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We are not expected to understand God, but to worship Him

In recent times the opposition within the Seventh-day Adventist Church against the doctrine of the Trinity has been increasing. It took a relatively long time before the doctrine of the Triune God was fully endorsed by most Adventist theologians and church leaders. But the influential book Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (1957) left the reader in no doubt that Adventists had come to agree with most of historic Christianity on this important theological Issue: God is One in three Persons.

Why is there increasing unease with regard to this crucial doctrine that is also clearly underlined in the Fundamental Beliefs of the Adventist Church? There are, as I see it, a number of factors: (1) The method of ‘plain reading’ of the Bible, which has been strongly promoted in recent years, is not very sensitive to underlying theological issues. (2) There is a strong sense on the part of many members that the Adventist Church has departed from many of the principles of the ‘pioneers’. Several of the important men (!) in incipient Adventism were opposed to the Trinity-doctrine. That is, they say, a good enough reason to look at this teaching with great skepticism. (3) It is also argued that the Trinity is a Roman-Catholic invention, and that in itself is for some the definitive reason why it must be wrong. (There was, however, a consensus about the Trinity doctrine long before the Roman-Catholic Church as such existed!).

Early on in my graduate theological studies I was required to read what the famous theologian Karl Barth had written about the Trinity. Reading Barth is quite a challenge and I remember progressing at the rate of about two pages an hour. It was, however, worthwhile and it has ever since given me a clear direction for my thinking about this complicated topic. But already at that time I concluded that the word ‘Trinity’ is a term which we humans use in trying to say something that is, because of its very nature, indefinable in human language. Somehow, God the Father (also a very human term) and God the Son (another human term) and the Spirit (again a human term) share in infinite divine power, and though they are distinct, they are One in their essence. All discussions about God must end with the conclusion that everything we say about God remains no more than a human attempt to explain something that human beings can never fathom. Therefore, in the end we must bow before the divine mystery. We are not called to understand who and what God is, but to worship the One who made us, sustains us and saves us.

This sense, that every human analysis of who and what God is must ultimately fail, was reinforced this past week as I was reading the book: The Doctrine of GOD: Introducing the Big Questions, written by John C. Peckham, one of the prominent theologians at Andrews University (T&T Clark, 2020). It is a very informative book that I warmly recommend to all who are interested in theology. For those without theological training it may at times be heavy going, but it is worth the effort. Peckham does not only deal with questions pertaining to the Trinity Doctrine, but also addresses a range of other issues. If God is unchangeable, as most theologians have traditionally argued, does that mean that God cannot interact with us and that he cannot show emotions? For do responses to humans not imply at least some change in God? Another major problem is God’s relationship with time. If God is eternal, can he experience the flow of time and does he therefore have a past and a future? Does God know everything? If so, does this not conflict with the concept of a free will? If God knows everything, it seems to suggest that everything I do is already pre-determined. And, if God allows evil, does this not somehow make him co-responsible for the existence and continuation of evil?

These and many other questions are worth pondering. In our study of these questions we must conclude that the Christian views about God have been profoundly influenced by Greek philosophy and have often resulted in views that conflict with that of the biblical God. But reading Peckham’s book reinforces my belief that my analysis of God will always remain a poor human attempt to reach the Unreachable. Perhaps the best definition of God, so far, was given by the eleventh century theologian Anselm of Canterbury, who said: ‘God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.’

Therefore, I repeat: We are not called to understand who and what God is, but to worship the One who made us, sustains us and saves us.

Are most people OK?

Many (especially older) people in the Netherlands with a religious background studied the doctrines of the church from the age-old Heidelberger Catechism. During 52 Sundays the young people were instructed, through a format of questions and answers, about the main teachings in the Calvinist version of the Protestant faith. In question eight (Sunday three) the reader is told that from his birth, by nature, man is utterly ‘corrupt’ and that he is ‘totally unable to do any good’ and is ‘inclined toward all evil’. Sure enough, the catechism also points to the possibility of being saved from one’s sins, but the student of this venerable document is presented with a rather dark view of humanity.

