Summary of Fernando Canale’s “The Eclipse of Scripture and the Protestantization of the Adventist Mind: Part 2”

This article continues Canale’s argument that Adventism is being fundamentally altered by accepting protestant theological and ministerial paradigms without consideration for profound differences at the level of hermeneutics and source material. In short, where early Adventism was sola-tota-prima Scriptura, it has adopted a protestant framework grounded in Roman Catholic tradition and Greek philosophy. He notes that while Adventism continues to officially affirm biblical doctrines on an intellectual level, it is increasingly being filled with “Evangelical theologies and practices” at the level of heart and action. This article expands on the first by investigating three points: “(1) the Adventist engagement with scholarly research; and, (2) the ensuing move from doctrine to exegesis. Then, …the protestantization of the Adventist mind at the ministerial level, by considering (3) the move from exegesis to the Evangelical ministerial paradigm” (104). Canale closes by articulating the importance of pursuing the “Biblical/Word” paradigm over and against the “Charismatic/Evangelical/Gospel” paradigm.

Canale figures Adventist engagement with scholarly research as a losing battle. Where early Adventists focused on “Chronological studies” in order to ground their historical understanding of prophecy, upon moving into secular universities, they were forced to shift towards “exegesis and biblical studies, avoiding Systematic Theology because of its obvious non-biblical philosophical foundations” (104-5). In these universities, many Adventist scholars came to accept and employ the historical critical method of interpretation. In response, “Adventism declared officially that Bible teachers should not use the historical critical method because of its naturalistic presuppositions” (105). Unfortunately, because of Adventism’s neglect of the material and hermeneutical (process) aspects of theological methodology, scholars struggled to find a viable alternative. As a result, “while the latter [Adventist scholars] did not change their unexpressed historical temporal ontological assumption, [as] historical critical theologians [they] implicitly assume the timeless non-historical ontological assumption on which Roman Catholic and Evangelical doctrines stand” (105). Thus Adventist theology faces a dissonance between the temporal ontology of our early theological framework (preserved in our doctrines) and the timeless ontology within which much of our contemporary investigation is implicitly framed. (This issue of temporal vs timeless as ontological assumptions is the subject of Canale’s doctoral dissertation and the foundation of most of his work.) As a result of this shift in ontological foundations, “Adventist distinctive doctrines [grounded in temporality] found themselves without biblical foundations and exegetical support” (106). Adventism is losing its foundation and thus at risk of disintegration.

As Desmond Ford illustrated, accepting the foundations of historical critical methodology leaves the Sanctuary doctrine groundless (106). “Moreover, the application of the Evangelical understanding of the Gospel as the hermeneutical principle of theological method finds that the Sanctuary doctrine contradicts the view of a complete atonement in Christ” (106). In abandoning the foundations of Adventism, not only is the Sanctuary doctrine left ungrounded, it is actually contrary to the traditional Evangelical understanding of a completed “Gospel.” Thus, many Adventists (logically) reject Adventist distinctives as incompatible with Evangelical theology (and the “Gospel” hermeneutic).

This is a critical point in Canale’s work: Adventism was not simply a shift in doctrinal understanding, but a shift in foundational methodological (philosophical) understanding. Insofar as we neglect the foundational material and hermeneutical framework upon which Adventist theology was founded and replace it with the assumptions of the Roman Catholic framework inherited through the protestant tradition, our theology is left without foundation. Without its temporal foundation, the Sanctuary hermeneutic which gives Adventism its coherence and power cannot hold.

Canale observes that continued study, after Ford, has led to the development of stronger exegetical support for the “biblical doctrine of the Sanctuary” (107). Yet, he argues that we have not fully resolved the questions raised by QOD and MOD regarding “the hermeneutical role of the sanctuary doctrine” (107). He cites George Knight’s description of a post-QOD mindset which transformed Adventist thought from “a theology [into] a list of discrete doctrines” (Knight qtd. in Canale 107-8). As Canale terms it, through QOD and MOD, “the Evangelical interpretation of the Gospel (‘eternal verities of Froom’) has implicitly replaced the sanctuary Doctrine as the macro hermeneutical condition of the Adventist theological method” (110). Canale further contends that

the original theological vision of the pioneers was never finished by succeeding generations of Adventists… As a result, progressively new generations of Adventists received and transmitted a theoretical disconnected summary of denominationally sanctioned doctrines, a ‘head knowledge tradition’ without the spirit of theological understanding on which Christianity stands. (111)

Evangelistic fervour replaced the desire for understanding and reduced Adventist theology to a list of discrete doctrinal statements rather than the interconnected, wholistic Sanctuary-organized framework of early Adventism. By small steps, the foundational framework of Adventism has been more-or-less abandoned. Without this framework, Adventism has lost coherence.

In conjunction with other related shifts in Adventist culture and practice, the emphasis on doctrinal statements (and a “Gospel” orientation) rather than Biblical inquiry (and the “Sanctuary” hermeneutic) has effected a profound methodological change. By changing the materials and processes (material and hermeneutic conditions of theological methodology), a new purpose or goal (teleological condition of theological methodology) has become dominant in Adventism. This has in turn altered “the thinking, lifestyle, administration, and mission of the Church” (112). Insofar as Adventist thought is consider merely a variation on the basics of Evangelical theology, Adventist leaders may “freely borrow” techniques and practices from other denominations. These methods are not “theologically neutral” but retrospectively alter the material and hermeneutic conditions of theological methodology. A focus on different goals or outcomes, has led to a change of processes and even materials, strengthening the cycle of protestantization. Canale characterizes this shift of goal or purpose as “transforming the ministerial practices of the Church from a Biblical to a Charismatic paradigm” (112). The rest of the article focuses on the differences between these two paradigms.

Canale opposes the “Charismatic paradigm” dominant in Evangelical churches to the “Word paradigm” of early Adventism and the Reformation (114). (Presumably the latter corresponds to the “Biblical paradigm.”) He briefly characterizes the Charismatic paradigm as grounded in “proclamation of the cross as complete atonement, justification, and the assurance of salvation” (115). In this model, salvation is the singular act of God and requires little more than passive acquiescence–certainly not knowledge or theological understanding (115). Baptism is expressive of “faith” in the “proclamation.” Thus the speaker of the (”Gospel”) story becomes the actor through which God bestows salvation. “Discipleship” and/or “spiritual formation” are merely optional activities to fill time while waiting for the Second Coming, rather than critical aspects of Christian life (115). In contrast, he characterizes the “Word” paradigm in terms of “theological/spiritual understanding that may lead to faith, personal conviction of sins, repentance, confession, and forgiveness of sins” (120). This is a learning-based approach grounded in active, Holy Spirit-informed Bible study. Discipleship and spiritual formation are the very core of this paradigm.

Insofar as the Charismatic paradigm is operative in Adventism, it reduces our theology to a collection of relics which are simply handed forward without serious consideration of their meaning or power (116). Canale’s great (and not unwarranted) fear is that “the adoption of this ministerial paradigm will produce the rapid abandonment of personal and communal search for biblical truth from Adventist ministry and experience” (116). If theological understanding is irrelevant to the Christian life (as salvation), the pursuit of it becomes little more than a diversion.

The Charismatic paradigm also entails a Charismatic understanding of worship practices as “material containers of divine grace and presence”—as the means of connecting with God’s grace. The choice of container is important only insofar as it is meaningful to particular people; thus, worship styles matter only insofar as they enable diverse people to connect with God’s grace. Canale quotes Robert Webber’s description of this shift to a Charismatic “worship” paradigm as a return to the Catholic “Sacramental” paradigm in opposition to the Reformation “Word” paradigm (qtd. in Canale 116-7). In part, this “return” is due to the incomplete development of the Word paradigm within the Protestant tradition, which has allowed remnants from the Sacramental paradigm. Evangelical leaders have reinvigorated these remnants in order to navigate profound cultural changes (118). This has effected an “eclipse of Scripture” in Evangelical Christianity which Adventism has begun to embrace with scarcely more critical awareness (119).

Canale boldly asserts that the Word paradigm “will revive/reform the church, change the world, and hasten Christ’s Second Coming” (120). It not only allows room for growth and discovery, but figures this process as central to theology, worship and Christian living.

To ground his argument, Canale quotes Paul’s assertion that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Furthermore, this “faith is not a mere mental assent, but the obedience of faith”—the experiential application of understanding (120). “Thus, biblical revelation and its understanding becomes central to the experience of Salvation” (120). Cognitive and experiential aspects of faith are integrated into a wholistic model. On this basis, Canale contends, Ellen White could argue that “in the highest sense the work of education and the work of redemption are one” (qtd. in Canale 121). (This must be understood in relation to her other comments about education as the “harmonious development” of all aspects of a person and as training “thinkers.” This model of education is an active, involved, wholistic pursuit, rather than the passive, impersonal, intellectual “proclamation” of the Charismatic paradigm and the conventional model of education.) Canale laments that because of a failure to apprehend this basic relationship between education and redemption, “Adventists connect education with primary teaching and school activities rather than with pastoral and church ministries. This momentous neglect may be the most significant methodological blunder in modern Adventism” (121, emphasis mine)–the abandonment of education through personal Bible study as a central Christian practice has led to the abandonment of the Bible as theological foundation.

