by Monte Sahlin
By Alexander Belisle
Coming out of the American Protestant revivalist movement of the mid 19th century, the Adventist movement can truly be called an “American Religion.” Harold Bloom is well-known as a literary critic and respected scholar, the author of The American Religion which centers on a particular Gnosticism he finds characteristic of faiths in this country, anchored in individual salvation and individual spiritual awareness. It is, I must admit, somewhat related to Paul's Gnosticism but in Blooms' narrative takes on a Gnostic quality of its own.
Bloom's working definition: “The Gnostics, in a narrow sense, were a proto-Christian sect of the second century of the Common Era, whose broad beliefs centered in two absolute convictions: the Creation, of the world and of mankind in its present form, was the same event as the Fall of the world and of man, but humankind has in it a spark or breath of the uncreated, of God, and that spark can find its way back to the uncreated, unfallen world, in a solitary act of knowledge.” (Kindle edition, locations 229-232).
Yes, Adventists can gain back that which was lost, one individual at a time working out their own salvation, another characteristic of the American Religion for which salvation is a personal journey, not a communal one. Do Adventists with their esoteric spiritual knowledge, lodged in the Spirit of Prophecy and the provincialism that is reinforced by being members of the “remnant church” know that they have access to this “solitary act of knowledge?”
Where Bloom really nails it in his description of Adventists, is with his focus on the Sanctuary, 1844, and the Investigative Judgment, which happens to be the focus of the Sabbath School lessons at the time of this writing. He also writes, “It is an American Religion of Health, crossed by the postapocalyptic dream of an end time never to be.” (Kindle edition, locations 2333-2334)
Bloom provides quite an telling summation, inclusive of that which keeps Adventist faith largely outside of the Protestant mainstream and that part of Adventist faith that is most relevant to our current post-modern society. Bloom further adds: “… the elements in Adventist theology that are unacceptable to traditional Protestantism … include: the extra-Scriptural source of authority in Ellen White’s writings; a wavering on justification by grace alone, since later deeds can cancel out earlier sanctification; the Investigative Judgment, in which Christ counts up the good and ill deeds; giving the Mark of the Beast to those who do not keep the Seventh-day Sabbath; various limitations in Christ; an identification of the Adventist Church as playing a unique role in the Apocalypse, and as representing the remnant that can be saved.” (Kindle edition, locations 2318-2322)
These items plus the fact that if it weren't for the predominant immigrant and ethnic minority segments shoring up its membership rolls, the Adventist Church would cease to exist in America. “It is the final irony of the Millerite remnant that it can survive, whether at home or abroad, only through the apocalyptic yearnings of Africans and Asians, whose zest and zeal are the last echo of Ellen White’s patient and stubborn voice.” (Kindle edition, locations 2390-2392)
Just like Walter Martin who once saw the Adventist movement as a cult (notice I said “once”), Bloom sees Adventism as a cult due to the supreme importance it gives to Ellen White as prophetess, leader and spiritual guide even while morphing into just another Evangelical Protestant denomination. I myself feel that the desire for being a “peculiar people,” which I have heard since my early childhood, along with the constant reliance on the Spirit of Prophecy to be our working spiritual manual rather than the Bible alone (the position Ellen White herself taught), will always keep the Adventist church a hair breadth's away from cult status. While Ellen White sees Christ's ministry in the Sanctuary as a “cleansing of sins,” Bloom adds a very telling and perceptive insight: “This world did not end on October 22, 1844, but on that very day Jesus Christ entered the Holy of Holies up in heaven and started to scrub away our sins. Alas, after a hundred and fifty years he continues to clean up after us, so many are our sins . If the Adventists were to employ this vision as a prophetic witness against our contemporary America, then it would be to some purpose, but they have ceased to see it as a criticism of American life in terms of real injustices and amoralities. AIDS, crack, and homelessness are not cleansed by Christ, despite the Adventists’ abiding concern for their own health, and to some degree, for the health of the nation.” (Kindle edition, locations 2276-2281)
Clearly Adventist faith today as an American religion is short on social justice and only recently latching onto the political correctness of environmental concerns, seeing stewardship as more than money in the forms of tithes and offerings. Some Adventists even see as Bloom does that the temple spoken of by Paul has taken on more significance with the health message than the literal reading of the cleansing of the Sanctuary. Also, where some Adventists see the Investigative Judgment as elevating a theology of judgment over a theology of grace, Bloom sees it as an investigation of “who's cooking the books?” Sarcastic for sure, maybe even humorous, but within that great controversy between God and Satan, does God need to be an accountant as Bloom refers to Him, to get the accurate figures on repentance and faith? “Ellen White’s Jesus is more a defense attorney for mankind than he is the bearer of the Atonement." (Kindle edition, location 2363)
On a humorous note of my own, I find that it's no wonder so few Adventists have read widely in Ellen White's writings since Bloom himself, a genius who has put “Paradise Lost” to memory, found himself getting bogged down (in his words) trying to read her works. As an admirer of Bloom's works as a literary critic, I find that he has weighed the Adventist religion in the balances and found it wanting in some areas but interesting in others. For a non-Adventist, he did a fine job.
Alexander Belisle is a retired high school English teacher living in the Bronx borough of New York City. He was also a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in medieval scholastic philosophy at Fordham University. Currently he works as a photographer in the New York City press corps and also does shoots for Nike basketball. He is married and has two children.
The reference for this article is: Bloom, Harold (2013). The American Religion. Chu Hartley Publishers. Kindle Edition.