A doubting octogenarian

The other day Dries van Agt was interviewed on Dutch television about his faith. In his weekly program ‘Adieu God’ Tijs van den Brink talks with people about their faith—or the loss thereof. The interview with van Agt startled me. I thought of this former Dutch prime minister as a staunch Catholic believer rather than as a doubting Thomas.

Dries van Agt was prime minister in the Netherlands from 1977 to 1982. It was not the smoothest period of Dutch political history in which van Agt led several cabinets with rather different coalitions. I have always felt great sympathy for van Agt. This sympathy was further increased when I read his fascinating biography which appeared in 2008.[1]  I always enjoy listening to his unique use of the Dutch language, with many archaic words and long, complex sentences. And I must admit that I have great admiration for his tireless efforts on behalf of the Palestinian people. Van Agt played a major role in the fusion of three Christian parties into one political stream (Christian Democratic Appeal), but he was gradually estranged from his party and confessed that, in the last general elections, he voted for the green party.

The conversation with Tijs van den Brink focused, of course, on matters of faith. Van Agt has a Roman Catholic background. As a young boy he served in the church as altar boy, and his faith and his church remained very important for him during a major part of his life. But in the interview he was very open about his continuously growing doubts. He still believes in God. There must be Someone, he said, who is at the beginning of everything. Even if one believes in the ‘big bang’, there must be something or someone who caused it. He had no doubt that Jesus Christ is a historical figure and has left mankind with an inspiring example of how to live. But everything else is more and more surrounded by question marks. He can no longer believe that Jesus rose from his tomb. Is there nothing beyond this life, van den Brink asked. Van Agt replied that it would be nice if there were indeed some form of life after death, but he is far from sure that this is the case.

In the context of my book FACING DOUBT I have in the last eighteen months received may reactions from, and have had numerous conversations with, members of my church who in many different ways struggle with their doubts. I have been struck by the fact that many people develop doubts about important aspects of the Christian faith when they are at an advanced (or even high) age. In some cases it concerns doubt about the very existence of God. Often the doubts center on the why-question—why is the so much misery in the world or in my own life? But again and again there is also the question whether Jesus did indeed rise from his tomb. It comes perhaps as no surprise that, as we become older, we are more inclined to contemplate our own mortality. But in that stage of life it would be more important than ever before to have the inner certainty that death is not the end of everything.

I have my doubt s about a number of things which my church regards as ‘Fundamental Beliefs’, but I do not want to lose the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. I agree with the apostle Paul that I should be pitied if I lost that conviction. If Jesus did not rise from death, faith and church are no more than a sick joke. I would plead with van Agt—especially with Eastern coming soon—not to give up his faith in the resurrection of Jesus. That is what I emphasize when people talk with me about their doubts. I tell them: I have no problem with the fact that you have doubts about many things, but do not let go of the core of the Christian faith—however difficult that may be, There is no ‘hard’ evidence that the resurrection is indeed a historical fact. There was no cctv in the tomb where Jesus had been laid. But there are enough valid reasons to hold on to the belief that ‘Jesus is truly risen!’ That will be the topic of next week’s blog.



[1] Johan van Meriënboer, Peter Bootsma en Peter van Griendsven: Tour de Force (Uitgeverij Boom, 2008).

Take care of your pastor

This past week I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting for a few days with Adventist pastors in one of the German conferences. The sixty men and women who work in and around Berlin, and in what used to be East-Germany, met in a conference center in a village near Leipzig. A few years ago this conference invited me as their speaker and it seems that this had been appreciated, for once again I received a request to come and be their main presenter. This time I was asked to address issues that I wrote about in my last book (FACING DOUBT) which was published in the German language under the title: GEHEN oder BLEIBEN? (Do we go or do we stay?) As i traveled yesterday by train from Leipzig back tot he Netherlands, I had ample time to think about some of the aspects of this meeting with a group of pastors, and about what I saw and heard during several other pastoral meetings in a number of countries, for which I was invited in recent years.

