Once again: Kuitert

 

In my previous blog I was quite enthusiastic about the biography of Harry Kuitert (b. 1924), by Gert J. Peelens. I have now finished the book and my enthusiasm has gradually become mingled with a sense of tragedy.

Peelen paints a very fascinating picture of Kuitert and gives a clear description of his development as an ethicist and a theologian. His career is, in fact, a triptych: Kuitert’s academic career shifted from theology to ethics and, after he retired, back to theology. In his advanced age Kuitert produced a number of theological books for a broader public. Some of these have become real bestsellers.

It is not strange to detect a development in someone’s thinking—and that is certainly true for a theologian. But in the case of Kuitert we are faced with a man who began his career as a fundamentalist pastor in the small Christian Reformed Church in Scharendijke, a conservative village in the Southwestern part of the country, and who, some six decades later no longer believes that God really exists (i.e. as a Reality outside us), and who no longer expects a life after death.

His complete turn-around has probably been best expressed in two of his famous one-liners. In 1974 he stated that everything we say about ‘above’, comes from below. In 2002 he told his readers that at first there were human  beings, then there were gods, and then came God. And not the other way around,

As the years passed we notice a consistent line in Kuitert’s thinking. He becomes more and more convinced that we cannot read the Bible as history. The Bible stories did not really happen in the way they were written down. They are stories, myths. At first he was mainly concerned about he lack of historicity in the first three chapters of the Bible: we cannot accept the stories of creation and of the Fall as literal. But as he became older—and this is especially clear from his more recent books—little of the biblical story remains. He is more and more convinced that, when we speak of God, we do not refer to a Reality outside of us (to a Referent, as philosophers would say). God is the product of our imagination. And this does not just apply to God, but to all aspects of our faith. This does not make the Christian faith completely worthless, even though many of his readers think so. Ever more frequently people accuse Kuitert that he has robbed them of their faith.

I agree with Kuitert in many of the things he says. When we use God-talk and faith-talk, we can only do so with human language—with human metaphors and literary models.  This is often forgotten and leads almost inevitably to a caricature of God. But I am not prepared to follow Kuitert in eliminating the possibility of divine revelation. There are, I think, at least as many arguments for the existence of God (as an Eternal Reality outside of us) as there are reasons to deny God’s existence. If we are prepared to recognize the fact that God exists, it seems logical to assume that this God makes himself known to us, gives us information about himself and what he does for us andexpecs from us.  If that is true, it follows that not all God-talk originates in our human imagination. Something from above is received here below and can be known to us. That is something that encourages me, even though we must remember that in our thinking and speaking about God we will always be handicapped by our creaturely limitations.

Kuitert has a defense against the accusation that he has taken the faith of many people away, that we cannot simply dismiss. The panic among believers, he says, is the result of the fact that most theologians have too long remained silent about their discoveries and they carefully kept their conclusions in their own small circle. When at last, like Kuitert, they began to speak and write about their opinions, some felt liberated but many felt betrayed and frustrated. This is also a lesson for Seventh-day Adventist theologians. Among them we also notice tthe tendency to keep quiet about the developments in their theological views, afraid that they might confuse the members in the pew (or lose their job). This is unfortunate and dishonest. And in the long run it causes immense problems.

A denomination has to gain a great deal by being open, also when the basic elements of its theology are at stake, as well as the ways in which these impact on the faith community.

 

 

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Hophni, Pinehas, Muis and Kuitert

 

A few days ago I read a major part of the Bible book 1 Samuel. In the second chapter we get reasonably well acquainted with Eli and his two sons, Hophni and Pinehas. This trio was responsible for the sanctuary services in Silo. It would be quite an understatement to say the Eli was unsuccessful in the coaching of his two sons. Hophni and Pinehas ignored the rules for their sacred duties in the temple, and, in general, behaved immorally. Eli tried to correct his sons, but they ‘did not listen to their father’s rebuke’. Then follows a statement which sounds rather strange in our ears. We are told of the reason why the two men remained so rebellious: ‘For it was the Lord’s will to put them to death’ (1 Samuel 2:25). We must perform some considerable exegetical gymnastics to make these words palatable. The problem is in the word ‘for’, which suggests a causal relationship: God had already decided to kill these two men and for that reason they remained disobedient. It would seem as if their own will was overruled and that we find here some kind of predestination: It was God’s will that they would not listen to father Eli.

