Daily Archives: September 25, 2014

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.