Objectivity is an illusion

 

Last week’s blog was about reading the Bible. The short argument I presented may be summarized as follows: Reading the Bible objectively, and a ‘plain’ reading of the Bible, is simply impossible. We all wear our own spectacles and read from a particular ‘social location.’

Neither can we hope to achieve real objectivity when we study the past. Why do we choose to study  a particular subject rather than another? What sources do we select—either consciously or by chance? Do we have sufficient knowledge to place the things that we study in a broader framework? How prejudiced are we?

Today (before the deadline of September 30) I informed the organizer of the European Theology Teachers’ Convention (to be held in March next year) about the topic of the paper that I would like to prepare. The overall theme of the bi-annual conference (to which I continue to be invited, courtesy of the TED) will be about ‘revival and reformation’. Most of the papers will deal with theological aspects, but I hope to make a historical contribution by focusing on an event that took place in the Netherlands—in the Adventist Church. In 1902 the fledgling Dutch Adventist movement suffered a painful schism.  From a membership of just over 250, about 200 members left the church. A deep controversy had arisen, with a certain Johan de Heer as one of the three main leaders.

After his separation from Adventism Johan de Heer became a sworn enemy of his former brothers and sisters. But as time went on, he developed into a popular revivalist preacher. His movement (Zoeklicht=Search light) still exists and tens of thousands of Dutch evangelicals and others still enjoy singing from the hymnal that he put together.

I intend to use the events around Johan de Heer as a launching pad for dealing with a number of issues, such as the question whether a rigid emphasis on doctrinal points leaves room for a spiritual revival that expresses itself in new forms of piety and a new religious experience. If Johan de Heer had remained an Adventist, would he have been given the space he needed for his later activities? And may we, in fact, expect that the current attempts of the Adventist top leadership to lead the church members towards a ‘revival and reformation,’ can have success when, simultaneously, they place so much emphasis on doctrinal fine print?

While giving some thought to ways in which I might deal with this topic, I realized that I would find it hard, or rather, impossible to look at Johan de Heer objectively. As soon as I see his name, I cannot help but think about all the damage he caused to my church. For me his very name calls forth all kinds of negative images and I must fear that these will continue to play a role as a study my topic in depth.

But then: objectivity is impossible. We can only hope to arrive at a satisfactory picture of what happened when the results of my historical pursuit of the events around Johan de Heer are linked with the findings of others, who look at him from a different perspective. Once again, I sense loud and clear that objectivity is an illusion.

 

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Were Adam and Eve white?

 

Many years ago  I saw a black Christ for the first time. I had to get used to this. As a child I had become accustomed to pictures in the children’s Bible of Jesus as a Caucasian met long blond hair. When some thirty years later I was responsible for the production of the Dutch version of Arthur Maxwell’s ten volume Bible Story, I gave no further thought to the fact that the illustrations by Harry Anderson and other artists pictured Jesus as an American male in an American park scene.  Yes, there was a picture of the little children who (in spite of the protests of Jesus’ disciples) were allowed to come to Jesus, and  one of these children had a dark skin. But Jesus himself? He was solidly part of my own western culture.

It was a considerable shock when I gradually realized that there were people in other cultures who had decided to picture Jesus as one of them—not as an American or Northern European, but as a Korean, a Chilean, an African, a Maori or an Apache. And, of course, if you give it a little thought, you must agree that these people in other cultures also have the right to express there conviction that, in becoming man Jesus became the representative of all people from all cultures, in all ages—and thus also their representative.

However, for me, about a week ago, another dimension was added to this issue. In the book  Reading the Bible from the Margin,[1] the author Miguel de la Torre points out that westerners almost automatically assume that Adam and Eve had a white skin. To be honest, that is also what I had always assumed. Until a week ago I had never looked for a basis for that supposition. In fact, the question of the origin of the physical differences between human races has never occupied me very much. I had always, without giving it much further thought, simply assumed that the development of these differences between the various races must have required a long time–that one could not easily fit into any biblical scheme of 6.000 years. The fact that humans have different colors of skin was, no doubt, due to climatological circumstances, I thought. That black people were descendants of Cham—the son of Noah who was cursed because of his misbehavior—is a theory that I always rejected as an obnoxious racist opinion.

But do we have a good reason to think that the first human beings did not have a dark skin, but, on the contrary, were ‘white’? The Bible does not seem to provide any solid information that allows us to answer this question decisively. We do not have any selfies of Adam and Eve, and we simply do not know what they looked like and whether they had a dark, a light, a yellow or a red skin.

Why did I never think about this? De la Torre claims that this is because all of us (and that includes me) read the Bible from our own ‘social location.’ Who and what I am, and where I come from, determines to a major extent how I read the Bible. As a ‘white’ person I tend to automatically assume that the first human beings were white, and for centuries the ‘whites’ have shared this message with the rest of the world’s population: it became a part of our story as we did our missionary work.

