by Ed Dickerson
In plane geometry, three points define a line. Any two points can be connected by straight line, but it takes three to define a line. I mention this because I have spent several columns concerning the identity and unique purpose of the Adventist movement. Mighty forces today attempt to pull the denomination in very different directions, and indeed threaten to pull it apart. I submit that one factor may be related to this simple geometric arrangement of needing three points to define a line.
It seems to me that three points also define our identity. Only one of the three great questions concerns identity directly: “Who am I?” The other two concern history, “Why am I here?”; and destiny, “Where am I going?” Considering that great questions exist concerning history and destiny, we shouldn’t be surprised that we cannot ascertain our identiy.
“Why am I here?” has two conflicting answers (and of course innumerable variations). Either I am here because God created the world in six days, and placed humans in charge, or I am here because of a very long series of random events. Either I live in a world of sin and death—where death is the last enemy– because of a Great Controversy between Good and Evil, and my ancestors chose the evil side; or I live in a world where death is necessary and even beneficial because it eliminates maladaptive organisms. You can quarrel with my wording or quibble over the choice of examples, but it would be difficult to deny that these two narratives of our history lead to radically different conclusions about who we are.
Closer to home, we can believe that our denomination came into being as a fulfillment of prophecy, or through a misunderstanding of a too literal reading of an old book. I constantly see both of these positions put forth in the discussions here.
Similarly, our destiny, “Where we are going,” will differ greatly depending upon our view of our origins. And it seems to me that the great tug-of-war concerning our identity– who we are going to be right now – is a contest of where to put the third point that defines our narrative line.
From my perspective, a currently ascendant group wants to take us “Back to the Future,” to attempt to either maintain or return the Adventist movement to some (largely imaginary) earlier, more pristine state. Another large faction don’t really care much about our history, and simply want to chart a “new” course, which strangely echoes quite a few 19th century ideas and concepts.
Both approaches, however, end up with little or no sense of who we should be today, for the simple reason that one or both ends of the narrative line are anchored in thin air. The traditionalists can plot a straight line from what they see as a pristine church to where we are; enthusiasts for the ever emerging church (sorry, but I can’t think of a better term, though I don’t wish it to be considered identical to the “emerging church movement”) , can draw a straight line from where we are to where they think we will eventually emerge. But attempts to align all three are few and often futile.
Both sides view at least some portion of our church history as, shall we say, embarrassing, although they disagree over which portions. Increasingly, people are simply throwing up their hands in exasperation. Again, I see much of that echoed in Atoday discussions.
At least some of this frustration comes from a distinctly utopian approach C.S. Lewis called “chronological prejudice” on the part of both factions. That is to say, all can see the flaws in what actually is and has been done, and imagine, in hindsight, that a perfect course could have been steered, had only the benighted individuals in charge been as wise as we are, at our exalted level of development.
I submit that the only way we’re going to find a coherent identity is to locate our position on that narrative line that begins with our history, how we got here – warts and all, by the way– and our destiny. My belief is that we are primarily a people of “present truth,” of a dynamic engagement between God’s plan of salvation and the culture where we find ourselves. This explanation lines up with our history, gives us direction for the present, and leads directly to our destiny.
This is a demanding identity, for it requires us to be continually attuned to God, and to attempt to view our current situation through the lens of salvation history. That also requires that we be continually aware of the culture in which we live. Finally, it requires us to be aware that God is drawing this world to a conclusion. As I see it, progressives and traditionalists each tacitly reject one or more of those requirements.
Until we settle these basic questions of existence, we will continue arguing past each other. And more crucially, making arguments that the world we are trying to reach doesn’t care about.