bRaYtOwN » …on being Seventh-day Adventist

…on being Seventh-day Adventist

Posted by Melvin Bray on August 12th, 2006 filed in Useful Perhaps

As a member of the Emergent growing, generative friendship, I am learning to appreciate fully the church in all its forms, which can be most difficult when it comes to Seventh-day Adventism, my home, because I know its faults. "But God gives more grace."

Last night I had an enlightening conversation with a fellow SDA who is quite close to me. It was yet another variation on a conversation I have had many times before. It generally goes something like this. The person I'm talking with quietly or jokingly expresses some discontent with Adventism, never harshly, mind you, but almost like one would speak of someone who might be within ear shot. It's the kind of criticism one could easily explain away if they had to. At some point, I'll commiserate by deconstructing the very thing that’s got them sore, and before I know it, I find my conversation partner defending the faith from me as if I meant it harm. It's uncanny how predictable it can be.

Knowing that despite my hopes and efforts to the contrary my recollections are apt to be rife with bias and woefully reductionistic, in recounting what happened last night I will only seek to recall my own offenses. My primary offense last night went something like this, "If the hope of God is to reconcile the whole world unto Godself, embracing the entire earth in God's resurrection (basically, what it means to be 'missional'), then I struggle to see how all our calculating of prophetic times and interpreting ourselves to be the (definite article) "remnant" spoken of throughout scripture and figured prominently in the imagery of Daniel and Revelations, who against all odds remain true to God, gets us there." Now, of course, I was hardly so eloquent or coherent. And, mind you, my deconstruction was in response to some things about the SDA dynamic my conversation partner (in jest) just didn't want to be bothered with anymore. Nonetheless, this statement changed the tide of our conversation. [Read More!] Perhaps it was too incisive.

No more sympathetic exchange. From that point on I was expected to prove beyond a reasonable doubt what it was I meant. I hate that. Adversarial (in the legal sense) conversations never accomplish much good. Nonetheless the same enculturation I was in the mist of deconstructing makes it very difficult to back down from a hermeneutical, apologetic challenge. So I pressed on. At some point I brought up how missionally problematic the SDA sense of identity is (Rev. 12:17), substantiated primarily upon some hyper-contextual shenanigans, misappropriating certain New Testament phrases like "the testimony of Jesus Christ" and "the spirit of prophesy" (undoubtedly my second offense).

It was then that something unexpected happened. My dialogue partner, who is a generation more mature than I, confessed that, although she considered such phrases very much indicative of the SDA church, she didn't see them as the exclusive expression thereof. This surprised me because she, consistent with most those of her generation who were raised in the SDA church and now hold the positions of power, is very pro-Adventist, and such an adjudication is not the party line. My conversation partner went on to rationalize that her position was the difference between being a literalist and taking a more reasoned approached. By way of example, she suggested that literalists have a hard time differentiating individuals from the institutions Adventists believe are indicted in eschatological prophecy.

For the first time in my life, I felt compassion for literalists. It became apparent to me that literalism was the only consistent way one could expect to interpret biblical prophecy. And how could one avoid literalism with all the emphasis put on prophetic time calculation and 'precise' reading of scripture distinctive to Adventist doctrine (Daniel's 2300 Days Prophecy, its postulates and corollaries)? Absent literalism, how could one expect for the millions of Adventists in the world to be 'reasoned' in the same way about the same things? Whereas some variation in interpretation is to be expected, free-spiritedness (an open interpretation of scripture) is not prized in a cultural homogeny (like Adventism) whose identity is predicated upon (biblical) accuracy and (doctrinal) distinctives: "I am, because you're not."

All of this again raises a question for me—that I expressed last night (possibly offense number 3)—that I have wrestled with for a few years now. At what point is it disingenuous for me to claim to be SDA when I have deconstructed/reconstructed or flat out disagree with much, if not most, of what is distinctively SDA? I truly want to honor the best intuitions of my denominational tradition, which birthed and nurtured my theological imagination for so many years, even though in integrity I must critique much of its teachings and practice. For years now I have always confessed up front when people start asking me what I believe—and what they really mean is what do Adventists believe—that I am not the best example of Adventist theology. At most, I now consider myself a "post-Remnant Seventh-day Adventist". I am totally through with believing that what sets me right with God at the same time makes everybody who is otherwise committed suspect.

Which brings me to a new nagging question. What are the effects of living out of this hermeneutical dualism that my dialogue partner describes as exemplary of the more reasoned approach to dogma—this striving to maintain distinction between individuals and their aggregate institutions that Adventists believe are indicted by scriptural prophecy? It's a continuation of the whole "God hates the sin but loves the sinner" motif. I believe his mantra has for too long blinded us to any possibility of joining God in the redemption of God's good world. The most we could ever hope to accomplish believing this is to save individuals out of world before it all crashes and burns.

