I’ll be tackling this rather intense topic tonight and likely failing to hold it down and get it under control! Following the event I will post more resources.
Informational Link: What Does It Mean to Survive Death?
Since I’ve been talking about Seventh-day Adventists starting yesterday, due to the date, I thought I’d use an Ellen G. White quote. A friend called my attention to this today in a phone conversation.
I should note that I have found it much easier to appreciate Ellen White as a writer since I left the SDA church and quit trying to read her as a prophetess. While I think in many cases she was off the mark, she also was quite frequently very insightful.
Substantially changing beliefs have been a defining characteristic of my life. That may be hard to comprehend. It’s even hard to write in a grammatical form. This admission makes some people uncomfortable. Why should they listen to me now, if I have already changed what I may have believed and advocated decades, years, or even months ago?
I can definitely understand the question. We seek certainty and safety. It’s thoroughly bred into us. Around the caveman campfire, the Saber Tooth Tiger fundamentalist was king. He knew what to do with that spear. He didn’t dither about whether to put out a side of meat, reach out his hand and say “nice kitty,” or kill the tiger.
But certainty also is dangerous, both when it is not justified and when circumstances change. Thus I embrace passionate action and enough uncertainty to make me willing to change my mind.
The largest single change was when I left the denomination I grew up in, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and became first unchurched, and then finally a United Methodist. There are those who find that change mind-boggling. Others find it obvious, as though anyone with adequate intelligence would have made the move.
Even in that dramatic change in my life I remained convinced of the value of the people whose views I was rejecting. I became an ex-SDA. There are a few SDAs who consider that horrifying. I have left the truth. I have become an apostate. I am now working for the enemy.
Let those who are not SDAs not rise up to cast the first stone. The condemnation from the SDA side meets its match on the other in those who say, “See! Just like those cultists! They can’t accept that you’ve come over to an orthodox community!” There’s an ironic twist to this accusation from folks who generally believe they have all the truth, are never wrong, and thus SDAs are cultists, especially because SDAs are, well, intolerant.
Last night in an interview I mentioned that it was a good thing God could work with people who are wrong. That way God can work with me. If you think God is working with you because you have everything right—I suspect you’re wrong about that! But I still believe God is working with and likely through you.
I’m an un-angry ex-SDA. I affirm the work of my former denomination in many areas while at the same time I differ, sometimes substantially, with that church in matters of doctrines. Differing in matters of doctrine is, I believe, good cause to find fellowship elsewhere. It is not good cause to belittle and condemn. Many mainliners find it very easy to condemn SDAs for views they, the mainliners, don’t even comprehend. I have lost count of the times someone has told me that they really don’t like SDAs because they have such incredibly false doctrines, then when I ask them just which doctrine they find so wrong, they fall back on, “Well, they’re a cult.”
And that leads me to Adventists and The Great Disappointment. There’s a great deal of detail around this event in Adventist history. There was a lesser disappointment before the “great” one. Prophetic interpretation was adjusted as people moved on. This happens frequently in many, many groups. This occurred before there was a Seventh-day Adventist Church as such, but SDAs grew out of the Millerite movement and the responses to this great disappointment.
When and what was this great disappointment? October 22, 1844. The expectation was that Jesus would return in glory and take His children home.
It didn’t happen. The day passed uneventfully.
Some Adventists came to believe that the date was right, but the event was different. This interpretation is one of the key elements of the reason why I am no longer an SDA myself. Yes, I can list specific doctrines and the interpretation of Daniel 8:14 is one of them. A rather minor one, that is. I could co-exist in a church with people who are wrong about how to interpret Daniel 8:14. Come to think of it, I manage to hang around a church in which I would be surprised if anyone could name the general topic addressed in Daniel 8.
It’s easy for mainline Christians to point fingers at those who name times for the coming of Jesus or who express excessive certainty about the end-times, life after death, or prophetic interpretation. After all, we have the perfect solution: Ignore those issues. Maybe nobody will notice.
