A happy country

The ‘greatest’ country in the world is not the happiest country, according to the World Happiness Report 2017 that was recently released by the United Nations.  Among 155 nations it ranks thirteenth.  On this year’s Happiness Index Norway scores highest.  I had the pleasure of spending last weekend in the second happiest nation on earth: Denmark.  (It was indeed a very pleasant weekend!).The places 3-10 are taken by Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden.  Lowest on the happiness ladder were some African nations and Syria.

A large number of factors is taken into consideration. Economic factors such as income and employment are important, but also social factors, such as education and social life. Mental and physical health, not surprisingly, play a crucial role.

It is, of course, very gratifying to know that I live in one of the happiest countries on earth.  Moreover, research undertaken by Unicef, indicates that Dutch children are on the average happier than children anywhere else. On the happiness index for children the USA occupy the 26th place.

The prestigious Huffington Post reported last year that religious people tend to be happier than non-religious people. Interestingly, it was found that Hindus score higher than Christians!

If all this is true than I may indeed call myself ‘happy’, as I am a Christian living in one of the happiest nations on earth.

However, we are left with some big questions.  The data of the Happiness Index tell us that the happiest countries on earth are also the most secular and least religious countries.  And even in those very happy countries lots of people lead very unhappy lives. Moreover, I know of many non-Christians who look a lot happier to me than many of the Christian believers around me. I cannot ignore that I also see many distinctly unhappy people in the faith community to which I belong.

I have travelled extensively in countries that top the list and in countries that are at the bottom of the list. I have the sense that perhaps too much weight is placed on the economic factors.  I have met many very content and happy persons in ‘poor’ countries, who do not have all the things we tend to associate with a happy life. And it would seem that religious faith often plays an important and positive role in their lives and makes them surprisingly happy.

When all is said and done, I do indeed consider myself fortunate—in spite of the worries and concerns that I do have. Together with my wife I live in reasonable comfort. We are still in relatively good health and continue to live an interesting and fulfilling life. We give and receive love and attention from people far and near. We are part of a pleasant local church community.  Yes, we are privileged and have much to be grateful for—certainly when we compare our situation with most other people—in particular in other parts of the world. But, whatever the Happiness Index says, I remain convinced that for us the religious component is and remains an essential component of our happiness.

 

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A good week

 

When I went to bed last evening at around eleven the picture was already quite clear. What many had feared did not happen. Populism did not win in the national elections. Admittedly, the far-right is still too strong, but its leader, Mr. Geert Wilders, will have to  accept the reality that he only won 13 percent of the Dutch vote. It looks like Mark Rutte will once again become the prime minister—that is, if he succeeds in putting a coalition together that has enough support in parliament. He has shown to be a capable leader. That does not take away from the fact that I would have preferred a more progressive leader from the left side of the political spectrum. Altogether, however, I am greatly relieved.  I hope that the Dutch choice will send a clear signal to other countries in Europe with upcoming elections that they can also help to stop the further rise of this dangerous populism.

Since my wife and I arrived home last Sunday evening after a conference near the German city of Frankfurt, and, immediately following, an assignment in the beautiful Belgian city of Gent, I have been very busy in preparing for other events: a sermon and a presentation, next Saturday, in Denmark (with a visit to Danish friends), for the Day of Dialogue in the Adventist Church in Utrecht on March 25, and presentations in early April in Orlando, Florida.  As the Dutch say: It keeps one off the streets! But it means, unfortunately, that right now I have no time for a long blog with some deep thoughts!

Other things also demanded attention in the past few days. DHL delivered the first boxes with the French edition of my book, entitled FACE AU DOUTE. The promotion has started and the books will be available through amazon.fr from April 3 onwards. The work on the German translation has now begun. It is in the hands of a very capable and experienced editor. In consultation with him I have revised some elements in the manuscript. This does not result in changes in the message of the book, but the order of some of the chapters has been changed and some things have been clarified. Coming Sunday or Monday I will meet with the folks in Denmark who help realize a Danish edition–which we hope will be ready within a few months from now.

So, it was a busy but very satisfying week. For myself, but also for the ‘great’ country in which I live!

 

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Observation and Interpretation

 

A few weeks ago a good friend of mine pointed me to a book he had just read and was enthusiastic about. Since the book is in German and is so recent that no English translation is as yet available, I hesitated whether I should order it. However, I overcame my hesitancy and ordered it through bookdepository.com—a British internet bookseller that I have found to be very good. [The advantage when compared with amazon.com is that they do not charge any postage for shipments anywhere in the world!] The book is written by someone called Martin Urban, and is entitled: Ach Gott, die Kirche: Protestantischer Fundamentalismus und 500 Jahre Reformation (Oh God: the Church: Protestant Fundamentalism and 500 years of Reformation).

