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Is there a European Adventism? Ecclesiological Holzwege – I

Holzwege[1] is a well-known 1950 book by Martin Heidegger that uses a metaphor from an area dear to him, “The Black Forest” (“Der Schwarzwald”). This is a mountainous region in southwest Germany, bordering France, renowned for its dense evergreen forests and picturesque villages, which Heidegger used to frequent on long walks. “Holzwegeare thus “the paths in the forest.” While in the same forest, each of them proceeds on its own. One may look like another, but they are different. There is no single trail. Many will ultimately make one, but that is a diversified path. Woodsmen and foresters know what it means to be on a track that, by interrupting, diverts, but by diverting, advances. In this sense Heidegger seems to mean that human thought must not set itself a final goal, much less a final synthesis. On the contrary, it can only proceed as a continuous diversion, as an irreducible wandering. There is thus no single path for reflection, but all paths of thought are legitimate and useful in different stages, ways, and times.

Holzwege is also a fitting metaphor for European Adventism, which, like forest paths, represents different and even opposing sensitivities, perceptions, and syntheses. They may overlap, intersect, and confront each other, but have learned to coexist, even with difficulty, in the same forest of Adventism. This cultural and even theological diversification certainly exists in other areas, but not with the same intensity, historical rootedness, spread, and naturalness. This diversification is not traceable to some elite leader, project, or manifesto. It comes from below, from ordinary people, from communities themselves. It exists, it is a given. an historical fact. This is Europe, cultural and linguistic polycentrism, and consequently theological-religious polycentrism, which European Adventism has inherited in its DNA.

European Adventism is not Adventism in Europe, but Adventism transformed by Europe. And this is an asset that we cannot lose. Unfortunately, that is not clear today, even to the European leaders themselves. Adventism, when it comes to Europe, is not aware of this because when coming from America it is viewed as a supposedly universal message. It’s valid everywhere, relevant everywhere. Adventism is thought of as a socio-culturally neutral and pure event, both in its inception, and also in its destination, where it will be preached. Consequently, Adventism “sins” from the start from what the Colombian philosopher, Jose Castro Gomez,[2] calls “the hybris [arrogance] of the zero point.” Adventism is supposedly clear to everyone. This is the assumption that accompanies our theology and mission from the beginning. If someone does not listen, this is not Adventism’s problem, but the listener’s problem. The whole Adventist communication chain, theological and missiological, is perfectly centered on the message and its power, at the expense of the recipient.  Adventism is a “message-centered” religion, completely heedless of the listener’s legitimate questions. These questions are, for Adventism, a disturbance, expressing bad faith, threatening the consistency of a perfect message. That is why our schools of theology emphasize theological repetition not theological exploration. That is, we fail to recognize that the earnest pressing of the listener’s questions could prolong and refine the essence of our message. Instead, Adventism does not want to confront the struggle to enculturate, to translate itself, to try and settle naturally into a territory.

Adventism compensates for its theological laziness with a pragmatic compulsion. But this pragmatism is an empty repetition of the same. The diversity of places where we come is not a problem for us. We speak in Kinshasa, Sidney, Berlin, or Rome, as if we were speaking in Washington DC. The failure to inculcate our message into the places where we arrive has not only plagued us but also left our message in its generic and less-than-relevant state. Ours becomes a superficial message that assumes an average, intellectually passive, culturally conformist, and institutionally predictable church member. Despite the proclamations, our impact on some territories has proven to be negligible to nonexistent. This is certainly the case in Europe, and it is even more so at present when Adventism is quickly folding in on itself, doing everything it can to disconnect from outside interlocutors, except when they are in agreement. 

This universalist approach of Adventism in Europe will not succeed. A denomination that thought it could change Europe by evangelizing it will come out transformed. In fact, European Adventism is more European than Adventist, and this does not please the historicist Adventist mainline. In this sense European Adventism is a healthy exception. And it is so precisely because it is configured as a Holzwege, a set of sensibilities united by a shared perspective, but irreducible to a single interpretation of that perspective. European Adventism is not monolithic from its inception. It not only creates alternatives within itself but is an alternative to world Adventism as well.

