Humans have a tendency to polarize on key issues. Throughout the current U.S. presidential race, partisan conflicts have raged over issues from immigration to abortion, gay rights to gun control. In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, theological debates continue to divide us over issues ranging from the nature of Christ to music in the church.
The dominant religion in the country is low-intensity theism. The middle of the theology spectrum is filled by nominal believers, and by serious believers without much fervor. This vast middle tends to be suspicious of—somewhat fearful to and hostile of—both the non-believers on one end and the intense and outspoken believers on the other. The sharpest religious conflict is between the two ends of the spectrum—between the intensely religious and the intensely secular. (Douglass Haycock, quoted in Liberty magazine, January/February 2015)
This polarizing trend in society and religion may appear to be standard fare at first glance, but I’d invite you to ask yourself a simple, yet profound question: “If we are all rational and logical human beings, why then do even the most experienced and capable scientists, politicians, and theologians among us disagree with each other in such a marked fashion?”
If the positions that we took on issues were based on logic, facts, and sound reasoning, the consensus of social, political, and religious groups would naturally fall in the shape of a bell curve, with the great majority of individuals falling at or near the center, along with the facts, sound logic, and real-world solutions. However, what we see instead is a sort of “inverted bell curve,” with social groups become increasingly polarized in their opinions as time progresses.
Dogma, Tribalism, and Extremism
How can we explain this trend? First of all, we know that it’s impossible for a rational observation of facts to lead to polarized opinions. There’s another factor at play here; it’s known as dogma. Perhaps dogma can be best defined by what it is not: a fair, logical, and balanced representation of facts. Dogma can be found everywhere, and it comes in all manner of different varieties, but the formula is generally the same: “X is true because [authority] says so.”
The “authority” can be many things:
- “Because my parents say so”
- “Because my pastor says so”
- “Because my professor says so”
- “Because the media says so”
- “Because my ethnic group says so”
- “Because my political party says so”
- “Because conventional wisdom says so”
Dogma appears in many forms: a bias toward evidence that supports one’s beliefs, a misrepresentation of the facts to suit one’s own purposes, or an attempt to make issues of greater or lesser import to suit one’s preconceived opinions. Dogma isn’t necessarily harmful in and of itself. It only becomes dangerous when entangled with another social phenomenon known as “blind tribalism.” Let me explain.
A “tribe” is simply a group of people linked together by something they have in common, whether it be a religion, ethnicity, nationality, family, philosophy, or cause. Christianity is a tribe. So is the Tea Party. So are Australians. Small and closely connected tribes combine to form larger and more loosely connected tribes. The Tea Party is a sub-tribe of the Republican Party, which, in turn, is a sub-tribe of all political parties in the United States.
Tribalism is a neutral social phenomenon—neither good nor evil. What makes tribalism a force for good or evil depends on the individual tribe member and their relationship with the tribe. In particular, one simple distinction:
Tribalism is good when the tribe and the tribe member both have an independent identity that happen to be the same. For example, you studied the Bible for yourself and came to the conclusion that the Adventist Church is the remnant church. Let’s call this “conscious tribalism.”
Tribalism is bad when the tribe and tribe member’s identity are one and the same. In other words, when the tribe member’s identity is determined by whatever the tribe’s dogma happens to dictate. The member has no independent identity outside of the tribe. Let’s call this “blind tribalism.”
Individual members of any tribe may fall anywhere on the spectrum from “conscious” to “blind.” The more rigid and dogmatic the tribe, the blinder its tribe members tend to be. For example, ISIS could be expected to have a far higher percentage of blind tribe members than your average Anglican congregation.
In every tribe, there are a certain number of larger and smaller sub-tribes. Some of these sub-tribes will typically be more rigid, dogmatic, and vocal than others. Those sub-tribes that lean the furthest to the right or the left will gain the most influence and support within the larger tribe.
As a result, the encompassing tribe will gradually polarize toward extremism, with the most vocal individuals taking sides towards the far right or far left. Two specific examples of this dynamic in recent years are the 2016 U.S. presidential race and the Adventist Church in North America.
We can boil down our conclusions thus far into two simple tribal laws:
Law #1: The most vocal individual(s) or group(s) in any tribe tend to be the most extreme.
Examples of issues where this law applies could include gay rights, gun control, Mexican immigration, Syrian refugees, and (in the Adventist Church) music and drums, dress reform, and theological issues such as last generation theology and women’s ordination, etc.
Law #2: The individual(s) or group(s) with the most conviction (the most dogmatic) win.
