Solidified faith

During her interview with Annemiek Schrijver, in her Sunday morning program on Dutch television, pastor Christian Crouwel—the new general secretary of the Dutch Council of Churches—referred to a creed or confession of faith as a “solidified faith tradition.”  Crouwel has served for many years as a minister in the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands, which stands in the Reformed tradition, with John Calvin as the most important forefather. This tradition cherishes a number of confessional documents, as the Dutch Confession of Faith (Confessio Belgica) and the Heidelberger Catechism. When the Dutch Reformed Church united with the Christian Reformed Church and the Lutheran Church, the Lutheran confessional documents were added. These documents may have a long and revered history, but they reflect in many ways the time in which they were written. I can understand perfectly well why Crouwel called these documents “solidified”.

All faith communities carry such “solidified” faith traditions with them. This is also true for communities that have a shorter history than the “established” churches, such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The Adventist Church claims officially that it has no confession of faith or creed. But in reality the statement of the Fundamental Beliefs functions as such, and every church member—and certainly every minister—is expected to agree with all 28 points. In addition, the books of Ellen G. White have acquired a significant degree of authority. The early Adventist leaders warned against “solifdiied” faith traditions, in which all things would be set in concrete. Initially, they flatly refused to compile a list of teachings, because of the danger that such a list would evolve into a “solidified” creed. And Ellen White gave repeated warnings that what she had written carried no absolute authority but was always to be tested by the Bible.

In her interview Crouwel suggested that a believer must compose his/her own confession of faith, that is a genuine reflection of one’s own faith experience and convictions. Of course, a believer is inspired by the faith tradition of his/her church, but the believer’s individual confession of faith must be more and go deeper than being just a repetition of what the church corporately believes.

I find that thought very appealing. Your faith tradition you have received—either by birth and upbringing and/or by a later conscious choice—is important. It determines to a major extent your identity as a Christian. It makes clear in what “packaging” you want to be a Christian. For me the Adventist “packaging” is valuable. I see more than enough reasons to remain a Seventh-day Adventist. But, like pastor Crouwel, I must admit that the faith tradition of my church has to a large extent become “solidified.”  Just repeating what the Fundamental Beliefs telll me I should believe, is not the kind of faith that comes from the heart. I must develop my own confession of faith. What a group of people to which I belong officially states as their beliefs is not of primary importance, but what I personally believe is crucial. Being part of a faith tradition will naturally  “color” my personal confession of faith, but believing must be more than giving assent to a list of doctrines that happens to be agreed upon by my church. True faith is based on a “credo” (literally: I believe) that has been internalized. It must be the result of my continuous quest for answers and of my search for what is truly “fundamental” in my faith, rather than being content with repeating a “solidified” faith tradition.

 

The art of making complicated things simple

Researchers have analyzed some 380,000 speeches of politicians in ten European countries over the 1946-2017 period and have concluded that the language of the left-oriented politicians is considerably more complicated that that of their colleagues more to the right of the political spectrum. From reading my daily newspaper and watching several news broadcasts every day, I tend to agree. President Trump is probably at present the clearest example. His messages are very direct and easy to understand. He offers simple solutions for complex problems. Is there a global warming of the earth? No way, just think of the recent sub-zero temperatures in a major part of the US. Does America face an immigration crisis? No, just give me enough money to build a wall on our border with Mexico and we will stop the drug smugglers and criminals from entering our country. Whether or not you agree with the president he is easy to understand. In the Netherlands people like Geert Wilders have a similar approach. Having fewer Moroccan immigrants would be a major step towards solving the crime problem in the big cities. Abandoning the Euro and going back to the guilder would be a financial bonus for every Dutch citizen. Stop all aid to developing countries. That is a major saving and, after all, all the money just disappears in the pockets of the corrupt African leaders.

Politicians who want to tell a more nuanced story—and they are often found more towards the left of the political spectrum—tend to face a major challenge in getting their message across. Climate change, and all the issues related to it, is a complex topic and the influx of refugees likewise has numerous difficult aspects. Creating a more just society is not simply a matter of lowering taxes for some and raising them for others. Cutting the sales tax would be a very popular measure, but the funding for education and security must come from somewhere. To explain such things requires more than a few populist slogans, which fail to impress the people who are looking for solid arguments.

We see something similar in the church. What I am going to say may be a bit too general, but I believe there is at least a kernel of truth in it. Many “conservative” voices in the church find it quite easy to express their opinion in rather straightforward language. We must take the Bible as it is and adopt the “plain reading” approach. The six days of creation are six literal days of 24 hours. If the Bible tells us that Daniel lived and worked in the sixth century BC, that is what it is. If the Bible calls homosexuality an “abomination” nothing else needs to be said. The Roman Catholic Church manifests all the characteristics of the “little horn” and of the “beast from the sea” that we meet in the Revelation. Therefore, no further discussion is needed. Etcetera.

