Author Archives: Reinder

Competition

Yesterday was a very good day for the Netherlands in Tokyo. Since 1928 our country had not won as many medals in one day at the Olympics as it did yesterday (July 28). It was two times gold, three times silver and three times bronze. With a total of 13 medals, the Netherlands is now (Thursday morning) eleventh in the table of medals. That is about all that I know of the Olympic Games in faraway Japan. Except that I have also learned from the news on TV that, thus far, seven Dutch athletes have tested positive in one of the mandatory tests, and have therefore been moved to a quarantine hotel.

I am not a sports person. I take regular walks but have never actively practiced a sport. I only watch soccer matches when the European or World Championships are in progress, and the Dutch team has successfully reached the quarterfinals (which is quite rare). When that happens a certain degree of national pride wins out over my lack of interest in the game, of which, by the way, I still don’t understand all the rules.

Of course, I understand that it means a lot to an individual athlete or a sports team to qualify for the Games. And, of course, it’s a bitter disappointment when you finish number four, instead of bringing home at least a bronze medal. It’s a bitter pill when things go wrong unexpectedly, as in 2010 when Sven Kramer (a prominent Dutch skater) missed gold because of a faulty switch. He was disqualified because he skated part of the 10,000 meters in the wrong lane. And when the name of mountain biker Mathieu van der Poel is mentioned in the coming months, it will be linked to his fatal fall on the mountain bike circuit, because he was expecting a plank in a place where it no longer lay.

Sport and competition are almost synonymous concepts. In the past, Adventists had quite a few objections to competitive sports. Those days are now mostly behind us. Today many Adventist schools in the USA have sports teams that compete in all kinds of sports competitions—even though the Sabbath often remains an obstacle, since many of the games are held on Saturdays. But it is interesting to see how in the course of a few decades the attitude towards this phenomenon has completely changed. It shows how things can change in the church, as long as it is left to the laws of gradualism and no study committees are formed and no decisions must be taken during world congresses. Some things just need to be given time to develop and solve themselves. [I am convinced that the ordination of women pastors would have slowly but surely become commonplace, had there been an organic process, without the constant use of study committees and endless bureaucratic procedures.]

Competition is an integral part of most aspects of everyday life. The fact that we already give grades to elementary school students often leads to fierce competition. The fact that there are often several candidates for a particular position may create an ugly competitive battle between the candidates. Even in the church, the element of competition is unavoidable. But there must always be a healthy balance. Our natural desire to excel and to do certain things better than others, must always be balanced by a willingness to acknowledge that others are better than we are in certain respects. The Olympics remind us that, when ten athletes compete in the finals, in the end only one man or woman captures the gold. And it is important that the other nine are happy for that one person.

It’s like that in all facets of life. We cannot always, and everywhere, be the best. We often have to recognize the superiority of others. A person–and certainly a Christian–must use the talent he/she has been given. But on the other hand, he/she must be able to rejoice at the success of another who becomes number one, and be happy with a place further down in the queue. In addition to all kinds of biblical statements about utilizing our abilities and talents to the fullest, there are at least as many, or perhaps even more, statements that deal with humility and emphasize that we must recognize the limitations in our knowledge and skills. This is as true for me as a retiree, as it is for the athletes who will be competing in Tokyo in the coming days and who will go for gold. Sometimes we are the best, but most of the time we are not. We must learn to accept this. It is impossible to be happy and to go through life as a contented and grateful person, if we are always in a competitive mode! Participating and doing our very best is more important than winning.

“There is also a lot of rubbish”

I was surprised by an e-mail message I received a few days ago. I do not want to reveal the identity of the sender. He is a person for whom I have great respect. For many years prior to his retirement he filled several very senior positions in the international Adventist Church. He is a gifted author and a very accomplished biblical scholar. There was at this point in time no special reason why he should have written to me. He simply wanted, he said, to express his appreciation. I quote: “This is just a note of appreciation for what you continue to do for the SDA church. You are a courageous voice of a concerned lover of God’s people. Thank you, and keep it up.” It is for others to decide whether his appraisal of my activities is valid. However, coming from someone like him, I felt greatly honored. I know such words, coming from him, count for more than just an empty compliment.

Let me, however, quote one more short section from this e-mail. “These are strange and troubled times, for both society and our church. There is much that is good in Adventism, but also a lot of rubbish. The times cry out for leaders who will rise to the task.” These are words coming from a prominent leader in the Adventist movement. From my contacts with him I know he has given life-long committed service to the church and he continues to support the church in many ways. However, in recent years he has also become quite critical of many of the trends that he has observed, and he deplores the kind of leadership the church must currently endure. He has worked closely with the previous general conference president, but today his voice is no longer valued. The words I just quoted summarize in a very concise (and sad) way the conclusion to which he has come: “There is much that is good in Adventism, but also a lot of rubbish.”