I find reading German more difficult than reading Dutch and English, and it will therefore take a while before I will hav it read this book in its entirety, the more so since I will be quite busy in th next few weeks with appointments in my own country, and in Germany, Belgium, Denmark and the US. But I can usually still find a little bit of time for reading.

In the first few short chapters I found a few items that I found vry interesting. One of those things was captured in the header above one particular paragraph in chapter 2: Zehn Prozent Beobachtung, neunzig Prozent Deutung. Literally translated: Ten percent observation, ninety percent interpretation. The author argues that usually our opinions are formed through a rather uneven process. He bases this on insights he acquired as a scientist, and as a journalist who grew up in a family of theologians.  The way we form our opinions, he says, is to a major extent the result of how our brains function. W have our senses through which we absorb information, but then our brain takes hold of this and begins to interpret on the basis of earlier experiences and all kinds of influences, many of which we are not even aware of. This, in the end, determines what we think about a given topic

I have no idea whether Mr. Urban is totally right and whether this 10-90 relationship can be scientifically proven. However, I believe he is certainly right in his argument that we are in most instances far less objective than we realize. It would be very desirable if,  in forming our opinions, we would be much more aware of our background and personal history, our wishes, interests and the intellectual baggage we carry along. Often unawares, we sift the information that comes at us, and we select from it what we find attractive or useful and pay less, or no, attention to what we do not like or do not find useful.

We currently see a vivid illustration of this in the United States. Trump-fans see their president in a totally different way whn compared to the people who are completely fed up with him. The anti-Trump camp immediately notices anything that confirms and will reinforce that negative view. I admit that, even though I do not live in the US, in am in that latter category.

A Seventh-day Adventist sees and interprets many things that happen around us differently from how a non-believers with another background sees these. Usually there is no careful analysis, but an opinion is quickly formed. Our background is quick to add the ninety percent of interpretation to the ten percent observation. The same is true for different streams in the church. And this is precisely what hampers any dialogue. We see, hear and read selectively. We absorb what fits into the framework we already have and interpret this within the context of what we already (think) we know. ‘Liberals’ accuse their often more conservative fellow-believers that they operate according to this process. But ‘liberals’ should also be willing to admit they often do the same.

Of course, this cannot be applied to every individual in equal measure and not all of us will fit into such a 10-90 pattern. And, fortunately, there are many people who do their best to be as objective as they can be. However, the realization that much of what we observe is colored by our (often subconscious) selection of what we take in, before we subject this to our interpretation, that has also been colored by all kinds of factors—that realization should urge us to be less dogmatic, to more often doubt our own correctness, and to give one another more space for having different thoughts.

 

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Limits to our power

Until this week I had never read a book by Amos Oz. He is a much-praised author, whose books have been published in many languages. But for some reason I never decided to buy one of his books or to borrow it from our local library. A few weeks ago, however, a friend gave me the latest book by Oz, entitled Judas. He had two copies. After he had bought one, he got another one as a present.

At first I found it hard to get going in the book, but after some twenty or thirty pages I got hooked. It is beautifully written and expertly translated. The plot is  unpredictable and fascinating. A jewish student, Sjmoeël Asj,  stops his university studies for personal reasons. When his parents go bankrupt, he has to find a way to earn enough money to survive. He responds to an advertisement in which someone is sought who—for a modest salary, but with food and accommodation—will keep an old man, who has lost most of his mobility (Gershom Wald), company during the evening hours and is willing to discuss all sorts of things with him. An equally enigmatic as unapproachable widow in her mid-forties (Atalja Abarbanel), who lives in the same house, soon has Sjmoeël in her grip. Political themes play a major role in the book, but also the topic that Sjmoeël had wanted to write a thesis about. This concerns the person of Judas, the disciple of Jesus who, according to Sjmoeël, differs greatly from the picture the Christians have of him.

Reading this wonderful book I regretted that I did not discover Amos OZ earlier. I am sure to also read some of his other books. In this blog I do not want to give a summary of the plot of Judas, but I want to quote (translated from the Dutch translation, since I do not have the English edition) a few lines that stayed with me during the week. On page 137 we are somewhere in the middle of a discussion between Sjmoeël Asj and Gershom Wald. At a given moment the question is raised whether there is something like unlimited power—political power, but also other forms of power. This is what Sjmoeël answers: ‘The truth is that all powers in the world cannot change an enemy into a friend. They can change an enemy into a slave, but not into a comrade. Even all the powers in the world cannot alter a fanatic into a tolerant person. They cannot transform a revengeful person into a friend.’

