A comparison

 

I have a reasonably good idea of what there is in Europe with regard to Adventist theological education. A few weeks ago I attended a conference of Adventist theology teachers, who work in the various European educational institutions. About eighty people—mostly with a Ph.D. in some theological discipline—participated.  The meeting was at Newbold College in the UK, where, in addition to a sizable group of bachelor students, some 70-80 young men and women work on their masters degree in theology. This past week I was a few days in Collonges, in France but just across the Swiss border near Geneva, where an institution of about the same size is located. A German-language Adventist university, not far from Magdeburg, where I also visit on a regular basis, has about the same number of theology students. In addition, there are, spread over Europe, about a dozen other smaller institutions with an  average of 10-20 theology students.

Admittedly, the institutions of the Adventist Church in Europe that cater for its theological education have plenty of problems.  The finances, in particular, remain a matter of grave concern. However, the overall picture is quite impressive, especially with a view to the fact that the total number of Adventist church members in Europe is less than half a million!

Wile, during the past week, I was a few days in France, my wife noticed that one of the regional Dutch television stations was to broadcast a documentary about the training of priests in the archdiocese of Utrecht. She recorded the program, which was entitled: ‘And yet, I want to become a priest’, thinking (correctly) that this would interest me. The documentary told the story of the Ariens Institute, the official theological education of the Utrecht archdiocese.

The archdiocese of Utrecht is the largest of the seven dioceses in the Netherlands. It covers, apart from the Utrecht provinces, also the provinces of Overijssel, Gelderland and Flevoland. The total number of Catholic church members in this organization is about 700.000. In other words: more than the total number of Adventists in all of Europe.

This Dutch archdiocese needs a constant replenishment with  new priests.  The documentary took the viewer to the Ariensconvikt—the stately building in the center of Urecht, where the theology students of the archdiocese live and follow part of their studies. They also have lectures elsewhere, as e.g. at the Utrecht branch of the Tilburg Catholic University. To my amazement (and, in fact, also to my dismay), the total number of theology students currently enrolled is thirteen—of which five have come from Colombia. They have come to the Netherlands, with the intention of serving the Dutch church, knowing that there is a serious shortage of priests.

It may be that some of my fellow-Adventists feel good when viewing such a documentary which does not precisely present a living, vital Catholic church community. I do not share such sentiments. I found the dedication of the men who were interviewed quite impressive. Here were some young men, who were very much part of this world, but who testified of their calling and their ideals.  But, yes, I wondered with sadness: How is it possible that a christian church is going down so quickly? How much future is there for a church if it no longer succeeds in recruiting people to serve within its structure?

In the traditional Adventist scenario of the future Catholicism is attributed a rather sinister role. From a European—and certainly from a Dutch—Adventist perspective that view is no longer very convincing!

However, in the meantime: let us be grateful that European Adventism—in spite of all its problems and current controversies—is in much better shape. But rather than leaning back with satisfaction, let us concentrate on our task of communicating the gospel to people in a society that moves further and further away from church and faith.

 

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Change from ‘below’

 

I hope that many things in ‘the’ church will change, in particular in my own denomination—the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Unfortunately, in recent years I do see a lot of change at the highest level of my church, but (at least that is what I think) in many cases not in a positive direction. With regards to many issues, I see a deplorable trend towards ‘the right’, and a glorification of the past, rather than a renewing engagement with the present and the future. Will this change in the near future? Time will tell.

It would, however, seem that change in the church happens more and more at the local level. And it also seems that the voice of the world church (certainly in the western world) is considered as less and less relevant. My experience of today (Saturday April 11) is a small but telling illustration.

Today I preached two sermons. After having said ‘amen’ at one location, I hurried to another, nearby church. I was in Huis ter Heide (near Utrecht, the Netherlands), and the distance  between the church-operated care home for the elderly (‘Vredenoord’) and the local community church nearby, on the campus of the union office, is only a distance of a few hundred meters.

One might expect that a group of elderly residents of a care home do not make for a progressive church. Yet, in the recent past I have seen various signs of renewal. The Bible study (Sabbath school) has been moved to the Friday night. This morning I saw to my delight a burning candle on the platform and I also noticed that the attributes for the Lord’s Supper have been placed on the communion table. These may small, incremental changes, but they are not unimportant. They show that the church is giving thought to how it worships and is not just following old traditions. Moreover, This morning the service was led by a female elder. The most important thing I have noticed in recent years in this special church is a different kind of atmosphere—with much more openness than in the past.

In the not too distant past the local community church in Huis ter Heide, where I arrived (almost out of breath) at 11.30, was not known for many signs of progressiveness. I was surprised by what I saw this morning. The average age of the circa one hundred attendees was, I guess, not above forty. A praise-team, with a small band, led the church in contemporary music. It is a church where people of different ethnic origins gladly worship together, and where there is space for people with a ‘different’ sexual orientation. In short: I saw a living church that seems to have found a way of keeping many of its young people on board, and that only very faintly resembles the church that I used to know. And I did not get the impression that this church cares very much about what happens in Silver Spring or in St. Albans!

I could list a good number of other examples of Adventist churches in my country that have significantly changed or are in a process of change. This offers hope for the future. And I am happy to see that the leaders of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands provide space for these developments. They have better understood than many of their colleagues at higher administrative levels, that change originates in local churches. Let us not forget that this is the model that we find in the New Testament. Organizational structures are necessary, but they are nothing more than tools. The church is primarily a collection of local faith communities. The New Testament does not know of a strong central church organization with an office in Jeruzalem or Antioch. The church was the (local) church in Jeruzalem, in Ephesus, in Rome, in Corinth, etc. Perhaps this model must receive greater emphasis, if the church is to change into a living faith community in which ever more people of our time can find their spiritual home.

 

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Liberal – II ?

 

In my previous blog I declared myself to be a liberal Protestant c.q. Adventist. I did, however, state that the use of the term ‘liberal’ does, of course, depend on how it is defined and with what it is being compared.

Today—in the Easter weekend—I want to add something important to what I wrote last week.

This is Easter-weekend. For a segment of the Dutch population Easter is still a meaningful religious event. And the Easter story continues to draw the interest of even a large number of people who will not attend church on Easter Sunday. They enjoy the Mattheus Passion, or other versions of ‘the passion.’  This was also demonstrated last Thursday evening , when one in every five Dutch persons watched the televised passion story. I was one of the ca. 3.5 million Dutchmen who were fascinated by the contemporary way in which the passion story of the death and resurrection of Christ was enacted in the Dutch city of Enschede.  However, for millions of other people in our country (and in many other so-called ‘christian’ countries), Easter has simply become the day when they welcome Spring, have a good meal and enjoy an extra day off work. Millions of young—and not so young—people simply have no idea what Easter is about.

Today many believing christians, however, are far from sure whether this beautiful, heartbreaking  Easter story  is, in fact, more than that. Did it actually happen? They believe that there (probably) was someone called Jesus who was brutally killed by a riotous mob, that was incited by the religious leaders. But that the death of Jesus –some two thousand years ago—ensured that all the wrong thing they ever did (and do) are taken care of . . . that seems too good to believe. And that Jesus came back from death to life after about 36 hours, well . . .?  It is a beautiful story, but did it happen? Even for many church-going christians this is a bridge too far. And many theologians and pastors have long ago taken leave of their faith in a literal resurrection. They often refer to themselves as ‘liberal.’ They confirm the conclusion: Liberal christians do not believe in a literal resurrection of the Lord.

Seen from this angle, I am definitely not a liberal—in spite of what I wrote last week.  I am sure: What happened at Calvary was not just a tragic legal mistake, but the final solution for all things I have done wrong in my life. And it is the guarantee that eventually all will be right for me. I am sure the message of Easter is true: The Lord is truly risen! And I agree with the apostle Paul who told us:  If Jesus Christ is not risen from the tomb, then there is no possibility that there is life for me after death. And as a result, the apostle tells me, I would be among the most miserable of all people.

So, am I a liberal?  Yes (see my blog of last week). No (see above). Maybe we should begin thinking about a good alternative for the word ‘liberal’.

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Liberal?

 

Once every two years there is a meeting of theology professors of the European Adventist tertiary educational institutions with a theology department: the Friedensau University in Germany,  Collonges (Campus Adventiste sous-Salève), in France, Newbold College for Higher Education in England, the Zaotsky Institute in Russia and a dozen or so smaller colleges with a theology/religion department. This year the conference made use of the facilities of Newbold College in England. During the last decade I have been invited to attend, since my theological interests are known and because I do, from time to time, some teaching in the form of so-called ‘intensives’ (a few days or a few weeks) in various places. However, as a special invitee, I am expected not just to be present, but also to deliver a paper. I have done so again with much pleasure and satisfaction.

The theme for the meetings was ‘Revival and Reformation’. Different facets were dealt with (even though some of the speakers did not stick to the main topic very closely). I was the last speaker, yesterday afternoon, with the topic: Revival and Reformation: A current Adventist initiative in a broader historical context.

When some 65 Adventist theologians from about fifteen different countries meet, listening to the various presentations and the ensuing discussions, and talking informally with one another during the breaks and meals, it does not take long to discover different ways of thinking. You cannot help secretly grading the participants on a scale from ‘orthodox-conservative-right’ on the one side to ‘liberal-left’  on the other side. When I try do do so, I have a fair idea where most of them are positioned on this scale.  I have a suspicion that most of my fellow-participants would probably position me somewhere towards the liberal-left end of the scale.

At time I have wondered in which theological category I really belong. Is my place somewhere in the safe ‘middle of the road’ category,  rather than in the group that is on the ‘right’ or with those who are on the ‘left’? Or should I concede that I am a ‘liberal’ after all? Well, I find that question difficult to answer. Much depends on how the term ‘liberal’ is defined. And with whom you are being compared. You might be liberal in the eyes of  conservative fellow-Adventists, while at the same time appearing very conservative in the eyes of some liberal Protestant groups. And you might be rather liberal in your theology but quite conservative in your life-style. Or vice-versa.

In my suitcase I have a book that I have now almost finished reading. It is written by Douglas Ottati, an American theology-professor. Its title is: Theology for Liberal Protestants (Eerdmans, 2013). This author maintains that liberal theology is based on the Bible and on how the christian tradition has expressed the biblical faith in various ways through the ages, while at the same time also taking into account the developments in other disciplines (both in the humanities and the natural sciences) and attempting to translate the christian faith in such a way that it will ‘land’ with a twenty-first century public. This is not an exact quotation, but I believe it is a fair presentation of what Ottati says. I have read the book in the past few weeks in a rather piece-meal fashion, as I was quite busy, but this did not diminish my pleasure in reading it. And yes—when I apply the liberal model of Ottati to myself, I can only say: I am and want to remain such a liberal Protestant, cq. liberal Adventist!

 

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Building Safe Places

 

Once again I spent the major part of the week in Germany—this time in a ‘seminar-hotel’ in a small village called Hassenroth, at about 50 kilometers from Frankfurt. The theme of the conference, that was organized by representatives of the Kinship organization, was: Building Safe Places. The Kinship organization offers support to (mostly) Adventist men and women who have a ‘different’ sexual orientation. These people are often referred to as the ‘alphabet’ people: LGTBI – Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals, Bisexuals and Intersexuals. The invitation for this three-day seminar was extended to a group of people, from Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, who are regarded as ‘allies’ of Kinship. The purpose of this think-tank-like meeting was to share the most recent scientific information about the issue of alternative sexual orientations, and to search for ways in which local Adventist churches may became ‘safe places’—in other words: places where gays and lesbians and others in the LGTBI-group may feel safe and fully accepted as they are.

My own share in the program was limited to a (sermon-length) worship, in which I talked about the meaning of serving/loving God with all our mind. It means, I believe, among other things, that we should always continue to ask questions and that, from time to time, we may have to change our minds. And also that we must always guard our intellectual integrity—whatever the price that we may have to pay for this.

I listened with particular interest to two lectures of dr. Dr. Arlene Taylor, a brain specialist from the USA, who provided fascinating up-to-date information about the hardware of our brain and referred to some small differences between the way the brains of straight and of gay people are constructed. One of the topics that was also touched on was the impossibility to ‘heal’ gay people. If there are at time people who exchange a gay lifestyle for a straight lifestyle, we can almost be one hundred percent sure that these people are in fact bisexual, who, in popular terms, may choose to go either way.

Also after this meeting, I continue to have lots of unanswered questions. The biggest underlying problem, of course, is that as a straight man I cannot imagine how it would be to feel attracted to someone of the same sex.  But I also still have some questions about the biblical/theological aspect. Some so-called anti-homo texts clearly do not apply to monogamous loving en enduring same-sex relationships. They often rather concern other abuses, such as prostitution, or deal—as in the case of Sodom—with issues that are not primarily related to same-sex relationships. I have read extensively on this topic and I would love to attend, some time in the near future, a study conference where homo-theologians and hetero-theologians can discuss together what Scripture does say and what it does not say—and how we should apply any conclusions that would be arrived at in our circumstances in 2015.

But, whatever the result might be of such a process, I am absolutely convinced that all men and women with a ‘different’ (that is: non-hetero) orientation must be (and must feel) welcome in our faith community and must be able to participate fully in church life. Therefore, Building Safe Places remains a big priority. And I shall be happy to do the little I personally can do, to help realize that ideal. (The date for the 2016 Building Safe Places conference is already in my diary.)

 

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