Thus, as night follows day, so it follows that the SDA church as an institution as well as its individual members have been and remain largely complicit in some of the greatest injustices perpetrated in the earth. And why shouldn't that be the case? For as much as individual members may cultivate reasoned and nuanced beliefs for sanity sake, the institutional constructs are allowed to remain the same—in misbegotten honor of God who changes not—whether or not they accomplish anything for the good of God's creation.

God doesn't change (if we hear that as a statement God makes of himself) because God is inerrant. Such infallibility does not transfer to us or our constructs, systems or institutions just because we claim God. As creatures of a Creator God who is always creating and whose creations are always evolving, our expectation should be the need for continual re-formation, I would think. Thus, the reoccurring need to deconstruct in order to reconstruct based on what we understand more fully today than we did yesterday. What I continue to wonder is: Can I do this and in integrity to self and in fairness to the group still call myself Adventist?

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7 Responses to “…on being Seventh-day Adventist”

  1. Melvin Bray Says:

    One reader remarked, “Enjoyed your questions, observations, and analyses. Now my words of caution in your deep hypothesizing. At what point do we choose to identify or dis-identify with a label (a labelled identity)? If you don’t believe the literal creation story (either version, i.e. Gen. 1 or 2), do you question your identity with the creator God? If you don’t believe that women shouldn’t be heard in church gatherings, do you question your identity with christianity? There will always be “facts” (or fictions) that we can question, at least as long as we state or write them according to our perceptions at a specific time. Beliefs believed 100 years ago are supposed to be perceived differently now – we are dynamic, growing, expanding beings living in a dynamic, growing, and expanding world/universe (for example, I believe the proportion of woman in the world 4,000 years ago was much higher than the 5 or few percent recorded in the Old Testament – I don’t think men were birthing babies then, but if they were, the impregnating process would be an interesting dilemma). Core in christianity is that the Bible is the infallible Word of God – do you, christian, believe that?”

  2. Melvin Bray Says:

    Goodness! You didn’t have to completely out me in one fell swoop :-).

    In short answer to the reader’s 3 questions:

    1. No, because God is no less a Creator though the poem that introduces us to God as Creator might not be a literal scientific or history account.

    2. No, because I can read the subversive commitment of Paul–who writes about women being silent in mixed gatherings and on the down stroke declares that husbands should submit to their wives–throughout the rest of his writings. Furthermore, Paul isn’t making a proposition to which I must answer yea/nea in act of affiliation.

    3. The Bible as “the infallible Word of God” is a strictly modern concern/assertion in response primarily to the Enlightenment, I believe. It is of greatest concern to Evangelicals, not the sum total of Christianity. And it is, by my estimation, in most instances a beside the point debate.

    Still the reader’s point about being “dynamic, growing, expanding beings living in a dynamic, growing, and expanding world/universe” is well taken. That was in part (at least the “we are…” part) my original conversation partner’s contention. Is this reality a given in our structures of religious affiliation though?

    I really need to hear from you practicing theologians whose approaches will/should determine how the SDA church responds to these kind of post-modern questions.

  3. Melvin Bray Says:

    I invited a new friend of mine, Samir Selmanovic, a Croation ex-Communist SDA pastor, to share his thoughts on the questions raised in my post. He offered as contribution to the conversation about “remnant” a sermon he preached at the end of 2004. Please check it out. I promise you it is well worth the 30 minutes you will give to it. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of “missional,” you may also want to listen to this message, the first of that same series.

  4. Melvin Bray Says:

    My longtime friend (since freshman year, HS), Keith Goodman, who pastors in Philly wrote:

    Mel,

    You said:
    “At what point is it disingenuous for me to claim to be SDA when I have deconstructed/reconstructed or flat outdisagree with much, if not most, of what is distinctively SDA? I truly want to honor the best intuitions of my denominational tradition, which birthed and nurtured my theological imagination for so many years, even though in integrity I must critique much of its teachings and practice. For years now I have always confessed up front when people start asking me what I believe—and what they really mean is what do Adventists believe—that I am not the best example of Adventist theology. At most, I now consider myself a “post-Remnant Seventh-day Adventist”. I am totally through with believing that what sets me right with God at the same time makes everybody who is otherwise committed suspect.”

    You gotta do what you gotta do. You are a person who loves the Lord deeply. But you are an independent thinker. People aren’t trying to think as deeply about everything like you. And you and other thinkers often drag folks out with your deep reflections.

    Here’s the difference between you guys and other folk–you can keep spinning out the theory. Your thoughts destabilize. That’s not troubling to you because you can be satisfied in the pursuit. Most folk long for stasis. They are looking for something they can call “home.”

