by Rebecca Barceló | 16 November 2023 |
Pictured – Left to Right: Dr. Zdravko Plantak, MA Program Director/Professor of Ethical Studies (LLU), Dr. Yi Shen Ma, Associate Director, Center for Christian Bioethics/Asst. Professor of Ethical Studies (LLU), Rebecca Barceló, Dr. James “Jim” Walters, Professor Emeritus of Ethical Studies/Co-Founder of Center for Christian Bioethics (LLU).
While November is typically known for Thanksgiving and football, a whole other group of folks look forward to it for a very different reason. It is the month of the annual theological and philosophical society gatherings, complete with all of the events an academic heart could desire – presentations of the latest research, networking opportunities, book signings, exhibit halls, and panel discussions by the latest academic celebrities!
It is an annual tradition for the American Academy of Religion (the largest scholarly society dedicated to the academic study of religion) and the Society of Biblical Literature (a society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible) to gather together for a packed several days of events every November. When this occurs, other societies have historically held their meetings at the same place, either a few days before or after these main events, making it a packed 5-10 day experience! In addition to the Evangelical societies, the Adventist societies gather also, namely the Adventist Theological Society (ATS), the Society of Adventist Philosophers (SAP), and the Adventist Society for Religious Studies.
I am privileged to attend this year’s gatherings in San Antonio, Texas, which is always a pleasure because of the winding Riverwalk and colorful culture of the city! My past years in attendance have consisted of mad dashes between seminars, overbooking my social engagements, and scribbling down pages of notes in the attempt to catch every last word of wisdom. This year, I will be harried no more! I’m no longer a newbie to these academic olympics, hence my new meeting motto: “Pace yourself.” (I’ve already given this lecture to a couple of first-timers tonight in the hotel lobby!)
Instead of collecting more information, this year I’m at these meetings looking for a couple choice gems of wisdom. It’s common in the Information Age to think that more information might be equivalent to better living, however, that isn’t necessarily the case. The fact is that, sometimes, more information can result in more overwhelm, guilt, or feelings of insufficiency. This time, I’m looking for little nuggets of wisdom that might be helpful to incorporate into life when I go back home – making things better in my home, my church, and my community.
I started my search at the Society of Adventist Philosophers, my favorite gathering of the weekend! After the joyful inter-generational reunion of students with professors, writers with colleagues, and young professionals with seasoned Adventist philosophers, we settled in for a day of presentations. From 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. (with the exception of some breaks), we talked about hermeneutics and metaphysics, phenomenology and apocalyptic eschatology, political theology and ethics—just to name a few.
A little gem I learned for my female friends is Dr. Abi Doukhan’s theory that while the Old Testament can be seen as “The Father’s House,” full of instruction, admonition, and discipline, it should also be viewed through the lens of “The Mother’s House,” with passages full of wisdom, intuition, hospitality, and openness to being flexible when transgressions inevitably happen. The two “houses” or lenses are not to compete, but to work together. In The Father’s House verses, we learn to serve God, but in The Mother’s House verses, we learn to receive God’s serving of us.
My seeker friends might be interested in knowing that in The Mother’s House, chaos and transgression are not abhorrent to God, but simply an opportunity to be creative in working one situation into something else. God is completely comfortable working in our chaos and can surprise us with the beautiful things he can do with it.
My political friends might have gravitated towards Daniel Muller’s presentation on Immanuel Kant and his discussion on the common human tension between means and ends. He says that while it’s common to have a righteous end we want to accomplish, sometimes we don’t use very righteous means in order to accomplish it. He discussed, for example, the use of force to promote Christianity… a phenomenon he designated as “Christofascism.” To discourage this, he said, “Christ does not speak like a general who demands obedience, but rather like ‘a friend of humanity who appeals to the hearts of his fellow human beings on behalf of their own well-understood will,’ i.e., the way they would themselves voluntarily act if they examined themselves properly.”
For the pastors and Sabbath School teachers, Dr. Zane Yi contrasted John Locke’s “plain and simple reading” theories of the Bible with Gadamar’s “pluralistic reading.” Even though sometimes we’re scared by this idea that we all bring biases to the text, we learned that the text has its own cultural and contextual biases that it also brings to us! “Should the text strip away its biases, then, before we can read it?” someone in the audience asked. We decided that instead of both us and the text stripping away all cultural context, it could actually serve to enrich us and cause us to help each other with our blind spots in a more relational reading of the text. (Which is maybe how the Bible was always meant to be read – in relationship with others!)
My young adult friends should know that our views of God (theologies) and wisdom of life (philosophies) are meant to be created “in via” or “on the way.” The idea that you have to get it all figured out first is a myth. These things are formed while you’re doing the living… and you revise as you go along. Dr. Gary Chartier and Dr. Matthew Burdette discussed this a bit, along with the relationship and overlap between philosophy and theology – the main theme of the conference.
(Attendees continue the conversation over lunch at the Society of Adventist Philosophers conference.)
It was a full day of presentations and socializing, marked by a delicious provided lunch and rich side conversations! As SAP came to a close, the officers of the society were thanked, as well as key contributors to the event. We cleared the room, taking our side conversations into the hallway while the room was flipped for the evening keynote presentation by the Adventist Society for Religious Studies.
The ASRS keynote address is always a popular event, and this year it was no different! People started filing in for both dinner and the address, with folks spilling out into the hallways, and sitting on the floor in the back of the room. Dr. Sigve Tonstad, the acting president of the society over the past year, gave the address, discussing the society’s theme “The Cosmic Conflict” and whether it is still relevant today. He took different “stops” in his rhetorical journey to first address arguments that have come up against it throughout different eras. He then circled back to provide more personal lived-in experiences for these arguments, bringing more heart and nuance to the matter. His way with words and narrative had the room listening in rapt attention.
It was a late evening, but a good one. Dr. Tonstad quipped, “I’m sorry it’s been a long presentation, but I’m old now so I won’t be with you much longer… in which case you have to bear with me!” He then turned to his conclusion page with a mischievous smile.
(Dr. Sigve Tonstad presents the keynote address at the Adventist Society for Religious Studies.)
I’m looking forward to what tomorrow holds, but if today were the only day of the whole conference, I think I would still go home full of new insights to reflect on and to apply to my everyday life. I’m grateful for a community of Adventist scholars who is willing to constantly unearth new insights that keep our faith fresh, approaching the text with humility, conviction, and respect, while also adding a bit of realism, some personality, and a whole lot of curiosity! It’s the best expression of practicing “present truth,” and it makes me proud to be an Adventist scholar.
Rebecca Barceló covers news and special projects for Adventist Today.