To many in the global church this European Adventism appears as an anomaly to be corrected. There are endless missionaries who are zealous and visionary. But they are also monotonous and repetitive, predictable and mechanical. They come from various locales: North America, Latin America, Africa, and the borders of Europe itself. They try to convert a European Adventism that is perceived as atypical, anomalous and even apostate. Its numbers would prove this. In Italy, for example, there are 9,000 Adventists per 60 million inhabitants. In France 11,000 Adventists per 68 million inhabitants. For 315 million people in South America, there are 2 million Adventists. In the Inter-European-Division (EUD) there are 180,000 Adventists for 340 million people. In the Trans-European-Division (TED) there are only 87,000 Adventists for 205 million people. Numerically, European Adventism is negligible. Some fear for its demise. This, of course, supposedly would be proof of its failure. Thus, trying to heal it means leading it back to what “normative” Adventism is in other parts of the world: militant, certain, apocalyptic, and missionary. But above all, it means Adventism should be theologically and institutionally homogeneous. European Adventism’s anomaly thus centers precisely in this dispersion and tolerance of different ideas and sensibilities that supposedly hinders its pace and survival. In its being Holzwege.

It is certainly desirable for European Adventism to strengthen itself numerically to give itself a better prospect of survival. But can this numerical reinforcement guarantee survival without distorting its essence, its being Holzwege?

This “Holzwege-ness,” for the European soul and beyond, is more central than we think. It is not only related to diversification of sensibilities and perceptions. More fundamentally, being Holzwege is related to the very nature of faith and truth. Not surprisingly, a wisdom book like Proverbs reminds us that we must resist the temptation of synthesis. Any synthesis is the basis and presupposition of all pragmatisms, secular and religious. But it expresses an idolatry of compact unity, without fractures. Conversely, wisdom makes its voice heard in the streets, in the alleys, in the crossroads, in the corners of life, where a final and conclusive synthesis is impossible (Proverbs 8:2). For all faith–if it really is faith–is always fragmentary, provisional, and on the move, as theologian Mayra Rivera[3] of Harvard University reminds us. God is always transcendent to our syntheses and questions. Ours remains a Holzwege of questions, intents, desires, and diverse initiatives that try to grasp God. We cannot understand fully, but this does not mean God is unreachable. God will always be beyond our synthesis but still always within reach of our “touch.” But that’s it, precisely. A touch is a grazing, a partial seeing, and partially perceiving. In essence: a Holzwege. This is God’s transcendence, not that of an unreachable God but the transcendence of one who is touched by our questions and prayers that are always multiple and heterogeneous. Mayra Rivera’s answer is that God is not within human grasp but is always within human touch. This is a strikingly relevant concept of God as transcendent within, but transcendence different from the idea of God as far away, outside human life and experience, above the human plane of existence. Rivera instead focuses on transcendence as a relationship and uses it to describe how humans can touch God.

The metaphor of the Holzwege, which characterizes European Adventism, is thus not so far from a biblical view of faith as a journey. Theology is always “Theologia viatorum,” theology on the way, theology that is provisional and fragmented and therefore necessarily diversified and dialogical. Yes, a European Adventism is there, and it is more pertinent than we think, both to the survival of Adventism in Europe and to Adventism worldwide.

[1] Martin Heidegger, Holzwege, (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann 2015).

[2] Jose Castro Gomez, Il giro decolonial. Reflexiones para una diversidad epistémica más allá del capitalismo global, (Bogotá: Siglo del Hombre 2007), pp. 11-32.

[3] Mayra Rivera, The Touch of Transcendence. A Postcolonial Theology of God, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2007). Pp. 9-31.

Image Credit: George Bakos on Unsplash

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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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