Liberal – II ?

 

In my previous blog I declared myself to be a liberal Protestant c.q. Adventist. I did, however, state that the use of the term ‘liberal’ does, of course, depend on how it is defined and with what it is being compared.

Today—in the Easter weekend—I want to add something important to what I wrote last week.

This is Easter-weekend. For a segment of the Dutch population Easter is still a meaningful religious event. And the Easter story continues to draw the interest of even a large number of people who will not attend church on Easter Sunday. They enjoy the Mattheus Passion, or other versions of ‘the passion.’  This was also demonstrated last Thursday evening , when one in every five Dutch persons watched the televised passion story. I was one of the ca. 3.5 million Dutchmen who were fascinated by the contemporary way in which the passion story of the death and resurrection of Christ was enacted in the Dutch city of Enschede.  However, for millions of other people in our country (and in many other so-called ‘christian’ countries), Easter has simply become the day when they welcome Spring, have a good meal and enjoy an extra day off work. Millions of young—and not so young—people simply have no idea what Easter is about.

Today many believing christians, however, are far from sure whether this beautiful, heartbreaking  Easter story  is, in fact, more than that. Did it actually happen? They believe that there (probably) was someone called Jesus who was brutally killed by a riotous mob, that was incited by the religious leaders. But that the death of Jesus –some two thousand years ago—ensured that all the wrong thing they ever did (and do) are taken care of . . . that seems too good to believe. And that Jesus came back from death to life after about 36 hours, well . . .?  It is a beautiful story, but did it happen? Even for many church-going christians this is a bridge too far. And many theologians and pastors have long ago taken leave of their faith in a literal resurrection. They often refer to themselves as ‘liberal.’ They confirm the conclusion: Liberal christians do not believe in a literal resurrection of the Lord.

Seen from this angle, I am definitely not a liberal—in spite of what I wrote last week.  I am sure: What happened at Calvary was not just a tragic legal mistake, but the final solution for all things I have done wrong in my life. And it is the guarantee that eventually all will be right for me. I am sure the message of Easter is true: The Lord is truly risen! And I agree with the apostle Paul who told us:  If Jesus Christ is not risen from the tomb, then there is no possibility that there is life for me after death. And as a result, the apostle tells me, I would be among the most miserable of all people.

So, am I a liberal?  Yes (see my blog of last week). No (see above). Maybe we should begin thinking about a good alternative for the word ‘liberal’.

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Liberal?

 

Once every two years there is a meeting of theology professors of the European Adventist tertiary educational institutions with a theology department: the Friedensau University in Germany,  Collonges (Campus Adventiste sous-Salève), in France, Newbold College for Higher Education in England, the Zaotsky Institute in Russia and a dozen or so smaller colleges with a theology/religion department. This year the conference made use of the facilities of Newbold College in England. During the last decade I have been invited to attend, since my theological interests are known and because I do, from time to time, some teaching in the form of so-called ‘intensives’ (a few days or a few weeks) in various places. However, as a special invitee, I am expected not just to be present, but also to deliver a paper. I have done so again with much pleasure and satisfaction.

The theme for the meetings was ‘Revival and Reformation’. Different facets were dealt with (even though some of the speakers did not stick to the main topic very closely). I was the last speaker, yesterday afternoon, with the topic: Revival and Reformation: A current Adventist initiative in a broader historical context.

When some 65 Adventist theologians from about fifteen different countries meet, listening to the various presentations and the ensuing discussions, and talking informally with one another during the breaks and meals, it does not take long to discover different ways of thinking. You cannot help secretly grading the participants on a scale from ‘orthodox-conservative-right’ on the one side to ‘liberal-left’  on the other side. When I try do do so, I have a fair idea where most of them are positioned on this scale.  I have a suspicion that most of my fellow-participants would probably position me somewhere towards the liberal-left end of the scale.

At time I have wondered in which theological category I really belong. Is my place somewhere in the safe ‘middle of the road’ category,  rather than in the group that is on the ‘right’ or with those who are on the ‘left’? Or should I concede that I am a ‘liberal’ after all? Well, I find that question difficult to answer. Much depends on how the term ‘liberal’ is defined. And with whom you are being compared. You might be liberal in the eyes of  conservative fellow-Adventists, while at the same time appearing very conservative in the eyes of some liberal Protestant groups. And you might be rather liberal in your theology but quite conservative in your life-style. Or vice-versa.

In my suitcase I have a book that I have now almost finished reading. It is written by Douglas Ottati, an American theology-professor. Its title is: Theology for Liberal Protestants (Eerdmans, 2013). This author maintains that liberal theology is based on the Bible and on how the christian tradition has expressed the biblical faith in various ways through the ages, while at the same time also taking into account the developments in other disciplines (both in the humanities and the natural sciences) and attempting to translate the christian faith in such a way that it will ‘land’ with a twenty-first century public. This is not an exact quotation, but I believe it is a fair presentation of what Ottati says. I have read the book in the past few weeks in a rather piece-meal fashion, as I was quite busy, but this did not diminish my pleasure in reading it. And yes—when I apply the liberal model of Ottati to myself, I can only say: I am and want to remain such a liberal Protestant, cq. liberal Adventist!

 

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Building Safe Places

 

Once again I spent the major part of the week in Germany—this time in a ‘seminar-hotel’ in a small village called Hassenroth, at about 50 kilometers from Frankfurt. The theme of the conference, that was organized by representatives of the Kinship organization, was: Building Safe Places. The Kinship organization offers support to (mostly) Adventist men and women who have a ‘different’ sexual orientation. These people are often referred to as the ‘alphabet’ people: LGTBI – Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals, Bisexuals and Intersexuals. The invitation for this three-day seminar was extended to a group of people, from Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, who are regarded as ‘allies’ of Kinship. The purpose of this think-tank-like meeting was to share the most recent scientific information about the issue of alternative sexual orientations, and to search for ways in which local Adventist churches may became ‘safe places’—in other words: places where gays and lesbians and others in the LGTBI-group may feel safe and fully accepted as they are.

My own share in the program was limited to a (sermon-length) worship, in which I talked about the meaning of serving/loving God with all our mind. It means, I believe, among other things, that we should always continue to ask questions and that, from time to time, we may have to change our minds. And also that we must always guard our intellectual integrity—whatever the price that we may have to pay for this.

I listened with particular interest to two lectures of dr. Dr. Arlene Taylor, a brain specialist from the USA, who provided fascinating up-to-date information about the hardware of our brain and referred to some small differences between the way the brains of straight and of gay people are constructed. One of the topics that was also touched on was the impossibility to ‘heal’ gay people. If there are at time people who exchange a gay lifestyle for a straight lifestyle, we can almost be one hundred percent sure that these people are in fact bisexual, who, in popular terms, may choose to go either way.

Also after this meeting, I continue to have lots of unanswered questions. The biggest underlying problem, of course, is that as a straight man I cannot imagine how it would be to feel attracted to someone of the same sex.  But I also still have some questions about the biblical/theological aspect. Some so-called anti-homo texts clearly do not apply to monogamous loving en enduring same-sex relationships. They often rather concern other abuses, such as prostitution, or deal—as in the case of Sodom—with issues that are not primarily related to same-sex relationships. I have read extensively on this topic and I would love to attend, some time in the near future, a study conference where homo-theologians and hetero-theologians can discuss together what Scripture does say and what it does not say—and how we should apply any conclusions that would be arrived at in our circumstances in 2015.

But, whatever the result might be of such a process, I am absolutely convinced that all men and women with a ‘different’ (that is: non-hetero) orientation must be (and must feel) welcome in our faith community and must be able to participate fully in church life. Therefore, Building Safe Places remains a big priority. And I shall be happy to do the little I personally can do, to help realize that ideal. (The date for the 2016 Building Safe Places conference is already in my diary.)

 

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Twice to Germany

 

Last week I was in what until 1989 was referred to as the DDR or Eastern Germany. I stayed a few days in a small village (Zwochau), a half-hour car ride from the main railway station in Leipzig, where—after a comfortable train journey of almost seven hours—I was met by the secretary of the conference of the Adventist churches in the northeastern part of Germany.

I was invited to give a number of presentations for the circa 65 Adventist pastors who work in this part of Germany. Almost all were also originally from this part that of the country that was ‘East-Germany’. If there is any difference in mentality and general approach to things in comparison to pastors in the west of the (now united) country, I did not discover this!

I was listed for three parts of the program. In my first presentation I gave a survey of the most important theological and ethical issues that are being discussed and cause a significant diversity of opinion in the Adventist world. I had drawn up a list of some sixteen subjects that Adventists talk about and are quite divided about, and then gave special attention to the four underlying basic issues: (a) What is truth? Is there something like absolute Trust? (b) Hermeneutics: How do we read the Bible? (c) Authority: Who tells us what to believe? and (d) Identity; who can claim to be a ‘real’ Adventist?

