Soon after I became a pastor, I started wrestling with the phenomenon of cults: wondering what separates my religion from a cult. I do not mean cult as in a church that diverges from orthodox Christian teachings like the trinity. Nor do I mean merely a new religious movement (value-neutral term of art used in academic religion research instead of cult, which has negative connotations). Rather, I use “cult” to evoke the kinds of religious and quasi-religious organizations and communities that legitimate practices that are controlling, abusive, self-destructive, and the like.
The shadow of Waco loomed over my early research as I compared what I learned about cults to the cultish ‘fringe’ of sectarian Adventism with which I became acquainted. For example, within my first year of ministry, I witnessed church members surround a first-time visitor who happened to have worn earrings to Sabbath worship and, in what resembled a group shaming exercise, attempt to convince her of their views on jewelry. (Needless to say, she never came back.) During that same internship, I had another member relate to me how largely abstaining from salt, as this person had concluded the health message required, was nearly fatal.
I could tell of other well-intended, capable people—likable in their own ways—that were somehow endued with an attraction to fanaticism that, when indulged, had destructive results. At pastors’ meetings, I found that I was not alone in having encountered such behavior in my churches, and many of our informal discussions centered on how to best address it. And as I connected with other pastors online through that early form of social media called the blogosphere, I discovered that these problems were not at all restricted to my conference or even to my corner of the globe.
At the same time, I had a sense that adopting as skeptical a posture toward religion as possible in order to avoid being deceived by cultish religion would likely mean having no faith at all. It was also clear to me that the Seventh-day Adventist Church was not a cult, not least because cults cannot tolerate having a liberal wing in their organizations. Yet I repeatedly encountered Adventism’s cultish ‘fringe.’ And demarcating the difference between that extreme and a healthy Adventist faith was a vexing problem to me.
I had a breakthrough on this when I learned from the Christian philosopher, Charles Taylor, to think of secularity as not primarily about whether or not we believe God exists. Rather, secularity is a condition that is inextricably bound up with the question of whether or not God is good for us in some way that cannot be reduced to what is good for us in this world and the lives we live in it the here-and-how. As Taylor shows in his philosophical reading of Euro-American history, A Secular Age, it was after early-modern intellectuals began to raise serious doubts about God’s existence after they started thinking about the good life not only as primarily being about this world but also as able to be secured without God’s intervention in this world. That brought in the forms of godlessness that we associate with secularism. (I further develop this interpretation of Taylor in an academic article that is, as of this writing, paywalled.)
In our time, those early-modern assumptions about what matters have gone mainstream. As a result, there are two general value-orientations people hold toward human flourishing in our globalized world: (1) those who are comfortable with the practices of modern life, which reinforce a value-orientation that is all about making a good life for human beings in this world, and (2) those for whom that’s not satisfying, who need more fulfillment out of life—something to live for beyond this world. At stake in this divide is the truth about human flourishing and what our common moral vision for the good life—that sought-after state of well-being, growth, and wholeness (the Aristotelian eudaimonia)—ought to entail.
Because our frames of reference remain incomplete, there is always going to be some room to dispute the ultimate nature of human flourishing and what a viable path to it includes. But that concession does not deny the reality of a core cluster of natural, human goods that most people from both value-orientations will agree are minimally necessary for human flourishing based on common sense and, a Christian might add, because of common grace. The question is whether or how far we should press beyond those commonly held basics of this-worldly flourishing to attain a more meaning-full existence.
I bring in the concept of ordinary and fuller human goods to talk about the meaning of life (meaning being the reference of things to that which matters). Life becomes meaningful when we give up something that is good to attain to something that matters more, and also to thereby become better people (as in, You Are What You Love). Practicing meaning together in this way is such an essential characteristic of personhood—enabled by our capacities of consciousness, will, and rationality—that humans who aren’t able to do it are generally thought to be immature or insane. Giving up lesser goods for greater goods expresses identity, which is how we belong to groups. Therefore, it is hardly optional to include what is good for others in one’s view of what matters. In the words of the Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
According to Taylor, a secular context is one in which some people organize their lives around getting this-worldly goods as the only things that matter for us, while others give up things that would otherwise be good for us in this world in order to attain human benefits, like a relationship with God, that can’t be reduced to it. (For clarity, I will restrict my use of “sacrifice” to practicing this fuller mode of meaning-making, even though people use the term in an ordinary sense, for example, sacrificing a hobby to spend more time with their kids.) The this-world-oriented people are aware that there are perfectly sane, seemingly normal people for whom God matters so much that they would give up everything for Him. That can disturb their value-orientation. Likewise, the fullness-beyond-this-life folks have friends who seem like good people, as far as that goes, and are perfectly content to carry on with this-worldly meaning alone. That raises the question of whether self-denial for higher purposes is really necessary. Thus, the meaning of life is one that we cannot settle comfortably into. Secularity forces people to acknowledge and live with those that commit to different value-orientations. It always holds open the possibility of choosing to live otherwise.
With the philosophical framework thus sketched, we can now return to the question of cults via a conceptual analogy that I will call the “meaning-binge.” I used to think that joining Adventism’s cultish fringe was a failure of rationality. But never once was I able to argue this kind of extremist out of their beliefs. What I didn’t know is that was because what was really going on was more like an addiction.
The ‘addict’ starts as a soul in a secularized culture that promises no fulness of meaning beyond the mundane or in a church that practices some variety of this-worldly religion, such as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Then the soul finds a ‘pusher,’ who offers a fuller explanation for their existence in terms of a higher purpose and demands some kind of sacrifice be made on behalf of it. The soul gives it up, even something small. For the first time in a long time, maybe their whole life, they feel like their existence matters in terms of something greater than this ordinary world has to offer.