    Many Seventh-day Adventists are Seventh-day Adventists because it is their culture. They were raised that way. No, the world is not turned upside down by Seventh-day Adventists. Neither is it turned upside down by C.O.G.I.C.’s or Methodists or Presbyterians. Max Lucado is a member of the Church of Christ. That ain’t turning the world upside down. Rick Warren is a Baptist. The Baptist Church (Southern Baptists in particular) ain’t turning the world upside down. Stephen Covey is a Morman. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ain’t turning the world upside down.

    The reality is that all of these personalities are members of their various faiths. But they still manage to make a mark upon the world. But not only upon the world, they also have a profound effect upon the thinking within their own denominations. They nudge the dinky dyed within their organizations to fresh thinking. They have not left their “homes” because of the philosophical weaknesses they have unearthed at “home.”

    This is where Keith S. Goodman, Sr. is. I don’t even know who said it, but it stays with me: “A man not at home somewhere is not at home anywhere.”

    It is just too much for me to conceive of trying to launch out on my own to create “the right church/fellowship.”

    But there are those rare personalities upon the face of history who are able to really start something from scratch. Martin Luther lived. As did Roger Williams. You are such a rare breed, unique in your thinking, that maybe God is calling you to such a ministry of “apostleship.” I don’t know.

    I am the pragmatist. These theological issues you and other of our friends choose to toss around are not for me. I have great respect for you for wrestling with them. But I pastor people who are not looking for all that. They want to know how to live from week to week. And when they come to the end of their days, they want the assurance that the God they have served will reward them with all that they missed during their “threescore and ten.”

    No, the church and I are not on the same page in every point theologically. But I do not know one that would be. Does anyone tell me what to preach in my pulpit from week to week? Emphatically no! Were that to happen, I may have to reconsider. But I am wonderfully empowered to nudge the thinking of hundreds of people directly on a weekly basis to a more biblical and grace-oriented faith. And as that is successful, my sphere of influence increases. And other church and pastors begin to take notice of the EFFECT that a grace-oriented gospel has upon the church and those to whom she ministers.

    That’s my path. I offer it for your consideration. But if not, blaze a trail through the wilderness. You may never live to see the fruit of your labor, but then again, that’s what is spoken of in Hebrews, “these all died NOT having received the promises.”

    Much love 4 ya, bro…

    Keith

  5. Melvin Bray Says:

    Goodman,

    Thanks, bruh. I appreciate your grappling with that, not so much for me, but because in the past year I have found that I am not alone. In fact, I have discover that many folks who do not believe “do not” because of wonderings of a similar kind. Of course, they may approach it from a different direction, but they are nonetheless trying to reconcile the caricature of God they have been exposed to with the genuine needs they see in the world.

    To put your mind at greater ease, I have found “home”–albeit trans-denominational. You are a significant part of it, no doubt.

    You’re right about Covey, Lucado and Warren. People eat their stuff up. What I wonder is whether it’s not akin to a spiritual form of bulimia–much is consumed, but nourishment is constantly frustrated. Or maybe, God forbid, their ideas aren’t as nourishing as they seem. Or maybe the issue is that there are no whole communities so shaped by their ideas that the ability for those ideas to create a new world never becomes manifest for all to see. Or maybe we are, and this is as good as it gets. Warren has probably come the closest to transforming whole communities in recent years, but by his own admission, his stuff is only about repackaging the same old telling of the story to make it more accessible; may God bless him for that. Still, what I wonder is, What good is it to have such talent in our mist if the net result is never a substantive difference between the society and new possibilities “believers” create and that created by anyone else?

    As corollary to this question, allow me to push-back on one thing you wrote. You say,
    “I am the pragmatist. These theological issues you and Tally choose to toss around are not for me. I have great respect for you for wrestling with them. But I pastor people who are not looking for all that. They want to know how to live from week to week. And when they come to the end of their days, they want the assurance that the God they have served will reward them with all that they missed during their ‘threescore and ten.'”

    My guess is that 80% of pastors–not just SDA–are right where you are and labor out of similar assumptions. The question that comes to mind for me is, Might this be true for congregants simply because that’s what their shepherds have trained them to expect and accept? Where did they develop their current expectations of nourishment, growth, development and possibility except in the church home where they were fed? What would happen if their shepherds simply changed their diet to one that includes realizations such as theology not being ‘what deep thinkers come to about God,’ but rather that theology is the revelations, understandings and hopes left in the wake of an encounter between God and God’s people? Could they begin to see themselves a the real theologians living into humanity’s conscious awareness new truths about God? Would this make a difference on behalf of the Kingdom of God in the world? I believe so. Think of the good that might be inspired on that premise alone.