A totally different perspective is offered in the title of a recent book by Rutger Bregman (1998), a young Dutch historian and opinion maker, who had part of his education in the United States. The title of the book (De meeste mensen deugen) is a bit difficult to translate but expresses the idea that most people around us are basically OK. It is currently number one on the Dutch bestseller list under the category of non-fiction. Based on the newest insights from psychology, economy, biology and archeology, Bregman concludes that most people on our globe are not ‘corrupt’ and are not ‘unable to do any good”, but are ‘basically OK’. I have not yet read the book, but did order it this morning from the Dutch equivalent of Amazon (bol.com). I am very curious to find out what arguments Bregman puts forward.

Which of the two approaches has the best credentials? Those who value the Bible cannot ignore the phenomenon of ‘sin’ and must accept that that we all fall terribly short if we measure our lives along the divine measuring rod. However, the picture that is painted by the Heidelberger Catechism, and is still underlined in some ultra-orthodox denominations, is one-sided (to say the least). In spite of all our shortcomings we are the bearers of ‘the image of God’ and are given the privilege of calling ourselves ‘children of God’ (1 John 3:1).

Yet, at the same time I feel rather attracted to the ‘statement’ by Rutger Bregman that most people are basically OK. At times, I feel rather awkward when I am meet and talk with certain church members and I get goosebumps when I hear some of the theories that are doing the rounds. Unfortunately, meeting such people happens all too often. However, after giving it some thought, I usually come to the conclusion that most people in the church are OK. Or, to put it differently: There are plenty of unpleasant people in the church whom one would like to avoid, but most people are nice and are ‘OK’. Perhaps the well-known Pareto-principle does also apply here. This principle was discovered by the Italian mathematician and economist Pareto. He noticed that 20 % of the Italians possess 80$ of all riches. And the 20’80 rule appears to be valid in many areas. For most companies 20% of their articles are responsible for 80% of their total turnover, while 20% percent of the customers bring 80% of all complaints. It has been found that 80% of all smart-phone owners use only about 20% of the possibilities of their phone and that 20% of the You-tune films are seen by 80% of all visitors. Examples of other instances where the 20/80 rule applies is plentiful.

Pastors and chaplains know that the Pareto-principle also applies to their work. A relatively small percentage of the church members are responsible for a disproportionate percentage of all problems and complaints that come their way. And perhaps I also meet the Pareto-principle in my contacts with those church members whom I find it difficult to relate to. My thoughts are sometimes so much focused on this group, that it can at times be easy for me to forget that ‘most’ (at least 80%) of my fellow-church members are definitely ‘OK”.

Spiritual burn-out

A few weeks ago I listened in my car to an interview with the Belgian psychologist Mrs Elke Geraerts. One of the topics was how we might use our brains more effectively and what we might do to avoid a burn-out. During the discussion a book was mentioned that she had written about this issue. It happens from time to time that, while listening to such a program, I decide that I am going to order the book that was mentioned, but that, upon arriving home, I no longer remember the name of the author nor the exact title of the book. This time that was not the case. I ordered the book, which was delivered within 48 hours. In the meantime I have read most of the book. I was a little disappointed, as I had hoped that the author would have dealt with some things in a bit more depth! Nonetheless, I do not regret buying the books as it has sections that I find quite interesting. And it certainly also gave me more insight in some aspects of burn-out.

Mrs Geraerts believes that we can increase our mental flexibility by maintaining a good mental discipline. In this connections she mentions, among other things, the expectation of a ‘postponed reward’ and the importance of a strong intrinsic motivation. It is part of human nature that we want to be rewarded for our efforts, not just in the short term but also in the longer term. Our work must not only provide for our immediate needs, but must also give us something worthwhile to look forward to in the future. At the same time we must also be driven by ‘intrinsic motivation’, i.e. the sense that what we do is worth doing, and that we find satisfaction in doing it.

