Being.” In fact, Kundera adds, in the novel there is not a single protagonist but a collection of figures and characters that can hardly be framed into a single paradigm. The plot of the novel is always made up of multilinear and polyvalent entrances and exits that the narrator only tries to describe and join, without claiming to arrive at a synthetic truth. In the novel, the plot is always fluid; what precedes does not mechanically determine what follows. A new datum, an unexpected gesture, an unplanned event emerges continuously and directs everything in an unexpected path. In the novel a final synthesis is impossible. Thus doubt, thought, fragment, and surprise remain.

Kundera has done nothing more than “photograph” the complexity of life and history that Europe has, with difficulty, integrated into its DNA. So, Europe appears spent, compared with the U.S., as a slow continent, sometimes bent over its past: melancholy, cynical, and certainly more tragic. But what is seen as a handicap in the face of American efficiency and dynamism is actually an anthropological and cultural richness that Europe itself must learn to appreciate and share, in today’s necessary and difficult multicultural dialogue.

And European Adventist theology, the academic as much as the implicit theology of the grassroots communities, has absorbed this sensitivity to the complexity of life and faith. If European Adventism does not grow as much as the world church reproaches, it is certainly not because of laziness or indolence. It is significantly due to this Holzwege-complexity that neither the institution proper, nor the eschatological mission, can gratuitously ignore.

European Adventism, despite appearances, does not have that semi-Pelagian soul which has tormented world Adventism since its inception. For many, this is a drift, a flaw. But instead, in the overall picture of world Adventism, this fact represents an asset. As such it stands as a resource to be drawn upon to give greater substance, value, and robustness to Adventist identity.

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

[1] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, (London: Faber & Faber 1988)

[2] Published in English under the title: Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, (London: Penguin Classics 2009).

[3] Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, (New York: Grove Press 1988)

[4] Byung-Chul Han, The Exclusion of the Other, (Milan: Nottetempo 2016).

[5] M. de Montaigne, Essays, Bompiani, Milan 2014, pp. 489-683. All of chapter XII of the second book.

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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