Canale suggests that because of the worship or proclamation model, Adventist leaders uncritically borrow from diverse sources, as opposed to carefully, thoughtfully crafting solid learning opportunities (121). In contrast, (and in line with Ellen White’s injunction), leaders should both model and enable being “thinkers and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought” (White qtd. in Canale 121). A return to the Word paradigm would transform our entire church system, from the local church, through our evangelistic approaches, through our educational institutions, to our very highest leadership. This is the return to Scripture Canale is passionately pursuing.

To clarify, I believe that Canale is arguing for a Christian paradigm which focuses on personal and communal wholistic Biblical inquiry at all levels of the church. Sabbath school provides an excellent model for this, though it must be reclaimed as a space and time for communal learning and discovery rather than the reception of theological proclamations. It must also serve as a foundation for active personal and communal ministry. The sermon (and worship service) would, in turn, take a secondary role to inquiry—offering less in the way of final answers and more in the way of opportunities and modelling for thoughtful inquiry and growth. Likewise, evangelism would focus on cultivating learners rather than effecting baptisms. Unfortunately, Canale does not here explore the practical consequences of a return to the “Word” paradigm—yet I consider this one of his most valuable ideas.

In summary, Canale reiterates that the protestantization of Adventism is operative less at the level of doctrinal formulations and more “at the existential level of thinking, feeling, and acting” (122). Although this change has, to some degree, been operative since the time of Ellen White (in spite of her vocal resistance), it is not yet complete. However, faced with increasing cultural changes and challenges, Adventism is shifting rapidly toward a Charismatic paradigm and abandoning the Word paradigm and its sola-tota-prima Scriptura foundation. This is by no means a necessary shift, and it may yet be resisted with a re-invigoration of the Sanctuary hermeneutic and a return to Bible study as a learning process, instead of a means of mystical encounter with God.

Unfortunately, “a growing number of Adventist leaders and church members are ignorant of Biblical thinking and doctrinally illiterate” (125). Bible study and understanding is commonly perceived as “the unnecessary indulgence of ivory tower professors” (125)—detached from salvation or personal Christian experience. This change, this “protestantization,” while not deliberate, is widely accepted, partially as a result of QOD and MOD. As a result, Adventism is slowly losing its distinctive worldview and identity and fading into the landscape of Evangelicalism–for, if Evangelicalism is every bit as Biblical as Adventism, we have little to offer beyond our particular, more-or-less optional emphasis on Sabbath (and its role in end times).

To illustrate, Canale shares his struggles as a young seminary student negotiating the line between Evangelical and Adventist theologies in his pursuit of Biblical understanding. He recognizes the difficulty of shifting paradigms when the differences are not particularly clear. He even admits that his current understanding may not hold. Yet, he suggests that we must ask the question—”Does Evangelical theology stand on the sola-tota-prima Scripture principle?” (127). (Additionally, we must each ask this of our personal Biblical understandings).

How we negotiate this current situation will continue to have a profound impact on the unity, strength, identity and function of the Adventist church as a whole. Without critical evaluation, we stand to be swept up in the return to a theological methodology founded in Greek philosophy rather than the Bible—the foundation long-established by the Roman Catholic church. As long as we continue to reiterate our old doctrinal formulations, there remains a tension within Adventism; nonetheless, this “protestantization” is intensifying. While some are raising the alarm, few have been able to propose any viable alternative. Canale offers three suggestions for constructing such an alternative:

  • First, Adventism must move beyond exegesis to a complete and systematic understanding of Biblical theology which will bring all aspects into harmony (129).
  • Second, Adventism must return to Biblical philosophical presuppositions—for Canale, this is the Sanctuary. This is not a pursuit of balance, but of inner harmony (129-30).
  • Third, this harmonious theology must permeate the life and actions of the church. The Word paradigm must become active and dominant in all aspects of the church and its members lives (132).

Only as we pursue a life grounded in a harmonious, Biblically-grounded, wholistic theological understanding can Adventists find unity and complete the mission of the church.

Canale, Fernando.  “The Eclipse of Scripture and the Protestantization of the Adventist Mind: Part 2.”  Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, vol. 22, no. 1, 2011, pp. 102-133.


Summary of Fernando Canale’s “The Eclipse of Scripture and the Protestantization of the Adventist Mind: Part 1”

Fernando Canale has long been one of my favourite theologians for his careful attention to the question of philosophical presuppositions and the way that impacts our entire worldview.  That topic is rarely addressed, especially in Adventist circles, so I have deeply appreciated his clear, though technical, explorations and explanations.  Unfortunately, many have commented that his work is difficult to understand.

This article is my attempt to briefly explain the ideas Canale explores in the first of this pair of articles.  I have attempted to explain a few of his central ideas and mention a few relevant sources, but my goal has been to produce a careful, point-by-point explanation of his argument.  Any missteps are my own.  I plan to follow up shortly with Part II.  I am happy to answer any questions about the ideas expressed in this article.

(Although in this series Canale is particularly concerned with the Seventh-day Adventist church, the argument itself has significance for the larger Christian tradition and raises the question of its adherence to a truly Biblical foundation).

In this article, Canale contends that “[t]he emergence of a new generation of Charismatic ecumenical Adventism is underway. Although using Scripture functionally, as a means to receive the Spirit, this generation will not think or act biblically” (135). This shift is neither deliberate nor obvious. It proceeds from an uncritical adoption of theology and practices from sources which claim to be grounded on sola-prima-tota Scriptura, but are not. Canale sees this paradigm shift as central to many of the conflicts and changes happening in contemporary Adventism.

He explains that his purpose in these articles is “to trace some signposts of the eclipse of Scripture in recent Adventist experience. Slowly, throughout time, the eclipse of Scripture has been taking place not in the official statements of the church but in the minds and actions of leaders and believers” (137). This eclipse or protestantization results from two faulty assumptions: first, that Adventist theology is merely an additive to an essentially correct “Evangelical theology” and second, that Evangelical theology is consistently grounded in sola-tota-prima Scriptura (the Bible only, totally and first) (138). In the articles that follows, he does not so much defend these assumptions, as demonstrate their working Adventist history.

Canale’s method is highly technical, but actually rather simple. Understanding it is vital to understanding his overall project. Referencing his previous work, he explains that “[m]ethod ‘requires a material to work with, a pattern to process the material, and an end to provide it with direction and purpose’” (143). In concrete terms, this means that weaving cloth requires a source of material (wool, cotton, etc), a way of processing that material (carding, spinning, weaving, etc) and a goal (a piece of fabric or article of clothing). In theological terms, the material is revelation (the Bible and./or other sources), the hermeneutic process (presuppositions about the nature of reality and revelation), and the teleology or goal (the reason we study). For his analysis, Canale focuses upon the first two aspects (data source and method of interpretation) in order to test the compatibility of Adventist and Evangelical theologies.

Importantly, any analysis of hermeneutics requires attention to the often un-stated philosophical presuppositions which inform the process. In simple terms, this analysis must attend to differences of meaning based upon previous experience and worldview. For example, this means that my interpretation of a police encounter (and even the outcome) will depend to a large degree on whether I expect the police to be helpful or harmful, as a result of my assumptions about the police, usually grounded in learned behaviours, narratives and previous experience. Much of Canale’s work involves unearthing those often unstated operative assumptions in competing systems of theology and addressing whether or not those assumptions are Biblical. These articles are no exception.

In order to examine the “protestantization” of Adventism, Canale establishes a working definition of “Protestantism.” While recognizing an incredible diversity of denominations, traditions and beliefs, he focuses on “the theological system and ministerial paradigm” following from the Reformation era (141). He focuses on those common elements which connect most modern denominations and beliefs to a common root which, in turn, extends into the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Of particular interest is contemporary American “Evangelicalism” which finds common ground in Reformation theology (centered around justification by faith) and the hermeneutical presuppositions (the second aspect of method) received from the Roman Catholic Church (142).

Canale contrasts the material of Protestant theology, grounded in a multiplicity of sources (eg. Scripture, reason, tradition) “uncritically received from the Roman Catholic theological system” (143) with the early Adventists’ return to sola-tota-prima Scriptura. This return led to a critical response to (deconstruction of) theological tradition.