Many church members, in particular in the western world, agree with this assessment, even though in many cases it is more of an uncanny feeling than something they can put in precise words. There is a widespread sense that questions are often not welcome, and that the church finds it difficult to translate the Adventist teachings and life style convictions in ways that are relevant for 21st century people. This is, however, not something that is only found with “people in the pew”. I personally know many former leaders, and numerous men and women who currently serve the church at various levels in the administrative structure of the denomination, who in their hearts and minds fully agree with the statement that there is much that is good in Adventism, but also quite a lot of rubbish. The regular readers of my blog will not be too surprised when I say that I am most certainly in that category.

The 64.000 dollar question is: What do we do about this? Do we have the courage—-individually and collectively—-to identify what is good in Adventism and thus should be retained? What are the elements of Adventism that make sense in the secular and postmodern world in which we live? What are the parts of our belief structure that can help is to live as Christians in today’s world? What are the things that can provide us with answers for today’s questions, rather than offer reflections on 19th century issues? And can we muster the courage to identify the “rubbish” that we must leave behind?

Some will argue that we must be careful and “pastoral” in our approach to this issue. They say we must avoid further polarization, and are convinced that change can only be incremental, lest we lose members who feel that the traditional “truths” are being compromised. In reality, we are losing many members—-of all age groups, but most notably from among the young—-because we continue to repeat things that are “rubbish”, and do not have the courage to say that we simply can no longer preach certain things or uphold certain traditional interpretations.

The person who sent me the e-mail from which I quoted correctly stated: “The times cry out for leaders who will rise to the task.” I continue to believe that this cry will at long last be heard and that at some point in time our church will elect leaders who are equal to the challenge. Will it happen in 2022? Let’s hope and pray that it will.

Space travel

There has been a considerable discussion during this past week whether Richard Branson is entitled to the title of “astronaut”. The spacecraft of Virgin Galactic, with the British billionaire and three other passengers, plus two pilots, on board, reached a height of a little over 80 kilometers. According to most international definitions, “space” begins at 100 kilometers, which would mean that Branson did not reach the so-called Kármán line that marks the imaginary boundary between air space and outer space. But in the US space organizations usually use 50 miles, or 80 kilometers, as the boundary of space, and according to American rules Branson and his colleagues may now call themselves “astronauts.”

Richard Branson, the British billionaire, has commercial interests in more than 400 different companies and Virgin Galactic is just one of these. It is his intention to develop a new market to serve those who have the desire (and the money) to make a trip into space. He claims that already more than six hundred people have signed up for such a trip at 250.000 dollar per ticket.

Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, is not far behind. Next week he is scheduled to launch a rocket from a base in Texas, that will take his Blue Origin space vehicle to a height of over 100 kilometers, thus leaving no doubt that he did indeed enter space—-if, like Branson, he makes it safely back to earth. After all, the risks remain very considerable. Bezos will be accompanied by three others, among whom is a 82-old woman. Elon Musk, the man behind the Tesla-phenomenon, is meanwhile developing his own space program and hopes to follow soon in the tracks of Branson and Bezos.

I am sure that many, like me, have mixed feelings about these new exploits of some of the richest people on our planet. Even though Bezos and Musk, who own 212 and 162 billion dollar, respectively, in their accounts, are much richer that Richard Branson (who, according to Forbes, is worth “only” about 6 billion dollar), these men belong to the league of the super-rich. It raises some serious questions: How can people in just a few decades amass such enormous wealth? Is this just a matter of shrewd business acumen, or is there something fundamentally wrong in our economy when so many people struggle with poverty, while a few can become so filthy rich?

Yesterday (as I was thinking about the topic for this week’s blog), my wife and I visited one of the largest and most magnificent (I think) castles in Denmark: the 17th-century Frederiksborg in Hilleröd, some 30 kilometers northwest of the Danish capital Copenhagen. I realize that when King Christian IV ordered this castle to be built, this required some serious wealth, while the vast majority of the Danes were living in abject poverty. And the same would be true for most of the castles and large mansion that are today’s favorite tourist attractions. The vast chasm between the poor and the very rich was not invented by Bezos and those who play in his league. But whatever can be said about this from a historical or economic perspective, we can definitely state from a Christian perspective that it is morally indefensible. And I would add to this: A rich Christian who is able and willing to buy a 250.000 dollar ticket for an adventure of just a few hours, must seriously consider whether he/she has his/her stewardship priorities straight.