It’s a heady feeling. But the addict needs the next meaning-‘hit,’ and the next meaning-hit. And before she knows it, she is on a meaning-binge: giving up wealth, relationships, health, anything to get the next feeling that life matters in an even more profound way that before. There’s no reasoning with her, but sometimes she constructs elaborate rational structures to justify what’s happening.
Like all binges, it usually ends in one of two ways: death or recovery. Some eventually give up so much that they fail to find meaning in sacrifice any longer and may give up on God entirely. They try to reenter secular culture but struggle to relate. Other meaning-addicts end up making the ultimate, human self-sacrifice. Only those in the cult with access to power—the pushers—find the meaning-binge supplying structure sustainable in the long run, for they are positioned to reap its temporal rewards.
Having explained the nature of cultish behavior in terms of a meaning-binge, what remains is to make the application of this conceptual analogy to Adventism, and in so doing, respond to the challenge to faith posed by cults. From the outset, I acknowledge that one’s basic value-orientation determines how cults are understood: All sacrificial religion is going to look cultish to someone who rejects all meaning beyond this world. And to someone on a meaning-binge, cults are wrong simply because they don’t have the truth that my group has. The question is whether the extremes get to frame the discussion or whether those who pursue both fuller and ordinary human goods can articulate and live a coherent alternative. Did Jesus keep demanding greater and greater sacrifices to demonstrate his power, line his pockets, or sexually exploit the groupies? Did Paul encourage people to renounce ordinary fulfillment as far as possible?
Both Jesus and Paul knew how to give up power for the sake of others, and both encouraged their followers to meaningfully receive the blessings of God in this world (health, food, sex, clothes and shelter, money, friendships, etc.) They were willing to give those things up (2 Cor 11:23–28) and ask others to do the same when it had a higher purpose (Luke 9:23). But their goal wasn’t to extract benefits for themselves in exchange for meaning or push that search for fuller meaning as far toward self-denial as possible.
A cult, in this sense, is a transactional, meaning-making organization that offers fuller meaning in exchange for ordinary human goods. Adventism is a full-meaning, high-sacrifice Christian communion. Adventists are taught that this world is not all we’re living for and to practice self-denial for the soon-coming Savior. Thus, when unmoored from worldly cares and common sense, Adventism becomes cultish and proliferates cult-like organizations around its edges. To draw the comparison directly, the checklist approach to Adventist lifestyle is a potent ‘drug.’ And meaning is what its users are ‘high’ on.
The Adventist Posture Toward Secularity
On the other hand, I submit that a good (in the fullest sense of the word) religious group offers its members both meaningful sacrifices and a viable path to ordinary human flourishing. If this is true, it follows that to foster sustainable Adventist discipleship, we need to regularly return to that cluster of distinctive, theologically persuasive principles for which Adventists make sacrifices. The Sabbath and the Second Coming of Jesus bound up in their end-time significance for the eternal gospel of salvation by faith are how Adventists understand a relationship with God for his own sake and on his own terms as something so good that it is worth living and dying for. Attempting to secularize or “neuter” Adventism’s apocalyptic impulse as a response to its sectarian excesses backfires because downplaying sacrifice sends more Adventists to the cultish fringe in search of fuller meaning.
On the other hand, outside of that nucleus of non-negotiables, church leaders need to provide space for Adventists to interpret how God is calling them to flourish in the fallen world he created until Christ returns. And Adventism already has a robust vision for human flourishing in this world—the ministry of healing along with the practical side of Christian education. This world-oriented vision needs consistent renewal to maintain its relevance for contemporary life in a changing world. In certain places, it can look like drilling wells for rural villages, while in others it could take the form of solidarity with self-harming and suicidal youth. The Adventist vision for healing and education is less like a recipe and more like a menu from which we serve people according to their needs. As Ellen G. White explained to a group of Adventists trying to follow her so-called “blueprint” for education without regard to local needs: “God wants us all to have common sense, and He wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things” (“Interview/Counsel on Age of School Entrance,” Letters and Manuscripts, vol. 19, Ms 7, 1904).
I further submit that the (1) end-time message, which gives a meaning to life that goes beyond this world, combined with the (2) mission of healing and education, which makes life in the here-and-now also meaningful, is the ‘secret sauce’ of Adventism. This posture of a sacrificial life lived-well in certain ways unbelievers can relate to is what will gain us a hearing when we speak with them about the world to come. This is not to imply that Adventism promises the best possible life in this world. That is not possible so long as sacrifice is required. Rather, at its best Adventism offers venues sufficient for this-worldly flourishing, even if their full potential cannot be realized in the here-and-now because Adventists are also living for the world-to-come.
When Adventists separate these two dimensions or, worse, pit them against each other, we fail at what God raised up this movement to accomplish. I have argued that this specific kind of failure can result in an existential feedback loop that both generates and reinforces a cultish fringe of Adventists who need more meaning out of life than this world alone can offer. This thesis could be expanded to account for historical polarization between the cultish fringe and other Adventists who want to live for this world alone.
Yet God can save us from this false dichotomy and renew in us the greater vision for his work so that we can be faithful stewards of the message and mission he has entrusted to us. Some of the people who shamed that young lady with earrings when she visited my first church subsequently had to face their own children falling far short of their expectations. And God used that as an opportunity to open some of their hearts to accept the eternal Gospel of salvation by faith, as opposed to salvation by keeping the rules. They learned to think of the Three Angels’ Messages a part of that Gospel rather than an addition to it. The person who overcame self-induced sodium deficiency discovered how to accept Ellen White’s writings in context so as not to construe following her counsel with pushing the advice she gave certain people beyond the limit reasonable general applicability. And as long as God is bringing hope and healing to people such as this in the Adventist movement, I reckon Adventism not only teaches the kind of theology I can believe in but is also the kind of community where I can belong.