In addition to this divergent source material, he contends that “Evangelicals never used Scripture to define their macro hermeneutical principles”—their philosophical presuppositions (processes) (144). Rather, following established (Catholic) church tradition, “they implicitly assumed the philosophical principles of Plato and Aristotle as retrieved by Augustine and Aquinas” (144). (Walter Kaufmann provides an excellent historical and philosophical outline of this retrieval in chapter 5 of Critique of Religion and Philosophy.) Admittedly, “most Protestant and Evangelical believers” (I would add Adventists) do not recognize or understand the degree to which their most foundational theology (justification, grace, and faith) is informed by Greek philosophy rather than the Bible (144).

Next, Canale argues that “Adventist leaders and Ellen White experienced the theological revolution of the early formative years in different ways” (145). On the one hand, the leadership saw that revolution as a matter of creating a new product (a more-or-less complete and finished theological package) and failed to recognize the profound methodological shift it entailed (145). The resultant system was “theologically underdeveloped and left unexplained methodologically” (145). Adventist leadership failed to attend fully to questions of process and materials (hermeneutics and revelation-inspiration) and thus failed to recognize the significant shifts Adventism entailed. On the other hand, Ellen White “understood the initial doctrinal agreement of the early formative years hermeneutically” (146). What she termed the “pillars of the faith” was a set of processes or philosophical presuppositions which were to undergird and continue to shape all of Adventist theological inquiry—especially the Sanctuary Doctrine (146). This contrast, between Ellen White’s consideration of the “pillars” as processes and the leaderships consideration of them as products, is critical (and parallels Tim Ingold’s distinction between “wayfaring” and “transport” in Lines).

Two observations follow from this analysis of theological methodologies. First, Reformation theology (via Luther, Calvin, Arminius and Wesley) is built on the materials and processes of Roman Catholicism, including Greek philosophy (147). Second, (and consequently) Protestantism has never been truly sola Scriptura (147). To the degree that Adventism has neglected questions of material and process (revelation-inspiration and hermeneutics), it has likewise struggled to develop its theology as sola-tota-prima Scriptura.

The section titled “Coming Out of Protestantism” is central to this essay. In it, Canale states that “Adventism originated as an ecumenical movement unified through Bible study and theological discovery” (147). Early Adventists came together because they pursued a Biblically grounded theology and found traditional theology unsatisfactory in this regard. Although this was not a new development (Luther stood on this ground), they were “more consistent” in it (147). This consistency of process had “all-embracing theological and practical consequences” (147). Thus, the Adventist message was for other Christians, as well as the world in general, with the aim of “presenting the real Christ of Scripture” and “helping other Christians to move from a tradition based understanding of Christianity to a fully Biblically grounded personal relation with Christ” (148). Unfortunately, Adventism quickly abandoned its revolutionary methodology:

By overemphasizing the concrete achievement of the teleological condition of Adventist theology (the mission of the Church to the world), Adventist leaders unintentionally shifted from a theological to a practical mindset. As theological understanding became progressively less important, Adventists soon abandoned the critical deconstructive first methodological step early pioneers applied when reading theological materials. The conviction that Evangelical theologians can be trusted simply because they claim they ground their doctrines firmly on Scripture replaced critical analysis of the Evangelical theological tradition (148-9).

Effectively, the emphasis on creating Adventist converts overrode theological concerns. Effective “sales” depended on a consistent final product, rather than continuing innovation. (Indeed, this very point was raised at the 2015 GC when considering the possibility of women’s ordination—How can I win converts when my church does not have a final, uniform answer to this question?) As theological inquiry thus became less important, Adventists stopped reading Evangelical materials with critical attention to their theological methods and began to simply accept at face value claims of “sola Scriptura.” In this way, Evangelical theology has come to be understood as resting on the same material and procedural (hermeneutical) grounds as Adventist theology when it does not.

After this brief summary, Canale explores three specific ways Adventism has been “protestantized.”  First, Canale argues, “[s]ometime after the early formative years of Adventism, passion for missions progressively replaced the original spiritual passion for understanding God from Scripture” (150). Innovation was replaced with quality control—a focus on predictability and consistency of product. Instead of personal conviction based upon Bible study, the community became focused around assent to doctrinal propositions (150). Bible study came to be seen primarily as a means of gaining and maintaining membership, rather than a means of personal learning, discovery and growth. Progressively, “[v]oided of a biblical theological understanding, Doctrines became empty shells that reached the brain but failed to touch and transform the inner spirit” (150-1). In turn, Adventists began to speak of possessing “the truth” and theological inquiry came to be seen as an unnecessary distraction from evangelism; pastors and speakers began to focus on winning debates around pre-established statements, rather than seeking deeper theological understanding. In this way, “doctrines… replaced theology and spirituality” (151). This led to a split Adventist identity, which, on the one hand, preached early Adventist doctrine (without understanding its theological impetus) and, on the other hand, copied materials and processes from evangelical traditions. Because theology was seen as irrelevant, it vanished (151). What Adventism has retained is a tangled collection of competing theologies (Bull and Lockhart 99-100).

Second, Canale points to Questions on Doctrine (QOD) as a significant progression in the protestantization of Adventism (152). Although he agrees with George Knight that QOD is largely composed of “Adventist theology” restated in terms more intelligible to non-Adventists (Canale 153), he points to the book’s clear affirmation that apart from a few particular points, Adventists agree with Evangelical theology. Thus, concluding that Adventist and Evangelical theologies agree in all major points, Adventists felt free to learn theology and ministry from Evangelical resources.

Third, Canale points to LeRoy Froom as the “pivotal thinker in the new Adventist evangelicalism” who, in Movement of Destiny (MOD), articulates “a new view on the Sanctuary” (155). In that book, “Froom singles out the doctrine of the Sanctuary as the most separative Adventist doctrine” (156). However, rather than abandoning the Sanctuary doctrine, Froom “redefined its function” (157) from “hermeneutical key” to “distinctive doctrine” (158). Following, in a fashion, the early Adventist leadership (contra Ellen White), the Sanctuary became a distinctive product (termed “Present Truth”) rather than a movement-defining process. Instead of understanding the Bible through the Sanctuary (as hermeneutical key), the Sanctuary became a (distinctive) doctrinal container which contained all other Adventist doctrines (which were essentially the same as Evangelical doctrines). This shift had profound implications for church thought and practice.

Froom effected this shift by positioning the Sanctuary not as a departure from Christian doctrinal tradition, but as the consummation of it—thus absorbing, in a sense the Evangelical tradition of which early Adventists were so critical (158-9). To settle ongoing internal debates about “the Gospel,” Froom called for an acceptance of Evangelical tradition regarding “the Gospel.” Thus, “the Gospel” replaced the Sanctuary as the hermeneutic key in Adventism.theology. As Evangelical theology “does not build on Scripture alone,” this shift in process (hermeneutics) required a shift in materials (159). In turn, Adventists began to develop their theological understanding on a “multiplicity of theological source patters” rather than sola-tota-prima Scriptura (159)..

However, Canale notes that “Froom and some conservative Biblical Adventists did not surrender to Evangelical traditions all the way” (160). Instead of spiritualizing the Sanctuary (and thus God) in a timeless mode, they continued to affirm its “spatial-temporal reality” (160). This marks a significant inconsistency with the Evangelical “Gospel” which adopts a timeless Platonic ontology. For Canale, the protestantization of Adventism will be complete when this final inconsistency is surrendered to Evangelical theology.

To conclude, Canale states that “sola-tota-prima Scripture is the ground on which Christ’s Remnant Church stands or falls” (161). Early Adventism developed from a whole-hearted commitment to this principle. However, as the church has developed, the role of the Sanctuary as Biblical hermeneutic has been surrendered to the Evangelical “Gospel” and thus the sola-tota-prima Scripture principle has been eclipsed. In spite of reiterating “orthodox” Adventist positions, this “unintentional and imperceptible macro hermeneutical shift” has had a profound impact on Adventist theology and practice (161). There remains a significant tension between the Sanctuary doctrine and the theology Adventism has adopted from Evangelical tradition, but unfortunately, the Sanctuary is predominantly approached as a “brain” issue which has little impact on “hermeneutics, spirituality (way of thinking and acting), or mission” (162). In turn, Adventist is slowly merging into larger Evangelical culture and tradition and losing any sense of identity as a distinctive remnant.

Canale, Fernando.  “The Eclipse of Scripture and the Protestantization of the Adventist Mind: Part 1.”  Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, vol. 21, no. 1-2, 2010, pp. 133-165.

God, Power and Secrecy

While I was in college, I learned a hard lesson about church politics. During my sophomore year, I decided to run for student government. Since my time overseas, I had not been especially involved in campus life, but I saw an opportunity to contribute to my community before graduating. Originally I had thought to run for president, but I realized my particular skills would probably be better used in Communications. Thus, I submitted my name for candidacy. What followed was a hard lesson in Adventist realpolitik.

Admittedly, student government at my college was rather farcical–all names submitted had to be approved by a committee made up of a number of administrators and other representatives. This effectively cut off true student representation at the knees. However, I was eager to contribute what I could, even within such a limited system.