My respect continues to grow for the men and women who pastor our local churches, and also for the leaders in conferences and unions who must coach them. In recent times the job of a pastor has  become ever more difficult. This is also the impression I retain from my conversations of many colleagues in the past few days. Let me give just one example: Nowadays most pastors have more than one congregation. These may be very different in nature. One pastors told me that he has a very conservative church of mainly native Germans, also a church that consists mainly of immigrants from Eastern Europe, and a church of  native Germans who tend to be rather liberal. Such a situation results in continuous splits. How does one deal with this? How does one retain one’s integrity, while constantly switching between different contexts?

In conversations in between meetings and during meals I heard about many personal issues. At times also pastors may have relational problems, but often there is no one they can confide in, and usually they must keep up the appearance that everything is fine. This can produce major tensions. Just like other church members pastors have teenage and adolescent children, who leave the church and who give them great worries.

In the past few days the main topic of my talks was: dealing with doubt. Pastors may have serious doubts about their faith and/or about their calling. Just as many of their church members they may have serious questions about some of the so-called Fundamental Beliefs. When they speak about these questions, some church members show signs of recognition, but others are extremely critical and emphasize that pastors ought to subscribe to all 28 doctrines of the church, and if they cannot do this they should resign. And pastors observe trends in their denomination that they would like to change. How loyal can you be to your church, when it discriminates women and rejects certain groups of people?

I could go on about these things at length. Being a pastor has not become any easier. That makes it important that they experience the support of their church members. It gives them courage when, from time to time, they receive some token of appreciation from their members. Of course, I ought to remind my readers that they should pray for their pastor. That is certainly true, but a book token when he/she had his/her birthday, or a weekend in a nice hotel when he/she has served the church for five or ten years, or an occasional box of chocolade for the partner of the pastor—these are tangible signals that say: ‘We understand that your task is far from simple. We love you and keep you in our thoughts, also when you may go through a difficult period.’ These are some of the thoughts that emerged as I came away from this week’s conference. Pastors are ordinary people who need warmth and appreciation. More than ever before.

 

God’s mirror

Whenever I am home on a Sunday morning I watch the TV program De Verwondering (The Wonderment) in which Annemiek Schrijver talks with men and women about spiritual topics. Her guests may or may not be christians. On February 25 Annemiek talked with Enis Odaci, a second-generation Turkish-Dutchman. Guests in the program are always asked to bring a text with them that they value in a particular way. Enis Odaco read a quotation from the Kasidah van Hji Abu el-Yezdi, a long poem written (under pseudonym) by the British Arabist and discoverer Sir Richard Francis Burton, who wanted to promote the Sufi-tradition in the Western world. This is the quotation

  •    The truth was a mirror in the hands of God
  •    It fell, and broke into pieces
  •    Everybody took a piece of it
  •    and they looked at it
  •    and thought they had the truth.

As I grew up I heard from my mother—and this was affirmed time and again in church—that Seventh-day Adventists have the Truth. That Truth was to be communicated to all people on earth, and the prospect looked pretty dim for those who decided not to listen. Even as an 8-10 year old I sensed that these were big words. Were we the only family in our village who were right? At times I quietly prayed: ‘Lord, let it be true, that our church is indeed the true church!’

Throughout my life this quest for Truth has been important for me. It acquired three layers. 1. Is Christianity true and are all other world religions false? 2. If so, is there a particular stream or faith community that has the correct interpretation of the christian faith? 3. If there is a faith community that has a correct interpretation of the Truth, does that mean that there is just one script that all believers in that community must adhere to?

In the quotation about the Mirror of Truth, the question of Truth is approached in a very different way. God possessed the Truth. This Truth was as a perfect mirror, but God dropped it, and the mirror fell on the earth into thousands of fragments. All people tried to get hold of a shard and cried triumphantly: ‘I have the mirror of Truth.’ Indeed, we seem justified in supposing that God’s Truth has come to mankind in a very fragmented way and that we all possess just a piece of that Truth.

