Southern California

This will be the first of a series of some thirteen blogs written in Southern California. To be exact: written in Loma Linda, a small town at about 90 minutes driving East from Los Angeles. Loma Linda has given its name to the Adventist university that is located there and which has made a name for itself because of its faculties in medicine, health care, dentistry, pharmacy and related disciplines. In fact, to a large extent, the university with the hospitals that are part of the medical complex define the town of Loma Linda. The town has almost 25.000 inhabitants, but, because of the 15,000-plus employees, the hospital patients and the people who visit the day clinics, this number more than doubles during the day.

My wife and I arrived here four days ago. By now we have just about overcome our jet lag caused by the time difference with the Netherlands of eight hours. As I mentioned in an earlier blog: I have come here to teach in the religion department of the university during the Spring Quarter. I could not have imagined that one day I would be a (temporary) colleague of such esteemed theologians as e.g. Jon Paulien, Roy Branson, Richard Rice and David Larsson.

I should say that this process of becoming a colleague of these people is quite complicated and I am glad I have arrived here a few days before my actual work starts (next Monday). There is a sizable amount of administrative hassle before I can receive the badge that certifies that I am indeed a ‘visiting professor’ and can have access to all facilities. With the badge I will be allocated an LLU e-mail address and a code that allows me to use ‘Canvas.’ This is an advanced computer system that provides the students with all the information they need when they follow a particular course and gives the professor the relevant information about the students who take the courses he is teaching. The students receive a digital warning when a certain assignment is due, and by consulting the system they can discover what grade the teacher has given them for their work. Yesterday a member of the support staff of the department has unveiled the secrets of ‘Canvas’ to me.

I have now also been assigned an office where I can work and I have discovered a nearby place in the Centennial Complex (where the religion department is located on the third floor), where I can heat water—a not unimportant aspect for a Dutchman who is used to having his hot drinks at regular times.

We have settled into a small but quite adequate apartment. The first expeditions to the local supermarkets have been successful and we have the first necessities for our daily life. It proved to be a little more difficult to find the post office. This has recently been relocated to  just outside the city limits of Loma Linda. The former location (in the center of the campus) was vacated because of the commotion that resulted from the decision of the US Postal Service to end the exceptional status of this post office. In the past it was closed on Saturdays and open on Sundays, in order to accommodate the predominantly Adventist population. The decision to end this peculiar situation met with much protest. The Postal Service then decided to simply move the office to a different location. (We found that they had no stamps for European destinations. For Europe one has to combine three stamps of different values.)

Apart from many short visits to the United States, this is the third time my wife and I actually ‘live’ in America. The first time was in 1965-1966 when, newly married, we went to Michigan, where I studied at Andrews University for my masters degree. We returned to Michigan in the 1991-1994 period, when I worked in the Mission Institute that was part of that university. And now, once again, we are in the ‘promised land.’ Right from day one it feels quite familiar. I have the fullest confidence that we will have three pleasant (though probably quite busy) months.

 

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Moral taste buds

 

A few weeks ago I was asked to review a book for a publication of the Kinship organization. It was: The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, written by the American social-psychologist Dr Jonathan Haidt. I did not know anything of this man, nor of the books he had written, but after some googling I understand that this particular book has caused considerable discussion. I have read the book with much interest and yesterday dispatched the review that I had written.

Haidt explains how all human beings are equipped with a number of moral ‘taste buds.’ That is to say: we react to a range of different moral ‘tastes.’ The problem is, however, that not all of these taste buds are equally well developed in all of us. The fascinating point, Haidt maintains, is that people who tend to be on the right side of the political spectrum seem to have a wider range of moral taste buds than those who are more towards the left. ‘Liberals’ tend to react especially to stimuli that have to do with individuality, care and fairness, while ‘conservatives’ (read: Republicans) are also very sensitive to stimuli of loyalty, unity, authority and sanctified tradition.

Professor Haidt argues that all of this is a matter of evolution. Through long periods of time certain moral taste buds further developed in particular groups of people than in other groups. In other words: whether you are politically to the left or to the right is mainly determined by evolutionary processes rather than by political interests or your environment. This line of argumentation does not appeal very much to me and the approach of the author sounds rather speculative. Those who, like me, want to begin with the premise of an Almighty Creator God will not easily feel attracted by Haidt’s theories. However, Haidt’s idea that—regardless of how this state affairs came about—the controversy between left and right is to a large extent fueled by things that operate on a much deeper level, seems to be quite credible. When those on ‘the left’ want to convince ‘the right’ of its standpoints (and vice-versa), they will need to pay due attention to the moral values for which the other party is (often subconsciously) most receptive.