On the other hand, the people who have been out on a limb, taken the plunge, made the hard call, and lived with the result may have something to say to us as well. That’s where I see SDAs and also other Adventist groups. They may have been disappointed. I may disagree with some of their interpretations even after the disappointment, but they’re still engaged with the topic.
And so I’m going to do a few things. Starting tomorrow I’m going to publish some articles by SDA authors, folks who are published by my company Energion Publications, specifically about the Great Disappointment and 1844. What might we learn from the experiences of the SDA church? Are we making any of the same mistakes as we read scripture? They felt they were faithful to scripture. We (and they) know they were wrong at the time. But do we carry on some of the same mistakes?
Join me Thursday night for a discussion on my weekly video study and then watch here and on the Energion Publications News blog for links as the remaining articles are published. The introductory article is already posted.
On the scale of cosmic events, this is somewhat less significant than the proverbial one beat of a butterfly wing, but today I ate something from my garden for the first time. It wasn’t planned. I had to thin my radishes, so I saved them and added some of the tops to my salad. I have some more so will use them in a few other things.
Here’s the picture:
Yes, distinctly non-earth shattering. But nonetheless a nice moment for me. The last time I put in my own garden I was about 14 years old. Hopefully the remaining plants will be able to grow large and juicy in the space I provided for them.
On Thursday night I’m going to do two things: 1) Present some material related to chapter 6 of Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide (titled “Eschatology Future and Present”), and 2) Discuss October 22 as the anniversary of the Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, as it is recalled in Adventism. On Thursday I will also kick off publication of some articles by Energion authors on that event and its implications for how we study the Bible generally and eschatology in particular. I’ll provide links to that material here.
Here are the links for the event. Below the YouTube viewer, I will post a couple of questions to consider relating to Thursday night’s study.
In the study questions (page 67 of the book), Dr. Vick asks:
The latter part of this question will be hard to answer without the book, but consider the first line. Do you agree or disagree? Feel free to comment here or to bring your comments to the study on Thursday night. If you enter the comments via the Q&A app, they can become part of the study.
For some perhaps even more provocative suggestions, the following questions come from page 65, and might help in feeling out your way on assumptions.
I’m sure that as you consider these questions, you’ll quickly see their implications for how you might read scripture. One can be open on some of these, certainly. But thinking about how you would approach the question can nonetheless be critical.
We complain about it, write about it, claim it’s important or even critical, design programs to create it, but what is it?
I don’t mean that none of us know what we mean when we say “biblically literate” or “biblically illiterate,” but do we all mean the same thing? I don’t think we do, and that creates problems in communication.
Between age10 and 14 I attended a school that was extremely serious about Bible study. We had study guides that took us through the entire text of scripture, asking questions as we went. We memorized substantial portions of scripture, such as the entire Sermon on the Mount and Psalm 119. We also memorized selections of texts on various topics, such as four texts on the Sabbath and the state of he dead. (We were SDA, so these were considered important.)
I greatly value the knowledge I gained in this way, but when I was done, was I biblically literate?
This depends, of course, on what one means by biblically literate. Here are some definitions I’ve heard (or experienced):
(No, I didn’t plan to make that seven. It just happened.)
When I refer to “experiencing” a definition, I mean that I’ve seen someone tacitly dismiss someone else as knowledgeable because they lack one of these elements. I’ve encountrred this attitude about every one of these points. “If he or she doesn’t know x, the person is biblically illiterate.”
I have encountered this with regard to creation. When someone discovers that I accept the theory of evolution, they will suggest that I am unacquainted with Genesis 1 & 2. I am very acquainted with those chapters. In fact, I had to memorize them as one of those long passages in school. Memorizing them does not mean that I will interpret them the same way others do.
