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Tighter Grip, More Slip

Have you ever tried to hold water in your hands? There is a balance to maximizing the amount you hold. Obviously you have to support it by cupping your hands together and creating a stable place for the water to rest. However, if you make a fist and squeeze tightly, the liquid will run through your fingers. You’ll wind up with a wet hand, but very little water to show for your effort.

We learn this lesson as young children. Not everything can be gripped tightly if you want to keep it. This is especially true when talking about relationships with other people. Whether it’s a romantic relationship, parent/child relationship, political arrangement, or the church: smothering people with the intention of keeping them close will often counterproductively drive them away. In Star Wars, Princess Leia challenges the methods of the authoritarian Empire as she confronts one of their generals: “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” Indeed, the Rebel Alliance became more resistant with each of the Empire’s successive strikes (yes, the Empire did strike back!). There are plenty of real-life examples too. Many a marriage has been destroyed by one spouse attempting to control the other in unhealthy and sometimes abusive ways. Parents throughout the ages can testify about their children pushing back against stringent rules and rebelling as soon as they acquire some measure of independence. It’s true that providing some foundation is important. But being authoritative and being authoritarian are not the same. Research across cultures has repeatedly found that authoritarian methodologies lead to increased conflict. Overly draconian stringency frequently breeds resentment and a desire to break free at the first opportunity. Unfortunately, humans don’t always learn from history, from others, or even from our own mistakes.

During my time as a high school chaplain, my responsibilities included teaching Religion class. And I took that literally—the class was “Religion” not “Bible.” So, alongside our own doctrinal beliefs, I taught students the history of Christianity and the story of how denominations—including our own—were birthed. Furthermore, we learned about non-Christian traditions too. We took field trips to synagogues and mosques. And although we never quite made it to any Hindu temples, I made sure they understood about non-Abrahamic religions as well. How can you say you want to convert everyone to your beliefs because your beliefs are the truth, if your own beliefs are all you know (much like Americans who’ve never left their city, confidently proclaiming the US is the greatest country on Earth)? How can you evangelize someone and try to convince them to renounce their worldview when you have absolutely no idea what their worldview even is?

I was determined to make sure my students were given a more thorough education than I was. As a teen and younger adult, I (more than once) had the embarrassing experience of trying to share a tenet of our uniqueness and being shocked to find that the person I was speaking to believed the same thing. Being on the receiving end of misunderstandings about one’s beliefs is something Adventists themselves are all too familiar with.

And there have been plenty of times where I’ve been confronted with having to unlearn the    erroneous caricatures I had been taught about someone else’s faith practices.

It’s not unlike an incident that occurred when I began Adventist school in fourth grade. During one class, my dear teacher confidently enumerated all the problematic features of movie theaters. Having never been to one herself, she outlined all the dangers she heard were lurking in every corner. Several of my peers sat wide-eyed as she cautioned us never to go into one. If they dared, because this place of lasciviousness was so bad that angels dare not tread inside, their guardian angel would wait at the door and they would be left unprotected. Even as a 7-year-old, I found it absolutely absurd that your guardian angel would abandon you at a place you most needed them. Wouldn’t that defeat the entire purpose of a guardian angel? Moreover, while it took a few more decades for the Official World Church to figure out that cinemas aren’t inherently evil, I had already been to enough movies in my young life to know that theaters were nothing like my teacher’s description. Being totally oblivious to the Pandora’s box I was opening, I raised my hand and (politely) corrected my teacher’s misconceptions. I remember when my classmates turned in rapt attention as I detailed what the inside of a theater was actually like. Not only were they in awe that I’d actually been inside one, but it was mind blowing that what they’d been told was simply untrue. In retrospect, it was probably much like finding out from one of your little friends that Santa wasn’t real, after years of parental shenanigans. Students had been repeatedly taught one thing at home and school only to find out that it wasn’t remotely accurate.

I didn’t want my students to hold uninformed ignorant beliefs about the world. I couldn’t control what was taught at church or home. I couldn’t even control what was taught by other teachers. But at least in my class, I wanted them to get a broad understanding of various perspectives outside of our own. That’s why in addition to researching other faiths, we traveled on those aforementioned field trips to have first-hand conversations with leaders from other religions. How can you have a mature belief system if you don’t really understand why you believe what you do, and why you don’t believe what you don’t?