Perhaps this aspect of Haidt’s argument may also be relevant in the sphere of faith and church. In the church we also find that the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ fight each other with rational arguments, without much success of actually convincing the opponent. This is clearly the case in the ongoing controversies about the ordination of female pastors and the debate about homosexuality. Haidt’s book would suggest that we might have to pay much more attention to the underlying presupposition that are most prominent in moral make-up of the left and the right. ‘Progressives’, ‘liberals,’ or those to the left (of whatever label we want to attach) value, in particular, such values as individuality, care for others and fairness, while the ‘orthodox’, ‘the conservatives’, or those to the right appreciate these same things but also highly value unity in the group to which one belongs, the safeguarding of authority, and respect for sanctified traditions.  When we want people to change their mind, a bombardment with Bible texts and rational arguments to eliminate the other party is, in fact, less effective than reacting to the underlying moral sentiments of the opponents.

For that reason we could, unfortunately, not expect too many concrete result from the conference on homosexuality in Cape Town where last week some 350 Adventist leaders from all over the world participated.

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The nominating committee

 

One of the Adventist journals in the United States recently asked me whether I could, towards of the end of the year, submit a substantial article on the procedures the Adventist Church uses to elect its leaders. The editor wants me not just to look at the past and to analyze the election procedures during the last few general conference sessions, but also to philosophize about possible alternatives. In short: a fascinating assignment.

This week I passed some time in the spring sunshine, on a small terrace in front of the arrival hall of London Luton Airport, where I was waiting—while nurturing a cup of Nero-coffee—for someone  I was meeting for a short conference, before Easyjet would bring me back to the Netherlands later in the afternoon. As I was sitting there, I tried to compose a list of things that I would need to research in preparation for this article.

There are many things we no longer question. When the church—at all its levels—elects its leaders, we constitute a nominating committee that is to bring proposals that are then brought to the floor where the constituents take a vote—often after very little discussion. One of the items on the list of questions that I decided I will need to investigate is from where we got this system. Did Adventists use it from the very start of their organization? Did they see this system in other denominations? Possibly in the Christian Connexxion, the spiritual home of such Advent pioneers as Joseph Bates and James White, before they passed through the Millerite phase into the Advent movement? Or should we rather suspect a Methodist origin?  Or did we only begin using the nominating committee system at some later date? If so, how did this happen?

In the book case in my study one may find a lot of books about Adventist history. I suppose they take about four meters of shelf space. A cursory search did not deliver any immediate results. A few hours of more concentrated searching in the materials that the department of archives and statistics of the world church has put on-line did not help me either. I decided to send an email to Bert Haloviak, the man who, before he retired, was for many years the director of the archives at the world headquarters. He is, in particular, an authority in the area of the Restorationist Movement  and the Christian Connexxion. He replied within hours that he did not know the answer to my questions. But he did provide me with a few valuable tips that might point me to possible sources.

It made me think that it is actually quite strange how difficult it is to discover how particular traditions entered the Adventist Church. And this does not just concern the role of the nominating committee. We get so easily accustomed to things and procedures that they acquire an aura of sanctity—or at least of permanency. The result is that this tends to prevent us from looking afresh at our traditions and from asking ourselves: ‘Yes, why, in fact, do we do what we do? And might there perhaps not be other, more effective, ways?

Could we, perhaps, ask the nominating committee during the quinquennial GC session: ‘Give us two or three good candidates for each of the most important positions in the church, and then allow the 2.000-plus delegates from all over the world to choose from those candidates. That would surely give the election process a totally new dimension. (I should add in all modesty that I am certainly not the first person to think of that possibility.)

Well, if you are curious to know what I will discover about the origin of pour present election system in the church and wonder what I might have to say about other aspects of the procedures of electing our world leaders, look for the special edition of Adventist Today at the beginning of 2015. A number of writers will produce penetrating articles full of information and creative ideas! I hope my contribution will also be worth reading.

 

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LGBTI etc

 

Last week—while spending a few days in Sweden and while travelling home again, I read a substantial book on homosexuality and then wrote a review of it.  The book—entitled Love Translated: Homosexuality and the Bible—was sent to me by the author, a Danish linguist-theologian with the rather un-Danish name K. Renato Lings. Kinship, the  organization for Adventist gays and lesbians, had asked me to read the book and to review it for them. Lings’ interest in the topic is, at least in part, explained by his own homosexual orientation.

It was a major undertaking, for Lings needed almost 800 pages to argue his case. Fortunately, the sheer number of pages was somewhat compensated by the fact that the corps size of the text was a little above average. But, yet . . .

Those who want to read my review may find it on one of the websites of the Kinship organization:  http://www.buildingsafeplaces.org/index.php/resources/book-reviews.  I concluded that the book has a number of serious weaknesses. But this extensive treatment of all so-called anti-gay Bible passages makes it abundantly clear that the modern translations of the Bible often leave us with many questions and demonstrate how translation often also means interpretation. People often say that the Bible is very clear in its condemnation of homosexuality. Such a statement needs, however, considerable modification. In many cases the biblical terms are, in fact, far from clear and the renderings in many modern translations are often quite subjective. I personally felt that the book was very enlightening in this respect.