I thought of this text when one day later finding a few paragraphs in a book that I am currently reading. The book is written by Dr. Jan Muis, a theology professor at the Protestant Theological University in Amsterdam. It deals with our way of speaking about God. The first part of this book deals with such questions as the nature of our God-talk and how we use our human languages when we want to say something about God. On page 124 I found a few sentences which I have clearly marked. It seemed to me that they also touched upon the question how we may read such text as 1 Samuel 2:25 (and many other difficult texts). I quote: ‘Believers may make true statements about God on the basis of the fact that he addresses us and reveals himself. Apart from his addressing us and his revelation we cannot say anything meaningful about God. This means that revelation is not only the basis for Christian God-talk, but also marks the border for our speaking and thinking about him.’ And a little further: ‘When we speak to God and about God, we must always remember  this limit to the revelation: we can easily go too far in our God-talk and say more than is possible on the basis of revelation and faith.’

In other words: We should not expect that we can find an answer to all our burning questions and find a clear explanation for all Bible texts. There is a line we should not attempt to cross. This is no reason for complaint but for halting before that line and admit our human limitations. I hope to finish the book by prof. Muis in the next few days. I can recommend it to all who have a theological interest and want to speak ‘as a believer’ about God.

But this week there was also another book I find it hard to lay down. I found it a few days ago in the bookshop of the Free University in Amsterdam. I had an appointment with someone at the university, and when I enter that building it is as if a magnet pulls me to the bookshop, to the left of the entrance of the main building. The book I saw (and bought) is a biography of Harry Kuitert—the (originally) Christian Reformed theologian who would become highly controversial. It is fascinating to read about his gradual theological development. In the first 200 pages there is much in which I recognize myself. I have a feeling that I will return to this book in one of my blogs in the near future!

 

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The Gender Gap

 

Together with three Dutch colleagues I am attending an international symposium about aspects of mission and church growth. The venue is the Friedensau University in the Eastern part of Germany, not far from the city of Magdeburg. ‘Friedensau’ provides a pleasant atmosphere and excellent facilities for such meetings, even though, to my taste, the campus is a bit too far removed from the inhabited world.

I was one of the circa fifteen presenters. When the symposium started on Tuesday morning, I was the first speaker on the program. My topic was: Criteria for a Healthy Church. I gave my talk with the aid of a power point presentation, but intend to put it also in the form of an article, with all the academic requirements, such as a respectable number of footnotes, documenting my sources.

One of the lectures that interested me in particular was that of a Bulgarian participant. He has studied the demographics of the Adventist Church in his country. His talk was accompanied by a vast number of slides, with extensive numerical data and lots graphs. Something like that can easily become quite boring, but this presentation was far from tedious.

The Adventist Church in Bulgaria has about 7.500 members. Roughly ten percent of them live outside of their country. Three quarters of the members are ethnic Bulgarians, while the remaining one quarter has a Roma (gypsy) background. In the past decade or so the membership in Bulagaria has steadily decreased. The few growing churches are almost all Roma churches.

One element that I was particularly interested in was the major gender gap in the Bulgarian church which is even more worrisome than it is, on average. in other westerns countries. It usually stand at about 58 percent women and 42 percent men. However, in Bulgaria these percentages are at 68 and 32 respectively.

After the presentation a fascinating discussion followed about the reasons of this ‘gender gap’. No clear reason was discovered as to why the Bulgarian statistics deviate so strongly from the average. The discussion then focused on the question why women would be more attracted to religion and to the church than men. The speaker suggested that the solution is not in a more active ‘men’s ministry’, or something like that, but rather in removing the barriers that keep men away from the church.