As far as I knew, I had had a rather unremarkable academic career. I was stunned to learn that my application had been rejected. Somehow I had offended someone in power enough that I was deemed unsuitable as a student political leader. Unfortunately, I will never know exactly what I did or who I offended.

Some years have passed, but as I recall, I first learned of my rejection in a meeting with the VP of Student Affairs. She informed me that my application had been rejected due to my recent behaviour. When I asked what she was referring to, I was told two things: first, that the meeting was confidential, so she could not tell me what was said, and second, that I should think about what I had done. That was all the explanation I ever received regarding the experience. Needless to say, I was devastated. I was denied the details of my rejection and thus any opportunity to defend myself, or even to simply understand and reconcile the experience. The decision was made behind closed doors, by undisclosed parties, without accountability or any opportunity for representation. (While I am sure there was a list of committee members somewhere, I was unaware of it.)

From a political perspective, this is nonsensical–at least in an ostensibly democratic election. Not only are the student representatives vetted by an administrative body, but that body is unaccountable for its decision-making. On a personal level, I found the experience deeply demoralizing and dehumanizing, especially when after delivering the news and denying any opportunity for understanding, let alone response, the VP decided she needed to pray “with” me–while well-meaning, this is tantamount to being offered prayer by someone who has just mugged or assaulted you.

However, it is most incomprehensible in relation to Adventist theology. For a church which preaches as its most fundamental theological understanding that God opens himself and his decisions to full cross-examination (for millenia, no less), it is stupefying that church decision making should be so opaque and resistant to accountability. Rather than protecting those who are supposedly being served by church administrators, this policy only serves to protect those who already hold power. Unfortunately, this experience was by no means an isolated incident. It is merely one of a number of experiences I have had with various church leaders and administrators in which power has been wielded unilaterally, and conformity was an expected (even demanded) response. Accountability is frowned upon and the suggestion that anyone not in leadership might productively contribute to decision-making has generally been seen as bothersome or even threatening. Individual leaders will often simply refuse to explain themselves and demand acquiescence. When more leaders are involved in decision-making, processes are more commonly obscured and information is carefully controlled in order to avoid any disagreement.

While I can appreciate the concern that individuals might launch personal attacks upon leaders they felt were threatening them, I remain deeply concerned at a system which is more concerned with protecting its leadership than the larger community. Not only does this make us vulnerable to abuse and predatory behaviour, it also weakens community by denying understanding and/or meaningful involvement to the vast majority of its members. Limiting members’ influence on decision-making in this way limits engagement and commitment. I have no doubt this is a significant contributor to our current declining membership, especially among young adults who are eager to contribute to their communities, but often denied opportunities for leadership. (I won’t talk here about the irony of a church started by passionate young adults refusing to extend leadership opportunities to most young adults).

This also not to say that all leaders work this way.  I have had the privilege of knowing a handful of individuals who have invited and supported my contribution and even my questions.  There are leaders who are working to change this system as best they can.  Yet, they struggle against a corporate culture in which conformity and control is most often valued over diversity and transparency.

According to Adventists, the Bible reveals a God who not only opens himself to examination, but deliberately puts himself into situations which demand this–even at the risk of his own life–yet, our organization and leadership often avoids and actively obstructs this kind of examination, precisely for fear of personal harm. Reconciling this contradiction at the core of our community will require significant and even painful changes, but it is absolutely necessary if our church organization is to continue through the coming decades. Not only does this obfuscation and refusal of accountability undermine healthy community-building, it also undermines the very message upon which that community is based. It is long past time we live up to the image of God we preach.

What Is Community For?

I’m currently engaged in a fairly lengthy online discussion about the role a university, especially a Christian one, should play in ensuring that a student leaves with precisely the beliefs and worldview they presumably had coming in.  (Of course, this is generally based in an assumption that young people will obviously and naturally parrot the ideas of the dominant authority figure (or adult) in their life–presumably a parent.)  At least within my larger Adventist community, these debates are becoming a dime a dozen:
“This professor doesn’t believe what I believe?  How can I trust them with my child?  How can I trust a university that doesn’t fire them?”
“A (Christian) university’s primary concern is to ensure my child believes what I believe.  They should not be exposing my child to perspectives I disagree with.”  (Because university students are still children, incapable of critical thought.)

Having spent my first seven years of post-secondary in an Adventist Christian liberal arts college (now a full university), I had always thought this was a unique problem of that culture.  However, at a public university, I heard a professor tell of a student who complained bitterly because the school was not promoting capitalism the way he thought it should.

In a similar vein, there is currently an ongoing public discussion (at least in North America) about trigger warnings, presentation of potentially challenging material and whether university students are simply unprepared for the challenges of life away from home.  One significant position seems to hinge on a simple belief that the best values are those I (as a parent) hold and have (presumably) instilled in my child.  The university’s job is to parent my child as I would and ensure those value remain unchallenged–to protect them against material which might upset them or challenge their worldview.

That is what I don’t understand.

As inexperienced, insecure and often incompetent as my own parents were, I am thankful they were aware of their own limitations (at least in a general sense).  I learned growing up that one of the great values in belonging to a large (Adventist) cultural community was being exposed to different ideas and perspectives.  In short, my parents didn’t know everything and so they recognized that it was in my best interest to encounter teachers, church members and other adults who thought differently and could, hopefully, make up for the inadequacies in their own parenting.  Certainly, I still encountered the occasional incompetent, even abusive, teacher, but on the whole I learned much from the variety of speakers, writers, leaders, teachers, and lay people I encountered.

Most importantly, I learned that belonging to a large community enables us to share our best ideas and to learn from others.  Thus, when I left home for university, there was no great fear about the various ideas I would encounter there.  Encountering people with different knowledge, experiences and ideas was considered to be an important and healthy part of the experience.

Thus, I am rather surprised when I hear people complaining about how this teacher at that school is teaching things they disagree with.  Those statements generally turn into calls for greater control:
Obviously, any professor who doesn’t agree with my own limited understanding of the world is suspect and needs to be silenced or removed.  Furthermore, any university which does not heed my call is obviously not concerned about the integrity of my community or the education of my children.  (This also appears in other forms as various parties with the community call for the exile of those who disagree with them.)

But again, what are we here for, together, if we aren’t learning from each other?  Why bother talking to other people if you only want to hear your own ideas fed back to you?

Of course, there are a great many other concerns at play in these debates, but I believe this is a critical question:
Does my community exist to reinforce my particular worldview, especially in my children, or does it exist to expand and develop my worldview through communal discussion and discovery?

Unspoken Expectations

As I often state, my guiding question is “How shall we live together when our stories are so different?”  Most often I take this question up in the context of church community.  This is a result of two factors–most obvious is my involvement with various churches, but equally important is that churches seem to be hotbeds for disagreement between people passionate about conflicting stories of “church.”

Today, I’ve been thinking about this in terms of expectations.  Some of you may know that I host a Friday night discussion group at my house.  We generally focus on Biblical topics and questions, although the discussion wanders widely from time to time.  In a recent discussion, a new attendee expressed her understanding that Christ’s miracles probably never took place and he probably wasn’t the son of God.  That deeply unsettled me.  I think I reacted as much out of surprise as fear, but my questions followed the lines of “why are you here if you don’t accept the Bible?”  I later realized a few expectations which I had not made clear.  The first was that she would understand the Bible the same way I do.  She obviously didn’t.  The second was that we were gathered to study and discuss the Bible (based upon that understanding).  She seemed to expect more abstract philosophical and theological discussion.  Unfortunately, she has never been back.  Part of the reason is that I was uncomfortable inviting her again because my expectations had been unsettled.  Being able to identify my expectations has made me realize they should have been expressed at that time.  It would have deepened the conversation and allayed my fears.  Now that I understand myself better, I would like to continue the conversation someday.

Relationship experts commonly point to differing and/or unmet expectations as being a source of conflict in close relationships.  I think we too often neglect this in our church relationships; we have a tendency to focus on church as a building, club or organization rather than as a community of people following God together.  We commonly neglect the language and difficult practice of relationship.  I have some ideas of what that might look like in practice, but before that, I want to address a couple of common and overarching expectations which are destined for failure.

