SOUP CLUB

A few days ago I returned from a five-day trip to the United States. I had been invited by the Michiana chapter of Adventist Forum to speak at their meeting last Saturday afternoon in one of the buildings at Andrews University. In addition, I had a few other speaking appointments on the university campus. It was a great opportunity to once again spend some time at my Alma Mater, where I obtained my masters degree in theology in 1966, and where I worked in the Mission Institute (connected with the university) from 1991 to 1994. It was a special pleasure to meet with old friends.

The meeting with the Adventist Forum members centered on my recent book FACING DOUBT. It was interesting to see the many blue covers of the book in the hands of the people all over the audience. This and the other appointments during the weekend once again underlined for me how many people in the Adventists Church are concerned about certain trends in their church and how many also have serious doubts about aspects of the Adventist faith.  It is extremely gratifying to hear over and over again from people who have read the book that they found it meaningful for them at the stage where they are in their spiritual journey. And some also tell me that it has helped them to reconnect with the church.

I had the pleasure of staying in the home of one of the Adventist Forum leaders and his wife. I could not have wished for a more comfortable place to stay, and for more inspiring discussion partners. The last evening of my stay in their home was particularly memorable. For the last ten years, I was told, they have been meeting once every two weeks with four other couples. They call their ‘small group’ meeting their soup club–this in reference to the main part of the meal they share together . They are all professional people. Among the group are a medical doctor, a physical therapist, a lawyer, a biologist, an anthropologist, a mathematician, and a psychologist.  They serve as a spiritual support group for each other. They are people who have more questions than answers, and who are at various points in their spiritual odyssey. They all see themselves as Adventists, but ‘on the margins’ of their church. Their soup club functions in many ways as their church. It is a place where they feel absolutely safe, where they can share their thoughts, express their doubts, voice their questions, express their hopes and seek together for answers. It made a deep impression on me.  We need many more of this kind of soup clubs!

One of the members of the soup club described himself as a Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath keeping, tithe paying, agnostic. What this means is that he has many doubts about even primary elements of his faith, but nonetheless continues to feel an extremely strong bond with his church. He enjoys being part of the Adventist subculture that has shaped him into what he is. We talked together about cultural Adventism. He argued that there is nothing wrong with being a ‘cultural Adventist.’ The people who are seen as ‘just’ cultural Adventists, or who identify themselves as such, also belong to the Adventists family and enrich the fabric of what Adventism is!  I will have to think this through a little further and may come back to it in some future blog. For me this description of being an Adventist would be too meager. But if all cultural Adventists are such pleasant, balanced and positive people as this self-proclaimed Adventist agnostic whom I met in the soup club, I would warmly welcome them to my local church.

 

Pierre Teilhard de Jardin (and Desmond Ford)

 

 

The Pontifical Council of Culture recently announced that it plans to request Pope Francis to rehabilitate Pierre Teilhard de Jardin. This is remarkable, since his ideas (and, in particular, his books in which these ideas were explained) were considered as dangerous reading for Catholics. Gradually this situation is changing. The previous pope quoted from Teilhard in a vesper service in 2004, and the current pope referred to him in a positive way in his recent encyclical Laudato si (Be praised: on the care of our common home, 2015). A request for rehabilitation would certainly have a chance of success.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a Jesuit priest and well-known philosopher, but his special areas of expertise were paleontology and geology. A dictionary definition of paleontology is: “A paleontologist is someone who studies fossil remains and traces of organisms, with a view to reconstructing the nature and the evolution of life on earth in the geological past.” In other words: Teilhard de Jardin was active in the study of evolution. His acceptance of the evolutionary origin of all forms of life was at odds with the official teachings of his church, and, as a result, the church condemned his work. Teilhard wrote one of his most important books The Phenomenon of Man already in 1930, but it was not published until shortly after his death in 1955. I must still have the book somewhere. I bought it more than fifty years ago, when it was published in a then popular Dutch Aula paperback series. I do remember that at the time I did not understand much of what I read, and I gave up after a few dozen pages.

The fact that the Roman-Catholic Church had revised its view of the evolution theory, and that at long last Teilhard de Jardin may be rehabilitated, is rather remarkable. Churches are not very good in changing their doctrinal views. That is also true for protestant churches. They do change, and some long-time cherished ideas may gradually move into the background and be almost forgotten, but it remains quite difficult for most denominations to openly admit that it no longer supports some of the things that were said and written in the past. Often those men and women who pioneered those developments received a very negative press, or could no longer function in their church because of their ideas.