Besides the question whether our world will become a better place if “a happy few” can indulge in one more extravagant activity, one wonder about the motivation of men like Branson, Bezos and Musk to compete in this race of creating the first space travel company. Is this simply some immature craving to be the first in everything, whatever it takes, and to show that you can beat your competition? I suppose competition and wanting to excel are, to some extent, part and parcel of all human endeavor. One might say that a degree of competition is “normal” and can even be helpful—if it is kept under control. Maybe we have reason to wonder whether these super-rich men, who are eager to be the first to pass the Kármán line, have their urge to compete under sufficient control.

Perhaps I will live long enough to see the ticket for an afternoon in outer space drop dramatically. I remember buying my first airline ticket to Scandinavia and paying about ten times as much as one would pay today. But even if the 250.000 ticket price comes down to a fraction of this amount, and lots of people can afford it, one must still wonder whether this is something the world really needs. Or is perhaps this latest development of the travel and leisure industry one more tragic sign that our world has priorities that are at odds with a Christian world view in which values are pursued to increase the happiness of all people rather than to pamper for the desires of the more well-to-do.

Are you not afraid of me?

In the June issue of the Journal for Dutch Church History I saw in the book review section a piece about the recently published biography of Herman Verbeek. The author is a certain Stefan van der Poel, who is totally unknown to me, but the name Herman Verbeek sounded familiar. He is described as a “colorful priest in the Groningen-Leeuwarden diocese and as a “priest, politician and publicist.” Verbeek became best known as one of the leaders of the PPR (Political Party of Radicals) in the 1970s. Afterwards he was also a member of the European Parliament for several years.

My meeting with Verbeek took place in the early 1980s. I was then, for some time, the representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Council for Contact and Consultation concerning the Bible (RCOB). This was an ecumenical advisory group in which about twenty Dutch churches and religious organizations were represented. From 1967 until early 2008, this council consulted regularly with the leadership of the Protestant and Catholic Bible societies in our country, mostly regarding future Bible editions and related activities.

I vividly remember how I entered for the first time the meeting room in a monastery on the outskirts of Amersfoort, where the council usually met. In the meeting room was a large round table, surrounded by about twenty chairs (or “seats” is perhaps a more appropriate word). Since I was a bit late, I slid into one of the last open seats. As soon as was seated, the person sitting to my left bent over to me and introduced himself. He introduced himself as “Verbeek” and said, “I am here on behalf of the Catholic Church,” whereupon, of course, I also introduced myself and said that I was representing the Adventists.

Several months later, at the next meeting of the council, I was well on time, and there were still plenty of free seats around the table to choose from. But, as usually happens, I almost automatically chose the place where I had sat before. It wasn’t long before Verbeek arrived. He too chose the same spot where he had sat the time before. After exchanging a few words, he asked, “Aren’t you afraid to sit next to me?” “No, why?” I replied. At that, he opened his bag and pulled out a copy of the Adventist evangelistic magazine Houvast. He opened it at the main article, which was devoted to the danger of the Roman Catholic Church, with ample attention to Daniel’s prophecy about the historical career of “the little horn” and the future misdeeds we can still expect from this power. The article was illustrated with a few drawings of an ugly monster, with a hideous horn on its head, showing a portrait of the Pope. It was one of the most painful moments I have ever experienced, because it had occurred to Verbeek that I was both the author of the article and the editor-in-chief of the magazine.

I don’t remember exactly how I extricated myself from this precarious situation. I do know that it was the last time I wrote such an accusatory article. Since that time, fortunately, things have changed in the way most Adventists talk and write about other Christians. Only in publications that appear on the extreme fringes of the church are the kinds of pictures that I used some forty years ago still sometimes to be seen.

I hope that Verbeek, after seeing and speaking to me with some regularity thereafter, eventually saw me not as a hopeless sectarian who ridiculed the church he represented, but as a fellow Christian who had something to say that was worth listening to. Even though as Protestant Christians we had (and still have) objections to many Roman Catholic views, that does not give us license to unsympathetically (and often carelessly and partially incorrectly) condemn Catholics Christians. As far as I know, there has never been a thorough study of the results of the traditional anti-Catholic approach. Did this approach encourage people to listen, or rather the opposite? I suspect the latter. I think back to my experience with Herman Verbeek with shame, and I am still vicariously embarrassed when I see in my church how at times other Christians continue to be dismissed as enemies by some of my fellow believers (and even by some leaders). Respect for others and dialogue should be the key concepts in our contacts with other Christians. Many years ago my meeting with Herman Verbeek helped me to begin to realize this.