First of all we are confronted with the question whether non-christian religions contain any Truth and may somehow serve as a road to salvation. This questions continues to fascinate me, and I am just now in the middle of reading the book Who can be saved? Reassessing salvation in Christ and world religions.[1] For me many questions remain, but I have concluded that non-christian religions also have picked up a shard of God’s Truth—be it perhaps a somewhat smaller shard compared to what christians have. When contemplating this matter I cannot help but hear in the background the text of that beautiful hymn by Frederick William Faber (1862): There is a wideness in God’s mercy as the wideness of the sea.

I must admit I no longer see a sharp line between my church, as God’s chosen remnant of the endtime, and other Christian churches. I am, and plan to remain, a committed Seventh-day Adventist christian and I believe that my church has a significant shard of God’s Truth, but I cannot deny that other churches also have their shard. Therefore I have no reason to triumphantly claim that only my church has the Truth.

Let me make it just a little more personal. I do have a small shard of the Truth. I do recognize that it is colored by my Adventst heritage. Others in my faith community also have their small shard, but  it may have a somewhat different color or shape. No human being has all of the Truth. That does, however, not mean that there is no Truth. God possesses the Truth and He has shown Himself in the One who said: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. In Him the Truth is reflected. We only see in our shard of the mirror a small glimpse of that Truth. But that is enough and with this we should be gratefully content



[1] By Terrance L. Tiessen. Published by Intervarsity Press (Downer’s Grove, IL, 2004).

Will the church disappear?

As I am writing this blog I am still struggling with my jetlag. The time difference of nine hours will inevitably derail one’s internal clock for a few days. However, it was great to spend two weeks in California, to meet friends and to stay in the homes of kindred spirits–the first week not far from Loma Linda and the second week a few hundred miles more to the North in San Luis Obispo.

With respect to ‘work’, these weeks were focused on my last book FACING DOUBT. The chapters of the Adventist Forums in San Diego and Los Angeles (Glendale) had invited me to speak about this book, and when the folks in San Luis Obispo heard about my coming, the request came to also include their church in my itinerary and to speak on the same topic. The more I visit different places and speak to groups of fellow-believers of whom a majority finds itself ‘on the margins’ of the church, the more I am convinced that I am involved with something really important. Time and again I meet people who tell me they have recognized themselves in my book, and it is extremely satisfying to get reactions from people who say that the book has in fact helped them to re-connect in a meaningful way with their faith and their church.

However, there is an element that gives me more and more concern. The groups that invite me consists mostly of people who have passed the age of sixty. Some decades ago the Adventist Forum chapters were established by relatively young people—mostly in their thirties and forties. Many of them are still members of AF, but the majority is now of retirement age, and very few young members have joined in recent years. During my stay in San Luis Obispo an informal get-together was organized on the Saturday evening. The idea was that I would try to answer questions and that we could continue the discussion about topics that had been raised earlier in the day. Several attendees emphasized that their church had also been unable to retain most of their younger members. That led to the question whether perhaps the Adventist Church is doomed to disappear.

For many Adventists it is simply unthinkable that Adventism will, slowly but surely, disappear (at least from the Western world). Because the Seventh-day Adventist Church is ‘God’s last church’, the church at the end of time that has the special commission to proclaim the pure gospel everywhere, before Jesus Christ will come to gather his church and take it ‘home.’  But the reality raises concerns. Some new churches are established, but at the same time the church disappears from certain regions. In the northern part of Scandinavia, for example, very few Adventists remain. In the churches in urban centers very few representatives of the original population can be found. A study that dr. Ronald Lawson recently published on his website indicates that within a few decades the percentage of ‘white” Adventists in New York has decreased from around 90 % to less than 10 %. (https://ronaldlawson.net). I remember talking with a colleague about the sad fact that our children, and the children of many other pastors, were no longer in the church. His reaction was: ‘Yes, it stops with us!’ Was he right?

I heard a comment in San Luis Obispo that has stayed with me. One of the attendees said: ‘ We keep on saying that we must give space to our young people and must pay much more attention to their ideas and wishes. But that has hardly any result. The younger generation does not want a church that is adapted just a little to their thinking. We must dare to give the church to the younger generation. Let them take it from us, and let us se what will ‘emerge’ (sorry: that is a suspect word!). Only if we dare to do this, the church has a chance to survive.’