Reading the book Mentaal Kapitaal (Lannoo, 21015) by Elke Geraerts I began wondering whether her arguments might also apply to our inner life of faith. Is there something like a spiritual burn-out? Might we perhaps compare the situation of those who are totally frustrated with their faith and their church—because they are left with far too many unanswered questions and have been disappointed too many times—with the state of those who are physically and mentally ‘burned’ out? Has for many people their faith become a collection of empty words, for which they have no further use, and are people taking leave of the church because they no longer see any relevancy in what is being done and said in the church? Could this, in many cases, be the cause of a deep spiritual depression? Could it be that very often this ‘postposed reward’ has ceased to have any appeal and that the intrinsic motivation to remain in the church has disappeared? With a serious spiritual burn-out as its consequence?

I the past year I have given very serious thought to this issue of a ‘postponed reward’, that Christian believers have been told to look forward to. I have just written a book about death, resurrection and eternal life. The English language edition has now been published by the Stanborough Press in the UK, while a Dutch edition will soon follow suit. Writing about these themes forced me to ask myself some very penetrating questions. Is my spiritual life still motivated by the expectation of life after this life? How can I be sure that this new world the Bible speaks about will not in the end prove to be a mere pie in the sky? Being forced to give serious thought to these and related questions has clarified several things for me and has helped me greatly to continue looking for that ‘postponed reward’.

However, the point of intrinsic motivation should not be forgotten. Are we eager to hold on to our faith and to stay with our faith community, because it gives added value to our present life? For faith does not only have to do with future eternal life, but also with our present existence. This reminds me of the words of Jesus Christ in John 10:10, where he tells his followers that he is the Source of true life and that he wants to give us this life in all its abundance. Faith, in some miraculous way, has a tremendous added value for our life in the here and now. Always keeping that in mind will help us to avoid a spiritual burn-out.

Conspiracy thinking

Last week two young Dutch ‘you-tubers’ were arrested in the United States after having entered the terrain of the ultra-secret US Airforce base Area 51. They were subsequently condemned to pay a fine of 4560 dollars. Ties Granzier and Govert Sweep were planning to take pictures of the base. When they were arrested they were in the possession of camera’s, a laptop and a drone. They will most likely have to leave the USA without these goodies.

Area 51 has lately received a lot of publicity A Facebook campaign was launched (and later aborted), asking people to ‘storm’ this secret Airforce base, north of Las Vegas, on September 20. The idea behind this was to investigate the persistent stories about aliens who are supposedly being kept prisoner in this facility, after their UFO or other spacecraft crashed in the vicinity. All kinds of conspiracy theories have developed around the activities of these aliens. According to a 2017 report, almost twenty percent of all Americans claim to have seen a UFO, and almost half of them believe that aliens regularly visit our earth. To my surprise I read a few days ago in a Dutch newspaper that 5.4 percent of all Dutch people are also convinced that the US government is hiding aliens somewhere in the Nevada desert.

Conspiracy theories are as ubiquitous as they are dangerous. Many of them suggest that dangerous forces are secretly at work at all levels of our society. They pose an enormous threat and must, therefore, be exposed by whatever means that may require. These conspiracy theories can be a real threat to our democratic societies. But such theories take on a very special form when they are given a religious content. And we must accept the unfortunate fact that religious conspiracy theories seem to thrive in many religious groups. Sad to say, a lot of Seventh-day Adventists are also attracted to them. Some right-wing speakers travel the world with their sensational messages and in many places find eager audiences. These ‘brethren’, many affirm, dare to speak the truth, whereas most pastors no longer want to talk about the signs of the times! Their dvd’s find their way across the globe and, more often than not, their content is uncritically absorbed and accepted as full truth. The Catholics—more specifically the Pope and the Jesuits—and various secret societies are usually the most prominent culprits.