A journey from fundamentalism to faith

Somehow, I missed the announcements and reviews of a recent book by James L. Hawyward, emeritus-professor in biology at Andrews University. A week ago a friend told me he had just read Dinosaurs, Volcanoes and Holy Writ and his enthusiasm prompted me to order it from Amazon. Since there is now also an Amazon.nl, it took only two days for the book to be delivered.

When I worked at Andrews between 1991 and 1994 I may have seen the author of the book, but we moved in different worlds. My office was in the Sutherland House at the edge of the campus (now the domicile of Andrews University Press), while Hayward was located in the science building. When I Iast visited the Andrews campus, almost four years ago, in connection with a speaking appointment with the local chapter of the Adventist Forum, I had the pleasure of staying in the home of David and Carie Grellmann. I learned that during my stay they would host a meeting of the “soup club”—an informal group of professionals of widely divergent disciplines which met once every two weeks to discuss whatever they felt invited discussion. I do not remember whether professor Hayward was present during that particular “soup club” meeting. But towards the end of his book I learned that he is a regular member of the club!

Anyway, after reading his book I hope that some day our paths will cross, because I sense we are kindred spirits. The subtitle of his book goes some way toward explaining this: A Boy-Turned Scientist Journeys from Fundamentalism to Faith. I cannot claim I am a scientist on the same level as Hayward, but like him I have journeyed from fundamentalism to faith. His background differed greatly from mine. My father was not a fundamentalist pastor and I did not grow up in an atmosphere in which Ellen White had the final answer for everything. I did not attend an SDA elementary school, or an SDA academy. But as I grew up my fundamentalist outlook was not very different. A significant first step in my liberation from the fundamentalist straight jacket was reading James Barr’s famous book on Fundamentalism during my MA studies at Andrews in the mid-1960s’. Sakae Kubo, one of my favorite professors, advised me to read that book. It was a truly lifechanging experience.

In his book Hayward chronicles the various stages in his journey away from fundamentalism. But the most important part about this journey is where it brought him. In his struggle to free himself from fundamentalism he did not lose his faith and did not abandon his church family. Like Hayward I have remained a believer, and like him I have remained loyal to my spiritual home. That has not always been easy, for in many cases the church does not provide the space that one needs to follow one’s deepest convictions and in some cases to deviate from traditional majority conclusions.

My journey from fundamentalism to faith has not been so closely connected with the issues surrounding creation and evolution as in Hayward’s case. Of course, it has also played an important role in reaching a more mature understanding of how to read the Bible. It is an issue anyone with some education cannot avoid. Like Hayward I started with the firm belief that God created everything about six thousand years ago in six literal days, and that in the days of Noah a worldwide flood destroyed everything. I was told time and again: If we could not trust this part of the biblical account, what about other parts of the biblical story? I read quite a few of the books by authors who defended so-called “young earth” creationism and with my limited background in these matters I found these arguments at first rather convincing. But when I began to read books on the other side of the creation-evolution issue, I began to wonder whether the arguments in those books were perhaps stronger. For Hayward things played out at a very different level, but the results were the same. We believe that God created, but we do not know how and when He did it, and we believe the Bibles does not give us the information on which to base the far-reaching conclusions about a world-wide flood that young- earth geologists defend as ultimate truth.

I fully concur with Hayward’s statement towards the end of the concluding chapter, which I want to quote:
“In view of what I have shared in this book, I ask myself, do I have faith? Hebrews 11:1 declares faith to be “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith, then, has nothing to do with things I can measure, count, compare and evaluate—dinosaurs, plate tectonics. Radiometric dates, volcanoes, fossil sequences, ecological relationships, biogeographic distribution patterns, evolution, and the like. No, faith reaches out in hope towards what I cannot see, to an indefinable, ineffable, transcendent reality, yet a reality that exists also deep within me and in all of life. It involves a hope that things can and will be better, even though at this moment they may not be trending in that direction. Faith does not ask me to believe things which evidence suggest are unlikely or untrue—“idols of fundamentalism:, Karen Armstrong calls them. Instead, faith bids me to receive grace and to humbly open my life to goodness, beauty, love, and behave responsibly towards the rest of creation. I still have along way to travel, but my journey so far, as well as what remains, has been and will be made with faith.”

Thank you, Dr. Hayward for your wise, often witty, and inspiring book. I am sure it will help and confirm many others on their journey from a miserable fundamentalism to a joyful faith.