My Take: Pluralism
by Raj Attiken, February 5, 2015: There is heightened anticipation about the upcoming General Conference Session in part because of at least two items that are slated to be on the agenda: authorizing Divisions to decide whether or not to ordain women for pastoral ministry in their respective territories and the revisions to the Fundamental Belief on creation. It is unlikely that decisions regarding these matters will be received with equal enthusiasm by all segments of the church, given the nature of these issues and the current diverse composition of the global Adventist Church. The actions are likely to be seen by some as an affirmation of historic Adventist values, by others as a compromise of these values, by some as reflective of the cultural and theological diversity of the global church, and by others as being out of touch with the theological and faith maturity of contemporary global Adventism. Some fear that actions on these issues could splinter the denomination, as has happened in other religious groups.
My take is that we, in the Adventist Church, have arrived at a time when we need to give consideration to the nature of pluralism within our denomination and how it affects our life as a church community. While the notion that two or more divergent and even opposing views can legitimately coexist in the Adventist Church might initially appear to be radical, some honest reflection will point us to the reality that pluralism already characterizes our relationship to our beliefs and practices. Pluralism, as a practical and operational hermeneutic for life, is already a very present reality in the church. We are a community in which individuals and groups of individuals hold different perspectives on many doctrines and issues. What we haven’t done, heretofore, is formally acknowledge that this is so, that it is an inevitable reality in today’s world, and that we must learn how to relate to it in a wholesome way.
Pluralism is the nature of the global society we live in. People who hold different perspectives than ours occupy the spaces we occupy in the church. To believe otherwise is to be oblivious to reality. Beliefs and practices are no longer sequestered within communities or geographical regions. Instead, they coexist with other ideas and beliefs within the same communities. No impenetrable fences or walls exist. Efforts by individuals or groups to prescribe their particular ideology as the only permissible or plausible one cannot and will not succeed in a pluralistic environment.
The pluralism I describe here is not relativism (the view that truth is not absolute, but exists only in relation to particular contexts, cultures, societies, etc.) or syncretism (the fusion or merging of different beliefs and practices). Instead, pluralism is an encounter of commitments, and does not require us to leave our identities or beliefs behind. It not only recognizes that diversity exists within the church, but it energetically engages that diversity, actively seeking to understand across lines of differences. Pluralism does not imply that there is no one truth on anything, when considering mutually incompatible truth claims. Nor does it imply that there are no foundational truths that we can embrace. It invites us, however, to hold on to these truths gracefully, in humble recognition that now “we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror,” and that “all that I [we] know now is partial and incomplete.” (1 Cor. 13:12, NLT).
It can be argued that it is a sign of a faith community’s maturity that, on matters of belief and practice, multiple perspectives can coexist in the same space within that community. That in the face of differing perspectives and unresolved debate, it does not call people to rigidly align themselves on one side or another, but to take seriously their personal quest for deeper understanding. That it displays a strong commitment to fostering ongoing conversations regarding the nature of its life together as a community, its values, and its mission.
The presence of pluralism and discussions on how to relate to it lend themselves to no easy answers. The issues are many, the arguments complex, and the responses varied. It would be hard, though, to overstate the practical significance of this topic. Acknowledgment of pluralism as a feature of contemporary Adventism will allow conservatives, liberals, progressives, fundamentalists, and other groups to each legitimately feel that their version of Adventism merits a place at the “table”; we can stop all witch-hunts to smoke out those on the “other side” of issues and label them second-class Adventists or not Adventists at all; we can disband our heresy patrols on college and university campuses and in churches; we can hold fewer church business meetings to throw people out of our fellowship because of what they believe or don’t believe; we can shut down our propaganda websites and invest in things more useful; we can even resort to respectful conversations with those whose views differ from us. Best of all, we can enjoy a safe and healthy environment in which to pursue a quest to deepen our understandings, strengthen our faith, and enrich our community.[†]
It is somewhat naïve for us to continue to act as if a vote by a committee, council, or assembly – even after earnest prayer and supplication — will necessarily garner global agreement of belief or practice on any issue. It is just as naïve to believe that unity within the Church can be achieved simply by obtaining a majority vote on any item at a General Conference session. Shouting louder will not produce unity or uniformity. Thumping the pulpit harder doesn’t garner agreement. Even obtaining a majority vote on any issue does not usher in unity. Those among us who are determined that we will convert others to our perspective, if not through conversation and debate, then through votes at an assembly such as a General Conference session, are on the wrong side of reality. The effort to resolve the tension between two opposing ideas through a vote at an assembly, or to declare which idea is right and which is wrong, or which one is favored by God and which one is not, is a misplaced effort.
I do not expect pluralism to be our newest “fundamental belief” or credo. But I do wish that at this upcoming General Conference session, when setting up the items for discussion, debate, and action, our leaders would declare a clear and unambiguous public recognition of the pluralistic nature of the Adventist Church, and of the implications of this reality on how we live with differences in beliefs and practices within our community. On why we can hold different views, be engaged in different ecclesiastical practices, embrace different rituals, and still be fully and authentically Adventist. On why a charitable environment that is conducive to open and honest conversations on opposing perspectives is essential if our beloved community is to be a robust community. Such a declaration at the General Conference session will not only influence the spirit in which conversations occur, but will also influence what happens within our community after the votes are taken. It will certainly be an act of incisive leadership.
Let’s formally and publicly acknowledge what we’ve known for a long while. Let’s declare pluralism as the “new normal” in Adventism. That’s my take!
[†]In light of the current reality of a pluralistic church, it would do us well to consider issues such as the impact of pluralism on “present truth,” on Adventist identity, on our Fundamental Beliefs, and on church unity.