In history and in the world around us, as well as in our personal experience, the truth of these words has been confirmed time and again. When people are enemies or competitors, friendship and cooperation are out of reach. Even in a faith community we see this all too often. When opinions are miles apart and a state of polarization has arisen, in which ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ have become totally estranged from each other, we have a deadlock that no one is able to break.  No church leader and no amount of church politics can change this. Here we are confronted with the limits of human power.

However, the good news is that there are no limits to the power of the Lord in whom we believe. He has the power to bring people together. His Spirit can bring reconciliation and unity. This is a core belief of the Christian faith. And that is why there is always reason for hope and optimism, even when different parties are embroiled in a bitter conflict and refuse to move or give any space to the opponent. Therefore my reply to Sjmoeël Asj is: You are wrong. There is a Power who can transform a fanatic into a tolerant person and an enemy into a friend. But this will only happen when we are willing to invite that Power into our personal and collective lives. There is no other way. And this applies to all of us.

 

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New light on ‘Steps to Christ’

 

The discussion about Ellen G. White’s use of the work of other authors is not new. In 1883 the book Sketches from the Life of Paul was published. Soon criticism arose, even from some important Adventist leaders of that period. It was discovered that a substantial part of what Ellen White had written in this book strongly resembled the work of a few other authors.

Ever since the accusation of plagiarism has regularly been revived. It was soon clear that in her perhaps most important work—The Great Controversy—she derived a lot of her information from historical sources and that she quoted freely from these without, at least initially, mentioning her sources. That only happened in the final edition of 1911.

When Ellen White wrote The Desire of Ages (during her stay in Australia), she relied heavily on her faithful assistant Marian Davis. In the 1980’s Fred Veltman was commissioned by the General Conference to investigate the rumors that in producing this book Ellen White had made substantial use of the work of others. After his 8-year study he concluded that about 30 percent of the content of this book about the life of Christ was in a greater or lesser degree dependent on various outside sources.

For a long time the denomination downplayed the fact that Ellen White made extensive use of other sources. The frequent accusation of plagiarism was simply pushed aside with the (in itself correct) argument that it was quite common in her days to cite other authors without giving them due credit. And when some persons attacked Mrs. White publicly this often happened quite aggressively—which in turn provoked an almost equally aggressive defense of her person and work. A well-known example was the controversy that erupted around the book The White Lie, written in 1982 by the recently deceased Walter T. Rea.

Often those who argued that much of what Ellen White wrote was not original, were accused of no longer believing in the “Spirit of Prophecy’. Indeed, this was true in some cases. Some critics felt that Ellen White had, for them, lost all credibility. But the question is not primarily—at least not in the context of this discussion—whether Ellen White was indeed a prophet. What is here at stake is that—assuming that somehow God spoke (and speaks) through her in some special way—we must try to understand in what manner God inspired her. Apparently we are not dealing with a concept of inspiration that implies that everything was directly revealed to her in some supernatural way. This, of course, also has consequences for the way we look at inspiration in general (also of the Bible). The Adventist Church could have avoided a lot of hassle if the leaders had, at some earlier stage, been more willing to share with the members in the pew what many of them had already been aware of for a long time.

Gradually attempts are being made to give fuller information to the church members. Dr. George Knight, in particular, has made significant contributions in this respect. However, very recently, a new development may further hasten this process. Andrews University Press has just published an annotated edition of Steps to Christ. Denis Fortin, a former dean of the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University, comments extensively on the history of this popular book. It first appeared in 1892 (published by Revell, a non-Adventist publisher). It consists almost entirely of material Ellen White wrote at some earlier stage and that was compiled by her ‘book maker’, Marian Davis. Fortin also explains that Ellen White worked in a particular historical context. Her Methodist background ‘colored’ her theological understanding at least to some extent. Moreover, in this book we also find traces of material from other sources.

But does all this make the book Steps to Christ less valuable? Must we conclude that it was not really inspired? No, but we must be prepared to recognize that inspiration apparently functions differently from the way our Adventist tradition has usually insisted upon. Fortin’s work shows that we have now come to a stage where we can openly say such things. This may make us hopeful that it is, indeed, possible to adjust long held standpoints. (And I could suggest a few others topics where, in my opinion, some adjustment would be welcome!)

 

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