Most of our problems begin with the expectation that church is supposed to make us happy.  Gary Thomas makes a strong argument that marriage is not designed to make us happy, but to make us holy.  Certainly happiness is part of the journey, but it is not the point.  I think the same argument can be made for church.  Church is not designed to make us happy; it is designed to make us holy.  What this means in practice is varied.  Significantly it means that things at church or in church may make us unhappy and may challenge us.  Church happens when we work through those things together, not when we resort to fight or flight reflexes.  That’s what fear looks like, not love–not healthy relationships.
If church is to make us holy, then disagreement is okay.  Disagreement is part of the process, not the end of it.  What makes a relationship work is how we disagree, not whether we do.  Even two people married for decades remain distinct and different in some respects.  They will still disagree from time to time.  We are naive if we think church should be any different.  Church produces holiness as we learn to work through our differences in love, not as we impose conformity to our (“inspired”) will.   That’s Babylon.  Too often we harbor an expectation that everyone at church must agree with us.  That is a doomed expectation.
If church is to make us holy, then we (and it) can grow and change as our lives change.  What was normal and good in one time or place may not be normal or good in another.  In marriage, what we spend our time and energy on will shift as we change locations, change jobs, have children, discover new passions, travel and so on.  Likewise with church.  Our music, our understanding of God, our involvement in the community, our shared activities and so on will change over time.  This is not wrong.  We must be thoughtful and deliberate–at least as much as possible–but change comes upon us all.  This is part of why church is important; this is part of why church exists; this is part of what church must be open to.  Too often, we harbor an expectation that church should never change.  That is a doomed expectation.

There are certainly many more points I could address, but I think I’ve covered the main ones.  Of course, all this leaves a difficult question: how do we practice church in a way that expects it to make us holy, rather than happy?  To begin with, I think we need to start being more explicit about our expectations.  That isn’t easy.
Being explicit requires us to spend time searching our hearts to discern our motivations and expectations.  This is an ongoing process of discovery.  Sometimes we won’t realize we have an expectation until it is unmet and we find ourselves hurt.  That is frightening, but if we are pursuing holiness, we cannot react from that fear.
Being explicit requires courage and compassion.  Stating our expectations makes us vulnerable–others may disregard or contravene our expectations.  However, as we respect and value others in our church and handle their expectations carefully (even if we cannot or do not always meet them), we create an environment wherein our own expectations will likewise be treated well.
Being explicit requires an openness to change.  One the one hand, as we learn to speak more honestly and openly, we may find ourselves in the position of having to surrender and/or change our expectations.  We may find them to be unsatisfactory or unsustainable, or we may simply realize they are not as important as being in a church community, as pursuing holiness.  On the other hand, as we encourage honesty and openness, we may find that other peoples’ expectations challenge and unsettle ours.  We may decide that their expectations are more important than our own.  We may decide to adopt their expectations.  Or we may merely discover a loving desire to fulfill their expectations at the expense of our own.  Most often these discoveries will entail a change in our personal (and even corporate) status quo.

I think this same principle might prove fruitful in other discussions.  Consider current church debates over women’s ordination, homosexuality, music or hell.  One common expectation is that everyone in a church should agree on these topics.  Underlying this is the expectation that all church attendees have the same or similar understanding of scripture.  One expectation in the debates about homosexuality is that people should stop sinning when they join a church, or that church leaders at least must stop sinning.  We could have some interesting and fruitful discussion about those expectations.  Some expect that culture should inform our church practices.  That expectation can differ in degree from person to person.  In the hell debate, some expect that church doctrine is eternal.  Some expect we will continually learn.  Regarding music, many seem to expect church music and worship practices to make them happy.  Some expect those practices to stay the same forever.

While I certainly have opinions of my own in each of these discussions and I think some expectations are more reasonable than others, that is not the point.  The point is that we converse.  The point is that we open ourselves to dialogue and discussion.  The point is that we stop acting as if our own expectations were the most important and/or the most “true.”  Sometimes they might be, sometimes not.  But living together means working through our different expectations together.  Being a church means working through our different expectations together.   It also means remembering that church is for holiness, not happiness.  All this depends on our being courageous and compassionate enough to begin a discussion about what those expectations are.

Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy: Chapter 4

I realize my titles are unimaginative, but personally, I’d prefer to find every part of a series easily than to have witty titles.  I don’t think anyone will find my blog just because I use witty titles.  But anyways…

This week we finally starting getting to the good (read difficult) stuff.  Chapter 4 is “Religion, Faith, and Evidence” and marks a shift in focus from philosophy to religion.  I struggled with Kaufmann this week.  While I agreed with most of his critiques of belief, I struggled with what seems to be a significant inconsistency with the previous chapters.  Although he begins by pointing out that “in religion, practice, feeling, and belief are intertwined, and every definition that would see the essence of religion in just one of these three facets is too partial” (103), the bulk of his critique seems to focus on belief.  While he admits “all religions are concerned with truth” (104), he does not extend to religion the same grace he has previously extended to philosophy.  Instead, he transitions into serious critique with the statement that “the kind of truth we have discussed is a property of propositions” (104).  Previously he has pointed out that the failed “intellecualistic” definition of religion “defines religion as a kind of knowledge or identifies it with a body of propositions” (101), yet here he seems content to reduce religion to a set of propositions regarding which the primary action is “belief.”  Furthermore, this cripples the very pursuit of truth he valorizes in the previous chapter when he writes that “Philosophic propositions mean more than they say, and the reader who reverences the proposition is always in danger of missing its meaning. The philosophic reader recognizes the inadequacy of all propositions…” (70).  Admittedly, everything Kaufmann says is qualified–there is certainly a sense where propositions serve a valuable function, but his critique in this chapter seems as if he conceives religion chiefly as a question of belief in propositions which are self-explanatory and clear, quite in contrast to philosophical propositions which have the virtue of meaning “more than they say.”   Having explained philosophy as an inspiring pursuit of truth which can never be fully grasped in propositions or even in entire books, he seems to then focus on religion as a question of belief in propositions rather than a pursuit of truth.  On this I would strongly disagree–and I cannot not see how Kaufmann would not disagree with himself.

All this being said, I nonetheless appreciated what Kaufmann had to say in this chapter.  Although his critique was anemic and lacking in depth and dimension, he raises provocative questions for contemporary Christianity.  My thinking has coalesced around two ideas–evidence (or reason for belief) and the value of belief.

I am most familiar with Christianity, so much of my response will focus on it.  However, I would contend that the focus on belief and propositions becomes far less relevant in engagement with Eastern religions–which tend to conceive belief and truth and religion in different ways.  In short, they tend to (in my experience) focus strongly on right living–on practical concerns more than questions of belief.  Buddhism seems a primary exemplar of this (though not unanimously or singularly).

Regarding the value of belief, I see a strong tendency in contemporary, Western Christianity to focus on belief apart from lifestyle–thus there is good reason for Kaufmann to focus on this question.  I have especially appreciated Fernando Canale’s critique of this tendency in Secular Adventism? (which I mean to review soon).  He argues that since Luther (who built upon Augustine), belief (as cognitive assent) in God has been the central measure of salvation.   Admittedly, many Christians exhibit a somewhat more complex practice of religion–but the underlying narrative remains the same: we are saved by our belief in (assent to, agreement with) the proposition that Christ is our Saviour.  This developed from a Greek-Platonic dualism (via Augustine) which conceives reality as split between two worlds–a world of ideas (truth) and a world of matter.  The world of matter is only at best a shadow of the world of ideas and thus salvation is purely concerned with the world of ideas.  Thus belief is severed from action, from lifestyle, from practice–except in the pursuit of a mystical union, of a transcendence of this world of matter.  I reject this conception (and I will write more on that later).  I expect Kaufmann, following Nietzsche, would also reject this view of reality.

Truth must not be relegated to a domain separate from our own, only to be touched through some portion of ourselves which does not rightly belong to this world.  Instead, truth is a matter of living in this world, in our bodies.  However, Western culture and Western Christianity in particular are grounded in the two-world conception of reality.  Thus belief is of central importance and Kaufmann is right to focus on it; however, I think he too readily accepts a definition he does not actually agree with.  All too often, belief in Christianity (and by proxy, any religion) is figured as something apart from and even contrary to worldly concerns.  Unfortunately, this leaves Christianity speaking a language which is increasingly unintelligible in today world.

Beyond that, I appreciated Kaufmann’s analysis of the terrible reasons for belief many Christians give.  If Christianity is to remain viable, it has to be able to answer for itself in the world we inhabit.  This requires a depth of theological, philosophical and cultural understanding which is far too often lacking.  I found two of Kaufmann’s ideas about belief particularly interesting.

First, he separates religious propositions into historical, general and speculative.  He then critiques as follows: Historical propositions must answer to history and can be proven true or false.; general propositions must answer to reality and can be proven true or false;and speculative propositions are just that–speculative and cannot necessarily be proven true or false.  Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, this conceives religious propositions as truth claims of a fundamentally different nature than philosophical propositions which “mean more than they say.”  I would contend that each of these types of religious propositions points to a larger conception of reality and we lose much when we make the proposition the point.  This is not to say the question of evidence can be laid aside–indeed Christianity has often failed to adequately respond to relevant evidence–but that, in keeping with Kaufmann, we must first seek to understand a proposition before we can hope to evaluate it.  That understanding is all too often lacking in both Christians and critics of Christianity.