I do not think that in the foreseeable future the Adventist Church will give more space to scholars who have convictions about the creation-evolution dilemma that differ from what the church expects them to believe and teach. And many Adventist theologians and biologists (and geologists, paleontologists, etc.) will remain at odds with their church about many aspects. Let us, however, hope that they will not have to wait sixty years before they receive more space and will be rehabilitated.

PS.  And thinking about rehabilitation for people who in the past were sidelined by the church, because they had some alternative ideas about particular theological issues, I cannot help but remembering the name of Desmond Ford. Has the time not come to rehabilitate him (even when one does not agree with all his views)?

 

Rich versus poor

 

Last week Christies in New York sold a painting of Leonardo Da Vinci to an unknown buyer for the obscene amount of four hundred million US dollar (exclusive of the fee for the auction house).

As I write this blog the US Senate is working on its version of the tax reform bill that is one of President Trump’s main agenda items. The bill will greatly benefit the rich and will make the gap between rich and poor even bigger than it already is.

In the Netherlands the gap between rich and poor is much narrower than in the USA. But this does not take away from the fact that the richest one percent in the Netherlands owns 26  percent of the national wealth. It is most regrettable that the new Dutch government, that has only been in place for a few weeks, feels it is necessary to reduce the tax that foreign shareholders have to pay over their dividends to zero. This supposedly will make this country even more attractive for large multinational companies to invest in. This measure will cost the state 1.4 billion euro. And this happens while there are serious problems in financing health care and education.

Oxfam reported last week that our world now has 12.000 billionaires and 16.5 million millionaires (in US dollars). The richest one percent of the world now owns just over 50 percent of global wealth.

These statistics sound quite alarming–a least in my ears. It is one of the reasons why, since a substantial number of years, I have given my vote to one of the parties on the left of the Dutch political spectrum. Justice demands that the difference between rich and poor somehow become smaller!

This past week I saw a link to a website that made me aware of an aspect that I found even more alarming. When I look at my own annual income I must conclude that–in the Dutch context–I am in the lower middle-class. However, when I compare it with global statistics, it appears that I actually belong to the richest one percent of this world (See: www.givingwhatwecan.org/get-involved/how-rich-am-i/).

Of course, I am aware that statistics do not always tell the full story. And the amount one needs in order to have a ‘decent’ lifestyle differs greatly from country to country. Nonetheless, these figures do tell me a few important things:

  1. When thinking of the things I would like to have, the travel I would like to do, etc., I must never forget that my desires are of a very different kind than those of a big part of the world’s population who are struggling to merely survive.
  2. As someone who belongs to the richest one percent of the world’s population, I must critically look at my giving practices. Can I not be more generous when funds are raised to assist people who are is real need?
  3. Should I, as a christian, not be much more critical with regard to policies and plans that will mostly benefit the rich, and do nothing for those who are less fortunate? And should this not be a major factor in making my political choices?
  4. Should I, as a christian, not pay far more attention to the biblical values that condemn the extreme differences between rich and poor, and all forms of exploitation of the poor by the rich?

Seventh-day Adventists attach a greater value to various Old Testament laws than most other christians. This is based on their conviction that those things that were ‘good’ for the people and for society in biblical times, are still ‘good’ for us today. However, could it be that Adventists are too selective? Would it not be good to reconsider these criteria of selection? Should we not consider the principles we find in these Old Testament laws about social justice as at least as important as the rules in Leviticus 11 that deal with the scales of fish and the hoofs of various categories if animals?

Fake news

Mrs. Karin Hildur Ollengren, the new minister of interior affairs, issued this week a sharp warning against ‘fake news’. She alleged that foreign powers are also interested in influencing all kinds of political processes in the Netherlands, and that they do so by large-scale attempts to bombard the Dutch people with ‘fake news’. She pointed to Russia as one of the main culprits. It is therefore, so it appears not only the United States where the Putin administration–according to steadily growing evidence–is guilty of this kind of practices. Mrs. Theresa May, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, just days ago accused the Russians of meddling in British affairs by spreading fake news. Unfortunately, technological developments in the domain of the social media have made it much easier to spread fake news at an ever larger scale.

