My Take: On Being Distinctive
by Raj Attiken, January 14, 2015: Under the heading, “The Season of Adventists,” the January/February 2015 issue of CT (Christianity Today) magazine offers a review of sorts of the church’s relation to the wider culture. Claiming that Seventh-day Adventism is the fifth-largest Christian communion worldwide, the author describes what she sees as a current tension within the denomination between two ideologies: one wanting to be more separatist and the other wishing to be more evangelical. Those quoted in the article for their separatist stance appeal to separatism as Adventism’s essential tactic for maintaining its distinctiveness. The article ends with a quote that juxtaposes distinctiveness and love, implying that our distinctiveness and uniqueness create barriers to loving all people.
The CT article has captured well the essence of what some among us argue: namely, that our Adventist identity is characterized by that which is distinctive and unique about us, and that preservation of these distinctives is our essential task. This is best achieved, it is proposed, through separation and isolation from the world around us.
We are Adventists, certainly, on account of specific Adventist convictions, including understandings about the unfolding of biblical prophecy. But, we are Adventists also because we are inextricably linked to the masses of humanity, and hold common convictions and engage in common practices with them. Our Adventist identity incorporates both particularities and commonalities. We, along with many others, see reality both as visible and as transcendent, giving primacy to the transcendent. We, along with many others, make claims to what is true, just, and good for all humans, irrespective of place and culture. We, along with many others, offer a diagnosis of the human problem and sketch a way out of it. We love. We hurt. We rejoice. We mourn. We feel compassion. We seek safety. We desire fulfillment. We hold all this and more in common with people everywhere.
A self-understanding that postures us as distinct and unique instills a degree of complexity to our ability to relate to those not of our faith tradition and to engage in our world as responsible citizens. Uniqueness implies that there is nothing else like it. Uniqueness implies exclusivity, exceptionality, and inimitability. It gives us a false sense that we have a preferred status among people in our communities and world. It allows us to hold a diminished view of others.
Although our claims to uniqueness might make us feel special and important, the claim rings hollow to others. Worse yet, it makes us appear arrogant. If the world sees us as unique and ascribes that quality to us, let us acknowledge it with genuine humility, giving God the honor. But until then, let us be restrained in our assertions of self-importance. The Bible reserves the concept of uniqueness to Jesus, “the unique One, who is himself God” (John 1:18 NLT).
Adventist exceptionalism may appeal to some within the church, but it is doubtful that it impresses anyone outside. If not restrained, it can inspire arrogance, judgmentalism, and intolerance among us. In the geo-political arena, religious exceptionalism has increasingly manifested itself recently as repressive totalitarianism. Unable to face the reality of a pluralistic global community, exceptionalists attempt to insert what they consider to be their religious distinctives into the public arena, often with rigid authoritarianism. All other forms of religious expression are forbidden. Human rights, especially for women, are jettisoned. The global community is, for the most part, united in denouncing and rejecting such religious exceptionalism.
We, in the church, can and must be able to say with confident conviction, “This is how we see things — about God, about life, about faith, and about eternity.” We can say all this, however, without any conceits about being unique and exceptional. It is time we abandoned our obsession about being distinctive and unique. It is time we celebrated our commonalities as much as our particularities. That’s my take!