When the Church Leaves You
by Mark B. Johnson | 10 November 2019 |
I have always been an Adventist.
When our denomination’s current president was a child playing on the banks of the Nile River in Egypt, I was born upstream in an Adventist mission hospital in Ethiopia.
My family was a “real” Adventist family. Medical missions, vegetarian diets, Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories and The Bible Story, Pathfinder fairs, daily family worships, no caffeine consumption, summer camps, Bible “sword drills,” the “red books,” student mission service, and Adventist education all the way through medical school. On Sabbaths we never ate out in restaurants and we never played in the water above our knees on our weekly nature excursions.
I, however, am now the only member of my nuclear family that still identifies as a Seventh-day Adventist. That is not to say that my family members are not Christians, but they are not Seventh-day Adventists anymore.
Throughout my life I remember much plotting and planning around one of our denomination’s greatest fears: that our children and youth may leave The Church. There was a strong sense that their salvation, the future of The Church, and the success of our institutions depended on keeping them within the fold.
But my family did not necessarily leave The Church. It was more like The Church left them.
And it’s leaving me.
I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. The signs of separation began long ago.
The split began for me when I was in the eighth grade. One day in our Adventist junior academy school assembly, the principal, who had been fired from one of our Church academies on the other side of the state for being too progressive (or too popular), made a statement that I had never really considered before. He said, “It’s all right for you to question things. In fact, until you have examined your beliefs through a critical lens, you don’t really own them.” It was an epiphany.
The rift continued to widen in college, but it didn’t become obvious to me until much later. In college, I had many friends who were religion and theology majors. I even questioned if I was being called to be a pastor myself. We played softball and flag football together. We shared time in many of our basic courses. We went on double dates. We sometimes (sequentially) dated the same people. I never felt there were any significant differences between us. But while they focused on koine Greek, as a history major, I focused on Greek democracy.
Foundations were being put in place.
After college, as I went to medical school and they went to the seminary, those foundations shifted and hardened.
Jonathan Rauch in his brilliant book, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought1, describes the two most common structural ways of arriving at truth. The first method, which Rauch calls the fundamentalist intellectual style, is this: The search for truth is anchored on some authority—the Bible, the Koran, or some other text; priests, philosopher-kings, or some other persons—which are believed to be reliable and beyond error. There is no reason for serious questioning. Those who do question are suspect. The ones who learn best the teachings of the authority are those who are best able to rule. Truth is discovered and fortified by faith. One’s eternal salvation may depend on their level of faithfulness to the Source. Thus, there is a “strong disinclination to take seriously the notion that you might be wrong.”
Rauch’s second method is the liberal intellectual style. Its premise is that while conclusions about truth do need to be made, none of our conclusions are final. None are beyond scrutiny or change. Sincere criticism is always legitimate. Anyone may have something to offer. No one has personal authority, and no one gets the final say. “We must all take seriously the idea that any and all of us might, at any time, be wrong.” Present truth may indeed progress.
I would argue that all good little Adventist children in the 1950s and 60s were initially raised under the fundamentalist, faith-based, intellectual method. The Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy were unquestionably reliable and beyond error. Doubt was forbidden. Questions discouraged. It was readily accepted that those in our church who knew these authorities best were those best prepared to lead. Thus, the Bible sword drills and almost a feverish push to memorize texts. In this way, there was little difference between our primary Adventist educational facilities and Jewish yeshivot, Muslim madrasah or other Christian parochial schools.
But Western Civilization has been built on the critical, liberal intellectual style of education. It was inevitable, given our denomination’s emphasis on higher education, that we would be exposed to this alternative method of discovering truth as we progressed through school. Those colleagues and I who went on to medical school or other scientific educational curricula became deeply immersed in the Scientific Method, a major form of this approach. This method of seeking and establishing truth can be exceedingly threatening to adherents of the faith-based intellectual approach.
The barely perceptible crack between my college classmates who went to the seminary and me slowly grew into a crevasse. With some notable exceptions, it seemed that they continued to follow the faith-based Adventist fundamentalist intellectual method while many of us in the scientific professions became disciples of the liberal intellectual style of learning. It was not so much that we began to believe dissimilar things, but the way we believed, even in the same things, changed. While our beliefs may have continued to be similar, they were held differently! The world, and universe, in which we lived began to look remarkably different to our two groups. If there are two separate churches in Adventism, as William Johnsson claims in Where Are We Headed? Adventism after San Antonio2, this, I believe, is the underlying cause of the divorce.
Clearly, I am painting with a very broad brush. Just because one does not believe that the scientific method is an appropriate way to discover theological truth does not make them a fundamentalist. Many Adventist pastors think “scientifically,” and there are many colleagues who have been trained in the sciences who have remained fundamentalistic in the thought processes they use in their search for truth.
The greatest significance of these differing ways of approaching truth is not found at the individual level; it is located at the organizational level.
The most telling indication of whether an organization is driven by the liberal or the fundamentalist intellectual style is revealed in the politics it supports in its governance structure. Authorities in a fundamentalist theological organization tend to search for certainty rather than for errors in their theology and work to “nail their beliefs in place.” The politics of fundamentalism, as Rauch points out, is for those who know the truth to settle differences of opinion. “This is the fundamentalist way: rule by the right-thinking, exclusion and (if necessary) elimination of the wrong-thinking.” Unfortunately, once this principle is established, either by zealous true believers or by calculating elites, it leads inexorably to authoritarianism. “Faced with the constant threat that someone will begin arguing with authority or challenging the fixed text, an orthodox society typically has only two ways to respond: by cracking up or by cracking down.” And “among those to whom truth is obvious, purges, jihads, crackdowns on the independent-minded, and violent schisms are common—so common as to be routine.”
The politics of liberal science are of such a nature as to drive a fundamentalist organization insane. It is characterized by apparent inefficiency and chaotic deviations. No one is an authority. Anyone can claim to know the truth. What is accepted as truth may change a hundred times a day—a million times a day. John Locke, one of the fathers of the empirical theory of knowledge, admitted that governing based on popular consent is less stable than a regime in which the authority is fixed. But any and all of us may be mistaken, even our leaders. As Locke said, “All men are liable to error. Good men are men still liable to mistakes, and are sometimes warmly engaged in errors, which they take for divine truths, shining in their minds with the clearest light.”3 But no matter how certain you may feel, how firmly you may believe, however strongly you are convinced, you must check! Locke may have formed some of his ideas based on the writings of the Apostle Paul, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, KJV)
This does not mean that there is no such thing as empirical truth. Again, as Rauch says, “First, you’re not wrong just because you’re a fundamentalist. Second, to some extent we are all fundamentalists…. We are all true believers in something. What distinguishes the ethic of liberal science is not that liberals are undogmatic; it is that liberals believe they must check their beliefs, or submit them for checking, however sure they feel…. What distinguishes (fundamentalists) is not the rightness or wrongness of their beliefs, or even that they believe strongly. It is that they show no interest in checking.”
Our world, our country and our church are arguably split between those adherents to the fundamentalist intellectual method of arriving at truth and those who believe in the liberal scientific method. Currently, it appears that the Adventist Church is being led by those most interested in nailing down our truths. There is evidence of purges of the independent-minded. If Rauch is correct in his analysis, under current leadership our Church will either crack up or crack down. (Although the Church may not completely “crack up,” or fall, there may certainly be major changes in store.) For those of us who have adopted the liberal intellectual method of arriving at truth, such an environment is not only unacceptable, it is fast becoming intolerable. We have found the principles of freedom of conscience and freedom of thought permeating the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy but absent in our present denominational governance structure. Sadly, the indications seem to predict more of the same in the future.
I have always been an Adventist.
I will remain an Adventist.
But the Seventh-day Adventist Church seems intent on leaving me.
1 Jonathan Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (The University of Chicago Press, 1993)
2 William G. Johnsson, Where Are We Headed? Adventism after San Antonio (Oak and Acorn Publishing, 2017)
3 John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)
Mark Johnson is a graduate of Pacific Union College and Loma Linda University, with a medical residency at Johns Hopkins University in Preventive Medicine and Public Health. He is the local public health officer in the Denver metropolitan region. He’s an adult Sabbath School class teacher and church board chair at the Boulder Adventist church.