Different aspects were mentioned that give church life a strong feminine character, as for instance the decoration of the worship place (flowers), the predominance of sentimental images in the ever-present power point presentations, and the fact that Jesus Christ is often presented in a very ‘soft’ manner–as someone with whom most men find it difficult to identify. What made me think most was the suggestion that the ministry to children (children Sabbath school) is mostly a female activity, and that many of the projects and activities are more geared towards girls than to boys. Much speculation about this issue of the ‘gender gap’ is found in current literature. Some have suggested that several of the christian virtues that are most intensely emphasized in church (like humility and meekness) do appeal more to women than to men.

The presentation of our Bulgarian participant has definitely inspired me to pursue this topic further. Yet, at the same time I also realize that the gender gap is nothing new. From the very beginning women often were active in the church when men were nowhere to be seen! Just think of the resurrection morning.

I am writing these lines on Thursday morning. Today will be another full day of presentations. Early tomorrow morning I will take the train from the nearby town of Burg to Berlin, from where I will fly to London. Tomorrow evening and Saturday afternoon I have a part in a meeting of the South-England Conference in Oxford. Some 250 people have registered to come and take part in this event that is focused on the challenges of the growing diversity in the church.

Who could possibly say that the life of a retired church worker is monotonous and boring?

 

 

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Forming our opinion

 

While driving on Saturday morning November 12 to the city of Meppel—as I was scheduled to preach there—I heard an interesting discussion on Radio 1 with a certain Ms Tamar de Waal. On her website she refers to herself as a political philosopher. The theme of the exchange between the interviewer and Ms. de Waal was the turmoil around ‘black Peter’ (a black servant accompanying St. Nicolas; some find it objectionable to have a black person in the role of a servant; others feel it is no more than a tradition that is an innocent part of the annual feast for the children). Ms. de Waal broadened the subject to deal with the right of free speech and freely expressing one’s opinion versus the importance of forming one’s opinion in a responsible way.

Free speech is an important human right. We must, however, realize that there may be a tension between different human rights. The case that is currently in the Dutch courts about some statements made by Geert Wilders, the leader of a Dutch populistic party, is a very telling example of this. Were his statements a permissible expression of his political views, or did he, through what he said, offend a segment of the Dutch population and was he possibly guilty of discriminatory behavior? Should Mr. Wilders’ right to express his opinion not have been shaped by the fundamental right of others not to be discriminated against and not to be offended?

Ms de Waal emphasized that people who claim to have the right to freely express their opinion, should also make sure that they are not just making any kind of wild assertion or are simply giving in to some vague sense of uneasiness. We all have, she said, the moral duty to form our opinions in a responsible manner—by carefully listening to other people with different opinions and then carefully considering the force of these opinions. She pointed to the Greek philosophers. Representatives of different philosophical ‘schools’ met each other on the market place, where they entered into a discussion with the aim of modifying their own opinion when needed.

We notice all around us that people find it difficult or even impossible to seriously listen to others and to weigh the various standpoints in a process of forming an informed opinion. We see this in the political area—often in an offensive and gross manner, as during the recent US elections. I fear we will see a lot of this also in the Netherlands, in March when the Dutch go to the voting booth. Unfortunately, we also see this in many faith communities, including the Adventist Church.

The Adventist community has a specific problem with regard to the free expression of opinion. Many church members do not have access to the official denominational media where they can express their opinion, and do not get the opportunity to say what they think, and talk about the conclusions they have reached, in church sponsored events and meetings (including the weekly Bible study period on Saturday morning). To a certain extent this is justifiable. A church wants to emphasize a particular message and is not just a club for debaters. But it would be a good thing if representatives of the various schools of thought within the church would have more space and opportunity to explain what they think and believe.

