In my previous blog I was quite enthusiastic about the biography of Harry Kuitert (b. 1924), by Gert J. Peelens. I have now finished the book and my enthusiasm has gradually become mingled with a sense of tragedy.
Peelen paints a very fascinating picture of Kuitert and gives a clear description of his development as an ethicist and a theologian. His career is, in fact, a triptych: Kuitert’s academic career shifted from theology to ethics and, after he retired, back to theology. In his advanced age Kuitert produced a number of theological books for a broader public. Some of these have become real bestsellers.
It is not strange to detect a development in someone’s thinking—and that is certainly true for a theologian. But in the case of Kuitert we are faced with a man who began his career as a fundamentalist pastor in the small Christian Reformed Church in Scharendijke, a conservative village in the Southwestern part of the country, and who, some six decades later no longer believes that God really exists (i.e. as a Reality outside us), and who no longer expects a life after death.
His complete turn-around has probably been best expressed in two of his famous one-liners. In 1974 he stated that everything we say about ‘above’, comes from below. In 2002 he told his readers that at first there were human beings, then there were gods, and then came God. And not the other way around,
As the years passed we notice a consistent line in Kuitert’s thinking. He becomes more and more convinced that we cannot read the Bible as history. The Bible stories did not really happen in the way they were written down. They are stories, myths. At first he was mainly concerned about he lack of historicity in the first three chapters of the Bible: we cannot accept the stories of creation and of the Fall as literal. But as he became older—and this is especially clear from his more recent books—little of the biblical story remains. He is more and more convinced that, when we speak of God, we do not refer to a Reality outside of us (to a Referent, as philosophers would say). God is the product of our imagination. And this does not just apply to God, but to all aspects of our faith. This does not make the Christian faith completely worthless, even though many of his readers think so. Ever more frequently people accuse Kuitert that he has robbed them of their faith.
I agree with Kuitert in many of the things he says. When we use God-talk and faith-talk, we can only do so with human language—with human metaphors and literary models. This is often forgotten and leads almost inevitably to a caricature of God. But I am not prepared to follow Kuitert in eliminating the possibility of divine revelation. There are, I think, at least as many arguments for the existence of God (as an Eternal Reality outside of us) as there are reasons to deny God’s existence. If we are prepared to recognize the fact that God exists, it seems logical to assume that this God makes himself known to us, gives us information about himself and what he does for us andexpecs from us. If that is true, it follows that not all God-talk originates in our human imagination. Something from above is received here below and can be known to us. That is something that encourages me, even though we must remember that in our thinking and speaking about God we will always be handicapped by our creaturely limitations.
Kuitert has a defense against the accusation that he has taken the faith of many people away, that we cannot simply dismiss. The panic among believers, he says, is the result of the fact that most theologians have too long remained silent about their discoveries and they carefully kept their conclusions in their own small circle. When at last, like Kuitert, they began to speak and write about their opinions, some felt liberated but many felt betrayed and frustrated. This is also a lesson for Seventh-day Adventist theologians. Among them we also notice tthe tendency to keep quiet about the developments in their theological views, afraid that they might confuse the members in the pew (or lose their job). This is unfortunate and dishonest. And in the long run it causes immense problems.
A denomination has to gain a great deal by being open, also when the basic elements of its theology are at stake, as well as the ways in which these impact on the faith community.