But fake news is not the only, and perhaps not the biggest, problem if we want to know what happens in the world of politics and other domains. We must also realize that all news sources have their own specific ‘color’, and report the news from a particular perspective. Since a few months I subscribe to the Nederlands Dagblad–a solidly christian newspaper. I had been a subscriber some years ago and recently decided to come back. (Very little sport news and very little attention for entertainment news suits me fine!). This newspaper does (I think) some excellent reporting, but the selection as to what gets into the paper and how it is reported, is, of course, very much ‘colored’ by its philosophy. During the past week or so, the reader might have thought that the talks about a fusion of two smaller branches of Christian Reformed Dutch Protestantism, keeps a large section of the Dutch population on the edge of their seat. I also read a number of other (on-line) newspapers to ensure a balance,  to discover what is considered most important in other circles and how things are reported elsewhere.

The above also applies to the news sources in the Adventist Church. The different media select what they want to report and all have their own approach and perspective. The flagship journal op the world church (Adventist Review) is mostly filled with ‘good’ news, about the growth of the church and about all kinds of positive initiatives. At times (too often, I tend to think) it seems that the journal’s main mission is to promote the president of the church, pastor Wilson. And to a considerable degree this is also true of other media, such as Adventist News Network and Hope Channel and many division websites.

However, there are also some media that are far more critical, write about topics that the official church media tend to avoid and provide investigating reporting into things that are not so positive. Most prominent among these media are Spectrum and Adventist Today. They have a very important role. But they are, inevitably, also one-sided and report from a very different perspective as, for instance the Adventist Review. A church member who wants to form a balanced opinion of what is happening in his/her church should follow media that operate with different ‘colors’, in print or in digital form.

(Doing this will also make it a lot easier to unmask the fake news about the church that so often finds its way into the social media.)

 

‘Boundary-crossing conduct’

In the Dutch language a particular term has lately become one of the most common expressions: ‘’grensoverschrijdend gedrag’, that is: conduct that crosses acceptable boundaries. About a month ago some American media came with very painful revelations about Harvey Weinstein. It was soon apparent that this influential film producer had been guilty of sexually abusing scores of women. Via hashtag #MeToo thousands of women around the world admitted that they had also been the victims of similar unacceptable conduct.

In The Netherlands we now also have our own Weinstein-like case. Film producer and director Jos Gosschalks has decided to leave the casting agency, where he had an extremely powerful position after admitting that in a number of cases he has been guilty of conduct that has ‘crossed acceptable boundaries.’ Several persons have explained in the print media or in television talk shows what this boundary-crossing conduct consisted of. It seems that Gosschalks’ behavior was a public secret, but so far he got away with it.  He has dramatically fallen from his pedestal, but one might well ask whether he should be torn to shreds in the media before a judge has had a chance to consider his case.

In the past week we also heard of prominent British politicians who were unable to keep full control of their hands, and who, as a result, lost their position. Stories of long-time sexual abuse have also emerged from the world of sports, in particular about trainers who abused young people that were entrusted to their care.

This ‘boundary-crossing’ behavior is nothing less than an epidemic. But is must also be said that the boundaries between what is and what is not acceptable in the relationship between people have at times become so vague that there may be disagreements whether or not something qualifies as abuse. Moreover, words and actions may be interpreted as intentional, while there were no wrong intentions. That does not, however, take away from the fact that there are a great many things which happened in the past–and are happening today–that cannot be justified by any stretch of the imagination. In recent years we have seen how in several countries members of the Roman-Catholic clergy have abused (mostly) young boys. But also in many Protestant churches countless instances of sexual abuse have taken place. In the past, these things were usually covered up, in an attempt not to damage the reputation of the church. Today many Dutch Protestant churches (Seventh-day Adventists included) have developed a protocol that prescribes what to do in cases of abuse. In addition, there is the rule that only people who possess a ‘certificate of conduct’ may work with young children.

The Adventist world church tries to ensure that ‘boundary-crossing’ conduct does not occur and that, when something goes wrong in the sphere of sexual abuse, adequate measures are taken. This means that in many cases the authorities will be notified.

But there is one particular form of ‘boundary-crossing’ behavior that is still not adequately addressed in the Adventist community: in most countries women continue to be discriminated when it concerns full access to the pastoral ministry. This violates the norms of modern civilization, but also clearly contradicts one of the Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists. We read in article 14: ‘The church is one body with many members, called from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ . . .’