Zinke-Wilson Neo-Medieval Adventism: The Coming Assault on Adventist Higher Education. Part I
by Ervin Taylor, November 6, 2016: Edward Zinke recently posted an article on the Adventist Review website entitled “Understanding Worldviews: How Our Presuppositions Shape the Education of Adventist Youth.”
Dr. Zinke is well-known to be a confidant of the current General Conference (GC) president, Ted Wilson. Zinke is also a major financial supporter of the Adventist Theological Society (ATS) and other right-of-center Adventist causes such as the GC Faith and Science Council and the Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC). Reflecting his status within contemporary Adventism, this essay is a masterpiece of an apologetic for retrogressive Adventism.
This article appears to be one more piece of evidence that the current GC administration is actively seeking to reverse the progress that North American Adventism had made over the last 50 years in moving beyond its fundamentalist past. A recent talk by Wilson provides another piece of evidence concerning his intentions in this matter. He asked administrators to support the operations of the GC’s International Board of Ministerial and Theological Education (IBMTE).
For those not aware of what Wilson and his supporters are up to in this area, the IBMTE is widely viewed as an Adventist version of what the Roman Catholic Holy Office was organized to accomplish. This late Medieval organization, better known as the Roman Inquisition, “inquired” into the orthodoxy of theologians and certain scientists and used that means to “root out heresy.”
The IBMTE appears to have the same general purpose as did the Roman Inquisition. Zinke’s article may quite reasonably be viewed as a piece of propaganda to support the IBMTE initiative. However, it is only one means by which the Wilson administration is reenergizing its assault on academic freedom for Adventist college and university faculty members primarily in theology and the sciences, and the intellectual integrity of Adventist higher education in general.
On the other hand, as strange as this may seem, in the view of this commentator, Zinke’s statement in his title is essentially correct. To understand the world view of an individual, and, by extension, some types of institutions, will greatly facilitate one’s understanding of the underlying reasons why any individual or group holds and advances certain views and behaves in certain ways. For modern religious institutions this would be very helpful, particularly if one wishes to understand the basis of why certain theological concepts have been adopted and why they are so difficult for both individuals and faith traditions to change their views about in the face of inconvenient facts.
Let us then be clear what is meant by the term world view. There is a mass of literature in a number of scholarly disciplines, including philosophy, theology, psychology, sociology and anthropology, that considers what it encompasses. There are slight variations, depending on what types of individual and collective behaviors are being highlighted and in what contexts these behaviors are being analyzed.
However, in general, a world view is considered to be a set of feelings, underlying beliefs, basic attitudes and especially presuppositions which are held by individuals or advanced by religious, political or other ideologically-oriented entities which lays out fundamental convictions about how the world works or should work. In more formal terms, a worldview expresses beliefs about the nature of reality. It frames how an individual will or members of a group are supposed to relate to and evaluate any idea or concept.
Individuals may not be conscious of the nature of the elements of the world view to which they adhere. And religious institutions will rarely verbalize the world view that is being promoted in their beliefs and rituals. This is because they are most often and most effectively expressed indirectly by means of myths. Using the term “myth” is not to suggest here that what is being communicated is false. Myths are stories or narratives that explain why things are the way they are − or should be. One or more elements of a story may be factual. Also, these elements are not often clearly formulated or even known to be present in a narrative until someone or some event points them out or challenges them.
In contemporary societies, the types of beliefs and behaviors that most closely exemplify the conception of world view are those relating to religious ideology and practice. One of the most widely quoted formal definitions of religion is that contributed by an American anthropologist, the late Clifford Geertz (1926-2006). The virtue of his definition of religion is that it also can also be read as a generalized definition of world view.
From his perspective, religion, and by extension, a world view, can be conceived of as “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the modes and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”
The good aspect of the Zinke essay is that it might stimulate some of his readers to examine their own world view and the presuppositions that go with it. A further positive aspect of his essay is that we now have a context in which we can examine Zinke’s own theological presuppositions and, since his views generally coincide with the leadership at the top of the current GC administration, those held by Wilson and the group around him.
As far as this reader is able to discern, Dr. Zinke’s main thesis is that traditional Seventh-day Adventist (Adventist) theology is essentially incompatible with the core ideas that created the Modern Western world view. He is arguing that the essential parts of standard Adventist theology are basically pre-Modern in orientation. It appears that, in his view, conventional Adventist theology is most compatible with a number of the elements that were part of the Medieval world-view. In general, I agree with what appears to be Dr. Zinke’s main thesis.
In my view, the problem is that he believes that having the Adventist Church operate according to a belief system compatible with many elements of a Medieval world view is a good thing. He believes that the best thing about traditional Adventist theology is that it rejects the assumptions and world view of the Modern world.
One glaring problem with this position is that a pre-Modern, or what is being called here a Neo-Medieval Adventist theological world view, has little or nothing to say to a majority of the young, educated populations in the First World.
Some readers may not be clear on what exactly constitutes the core concepts that distinguish between Medieval, Modern and now Post-Modern world views. The trees of many forests have been cut down to provide paper to print discussions of these topics in hundreds of books, chapters and articles written from the perspectives of a number of scholarly fields. We obviously can only touch briefly and lightly on just a few of the most important elements of each, particularly those elements which were or are embraced by the most influential institutions of each era.
We should initially note that our discussion of these definitions applies only to the intellectual history of the Western world. Until very recently, there was a very different set of elements in play that effected the world views operating within the traditional cultures of Asia, Africa south of the Sahara, and Oceania.
A Medieval world view was reflected in what is sometimes termed the “Age of Faith” in the West. But that “Faith” is a special type. It is what is sometimes called an “Otherworldly” oriented Faith. That system of thought emerged during the late Classic period in the West as a fusion of certain elements of the cultures of the Classic Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian worlds. It had solidified as the dominant world view of the Medieval Church by roughly the 5th-6th Century AD. It continued to be influential until the end of the Middle Ages in the 16th Century.
From a Medieval perspective, the world in which we currently live is to be almost entirely devalued; it is the next world in the afterlife that is important. And to make it to the next world, a “believer” must accept certain theological propositions and perform certain acts. Although these beliefs and behaviors were said to be based on Christian values, it was a particular type of Christianity that was being used as the ostensible source of these items. In fact, there was quite a bit of the specific elements of the Medieval world view that was not derived from that source.
For example, the idea of what is called the “Great Chain of Being” permeated formal Medieval thinking. The original idea originated in the works of Plato. As refined and interpreted by Medieval theologians, this “Chain” defined who God has placed in charge of human affairs and justified why those at the top were entitled to exercise authority over other individuals existing at lower levels on the chain. At the top was the Christian God; further down the chain existed those leading the Christian Church on earth which has been founded by Jesus and who carried out the will of God and Jesus on earth, and still further down were the “ordinary people” who were expected to accept the authority of those above on the Great Chain because God and Jesus willed it so. There are a number of other elements of the Medieval world view that do not impact on the specifics of our discussion here.
A Modern world view refers to a way of thinking born out of the 16th-Century European Renaissance which was then refocused during the period of 18th-Century European Enlightenment. To a large degree, the Enlightenment refocus was the result of almost a century of bloody religious and political turmoil in Europe − the “Wars of Religion.” These wars were, in part, occasioned by forces unleashed largely as a consequence of the Protestant Reformation and the reaction of the Roman Catholic Church to the collapse of the religious and cultural hegemony which it had enjoyed in much of Europe during most during the High Middle Ages and late Medieval period. Clearly, these so-called religious wars rapidly also became enmeshed within the power politics of that era as well as economic issues.
Enlightenment authors formulated “Modern” ideas which finally coalesced together as the dominant pattern of thought by the late 17th Century among leading European intellectuals. This Modern world view is currently what most individuals formally educated in the West assume, usually without reflection, as a set of givens about how society should function and what beliefs and behaviors should be valued.
In general, an individual adhering to a “Modern” Western world view accepts the following ideas as foundational: Modern societies and nation states should be secular. They should operate independent of any type of religiously-based or sectarian authority. They should not be allied with or against any particular religion. In a Modern society and state, religion is a private matter and its free exercise protected. All publicly-supported institutions should be secular. Public education should be secular. The political system should be secular. For example, the United States Constitution is a secular document written largely by 18th-century Deists. From such a perspective was derived the concept of the separation of church and state, although there continues to be much legal and political debate about exactly the nature of the “Wall” of separation and where the “Wall” should be placed. Finally, in the Modern world, reason and rationality are highly valued, as is the pursuit and application of scientific knowledge.
Other elements of the Modern world include the concept of progress, specifically that through the application of science and technology, human societies, over the long run, will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.
A Post-Modern world view was born out of a set of early- to middle-20th-Century experiences that called into question a number of the assumptions of a Modernist world view. To a considerable degree the Post-Modern sensibility is a heterogeneous collection of movements that emerged from considerations of the effects of, first, World War I (WW I) on European and, to a lesser extent, American society. This “War to End All Wars” and its aftermath profoundly undermined the idea of the inevitability of social, political, and economic progress, which was a major Modernist assumption. On the other hand, Marxism, a secular ideology, which stated that it held the key to free mankind from economic and social exploitation, expanded its reach and came to control one European nation state: Russia.
In the post-WW I era, Western social norms that had operated to control the behavior of many generations of Americans and Europeans were severely strained. Within a decade of the uneasy ending of this war, the West experienced an economic meltdown in the Great Depression. The rise of the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy and elsewhere were one of the bitter fruits of the dislocations caused by the events of the previous quarter century. And then the effects of World War II cleared away any lasting illusions among the educated populations of the West that any individual, party, or religious ideology possessed “The Truth” about anything.
With all of these preliminary considerations in hand, we are now in a position to examine the propositions and presuppositions contained in Dr. Zinke’s article and contrast them with the realities of the current Western world and what should be the status of the modern Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America and Europe.
This examination will be taken up in Part II of this commentary as part of unpacking the nature of the assault of the current Wilson administration on academic freedom at Adventist colleges and universities in North America.
Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He has served as the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.