I encountered another striking example of this phenomenon in de la Torre’s book. The person who reads the Bible from the ‘social location’ of the favelas in a South-American city, will approach many biblical passages in a way that differs from how I, as a reasonably prosperous retired pastor who lives in a pleasant apartment in the Netherlands, read my Bible. When, from my ‘social location), I preach a sermon—or listen to a sermon—about poverty and prosperity, there will invariable also be a statement like: Yes, we must allow others to share in our prosperity. But [and then follows a crucial remark] this does not mean that God condemns our prosperity and does not want us to enjoy life. As long as we also . . . . [you will know how to complete this statement].  Reading from our own ‘social location,’ we want to ensure that we safeguard our privileged position. It is in fact for us quite natural to think that way. But we must be aware that we do not read in the same way as those who ‘read from the margins.’

There are people (including theologians and church leaders) who keep  emphasizing that we must opt for a ‘plain’ reading of the Bible. We must simply read what the text says. However, these people do not follow their own instructions and, in fact, are unable to do so. They also read from their ‘social location’, as all of us do. And thus their reading will always be selective and subjective. This is unavoidable for all of us. This is not something to be ashamed of, as long as we remember that others—and with just as much right to do so—read from their own ‘social location.’



[1] Door Miguel A. De la Torre; uitgave: Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002).

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More pastors, please

 

In the most recent newsletter of the North-American Division of the Adventist Church I found an important—and at the same time alarming–news item. The NAD invited church leaders from different administrative levels for a summit from 6 to 8 September, to study the threat of a major shortage of ministers in North-America. At this moment some 450 pastors are of retirement age, but are still fully employed. In the near future this number will each year grow with an additional few hundred persons. It does not demand rocket-science to conclude that this may well have some very serious consequences for the well-being of the church. Moreover, one should keep in mind that a considerable percentage of the current pastoral force has not completed the full professional training.

No doubt, lots of factors play a role. Possibly, the problem is not equally severe in all parts of the United States and Canada, and some ethnic segments of the church may have a bigger problem than others.

At the same time we must also realize that a shortage of clergy is not a specifically Adventist problem. Many other faith communities also wrestle with a future or actual shortage of priests or pastors. In some cases the main issue is a lack of finances that makes it impossible to hire the necessary people. But, more often, not enough people feel the ‘call’ to the ministry. Too few young (and not so very young) men and women feel called to start preparations for a career in the church.

Of course, this lack of ‘callings’ has many underlying reasons and raises many questions, in particular when it concerns our own church. Is it still sufficiently attractive to aspire to a job as pastor in the Adventist Church? And, I am not primarily thinking of the financial aspects, but, more specifically, of the job description. Can the pastor simply no longer live up to the many expectations? Has his task been fragmented in so many ways, that the work can only provide limited satisfaction? And does perhaps all the hassle about the absence of full equality of male and female ministers have a negative impact on the recruitment of new church workers? I suspect there are quite a few young people who hesitate to pursue a career in an organization that, as far as this is concerned, still lives in a rather distant past.

However, I believe that the shortage of people who aspire to become  ministers may, above all, have to do with something else. Does the Adventist Church of 2014 provide enough space to be who you are? Is there the space to develop and to freely form your own opinions about all sorts of things. There are, I think, but few potential ministerial candidates who in everything simply want to go their own, without any reference to the core beliefs and fundamental traditions of Adventism. Yet, many discern of late how the denomination tries to push many viewpoints on the membership, and, in particular, on those who are employed by the church. This makes many people gasp for air. And this may well be a major cause why many hesitate and wonder whether it would perhaps be advisable to opt for another career.

I have spent a major part of my working life in the church in a country where church leaders have allowed for a large degree of space. Most church workers have used this space in a responsible way. As a result most pastors have continued to enjoy their work, have felt supported by the church structure and were able to develop and discuss their opinions without fears for repercussions. Such an approach might also go a long way in North America in dealing with the impending shortage of pastors.

 

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The division office and the hereafter

 

It had been some time since I last visited the offices of the Trans-European Division in St. Albans. This week I flew across the North Sea for a short visit—to have some talks about a project of which I have been a part. Possibly I was more focussed when I looked around than I had been on previous visits over the last ten years or so. I concluded that it is still very much the same office as when I left in 2001 after having worked in this building for some  seven years. The lobby, the offices, the meeting rooms had all remained the same. The kitchen looked the same and the toilets were still in the same location. Alan Collin’s sculpture of the three angels of Revelation 14  still guards the front of the building. But almost all people I used to work with have gone and there are many I do not know. It appeared that a number of protocols in the office have  changed. Somehow the place breathes a different atmosphere. In other words: I experienced both a strong degree of continuity and of discontinuity.

Recently I was made aware of another striking example of the combination of continuity and discontinuity. If I were to step into the Rhine river today, I would step into the very same river as was used by the Batavians two millennia ago, when they entered the Low Countries. It has remained the same body of water that follows roughly the same track through the Netherlands as it did two thousand years ago. But I do not touch the same water as the Batavians did. The water has been continuously ‘refreshed’. The river is a remarkable example of continuity and discontinuity.