During the past few days I, once again, was intensely confronted with many aspects of the LGBTI-world. (LGBTI stands for lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-intersex.) My wife and I were among about twenty people who had gathered in the small German village of Hasselroth, some 25 miles southeast of Frankfurt am Main. Kinship had organized a kind a ‘think-tank’ meeting with a number of (retired) church leaders and some others, who are eager to see increased understanding and more acceptance in the Adventist community of fellow-believers with a ‘different’ sexual orientation . The general conclusion has to be that progress is being made, but that we still have a long way to go. The heart rending stories from far away and nearby continue to be a strong cry against the intolerance of many Christians. Many men and women are rejected and pushed aside, simply because they, supposedly, are ‘different’.

Later this month the international Adventist Church will hold a congress in Cape Town (South Africa) about various aspects of homosexuality. There will also be a sizable number of delegates from Europe (also from the Netherlands). Unfortunately, the program and the list of speakers creates the strong impression that the approach will be rather one-sided. However, the very fact that the topic is now so prominently on the church’s agenda is encouraging. In the meantime those who do not have the opportunity to attend this important meeting may avail themselves of a free download of the documentary Seventh-gay Adventists.  Those who want to form a clearer opinion about this controversial issue should not miss this film. The dvd is also very suitable for a screening during a meeting for church members, as the introduction to a further discussion. You can download it (legally) for free. Go to: www.sgamovie.com. On the home page push the icon  Buy now: DVD or Blue Ray. Then continue to purchase the DVD edition. Before finalizing the purchase fill in the coupon with the words: watchfree2014. I succeeded and, therefore, 99% of all computer-users must be able to do likewise. Whatever you think of homosexuality, you will not regret having watched this film.

 

 

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An unproductive week

It is Friday morning. I look back on a week that was not particularly productive. A serious cold ensured that did not really feel on top of the world. Nonetheless, Monday had to be a day of travel. Just before eight in the morning my son took me to railway station in the Swedish city of Kramfors for the five-hour train journey to Arlanda airport near Stockholm. After a three hour wait and a two hour flight I landed at Amsterdam Schiphol airport and I got home at about 8 pm. In short, not the kind of day that allows you to work steadily at a project.

Yesterday I had an appointment at the American consulate in Amsterdam, in connection with my visa application. This took a major part of the day.  A person who is going to spend some time as a visiting professor in the US must get a J-1 visa and this requires a fair amount of bureaucracy. It begins as soon as one decides to start the application process by calling the number that is indicated on the consular website. The minute the phone connection is established a voice demands to know the number of your credit card. (Strangely enough, the American Express card is not welcome; only a Visa or Mastercard is accepted.) A payment of 15 euros is required before further instructions are issued.

After the inviting university  has submitted a few documents, and paid some ‘fees’—with supporting evidence that the invitee is truly qualified to be a ‘visiting professor’—the main hurdle is the completion of the DS160 form. After downloading it, the work of completing the form can start. Right at that point the warning is given on the screen that the form will requite ca. 75 minutes of intense work. I spend at least that amount of time on it. Page after page with questions one might expect but also with questions that leaves one wondering about their relevancy. I had to do a little research in the family documents to be sure about the exact dates and places of birth of my parents. I could, however, without any doubt, ensure the US government that at present both are not living in the US. I was asked to give the dates of the last five times I visited the US. Fortunately, I was told that I could provide a guess, if I was not sure.

It does make sense that the US authorities want to know whether or not I suffer from some serious communicable disease, but I wonder about the question whether or not I plan to undertake some terrorist activities while in the USA. Would there really be people who proclaim that indeed this is what they are planning? Well, I often do not agree with the views of the world president of our church, but I have never contemplated kidnapping him or putting him out of action by some violent method.

Anyhow, yesterday morning it appeared that I had satisfactorily completed the form, and after a further donation of 120 euro to the US, I was assured that within 2-3 days I will receive my visa by registered mail in the stamped envelope I had furnished.

In the meantime I have booked the flights for my wife and myself on March 23 to Los Angeles and Loma Linda University has provided us with the details of the apartment that has been reserved for us (complete with ‘reclining chair’, cable TV and wifi) for three months. Also I received confirmation from the car hire firm that I will have the pleasure of touring around in a Kia Forte. If I do not know about the hard work I am expected to do, I might be tempted to think of vacation.

Now I need a few really productive days for the preparation of my lectures. I have done most of the work, but there are still some things that need attention. This is quite important, the more so since I know that in the next three weeks I will still have a few other obligations. But my sermon for tomorrow in Almelo is ready. My cold seems to be receding and this Friday may still give me a few productive hours!

 

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