A responsible way of forming one’s opinion remains an absolute priority—for the corporate church as well as for individual church members. As believers we must, of course, make every effort to first of all listen to God’s Word without preconceived ideas. But we must also consider the views and interpretations of others around us. This is often very problematic. The so-called ‘right’ wing of the church hardly pays attention to anything the ‘left’ brings to the table—and vice versa. The ‘conservative’ segment of the church simply assumes that the ‘liberals’ hardly believe anything, while the ‘liberals’ or ‘progressives’ look with pity down upon the more conservative segment in the church, as people who refuse to think for themselves and remain stuck in all kinds of nineteenth-century ideas.

Lately, much is said and written about the need to restore unity in the church. Who will deny that this is crucial? But unity, in which we truly see and respect others as our ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, can only come about when we stop shouting at each other, make an effort to seriously listen to each other, and form a well-considered opinion before we decide to express it.

 

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Adventists in the news

 

As Adventists we are (most certainly in the Netherlands) only a tiny minority of the population. That is no doubt the reason why we immediately pay attention when the media say something about Adventists.

In October the new Mel Gibson film Hacksaw Ridge premiered in the United States. It is now also on the schedule of numerous Dutch cinemas. The film is about Desmond T. Doss, who in the Second World War risked his life to save 75 US soldiers in a fierce battle near a dangerous cliff on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The story is so special for Adventists, because Doss, as a Seventh-day Adventists, was a conscientious objector who refused to bear arms. He accompanied the troops as a medic. His courage was so extraordinary that he subsequently received the Medal of Honor from President Truman. I am not yet sure whether I want to see this movie. I have read that the film contains a lot of violence and I am not very keen on bloody war movies. However, I must admit that I am pleased that a Seventh-day Adventist is portrayed in such a positive manner. (At the same I deeply regret that today in many countries Doss’ example of not bearing arms is not followed by the majority of young Adventists.)

Another Seventh-day Adventist, whose name is brought back from the almost forgotten past, is that of the Dutch-Swiss businessman Jean Henri Weidner. He was the son of a teacher in classical languages at ‘Collonges’, the educational center of the Adventist Church at the French-Swiss border, near Geneva. Weidner became the initiator and leader of the Dutch-Paris escape route, which saved some 1.500 lives: Jews, resistance people and pilots whose plane had been downed. The route ran from Belgium, via Paris and Toulouse, to the French-Swiss border near Collonges, or via a difficult path over the Pyrenees to Spain. Some 300 people were involved in this network, of whom more than forty were eventually arrested by the Germans. Many of them did not survive the war.

An American historian, Dr. Megan Koreman, wrote a book about Weidner and his escape route, after three years of painstaking research. The book is entitled Ordinary Heroes and is published by the Dutch publisher Boom. An English edition will shortly be published in Oxford (UK). The mini-symposium held on November 10 in the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel—at the occasion of the publication of Koreman’s book, was attended by scores of children and grandchildren of men and women who owed their lives to the Dutch-Paris route. Since I have been involved with the project in a modest way, I was invited for this event. I was especially touched by the emphasis several of the speakers at the symposium placed on the faith of Weidner, which motivated him to put his life on the line to save others.

And, yes, thirdly, there is also Ben Carson, the (contemporary) Adventist who has become even more well known than he already was as a gifted surgeon and author of books about his life. He entered the American electoral race for the Republican nomination. He was eliminated quite soon, but then he decided to get behind Donald Trump. I happened to see him again yesterday on CNN, when he was mentioned as one of the Trump-supporters who may well be rewarded with a cabinet post. However, while I proudly tell others about Desmond Doss and Jean Weidner, I keep silent about the fact that Carson is a fellow-Adventist. How he could decide as a Christian (as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian!) to join such an amoral leader as Donald J. Trump baffles me. I hope that, if he were to become the Surgeon General in the Trump government, he will never speak of his denominational affiliation. Well, we will wait and see what happens . .

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