In the second presentation I focused on the role of doctrine. Why do we have doctrines? Hoe many do we need? How many of the 28 Fundamental Beliefs must one accept before we may be baptized?  Or to be, and remain, a church member? I also dealt with the question whether all doctrines are equally important, and, if not, how we might grade them. This lecture, in particular, led to intense discussion, in which many examples from actual church praxis were mentioned.

And, finally, in my third presentation the spotlight was on the question how our doctrines can be—or  can be made to be—relevant. What difference does it make in my daily life whether I believe certain things? How can I, as a minister, translate our message in such a way that what I say relates to actual life? This also led to much discussion.

All in all it was a full and stimulating week.  I was back home just in time to attend, on Friday, the funeral of Pierre van Vollenhoven. In his long working life Pierre had a number of important functions in the Dutch Adventist Church, e.g. 12 years as union treasurer. I worked closely with him for extended periods of time, and I would have regretted not to be at his farewell.

Then I had a ‘free’ Sabbath. I had made sure that I was not scheduled to preach somewhere, to that I could listen in my home church, Harderwijk, to a great sermon by my Belgian colleague and good friend, dr. Rudy van Moere. It was an inspiring morning! His sermon was a sublime example of a combination of deep knowledge of the Scriptures and pastoral concern.

And now, on Sunday morning, I am preparing for a stay of some days in a small place in Germany, somewhere between Darmstadt and Frankfurt, where in the next few days I will join others in talking and thinking about the theme of homosexuality, and, more specifically, about ways in which this topic may be fruitfully explained and discussed in the Adventist Church. It is an annual conference of some leaders of Kinship—the organization of, and for, (mostly Adventist) people with a ‘different’ sexual orientation—with a few dozen people mean and women who have some influence in the church in Western-Europe and support the Kinship mission. I am certainly among the supporters, but whether I continue to have any influence may be more questionable! Anyway, I am glad I have been invited.

I look forward to the next few days with great interest and hope I can in some way contribute to the conference!

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What shall we sing?

 

When I am scheduled to preach somewhere on Saturday morning, I expect to be called or to receive an e-mail approximately in the middle of the week asking me to send information about my choice of Scripture reading(s) and of the hymns for the congregational singing. Sometimes I am also asked whether my sermon has a title, or what might be the theme that I intend to preach about. And, in addition, there is from time to time the question whether I am ready to tell the children’s story. When it comes to telling stories for the children, I will usually do my utmost to avoid this. I find it awkward not to know the children and to have to guess their approximate ages. Often enough this has given me trouble:  I may have found a story that is suitable for children age 6-8, and then find that the first row is occupied by infants and toddlers, age 0-3.

But choosing hymns is another matter. More and more Dutch Adventist churches have a strong preference for popular praise songs and songs that are found in the so-called ‘blue’ hymn book (originally compiled for the youth). Apart from the fact that I do not like the wording of many praise songs and also do not think too highly of the quality of many of the songs in the ‘blue’ hymnal, I have a very personal reason for preferring the ‘red’ hymnal – the official hymnal of the Dutch Seventh-day Adventist Church.

When this hymnal was created, some thirty years ago, I had an important role in the project. This was not the intention when the project was first planned. But there initially rose so much unpleasant debate that many of those who had been asked as contributors, declined the opportunity to get involved. A very major part of the job was therefore done by Rob Schouten and myself.  Rob is an accomplished poet and author, who has his roots in Adventism.  In those years, three decades ago, his income from his poetry and other activities was still quite modest and some extra income from working on the new hymnal of the Adventist church was very welcome. Today he has an established reputation as a literary critic and as one of the columnists of the daily newspaper Trouw, in which he publishes his pieces three times a week. I have very pleasant memories of our intense collaboration.

If any reader would want to know more of the hymnal (Liedboek voor de Adventkerk), I would suggest that he/she reads its preface (which most users have probably never read). I hold this hymnal still very dear.  I found special satisfaction in translating a fair number of beautiful English hymns into Dutch. If someone would analyze my choice of hymns for the Saturday mornings, he/she would discover that I tend to choose some of these hymns quite regularly.

Of course, my close tie with this hymnal  make me rather prejudiced. But, apart from this I hope hat the ‘classic; christians hymns will not be totally replaced by by these ‘blue’ sing-alongs’ and popular spiritual tear-jerkers.

It may be time, after these thirty years, to start planning for a thorough revision of the ‘red’ hymnal or for developing a completely new one. However, it might also be a good option to take a good look at the newest version (2013) of the Dutch ecumenical hymnal. Maybe this hymnal (Liedboek door de Kerken) can provide a new injection to hymn singing in Dutch Adventist churches. I would recommend this wholeheartedly.

 

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