For those who are a bit more “liberal” in their thinking it is often more difficult to explain their thinking. They try to show that things are often considerably more complicated than they appear to be at first sight, and they offer alternatives to traditional positions that, they believe, should also be considered. And at times they simply have no answers, for the simple reason that we are finite human beings who cannot know everything.

When push comes to shove, it would seem to me that left-wing politicians and “liberal” Christians may have to make a much greater effort in explaining difficult issues in a simple (note, I am not saying “simplistic) manner. At times, one meets or hears people who have mastered that art, but my wife frequently tells me that I continue to use too much theological jargon and difficult terms.  Indeed, it presents a major challenge, but what good is a well thought-through message if it cannot be communicated in a transparent and easy to understand manner? In this regard there is still a lot of room for improvement for many “progressive” politicians as well for many “progressive” Seventh-day Adventist.

The misuse of God’s name

Just over a week ago Sarah Sanders gave an interview to a Christian television channel. She is the “press secretary” of the White House and by now I have a fair impression, I think, of what kind of person she is. Most mornings I watch a number of news broadcasts, with CNN being one of them. CNN usually pays ample attention to Sanders” press conferences. I did not know, however, that Sarah Huckabee Sanders—as her full name is—is an active Christian. I learned from the Huffington Post that she is the daughter of a Baptist pastor, who later became the governor of the state of Arkansas. I assume that Sarah herself is also a member of the Southern Baptist Church.

In the interview with CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) Sarah was full of praise for her boss. She said, among other things, that she believes it is God’s will that Donald Trump became the president of the United States. There is no doubt that Sanders belongs to the “base” of loyal Trump-followers. (I do not understand how any intelligent person can still think that Trump is worthy of the presidency. But that is another matter.) I certainly do not want to denigrate the genuineness of Sanders’ religious convictions. In fact, I admire people who speak openly about the role of their faith in their personal and public life. But I feel very uncomfortable when she connects God’s will with the US presidential election. If it were true that God had a hand in Trump’s becoming president of the United States, this would not strengthen my confidence in God’s leading role in the world and the universe.

It is often said that people have attained a certain office because God wanted them to be there. This is, for instance, often claimed for church leaders—also in the Adventist Church. For do the participants in a nomination or election process not spend considerable time in prayer, pleading for divine guidance? Should we not have the confidence that God hears those prayers? And should we not, once functionaries have been chosen, proceed on the basis that God decisively influenced their nomination or election?

It seems to me that this line if reasoning is rather naïve, when it concerns politics as well as church affairs. Trump became president after a bitter campaign, full of lies and surrounded by crooks, and the strange political system in the USA brought him the presidency without winning the popular vote. He won as a result of among other things, a relentless hate-campaign against his rival. And his victory may also have been partly due to foreign influence. Hopefully, we will soon know more about this when the Mueller report will be ready.

There ought to be no political maneuvering in church elections, but it would be utterly naïve to think that there is no politicking prior to, and during, most elections. Certainly, many prayers are being offered, but many members of nominating committees have, before the deliberations start, already made up their mind about who should and who should not be elected. And neither should the role of the ambitions of many of the candidates by underestimated.

Does God not get involved in any way with what happens in the political and ecclesiastical arena? Perhaps he does, if we allow him to put his stamp on our activities. But simply connecting God’s name to all kind of events in the state or the church is often a transgression of the third commandment that forbids the misuse of God’s name. This commandment urges us not to curse, but it has a much wider application. We should never attach God’s name to things that he can not approve of. And this is true for all aspects of our life.

Healing homosexuality

A few days ago the Nederlands Dagblad (a Dutch Christian daily) reported that a certain David Matheson had come “out of the closet.” On his Facebookpage he let it be known that from now on he will go through life as a homosexual.

For a number of reasons the newspaper article is quite remarkable. First, David Matheson is a Mormon and the Mormon Church is fiercely opposed to homosexuality. Further, Mr. Matheson did not hide that he had been married for 34 years and that his marriage had been reasonably happy. But last year he divorced his wife, and admitted that all the time he had felt attracted to men. He explained that he could no longer ignore his desire to have an intimate relationship with a man. “It had become a non-negotiable need,“ he said.

The most remarkable aspect of this story was that this Matheson was one of the founders of an organization for the healing of homosexuals, “Journey into Manhood”, and as ex-homo (as he described himself for many years) he authored several books with therapies for curing homosexuality. However, he now admitted that he had not been honest to himself (and to his clients) and had made serious mistakes.