I fell into the trap myself recently. I was listening to Deanna Thompson respond to her award for book of the year from the Academy of Parish Clergy for her commentary on Deuteronomy in the Belief series. She confessed that she did not read Hebrew. My initial reaction was to think that it wasn’t really possible for someone to contribute to the interpretation of Deuteronomy (of all things!) without reading Hebrew. Yet right within her brief remarks accepting the award, she expressed some rather profound understanding. I mentally took it back and was glad I had only thought it internally.
This experience does not make me think that learning Hebrew is unimportant. It just makes me think more carefully about what I expect. I have no problem with the value of most of these benchmarks of knowledge. I think they’re important. But what is it that I want the average person in the pew to know? What about my church leaders? Pastors (if we make a distinction)? Seminary professors?
My own definition would be close to #7. I think hearing the overall story of scripture is critical to everything else. Fit the passage into a broad view of the whole. Of course, this type of knowledge might well look superficial to others.
My suggestion would be simply that we pay attention to what type of biblical literacy a person has, if any. Far too many people in the church could really claim none of these elements. We should work on that. But we should also recognize other approaches and what kind of knowledge those other approaches support.
One of the most interesting and troubling things I’ve found about myself and my church (any of the churches of which I’ve been a member!) is the number of things we know we should do and even decide we will do, but which never get done. Seven Marks of a New Testament Church is certainly ecclesiology, but is it shelf ecclesiology (that’s nice) or is it practical ecclesiology (let’s do that)?
In this case I can’t point fingers. In my personal life I need to get more exercise and lose a significant amount of weight. How long have I known this? Well, I’m the son of a doctor who was medical director of a health conditioning center when I was in my teens. And yes, he knew about these things before that time and after that time, and he taught them to me. I cannot claim that I didn’t know what the health effects of a sedentary lifestyle and excessive food intake (biblical gluttony, no?) would be. While I’m working on reforming this now, I do so slowly and under constant temptation to avoid the needed change. It’s not that I’m tempted to do useless things. In fact, I’m tempted to work, and for me work involves being in front of a computer. So one good thing tempts me away from another one. But that doesn’t make it right. I know I should get more exercise. I know I should eat less. Making those changes so that they are a fundamental part of my new normal is very difficult.
Romans 7 anyone? I know many Arminians see Romans 7 as a description of our pre-Christ experience. I see it as very descriptive of what I and many Christians live every day. The problem comes in when we make Romans 7 into a continuous, hopeless loop about everything. Yes, we all have our Romans 7 experiences, but we’re invited into Romans 8. Not that we’ll live at “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25) at all times and on all subjects.
It’s easy to make excuses. I’m very busy. It’s hard building up a small publishing company. I have a lot of work to do. I’m very healthy, taking no medications and very rarely missing work. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I’m a vegetarian, for heaven’s sake! (Ice cream, sweets, lots of butter, bread—they’ll do it even to a vegetarian!)
But no matter how many excuses I produce, I know this: I need to change.
There are many reasons why we don’t change, and many excuses for why we can ignore things that we hear.
I could go on, but we’ll stop at seven. Nice number!
I think, nonetheless, that our bottom line is fear. We are surviving the way we are, but will we survive after we change? The pastor wonders if he’ll lose members. The members wonder if they’ll be happy with the new church service on Sunday morning. The education team wonders if anyone will attend Sunday School. Everyone wonders whether they’ll be annoying their neighbors. And while we might not admit it, we wonder whether we’ll be happy ourselves. So we stay the same.
One of the great fears is that we will lose control. This has been the bane of the church from very early times, I think. We’re very much afraid of the movement of the Spirit because the Spirit is not under our management. Not that we don’t try!
In Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, the 12th habit Ruth Fletcher mentions is Choosing (p. 123). Here’s a key quote:
Bruce Epperly comes at this from another angle in Transforming Acts:
Giving up control and choosing to act. When we have acted, we choose to learn from that action and act again.