As you can imagine, there were more than a few constituents who hated my curriculum. Obviously, I should have been indoctrinating them! I even had parents bring me Amazing Facts DVDs to show to the class. I actually did use them. But certainly not in the ways they intended. I used them to illustrate that the students shouldn’t blindly believe everything they are preached or taught—not from a televangelist, not their pastor, not even me. Students were assigned to go through each point in the study videos to see if it could be entirely proven through Scripture. If not? Well …

It’s obvious that I wouldn’t have made it through the Inquisition Squad voted during the most recent GC Spring Council. Designed to monitor schools for heterodoxy, I’m certain they would not take kindly to teachers doing anything that deviates from a strictly evangelistic Adventist script. Providing exposure to a wide range of ideas—which is the purpose of education—doesn’t quite seem to fit in this administration’s ideal future. The motivation behind the proposed theology monitors is the desire to retain members and prevent “slippage” from adherence to the fundamental beliefs. Never mind the fact that the fundamental beliefs were never intended to be a prescriptive creed for internal compliance, but were actually only meant to be a descriptive statement to answer the queries of non-Adventists about the usual things members of our denomination hold in common. Along with being much shorter, that list used to include a preamble which explained exactly that. Early church pioneers strongly warned against any attempt at formulating a creed outside of the Bible alone. In the October 8, 1861 Review and Herald, J. N. Loughborough wrote:

“The first step of apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is, to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is to try members by that creed. The fourth to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And fifth, to commence persecution against such.”

Because of these sentiments there was a great deal of reluctance towards writing down the beliefs in a formal way. Nevertheless, in 1872 a pamphlet was produced presenting twenty-five Fundamental Principles. Right up front, it was made unambiguously clear that this list was “not put forth … as having any authority” with church members “nor is it designed to secure uniformity” but “to meet inquiries” and “to remove erroneous impressions” of “those who have not had an opportunity to become acquainted with our faith and practice.” It was reiterated that the “only object is to meet this necessity” (emphasis mine).  This was the sole purpose of our Fundamentals list. It was explicitly not to be used as a creed. For people who seem to want to “make Adventism great again” by going back to the pioneer days, this administration appears quite committed to doing the very thing the founders of the church warned against. They understood that Adventism was a big tent. Our Adventist history has been riddled with vehement disagreements about just where the borders of that tent end. Unfortunately, the lesson some people seem to have learned from past clashes is that it is necessary to cinch the edges ever closer together, making the tent smaller, and enclosing Adventism in as tight a space as possible. At this point, it’s so tight, it’s almost suffocating.

Attempts to use ignorance as a retention strategy are certain to have the opposite effect. Keeping a lid on the realities of the outside world is untenable. It’s nearly impossible to do for children, much less for collegiate students! And why would you want to? Helping them explore ideas in an environment where they can hone critical thinking skills and safely ask questions without fear of ostracism is how we cultivate curious citizens who have a healthy relationship with their own faith. Will there be some people who decide to leave the denomination anyway? Absolutely. Their reasons will vary. But time and time again, surveys have demonstrated that the most frequent motives for leaving have nothing to do with doctrine. And even for those who might leave due to sincere disagreements of beliefs, what would be better? Would it be preferable if they remained unaware of other ideas, with the hope that their blissful ignorance might keep them bound to Adventism? To be sure, lots of parents send their children to our schools in the hopes that they’ll be insulated and indoctrinated. When things don’t go according to plan, these parents blame the college or university because they expected the school to maintain the bubble they curated around their child from birth. But what these types of parents (and apparently some of our church leaders) fail to realize is that they haven’t created a bubble. It’s a vice grip. And the more tightly they squeeze the more likely they’ll lose the very thing they are trying so desperately to keep.

Image Credit: Jonathan Mabey on Unsplash

About the author

Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a clinical neuropsychologist. She is president of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.  More from Courtney Ray.
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