Nowadays there are still Christian who are convinced that homosexuality can be “cured”. This, in spite of the fact that most experts are adamant that this is impossible and that it is extremely unethical (or even criminal) to promote the idea that there is a “cure” for homosexuality. Many therapists, who have been involved with these therapies, have had to admit that in reality no real “healings” occurred. Leaders of the Exodus movement –an organization with divisions in various countries which claims to “cure” homosexuality—have left the organization and have acknowledged that these claims do not reflect reality.

The Adventist Church had to learn a painful lesson in the nineteen-eighties after it had given Colin Cook, a British pastor who had emigrated to the United States, substantial financial support for his ministry that supposedly was able to help homosexuals to change their sexual orientation. However, the church had to bite into the dust when it became public that Cook never parted with his own homosexuality and had behaved quite scandalously with many of his clients.

Nonetheless, we still hear, also from within the Adventist Church, statements from people who believe that God stands ready to “heal” homosexuals from their orientation. And, regularly, some Adventist men show up at various events who claim that they have been “cured” from their homosexuality. What should we think about this? Could their claims be true, in spite of the opinions of the experts who say that such “cures” are not possible? Or could it be a matter of (self-)deception? I have talked about this with several people whom I consider to be very knowledgeable with regard to this subject. They have suggested to me that it may well be possible that these men are not homosexuals for the full one hundred percent, but that they are somewhere in the middle of the well-known Kinsey-scale, and can therefore move into either direction (either towards homosexuality or towards heterosexuality). Or it could perhaps be, so I was told, that these men happen to have a very low libido—something that also occurs with some heterosexuals.

As a heterosexual male I cannot understand what it means to be a homosexual. But I would wish that Christians (Adventist Christians most definitely included) would stop sowing confusion by insisting that homosexuality is a sin, but that, thank God, it is possible to be “cured” from this “unfortunate condition”.

Maria Monk

A few days ago I spent some time as a volunteer in the archive of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands. I helped with an inventory of the books and pamphlets that have been published by the Dutch church over the course of its 120-plus year history, in order to eliminate duplicate copies. While looking at each individual book, I suddenly came across a little book that was not actually published by the church, but may have been part of a book collection donated to the archive. It was the Dutch translation of a book that caused quite a stir when it was first published in the United States.

Maria Monk (1816-1849) was a Canadian woman who claimed that the nuns of the convent, where she supposedly lived for a number of years, were (according to her account) systematically abused by priests who could enter the convent through a secret tunnel. Baby’s that resulted from the sexual encounters were—after being baptized—strangled and dumped in a pit in the basement. Nuns who proved to be uncooperative disappeared.  Maria Monk recorded her experiences in this convent in Montreal in a book, published in 1836, with the title: Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed. It was later found that there were many inconsistencies in her story and that she apparently had a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction.

The book appeared in a period of mounting anti-Catholic sentiments in North-America. The millions of Catholic immigrants were not exactly welcomed by an American population that was still predominantly Protestant. Catholics received the kind of reception that may well be compared with the way in which Muslim immigrants are presently regarded by the majority population in many western countries.

Seventh-day Adventism emerged and developed in the United States in this anti-Catholic climate. Stories such as written by Maria Monk were also popular among nineteenth-century Adventists and there was little doubt in their minds that they were based on truth.

As the Adventist Church worldwide studies the book of Revelation during this quarter it is important to remember that our negative views regarding Roman Catholicism developed in this fiercely anti-Catholic context. As genuine Protestants, Seventh-day Adventists do well to remain critical with regard to Roman-Catholicism. There were many things in the past of the Roman Church that were not only wrong but evil. And although there have been positive developments in Catholicism—certainly in the wake of the Second Vatican Council—there are a number of doctrines which we must reject as totally unbiblical. But as we study the lessons that will deal with “the beast” and related topics, we must not let our attitude towards Roman Catholics be fully colored by stories from the past—whether true or not. We do not live in Maria Monk’s time but in 2019. In my view Roman Catholics are fellow-Christians. Their understanding of a number of “truths” may be defective, but the picture painted by Maria Monk was not an accurate portrayal of convent life in the nineteenth century and should be seen for what is was and is: unfair, one-sided anti-Catholic propaganda.

It is a sad reality that the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church has in recent years been seriously damaged by sexual scandals. But in this respect also we should not be too quick with Maria-Monk-like accusations. It is true that the Catholic authorities have been far too slow (and sometimes unwilling) in dealing with those members of their clergy who abused minors who were in their care. However, let us remember that there were, and are, many Catholic clergy who did not participate in this horrific behavior. And (sadly enough) other faith communities—including our own—have not always been immune to this kind of sexual misbehavior.