As believers we expect a life after this life: a new existence that replaces our current one. We look for a new world to replace this old world. What will this new world be like? If there were no continuity between what is now and what is to come, the concept of the hereafter would lose all its meaning for us. We expect to become a part of the new world and we presume that we will then somehow be able to know that we have existed before and that now, after a short interruption, we have received a totally new lease on life. Admittedly, it is a completely new mode of being, since it is perfect. But there must be something that will remind us of our previous imperfect existence. There must be a fair degree of continuity. For would it not be fully unsatisfactory to think that ‘I’ would become part of the world of the hereafter without any awareness of the fact that I did exist before?

However, there must also be a fair degree of discontinuity. Things must not change just a little, but must change drastically. There must be a much greater measure of discontinuity as  we see in institutions and organizations. The hereafter must differ in many more ways from my current life than the division office of 2014 differs from the building I left in 2001. Perhaps the discontinuity between our life today and our future existence is more like the river. But then, this is also an imperfect metaphor. For the river continues to run the same course, albeit with other water. And, perhaps, when we compare our current existence with the life to come, it is not like a river that continues to run approximately the same course, while the water keeps changing. No, it would be more like the same (purified) water that now runs along a very different track.

Well, I don’t know. But it would seem to me that we should not try to imagine a hereafter with so much discontinuity with our life in  this world, that it no longer makes sense to long for it. If, having arrived in the hereafter, we do not recognize anything that once was, and we even do not know that we are redeemed beings who once lived in a very imperfect world, belief in a life hereafter would no longer make sense. Yet, at the same time, we should not put so much stress on the aspect of continuity that the hereafter becomes almost simply more of what we are now accustomed to—with the difference that will always go on. And what reason would we have to be eager for that?

For the time being we look into a ‘glass darkly’ and are left with our many questions. But that is, in fact, what it means to have hope. It is possessing an inner certainty of a glorious future, but without having any visible proof.  Yet, that should be enough.

 

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This is my church

 

I am a natural optimist, but seeing some recent developments in my church this optimism lately has a hard time surviving. That was, in particular, true during the past two weeks as I was reading the reports of the conference about faith and science in Utah (USA), in which more than 300 Adventist leaders and teachers participated. The goal of the conference was once again to convince the participants of a literal reading of the creation story and of the theory of a ‘young earth’. This latter term indicates the belief that not only the creation of man and the other creatures, as well as the ordering of Planet Earth, took place some six thousand years ago, but that the earth itself (and perhaps even the universe) is not older than that.

I am no expert in the areas of evolution, biology, geology, etc., But so much is clear to me that these ideas are not very popular with the specialists. And personally I see no biblical or theological necessity to arrive at such conclusions. To me it rather appears that the Adventist Church is in danger of following the example of the leaders of the medieval church, who kept condemning the scientific discoveries of people like Galileo Galilei as heresies—a very unfortunate approach that was to haunt the church for centuries, until they had to humbly admit that, after all, the scientists had been right. I fear that my church runs the danger of following the same path, and that we run the risk of being accused (and justifiably so) of obscurantism and sectarian fundamentalism.

In one of his speeches the president of the General Conference stated that those who do not wholeheartedly subscribe to the teaching of a creation in six literal days, are not real Adventists and that pastors and teachers who do not fully support this point of view would do better to hand in their credentials. Earlier the president made similar statements that also denied large groups of church members the right to call themselves Seventh-day Adventists. A true Adventist, it has been repeatedly stated, has only one way of looking at the inspiration of Scripture! Whoever does not accept the ‘plain reading’ approach and who confesses to see some value in the historical-critical method is on a forbidden track. Anyone who does not appreciate Ellen G. White in the same way as is proposed by the president, would do better to leave. And that is true of those who place some question marks behind certain aspects of the traditional Adventist teaching of the heavenly sanctuary. And, surely, there can be no place for men and women who believe that gay members should be allowed to fully participate in church life.

There have been moments when I thought: Would I not do better to look for another spiritual home? For in a number of areas I do not fit the profile of a ‘real Adventist, as this has repeatedly been promoted by the president of our world church. Four years ago I wrote in a blog that with the election of the current president the church put the clock fifty years backward. I now realize that was far too optimistic. It would now rather appear that the clock was pushed backward for about a century, back to the heyday of fundamentalism of the 1920’s en 1930’s.

But, no, leaving is no option.  My church is not perfect, but in spite of the many things I do not like in my church, it continues to be my church. And, fortunately, the office in Silver Spring does not determine whether of not I am truly part of that church. There is an invisible church and a visible church organization. When it concerns the invisible church: God is the only one who knows who are his. And I have full confidence that he counts me among his children. And as to the visible organization where I hold membership, there are only two parties who have a decisive voice in this matter.  In the first place this is the local church and not some higher church organization—not even the General Conference. As long as the local church does not vote to annul my membership, I am a church member who retains all the rights connected with this membership and no one can do anything about it. Then, secondly, it is up to me to decide whether I want to be a member of the church. I can decide to stay a member or I can decide that I want to cancel my membership.  Apart from my local church and myself no one has any say in whether I am a full and regular church member or not. It is a comforting thought that some things in our church are, in fact, as they should be.

 

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