    I also want to clarify something. I am not arrogant enough (anymore:-) to label what I have unearthed at home “philosophical weaknesses.” I prefer to see them as differences, questions or suspicions that we disregard, despise or ignore at our bothers and sisters’ peril. And please know I’m not after “right,” just progressively healthier (when we know better, we should do better, right?). The suspicion that indites me most deeply is that, if all those who claim God were living more and more toward the Kingdom, we should be able to see a commensurate tidal wave of good in the world according to the promises of the God we serve. Is this not the strength and will of that to which we have dedicated our lives?

    I love you, Goodman. Thank you for wrestling with me. I believe it prepares us for what lies ahead.

    Much love,
    Melvin

  6. Melvin Bray Says:

    Goodman,

    Thanks, bruh. I appreciate your grappling with that, not so much for me, but because in the past year I have found that I am not alone. In fact, I have discover that many folks who do not believe “do not” because of wonderings of a similar kind. Of course, they may approach it from a different direction, but they are nonetheless trying to reconcile the caricature of God they have been exposed to with the genuine needs they see in the world.

    To put your mind at greater ease, I have found “home”–albeit trans-denominational. You are a significant part of it, no doubt.

    You’re right about Covey, Lucado and Warren. People eat their stuff up. What I wonder is whether it’s not akin to a spiritual form of bulimia–much is consumed, but nourishment is constantly frustrated. Or maybe, God forbid, their ideas aren’t as nourishing as they seem. Or maybe the issue is that there are no whole communities so shaped by their ideas that the ability for those ideas to create a new world never becomes manifest for all to see. Or maybe we are, and this is as good as it gets. Warren has probably come the closest to transforming whole communities in recent years, but by his own admission, his stuff is only about repackaging the same old telling of the story to make it more accessible; may God bless him for that. Still, what I wonder is, What good is it to have such talent in our mist if the net result is never a substantive difference between the society and new possibilities “believers” create and that created by anyone else?

    As corollary to this question, allow me to push-back on one thing you wrote. You say,
    “I am the pragmatist. These theological issues you and Tally choose to toss around are not for me. I have great respect for you for wrestling with them. But I pastor people who are not looking for all that. They want to know how to live from week to week. And when they come to the end of their days, they want the assurance that the God they have served will reward them with all that they missed during their ‘threescore and ten.'”

    My guess is that 80% of pastors–not just SDA–are right where you are and labor out of similar assumptions. The question that comes to mind for me is, Might this be true for congregants simply because that’s what their shepherds have trained them to expect and accept? Where did they develop their current expectations of nourishment, growth, development and possibility except in the church home where they were fed? What would happen if their shepherds simply changed their diet to one that includes realizations such as theology not being ‘what deep thinkers come to about God,’ but rather that theology is the revelations, understandings and hopes left in the wake of an encounter between God and God’s people? Could they begin to see themselves a the real theologians living into humanity’s conscious awareness new truths about God? Would this make a difference on behalf of the Kingdom of God in the world? I believe so. Think of the good that might be inspired on that premise alone.

    I also want to clarify something. I am not arrogant enough (anymore:-) to label what I have unearthed at home “philosophical weaknesses.” I prefer to see them as differences, questions or suspicions that we disregard, despise or ignore at our bothers and sisters’ peril. And please know I’m not after “right,” just progressively healthier (when we know better, we should do better, right?). The suspicion that indites me most deeply is that, if all those who claim God were living more and more toward the Kingdom, we should be able to see a commensurate tidal wave of good in the world according to the promises of the God we serve. Is this not the strength and will of that to which we have dedicated our lives?

    I love you, Goodman. Thank you for wrestling with me. I believe it prepares us for what lies ahead.

    Much love,
    Melvin

  7. Friend Says:

    From Taliaferro, a friend of Keith and mine:

    Gentlemen,

    First… “ha-ha-ha-hahaaa…”

    That is my response to my pastor’s characterization of my perspective on ministry and theology. I am, above all, a pragmatist – though I confess to having been more of an idealist in my, uh, youth (that would be when I was you guys’ ages). I am NOT – I repeat, NOT!! – a theologian; I simply question those beliefs that shape the way people perceive, believe and act upon.

    If a person would be concerned with how common people live their daily lives, then he/she must grapple with those issues of believe and perception (which some might call “theological”). Grapling with those issues will shape the preaching, making it relevant, vital, integrated and real.

    Having said that, Melvin, let me express my sympathy and empathy. I do agree with Keef about having a place to call “Home”. So first and foremost be sure that you are in a place where you can spiritually feel “at home” (and you’d be surprised at how many places God finds acceptable as “home”…

    We wrestle over these things, then we get old and wrestle over other stuff – slipped-disks, arthritis, uncooperative prostate glands, etc. The key is finding the grace to get from one wrestling match to the other.

    …and as you already said, “he gives more grace”.

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