By AT News Team, Feb. 24, 2015: A panel of scholars examined “The Emerging Church: Possibilities and Perils of Postmodern Adventism” on Sabbath afternoon, February 21, at Loma Linda University (LLU). The moderator was Dr. Charles Scriven, visiting professor in the School of Religion at LLU. The panel included Dr. Zane Yi and Dr. Eric Carter, both faculty members at LLU, and Dr. Maury D. Jackson from the H. M. S. Richards Divinity School at La Sierra University.
Scriven has served the Adventist denomination as president of Kettering College and Washington Adventist University, as well as senior pastor at Sligo Church in Takoma Park, Maryland. Since 2004 he has also been the board chair for the Association of Adventist Forums, the largest organization of Adventist academics and publisher of the journal Spectrum.
Scriven began by noting that postmodernism has brought at least three major issues to religion and American culture: the democratization of information, a new awareness of religious diversity and relativism. In contrast with postmodernism’s relativism, modernism was both overconfident and naïve about its ability to know things with certainty. Within religious contexts, this “overconfidence often led to doctrinal arrogance.” He quoted Friedrich Nietzsche’s argument that all human knowledge is entwined with the perspective of the individual and therefore not absolute. Postmodernism recognizes this reality and has a certain “epistemological humility.”
The democratization of information is associated with the digital revolution. The general public now has unprecedented access to information that was previously restricted to specialists. Because of this, the experts can no longer control the conversation and there is an undermining of any kind of hierarchy.
The new awareness of religious diversity makes it impossible to ignore the fact that those who sincerely believe that they know the will of God based on their own reading of sacred texts may be, in fact, not really proclaiming truth about God. They could be merely projecting how the culture of a given time and place determined views about the nature of God and other religious truths.
To illustrate a related point, Scriven noted that we humans, living in our different cultures, can be compared to fish living in water who do not notice the existence of the water. Later, Jackson elaborated on this point that, in considering the closest object one can see, many individuals fail to recognize that the closest object in their field of view are the glasses one uses to clearly see anything. This perspective indicates that no one can speak from God’s point of view, but only from one’s cultural context, the “glasses” through which one sees all of life.
Yi focused on evangelism. He observed that postmodernism holds that language, culture, psychology, history and economics contribute to our knowledge of the world, and therefore we possess no method for attaining absolute truth about the world. For all humans “truth is complicated. God knows the truth, but I’m not God.” We humans have no way of knowing the ultimate “Truth.” There is only “your truth and my truth.” Yi quoted Paul from the New Testament, “We see through a glass, darkly.”
For traditional Christian (including Adventist) evangelism, the implications of the ascendency of postmodernism in the Western world are threefold, said Yi. (1) We need to listen more and speak less. (2) We need to learn from others, not just teach “our truth.” (3) We need to practice what we preach. In Christian terms, this means to be “more Jesus-like; to live and act as Jesus did, practice hospitality, and take an interest in justice.”
Carter addressed the issues associated with postmodern spirituality, beginning with a quote attributed to Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” He argued that in preaching the Gospel we exercise fidelity to the life and teachings of Jesus. In his view, the modernist separates the sacred from the secular while the postmodernist allows for no separation of these two domains. There is no special “sacred” space, just as there is no monolithic spirituality.
To illustrate the postmodern perspective on spirituality, Carter showed a drawing of a tree with a single trunk (labeled emergent church) arising from the ancient church. Among the branches and foliage are varieties of means for spiritual life. Illustrations of this include the neo-monastic groups, the house church, and the cyber church. In his view “emergent spirituality” involves that which occurs when theology starts “walking,” undertaking value-laden actions, and living out Christ’s example.
Jackson focused on “liturgy” in Christian worship. He observed that about every 500 years, Western Christianity has undergone a paradigm shift in its worldview, a “rummage sale” of prevailing beliefs and practices. One such “rummage sale” was the Protestant Reformation which resulted in the formation of denominations separate from the unitary Medieval church.
These “rummage sales” occur when “a common story” is lost and a new common story needs to emerge. Jackson suggested that the postmodern ethos is causing many parts of contemporary Western Christianity to radically reevaluate its life and practice. The Adventist movement is not immune to the current realignments caused by how the worship experience is being re-conceptualized.
Jackson posed the question, “Are some versions of Adventism prohibiting some from being Christian?” He pointed out that a recent study of the membership history of Adventism has determined that in the past 50 years, more than 30 percent of those who were baptized later left the church. He contrasted the Adventist faith as a commitment to 28 fundamental beliefs with what Adventist Christians are actually doing in their worship and liturgy. Jackson concluded with the observation that if we don’t adapt to the new emerging worship reality, “we may go out of business.”
Following the presentations, there was opportunity for comments and questions from the audience. Some of the reactions indicated a clear discomfort with the nature of emergent Adventist faith. One person said the main controversy in the early church was whether Gentile converts had to become Jews in order to be Christians. He proposed that the same kind of issue is an important question today among Adventists: Must we become Adventist in order to be Christian?
Another person noted that historically Christianity began as a sect within Judaism, but then became a separate religion. Will the same thing happen to emergent Adventism or emergent Christianity? One panel member responded that there is only one tree, and emergent variations are merely branches on that one tree.
In conclusion, it was noted that the Adventist faith includes a combination of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern thinking. Jesus spent more time healing than preaching and contemporary Adventism does the same through its health ministry.