Do we indeed dare to do this? Do I dare to do so? I have not reached the point that I can reply with a unconditional ‘yes’. And that is not just because I wonder whether the church that will ‘emerge’ will still send me a monthly retirement check. It is mostly because I still feel attached to many aspects of today’s church. But I have no doubt that something radical must happen. Too many people have already disappeared or are ‘on the margins’ of the church. May God give us the courage to explore new ways!

Out of Adventism

My wife and I are currently spending some time in California. I had been invited to give a few presentations based on my book FACING DOUBT, first in San Diego and then in Glendale, near Los Angeles. A friend whom we got to know a number of years ago, and who visited us last year in the Netherlands, invited us to stay with her. I am now sitting at the kitchen table in her fabulous house in Redlands, not far from Loma Linda, writing this blog. We will have left from here to go to San Luis Obispo by the time this blog appears on my site. San Luis Obispo is a relatively small town some 400 kilometers Northwest of Redlands. I am scheduled to preach there on Sabbath and to give a presentation about the theme of my book.

Many of those who attend these presentations have already read my book or have at least heard about it. In the Glendale City Church my book has been used in one of the main Sabbath school classes during the previous quarter as a guide for the discussions. For me these presentations and the question-and-answer periods that followed, and also the numerous conversations of the past few days, were once again a clear confirmation of the fact that a large number of Adventists are stranded ‘on the margins” of the church, and that this group needs special attention.

Shortly before leaving on this California trip someone called my attention to a book written by a former Adventist pastor and theologian, Jerry Gladson. It is entitled Out of Adventism and describes how Gladson came to the decision, after a long process, to quit as an Adventist pastor and to become a minister in another Protestant denomination. I ordered the Kindle-edition. (Since I got a Kindle e-reader a few months ago as a birthday present from my wife, I am using it rather intensively). In between other things I read Gladson’s book during this past week.

I had never heard of this Gladson, but I hear from people in California that is he quite well known. After having served for a number of years as a church pastor he was invited to join the theological faculty of one of the colleges in the South of the USA (now called Southern Adventist University. He was given the opportunity to continue his studies and to pursue a doctorate in Old Testament studies.

Gladson describes in detail how he gradually began to question some traditional Adventist doctrines. A few chapters chronicle the tumultuous situation that followed the activities of Brinsmead and his followers and, subsequently, the controversy around the ideas of Desmond Ford. In addition, the church was confronted with people like Ronald Numbers and Walter Rea, who with the books called many aspects of the work and person of Ellen G. White into question. Gladson was not only trying to resolve many issues in his own mind, but became theologically more and more suspect. It is sobering to read about the process he went through, but it is absolutely dumbfounding to read about the toxic climate in some of these institutions for higher learning. ‘Spies’ would infiltrate the lectures of some of the professors in an effort to collect evidenced through recordings of their alledgedly ‘heretical’ views. Church leaders were all too often inclined to take sides with the conservative church members who urged that these theology professors would be fired.

Much of what Gladson writes about his pilgrimage through Adventism parallels my own experience. However, I worked in the Netherlands at the time of the controversies around Brinmead, Ford and Walter Rea and others, and there the conflict was much less bitter and did not make any casualties among the pastors. At that point the experiences of Gladson and my experiences were different.

Gladson decided, like many others, to leave the Adventist Church. The church lost many competent and fine workers as a result of the intolerance and often unchristian attitude of church leaders. In the past few years I have met many of them and listened to their sad stories. But I am glad to be able to say that I have also met many who decided to stay and who have done all they could to help improve the spiritual climate in the church. And I am grateful that, in spite my reservations with regard to certain doctrines and my aversion against particular trends in the church, I have found the strength to remain and to continue to play a positive role. However, books like Out of Adventism remind me of that fact that power play and intolerance continue to make victims and damage many good people for the rest of their lives. That made my reading of this book in the past few days into a painful and sad experience.