Second, I wish more Christians would read Kaufmann’s seven causes for belief.  One of the great plagues of Christianity (and probably all religions) is that our reasons for belief are all too often lacking.  In the absence of understanding–of clear thinking and of careful study–people are prone to fabricate and cling to reasons for belief which are incomprehensible and unintelligible to anyone with a different perspective.  Admittedly part of that lack of unintelligibility can be overcome by thoughtful conversation, but often much of it lingers because our reasons for belief are not clear.  Or perhaps I might expand it to say our reasons for what we do are not clear.  We are unable to answer for ourselves.  While this often speaks to the weakness of our understanding and practice of life, that is not always the case.  An inability to explain ourselves does not make us wrong, anymore than a well-reasoned argument necessarily makes us right.  There are a great many who might agree with Kaufmann without comprehending the depth of his argument–without being able to answer for themselves.  Atheists and agnostics are as prone to this as religious people.  That is part of why we need each other, and why we so desperately need careful, thoughtful conversation rather than violent assertions of our possession of “truth.”

Although I found Kaufmann’s analysis in this chapter lacking, I can see that it is laying a foundation for continued exploration.  We need more rigour in our thought and conversation.  We need to understand our beliefs and practices better–religious or otherwise.  I am curious to see where Kaufmann will go from here.  Next week: “The God.”

Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosphy: Chapter 3

I continue to enjoy reading Kaufmann’s critique.  He is skilled at conveying complex ideas in clear and creative ways.  I highly recommend chapter 3 as a great introduction to reading and grappling with big ideas.  Many of the would-be thinkers I encounter in various forums would do well to better understand the limitations of language and the ways in which “truth” exceeds neat and tidy propositions.  A basic failure to understand these things undergirds a great many weak and narrow arguments.  All this matters because it underlies how we speak of any pursuit of truth, be it scientific, philosophical, religious, etc.

This chapter brought to mind a statement from Derrida’s final interview.  He explains that, for him,

“Each book is a pedagogy aimed at forming its reader.  The mass productions that today inundate the press and publishing houses do not form their readers; they presuppose in a phantasmatic and rudimentary fashion a reader who has already been programmed.  They thus end up preformatting this very mediocre addressee whom they had postulated in advance.” (Learning to Life Finally 31)

Derrida is commonly accused of being unnecessarily difficult and complex in his writing.  Rather than making his case with simple propositions, he performs a complex, poetic dance that can be difficult to follow.  However, for him, the very complexity of his writing, the very dance of it, is an invitation to change, to think differently–to be a better reader.  In short, his writing style is a careful and logical revolt against a reductive mode of thinking/reading/living which suggests that all that is of value–all “truth”–can be reduced to pithy formulas and propositions (which only need to be accepted).  Instead, Derrida invites his reader to participate in the dance of language, meaning and life.  (This is reminiscent of the way Christ taught with stories and difficult sayings, inviting his listeners to grapple with his words rather than passively receive them).  Furthermore, that very invitation changes the nature of truth from something to be received from above into something to be pursued and lived.  This mode of apprehending truth is central to Chapter 3.

Kaufmann writes, “To teach a truth without giving others some experience of the quest, the passion, and the heartbreak is a crime; for it makes men prey to that callow contempt for correctness which is the bait of error” (69).  In short, truth must be taught through a journey, rather than merely imparted–or it risks losing its value.  This implies, as Kaufmann says elsewhere, that truth is not merely a collection of beliefs to be passed from teacher to pupil.  It is something that must be sought after–and the search is necessary to the apprehension of truth.  Unfortunately, in so many cases, it is more important to be able to correctly name or list tools rather than to be skilled in their use.  This certainly happens in theology, but as Kaufmann points out, science is not exempt.  As he explains later, “Soon science, like art and religion, and magic, too, establishes traditions of its own; and what began as a revolt against convention terminates as another convention” (93).  As truth is reduced to a collection of statements to maintained, it loses all value.  Thus we arrive at Pilate’s question for Christ: “What is truth?”–and, by extension, “what value could it possibly have?”

Kaufmann answers this question well.  He writes, “True is what does not deceive, what is not false, what keeps its promise” (74).  Importantly, this understanding of “true” is not something that can be apprehended in a moment, but something which unfolds over time, through practice and experience.  It cannot be separated from that.  Furthermore,

“The truth of God is inseparable from the works of God. Truth is correspondence of promise and performance, a consistency that is not established once and for all but continuing and open toward the future. True is what proves itself continually.” (75)

While Kaufmann links this discussion to “God,” I have no doubt his scope is far larger.  Truth can be relied upon and trusted throughout life–but, to continue the metaphor of tools, the value of truth is not in possessing it, but in knowing how to properly utilize it.  The finest tools cannot produce anything of value without proper use–gained through a lifetime of continued refinement.

The tools Kaufmann is particularly concerned with in this chapter, and, I believe, this book, are words, names, categories, in a word–language.  He explains, “The question is how we use language–to vivisect experience, killing it for the sake of generalized knowledge, or to capture experience alive” (88).  Does language equip us to live well, or is it a weapon against life itself?  Most importantly, Kaufmann notes, “Language is a social phenomenon, and its primary function is to communicate what is of social importance: language is practical” (89).  In part, what a particular linguistic tool conveys is not pure truth, but a particularly cultural perspective on truth.  The meaning of words inheres in particular social contexts.  Various languages emphasize various aspects–forming complementary maps of the same space rather than conflicting “truths.”  They cannot be properly understood apart from that social or cultural context. Thus, as Kaufmann has said in previous chapters, it behooves us to consider the limitations and proper usage of a given map.  Misused, any map–any words, any truth–may lead us fatally astray.  As Laurence Gonzales argues in Deep Survival, we are mapping creatures, and without a functional map of our specific environment, we cannot survive.  That functionality is based in reading our environment, correlating it to our mental map, and discerning the proper course of action when the two conflict.

I appreciated Kaufmann’s insight that “The reader for whom one writes goes beyond the proposition to see what is meant” (72).  By “what is meant,” he means the vision the writer attempted to capture with his words, the lived experience the words aim to express (73).  Proper understanding and use of a given map depends upon understanding the environment to which the map refers, not merely the map itself.  This requires care and attentiveness to the (language) map, the environment, and the ways both have changed and are changing.  Otherwise, even the most revolutionary map “becomes the fountainhead of a conservative tradition” (94) in the attempt to preserve a “pristine” version of map and environment against any change.  The map becomes the point rather than our use of it, our living by it.

Kaufmann says far more of value in this chapter than this short review can express.  I will close with two final ideas especially relevant to Christianity and Adventism.  First,

“The truth of God is inseparable from the works of God. Truth is correspondence of promise and performance, a consistency that is not established once and for all but continuing and open toward the future. True is what proves itself continually” (75).

This statement points first to the temporality of God and his interactions with us–he is not a God outside of time, as Luther contended, but a God in time, a God with us.  His truth is in his keeping of his promises, in his continued engagement with us.  This has the effect of re-establishing the connection between our theological maps and our Christian lives–truth is the correspondence between them, not merely an immaterial ideology which must be blindly adhered to.  By extension, the truth of Christ and Christianity is not a series of propositions, but a correspondence between idea, or promise, and action.  Unfortunately, that correspondence is often lacking.

Second, Kaufmann writes, “The truth of many propositions represents a closed case for us, but it can always be reopened in the light of new evidence or under the shadow of a reasonable doubt” (76).  All this to say theology (or any conception of truth) must be as open to change as science claims to be–not in terms of our source material, but in terms of our understanding of it.  Our maps must be continually open to change.  Adventists have traditionally referred to this as “present truth”–suggesting that truth is inextricably linked with a particular time and must also be continually advancing.  We must refine our maps as the environment changes.  Unfortunately, this has been all too readily forgotten as “Present Truth” has been deployed to name a particular set of theological propositions.  That should not be.  Maps are not once for all time–be they theological, philosophical, scientific or otherwise.  Negotiating that change is perhaps the hardest part of pursuing truth, yet also the most necessary.

How we read matters.  What we do with truth matters.  And truth is not readily captured in what we read.  It requires pursuit, struggle–a way of living.  What do you do with your maps, your truth?  What kind of reader are you?

Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview
Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview (US)

A wonderful, personal reflection on Derrida’s life and work.  Short and accessible in a way his writing often is not.  Includes a brief discussion of “survival” as an excess of life, rather than mere continuance.

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why
Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why (US)
One of my favourite books about the connection between our stories, our truth, our maps and our lives.  Begins with an examination of why some people survive insane events and ends with a consideration of what it means to live well.

Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy: Chapter 2

In Chapter 2, Kaufmann addresses the divide within contemporary philosophy between an overly detached and academic positivism and an overly emotional and sometimes sloppy existentialism.  He also focuses on the question of the nature of man as central to understanding any system of philosophy.  I especially appreciate this because it has been my entry point into the study of culture, religion and philosophy.  But even more so, I am fascinated by his description of the great divide in contemporary philosophy because it is so recognizably similar to the great divide in contemporary theology.  I would even suggest that the divide between conservative and liberal Christianity is not a matter of degrees of faith or (Biblical) faithfulness, but rather one of philosophy.  The two strands adopt different approaches to theology and are thus, as often as not, unable to even communicate.  However, before I detail the connections I see, I will attempt to briefly outline Kaufmann’s argument.

Kaufmann begins with this assertion: “Contemporary philosophy is largely a philosophy of revolt, or rather two philosophies of revolt. It is convenient to call them positivism and existentialism, though both labels are problematic and justifiable only as stenographic devices” (20).  (Although the bulk of the chapter is a critique of positivism, he uses this as a counterpoint for critiquing existentialism, as well).  He contends that while each philosophy has limitations, each also has something of significance to contribute.  Indeed, this is the difficulty–neither can be simply dismissed (22).   He explains that “their lack of mutual understanding and this downright contempt for each other are due largely to what both camps have in common: both have repudiated most traditional philosophy and thus lost common ground” (22).  Put another way, “both movements are bothered by the abstractness and artificiality of so much traditional philosophy and try to bring philosophy down to earth again” (31).  Each is significant for the way in which it responds to traditional philosophy.  Unfortunately, a chasm has arisen between the two traditions.  (One might argue that that chasm has begun to be bridged.  I am thinking of Richard Kearney’s project in On Stories and possibly Judith Butler’s work in Precarious Life and Frames of War which seek to articulate a more integrated understanding of man, but I will return to that in a moment.)

This passage is exemplary of Kaufmann’s critiques: “the analysts [positivists] are generally most reliable in single sharp analyses; but when they attempt to construct a larger picture, whether of ethics or the mind, their partiality stands revealed. Existentialism, on the other hand, suffers from two great dangers. First, it tends to ignore the ordinary for the extraordinary and to mistake the uncommon for the rule. Secondly, it does not demand of itself, let alone achieve, the greatest possible clarity of which its often difficult subject matter is capable” (47).  The great need is a philosophy which can integrate both the careful, pointed analyses of the positivists and the grand, artistic awareness of the existentialists.  Thus he writes, “the great philosopher is a poet with an intellectual conscience” (34)–one attuned to the (grand) heart of things, but no less careful in his (or her) analyses.

As much as I appreciate Kaufmann’s careful consideration of these two philosophies, I particularly resonated with his contention that this division, or bifurcation, is rooted in a particular conception of man: “The bifurcation of the world is always rooted in a prior bifurcation of mankind and man. Wherever two worlds have been postulated, man was first divided into two parts–senses and reason, body and soul, phenomenon and noumenon–and often there were also thought to be two kinds of men: the mass and the elite. The doctrine of two worlds goes hand in hand with a superior valuation of the other world, the unseen one” (39).  This point is of particular concern in the context of contemporary theology, as well.  Conventional theology has accepted this bifurcation and thus struggled to articulate the value and meaning of a Christian way of life in this inferior physical existence.  That bifurcation remains at the heart of the divide in contemporary theology as much as in contemporary philosophy.  However–Kaufmann notes “again we are confronted with a bifurcation of man; again reason is on one side; but the emotions have taken the place of the senses” (41).  Thus the common caricature of postmodernism as being overly feelings-oriented.  Irrationality is no longer framed in terms of flesh vs. spirit, but as heart vs. mind.  The shift is small, but weighty.  However, the hope remains for a dialogue and perhaps conception of man and the world which is not bifurcated.

I am particularly interested in how this bifurcation and divide plays out in a theological arena.  I contend that these philosophical revolts were accompanied by and even entangled with parallel theological revolts.  In the attempt to bring theology “down to earth again,” both conservative and liberal theologies have separated, emphasizing different aspects of the bifurcated man–leading signally to a situation Kaufmann describes in damning language: “The analytic philosophers and the existentialists can no longer communicate with each other or any truly different point of view, they have lost the art of dialogue” (33, emphasis added).  This is truly the great loss and truly what I fear for our future.  Without dialogue, any forward movement is jeopardized; without the ability to perceive and engage new ideas, any learning is threatened.

Although it seems to resonate throughout contemporary Christianity, I see this especially at play in Adventism.  Increasingly, what might be called liberals and conservatives “though both labels are problematic and justifiable only as stenographic devices” are unable to dialogue in any meaningful way.  Instead, there is a “lack of mutual understanding and… downright contempt for each other.”  I think this might be accurately and productively explored by considering that conservativism resonates with positivism’s concern for sharp analysis, often separated from the messiness of emotion, art and the big picture, while liberals tend to be more existentialist and, as such, prone to a lack of concern for careful Bible study even as they emphasize more existential, artistic and big picture concerns.  This is epitomized in the twin critiques that conservatives are more concerned about being right than social justice while liberals ignore truth in favour of social justice.  Following Kaufmann, I would contend that both aspects are important.  Social justice should not be at the expense of intellectual conscience or vice versa.  Furthermore, this impacts on wide-ranging questions of both theology and lifestyle (which need not–rather, must not–be separated).

This chapter also includes an interesting critique of Wittgenstein which is well worth reading.  I am especially intrigued by Wittgenstein as I have heard his Tractatus quoted by conservatives against postmodernism, while I have come to understand Wittgenstein, via his later work, as very much in agreement with postmodern/continental/existentialist/liberal concerns (though, according to Kaufmann, by no means limited to them).

Let me share one final quote.  Describing the divide between positivism and existentialism, Kaufmann writes, “the difference is partly one of temperament. One tendency is rooted in gregariousness: a social game for brilliant minds. The other is born of solitude and the intensity that courts it. And each suspects the other, often with a strong dose of contempt.”  While admittedly many of the differences to be addressed and dialogued about are not merely temperamental, I appreciate this observation for its return to the significance of (a philosopher’s) personal experience.  Continued discussion cannot be merely a discussion of ideas, but must also entail some discussion of the various journeys by which we come to hold particular ideas.   On another trajectory, if we were to consider the temperamental implications of belief, perhaps we might also allow for the value of variance, the value of different temperaments as essential to any task or any community–and thus these differing perspectives, these differing revolts, as part of a larger whole, a larger (human) body, a larger mankind, something like what Paul figured in his writings.

Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy: Chapter 1

Well, it’s been a while.  I saw some of you at the Life Ignition conference and we had some good discussions.  We played a lot and learned a lot.  Thanks.  I had a post ready to go, but WordPress decided to eat it rather than post it.  Needless to say I will be more careful in the future.  Eventually I will rewrite that post on the meaning of “chosen.”  For now, a review of sorts.

I imagine some of you are aware of former SDA pastor Ryan Bell’s Year Without God experiment, blog and soon-to-be documentary film.  I met him last year at the Spectrum conference in Tennessee and we hung out a little, so his journey feels a bit closer to home.  He has recently decided to start a book club to read through Walter Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy.  I’ve decided to travel along and offer my own response to the text as we work through it.  If you’re interested, it’s available on Amazon.  The book has 11 Chapters, so the plan is one chapter a week through the end of May.  Seems simple enough.


I was eager to get into Kaufmann.  Although I’m only familiar with him through his translations of many of Freidrich Nietzsche’s major texts, I expected his familiarity with Nietzsche would impact significantly and positively on his ideas and style.  I was not disappointed.

The preface echoes Miguel Cervantes’ famous addresses to each of various types of readers.  Two thoughts stood out to me.

To begin with, he outlines three lessons for philosophers that we might learn from Socrates:
“First, that playfulness is quite compatible with seriousness.”
“Second, the philosopher’s seriousness need not consist in the unhumorous insistence that he must be right.”
“Third, a critique need not be less serious than a positive construction.  There is something playful about systems.” (xv)
This emphasis on philosophy as play is part of what I most appreciated about Nietzsche.  It is no excuse for lax analysis, but rather an approach to reflection that takes pleasure in the process and recognizes the limitations of our knowledge.  (Thus Kaufmann, like Nietzsche, writes in aphorisms–loosely connected, playful reflections on various relevant ideas.)  While we may be continually learning, we will never know everything.  That calls for a certain humility about the philosophic project and about life itself.  We are never fully grown, only a little older than the day before (and hopefully a little wiser).

For me, this is also applicable to theology.  Sometimes we make theology too much of a serious thing, insist too much on our rightness, and forget the value of challenging questions.  Perhaps we would do better to follow the words of Christ and become like little children–recognizing our limitations and laughing through our mistakes.  As Rich Mullins put it, “We are not as strong as we think we are.”  Too often, we fixate on our childish systems and forget how to play well with others.  We forget how often God asks hard questions rather than giving easy answers.  Perhaps we would do well to simply enjoy the life God has placed before us and play a little more in our lives and in our theology.  While theology absolutely matters, being right is not the foundation of our salvation–being children of God is.  And what good is eternal life without play?