What has impressed me about the church, not to mention my own life, is what a difference we could make if we simply acted on the things we already know are right. Yes, new information is good, but we have a tendency to collect the information and fail to perform the actions. There are many controversial things. But if we laid those aside and simply acted on what we know to be right, what might happen?
I doubt that church would like like the church in America at this moment.
And here’s the video, set to the point where I discussed the question.
I’m not terribly satisfied with my answer. What’s more, I am never satisfied with my answer to this and similar questions. What’s even yet more, I doubt I will ever be satisfied.
I’m sure some will find this surprising. I can certainly talk about heaven in a very present and real sense. I claim that I do not cross my fingers during the Apostles’ Creed when I come to “resurrection of the dead.” On the other hand, those who see life after death more as the presence in our memories as someone after death seem to think this is quite adequate. For me, it is not. Well, it might be.
A common modern view of life after death sees this as a simple result of our unwillingness to admit that we are truly bound by time and destined to come to an end in the sense in which we live now. Belief in the afterlife is a way to avoid this end. We don’t want to be something that exists in the memories of others or who impacts the universe through the echoes of what we were and did in our physical lives. Thus we imagine an afterlife.
There is another possibility, one that was mentioned in a recent video interview I conducted with Dr. David Moffett-Moore. I believe he was quoting someone else, but I’ll credit him for the moment. (I haven’t located the precise portion of the interview.) He said we could be seen as spiritual beings having a physical experience rather than physical beings who have spiritual experiences. I want to consider the possibility that the reason many of us see some sort of survival is not that we are carrying out wish fulfilment, but rather that we detect the echoes of this other reality. The reason we sense that the person isn’t gone is that in that spiritual sense, they are not.
And that leads automatically to what “that spiritual sense” might be. And there the problem gets complicated. Just how do you talk about something for which we have only distant echoes? Plato’s cave and the shadows seem easy by comparison. Then there is 1 Corinthians 2:9, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived ….”
What we tend to do with this, however, is to take what we have already and make what no human heart has conceived be more of what we already have. We have our physical life, our comforts, our friends, and so forth, so in this other realm we will have more of those things. More people, better relationships with them, more stuff (or less need for stuff, but more satisfaction), a bigger, better place. It would be just like moving to the mansion down the road, the one we couldn’t possibly afford, only much, much more! Bigger! Better!
But what if what we can’t conceive is something we can’t conceive? I don’t mean that the mansion we can’t afford, but can have when we get to heaven, is so large we can’t imagine it that large. What if the concept “mansion” is simply the wrong one? What if no matter how we conceive of that mansion in size, splendor, comfort, or anything else, we’re no closer, because it’s simply the wrong thing to be imagining?
Here are some questions I tend to hear when talking about this: But is it real? Is heaven a place? Is it just imaginary?
And here’s the problem with our language. If I say you’re going to live in a new house, but it’s really not something you can understand, you just don’t have the concepts, you’re likely to turn to the most likely alternative: It’s imaginary; it doesn’t exist. So in order to make heaven truly inviting and special, I’m asked to affirm that it is real—just as real as my house that I can see through my office window. Just as real, but better. Well, if that’s the “real” then I can’t possibly tell you that.
We really can’t conceptualize it. On the one hand I don’t want to limit it to the chemical processes of memory inside physical bodies alone. On the other, I don’t want it to be some place else in three-dimensional space, like a fine housing development out in space somewhere. I think we get echoes from it in our minds and spirits, and we have to tie those echoes to something we can conceive, but that doesn’t mean the concepts we form are the whole story.
And I’m very dissatisfied with my answer, but it’s the only one I have. With it, I live in continuous hope.
(Let me recommend the book whose cover I show at the top of this post: The Journey to the Undiscovered Country. Bill Tuck spends some time with the various concepts he finds and looks at the echoes as they occur in scripture.)
Taken from chapter 5 of Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide by Edward W. H. Vick. You can find out more about this study on the Google+ Event page.
Or watch here:
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