The approach of the conspiracy theorists in many respects resembles that of best-selling author Dan Brown. The recipe seems to be: You take a few undisputed facts; you then add a large number of unknown facts that are extracted from obscure sources that are difficult to check, and which are at most only partly true; and you mix all this until you have a powerful concoction for the sensation-hungry consumer. It seems to enhance the attractiveness of the resulting product when the speaker assures his audience that the official church, with its ecumenical tendencies, neglects to proclaim these precious truths. And no wonder, for the church has been infiltrated by the very same forces of darkness that the speaker has come to expose!

The recipe is as successful as it is dangerous. It results in fear. It polarizes churches. It cultivates suspicion of church leadership. It fuels that prejudice in the mind of many around us that Adventism is, after all, a sub-Christian sect. But, most serious of all: it eclipses the good news of the message of the gospel by irresponsible innuendos and unbridled speculation, and by an unhealthy sensationalism. A fascination with conspiracies and wild stories about what is happening behind the scenes and is aimed at destroying the Adventist Church, can easily become so overwhelming that one’s faith is no longer a trust relationship with God, but rather a proud sense of satisfaction with knowing things that are hidden to most people around them.

Does the Adventist Church need a new abortion statement?

Euthanasia remains a hotly disputed topic in the Netherlands. Sadly, elsewhere in the world the Dutch policy and practice is often not correctly understood. In particular in the United States, it is often suggested that ending up in a Dutch hospital may be rather risky. If you are over sixty and must have surgery, chances are that the doctors feel you have lived long enough! In actual fact, the rules for euthanasia are quite restrictive—as anyone in the Netherlands, who has been close to a case of euthanasia, will know. It is true that there are some in Dutch society (as in other countries), who would like to relax some of these rules. However, there is currently a court case in which a doctor was tried for murder because she had assisted an elderly demented lady to die. This person had earlier signed a statement indicating her wish to die, if she were to suffer of serious dementia. In spite of the fact that other medical specialists were involved and the family confirmed the death wish of the lady in question, the doctor had to face a murder charge. The argument was that she should not have gone ahead with the euthanasia, since the Dutch law requires that, immediately prior to the intervention, the doctor must ask the person whether it is still his/her wish to die. This was no longer possible in this particular case and, therefore it was decided that the doctor should face the courts, so that more clarity would be achieved of how the law must be interpreted. Today, the court decided that the charge should be dropped, because it found that the doctor had in fact carefully abided by all existing rules.

Abortion is today much less of an issue in the Netherlands than euthanasia. Of course, there are those who find the rules for abortion far too liberal, but it is far less of a burning issue among Dutch Christians than it is in the United States. In America we see an enormous divide between ‘pro-lifers’ and those who want to allow abortion under certain circumstances. In the polarized atmosphere in the US, groups on both sides often describe the standpoint of their opponents in grossly unfair terms. And, unfortunately, the abortion issue has become highly politicized. For a major segment of American evangelicals Donald Trump’s ‘pro-life’ stance is a solid reason to support him, in spite of all his ethically highly dubious words and actions.

In this polarized context the Seventh-day Adventist Church has decided that the time has come to prepare a new official statement about abortion. There is a rather balanced document that was voted by the Autumn Council in 1992, which was published as a ‘guideline’ rather than as official statement. It has served the church well. It made clear that life is precious and that it is God’s gift for which we are responsible. But it also recognized situations in which aborting this incipient life may be a defensible option and that, ultimately, it must be an individual decision. The church may provide guidelines, but should not prescribe what an individual should do. It is clear that there are some (many?) in the church who feel this document is not enough ‘pro-life’. It supposedly leaves too much space for individuals, but also for Adventist hospitals. In addition, there are voices from outside the church that wonder why Adventists are not more outspoken as ‘pro-lifers.’

In my view we should, at least for the time being, be content with the document that we have. Chances are that a new statement will restrict the freedom of the individual and make it more difficult for Adventist hospitals to provide assistance to women in need, for whom abortion is a defensible option. What worries me also is that the plan to publish a statement on abortion seems to a large extent driven by the American political situation. It once again shows how ‘American’ our church continues to be in so many ways. For a church that proudly calls itself a ‘world church’, this is highly unfortunate.