Later, he justifies the wide-ranging interdisciplinary reach of his book-project: “instead of developing an idea very fully and surrounding it with a vast apparatus, one can show its relation to other ideas.  Instead of burying it, one can try to bring it to life” (xvii).
I agree that there is value in such a “big picture” approach.  To often, in my own studies, I have been frustrated by the way in which various philosophical or theological arguments are advanced as if in isolation from all others.  Sometimes latent similarities are simply overlooked, limiting the value and depth of analysis, but equally often this focus on individual “trees” creates dissonance, most often resulting in a disconnect between our most deeply held beliefs and the ways we actually live.
One classic example of this is the parent who strikes a child in order to teach the lesson “do not hit your siblings.”  Their understanding of discipline and education is obviously quite disconnected from the values they wish to instill.  There are many others.  As an Adventist, I have a particular concern for the ways in which our “28 fundamentals” are too often presented as 28 disparate ideas rather than an rich, holistic way of life.  There are profound connections between how we view God, stewardship, Sabbath, the Old Testament sanctuary and our understanding of the Second Coming, just to list a few.  Someday I hope to explore that in depth, but that’s a story for another time.

These two thoughts are critical for me, and I expect they lay a foundation for the rest of this book.

Chapter 1 begins with the assertion that “modern philosophy, unlike medieval philosophy, begins with man” (1).  The questions “what is man?” and “what is truth?” undergird the Enlightenment shift.    (This has been blamed on Luther and the Protestant Reformation for its rejection of church authority and developed through philosophers Kant and Descartes as well as through theologians Arminius and Wesley, among many others).  In contemporary society, psychology has sought to answer that question, but psychological answers have philosophical implications and vice versa.  Each has implications for the other; for Kaufmann, these entangled lines of inquiry are central.  Specifically, he argues that we cannot pursue “truth” without understanding its psychological implications and effects–it is not merely a philosophical abstract, but a psychological reality.  In short, truth cannot be separated from its effect on our lives and mindset.  Conversely, any philosophical inquiry is inextricable from an inquiry into the psychology of the philosopher–the conditions and experiences of their existence.
Thus, from this point, Kaufmann considers style as reflective of psychology.  He eventually turns to poetry as especially expressive of this complexity, describing it as a type of passionate flight which calls others to follow (reminiscent of his description of philosophy as play).  He writes, “The intensity of philosophy and poetry is abnormal and subversive: it is the enemy of habit, custom, and all stereotypes” (9).  The strength of each thus lies in passion and wonder–as a challenge to our existence rather than a summation of it.  Thus the value of laughter and play–as the expression of passion and wonder.

To me, this argument poses a challenge to many theological readings.  What if Christ’s “life more abundant” was understood in the nature of play, full of passion and wonder?  What if God’s aim, through Scripture, is not to provide summation or closure to our existence, but challenge?  What if Christ’s call and commission is understood as a call to flight?  What of “if I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me”?  Where is that power in contemporary Christianity?  Understand, I do not mean a mindless pursuit of “Spirit,” but a calculated play, a learning, growing, challenging, unsettling, passionate, wonderful, serious play–recognizing the great risks of such flight, but not shrinking from them for fear of falling.  (Did the disciples disappointment and the Great Disappointment teach us nothing?)

One last quote that I appreciated is this: “The fact that different painters would paint the same scene differently does not establish the impossibility of an accurate map” (17). Kaufmann illustrates with reference to the differences between a highway map vs a map of rivers and valleys.
In a similar fashion, the Bible is not “a” map, but a collection of scenes or maps, each emphasizing distinct aspects.  Sometimes these emphases may even appear contradictory, but that calls us to a more careful consideration of “what features a map portrays and what it leaves out” (18).  Again, the focus is on (playful) discovery rather than the defense of systems.  This resonates not only in separate disciplines, but between disciplines as paintings of the same reality–covering more-or-less the same ground, though emphasizing radically different features.

Of course, Kaufmann has much more to say.  I suggest you read for yourself, but these are some of the ideas I appreciated in his opening chapter.  I look forward to seeing the ways in which he develops them throughout the rest of the book.

Ryan’s Blog (Book Club)

Book Club Chapter 1

Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Canada)

Critique of Religion and Philosophy (US)

Living by (Good) Faith

Sitting in Sabbath school this morning, discussing the meaning and importance of “faith,” I was struck by the degree the discussion is hijacked by an abstract, rationalistic mode of thought.  (Of course, I would identify this with Platonic dualism and Parmenidean timelessness, but that’s a story for another time).  In short, we talk about faith as an act of the mind.  We conflate faith and belief into something like an assertion of hope–more than expectation, but less than the ability to actually accomplish what we desire.  Thus faith becomes a mere intellectual statement, an abstraction from daily life–or even in apparent opposition to it.  Given this abstraction, it becomes difficult to speak of “faith” as anything valuable or functional in modern life.  This becomes a problem when we encounter the Biblical text which repeatedly presents faith as a vital part of salvation and discipleship.  In turn, we say things like “faith is believing without evidence” or “faith should not be a weapon” or “faith is letting go (of sense)” or “faith is your private business.”  I don’t mean to denigrate this positions or even particularly critique them–each may have its merits and its meaning.  I’m more interested in refiguring how we speak of “faith.”

An idea which has deepened my own ability to comprehend and speak of “faith” has been the idea of “good faith”–as that acting for and acting with which is necessary to community, necessary to life together.  I see the lack of “good faith” as a particular problem in contemporary Western and religious dialogue.  Instead of conducting ourselves and our conversations in good faith, we act in bad faith.  Instead of acting towards the other as if they are equally vulnerable and equally reticent to inflict harm, we approach with bad faith; we approach the other as if they are an enemy willing only our own destruction and primarily concerned with inflicting harm upon us (or at the least imposing their will).  This approach leaves little space for a true meeting.  Rather our encounter degrades into posturing and even violence as each of us strives for mastery over the other.  Of course, we cloak this struggle for mastery in terms of “caution” or “self-defense”–but these words imply fear of an attacker, and figure the other as hostile and dangerous rather than equally human and vulnerable.  Furthermore, in order to protect ourselves, we must hide/shield/protect/minimize our own vulnerabilities and, in turn, our own humanity.  When two parties approach each other in bad faith, there is no room for relationship or “with-ness” because each presents an invulnerable, inhuman facade.  (This figures into last weeks critique–good faith begins with an admission of vulnerability, not offensive posturing and accusations of ill-will or danger).  This is not to say we should be naive, nor that we should ignore danger as it presents itself, but to say that unless we act in the hope that we can do good for and to each other, and in the recognition of a shared vulnerability, we are already doomed to (self)destruction.  Put concisely, good faith is acting towards the other as if they did not mean us harm–recognizing that we cannot predict or control their actions, but that any productive and meaningful encounter must begin on the possibility of mutual benefit.  This is more than the self-interested gospel of exchange which so permeates our culture to the degree that it opens the possibility of a true freedom with–a living together, an entanglement–rather than a mere exchange between distant, discrete (invulnerable) entities.

So what does this have to do with God?  What if we thought of faith in God as approaching him with good faith?  Not faith as the means of achieving our own will, as the leverage to move God himself, but as the condition of possibility for any meaningful encounter, any relationship, any at-one-ment with the ultimate Other.  This is not a merely intellectual faith which can be asserted without any risk or without any change, but a faith that risks self–a faith that admits vulnerability and lack of control and opens the self to change by the very encounter.  This is not a merely intellectual faith which can be abstracted from the material conditions of our existence, but a faith which is always in (bodily) action, a faith which moves us in this material world, in our daily lives.  This (good) faith is a way of living towards God which opens the possibility of reconciliation and relationship with Him and by extension with those who bear His image–our fellow human beings.

I would argue that this focus on with-ness, on freedom with, on God with us is the very center and foundation of the entire Biblical narrative, epitomized by Christ himself coming as a human, making himself vulnerable and surrendering control so that he might enter into a relationship with us grounded in (good) faith.  I would contend that this (good) faith is exactly what Christ extended to us throughout his life here–even in his dealings with the Jewish leadership who sought his destruction.  He was not naive, he was not blind, he was not in denial.  He clearly identified and challenged the ways in which they demonstrated bad faith, yet he continued to act in good faith towards them.  Eventually he surrendered to their will, knowing full well they would kill him but allowing for the possibility it might be otherwise–allowing for relationship–even as they utterly rejected him.  Thus Luke records Christ speaking from the cross: “Father, forgive them…”  Thus Paul writes that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” and that “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

Admittedly this does not answer all questions.  For example, what is good faith in the face of systematic violence or abuse?  Is good faith the same as being a victim?  Perhaps I will address those in the future.  Perhaps you will have some suggestions.  For now, do you find yourself acting in good faith toward God and man?  What might that look like?