Therefore, the dynamic that tends to rule in social/political/religious environments:
More extreme —> More vocal and dogmatic —> More influential over the less informed
Thus, we see the rise of fundamentalism in Christianity, ISIS and Al Qaeda in Islam, the Tea Party in the GOP, Richard Dawkins in atheism, and the Nazis in Germany.
A Cure for Dogmatic Tribalism
This prompts the question, “What can we do to prevent the global threat of extremism and radicalization, whether it be in society or in the church?” Dogmatic tribalism is complex, and the answers are far from simple. Parents, teachers, pastors, politicians, the media—they all have a part to play in the molding of the minds of the youth. I believe, however, that one of dogma’s greatest proponents is also one of its most effective cures: education.
Seth Godin, speaking at TEDx Youth @BFS, describes the conventional public education system in the following way:
The deal was: universal public education whose sole intent was not to train the scholars of tomorrow—we had plenty of scholars. It was to train people to be willing to work in the factory. It was to train people to behave, to comply, to fit in. We process you for a whole year. If you are defective, we hold you back and process you again. We sit you in straight rows, just like they organize things in the factory. We build a system all about interchangeable people because factories are based on interchangeable parts.
The conventional system of public education is almost universally recognized as being in need of reform, particularly in the United States. Documentaries such as Waiting for Superman and books such as Creative Schools, written by Sir Ken Robinson, are only two of the growing pile of books and films calling for the reform of public education.
Hundreds of philanthropies spend a cumulative $4 billion annually to support and transform K-12 education. The “Big Three” funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—have the goal of overhauling public education. Leading the list of concerns: a depressing level of academic performance, an educated lack of creativity and innovation, and an inability of students to think and reason for themselves.
Education is one of the most powerful forces on earth, holding the power to mold and shape the future of our world, but a standardized system of compliance and dogma has left the youth unable to think and act for themselves—devoid of the skills necessary to effectively contribute to society. In contrast, the biblical system of true education is designed to accomplish the exact opposite objective: “It is the work of true education to develop this power [individuality, power to think and do], to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought” (Education, p. 17, emphasis mine).
The Adventist philosophy of education is distinct from the world’s. It was not intended to imitate or copy the world. It was designed by God to be far superior. True Adventist education, if properly executed, develops individuals who are free from dogma and blind tribalism. They can think for themselves and are not susceptible to extremism and fundamentalism.
Here’s a more concrete demonstration of the value of true education. This comes from Studies in Christian Education by E. A. Sutherland (Chapter 1):
Luther and Melanchthon, the great sixteenth century reformers, understood clearly that it was impossible to have a permanent religious reform without Christian education. So they not only gave attention to the doctrines of the Papacy, but also developed a strong system of Christian schools.
These reformers realized that the strength of the Papal church lay in its educational system, and they struck a crushing blow at this system and, wounding it, brought the Papal church to her knees. The reformers established a system of Christian schools that made Protestants of the children.”
The success of the reformers had been due to their control of the young people through their educational system. The Papal schools were almost forsaken during the activity of Luther and Melanchthon. … The Papacy realized that the existence of the Papal church itself depended upon a victory over Protestant schools. We are surprised at the skill and tact the Papal educators used in their attack, and the rapidity with which they gained the victory. This experience should be an object lesson forever to Seventh-day Adventists. (emphasis mine)
It was the preaching, teaching and writing of Martin Luther that laid the foundation for the success of the Protestant reformation in Europe, but it was the success of Protestant education (established by Luther and Melanchthon) that established and sustained it. The Protestant educational system raised and nurtured a generation of independent, freethinking, and thoroughly Protestant youth.
True Education: A Tool for Transformation
In an Adventist context, can we be surprised that our youth are leaving the church when they are educated in a worldly system that educates conformity and compliance, stifling independent thought and moral judgment? Regardless of how much spiritual education these young people receive as children, they will eventually leave home, attend university, and become exposed to the world outside of Adventism.
The question of whether they will be conformed to the world, or transformed despite it, depends on the education that they have received. In today’s media-dominated environment, the education of children and youth will determine how they face the worldly influences they will certainly encounter in youth and adulthood.
Just as we have neglected Ellen White’s counsel in the area of medical missionary work, leaving us at the tail of worldly progress and not the head that God had designed for us to become, we are following an identical path in our educational endeavors. By seeking to conform to the world’s standard while retaining a semblance of Christianity, yes, we have excelled, but we are neglecting a far greater opportunity to lead the world in the field of education.
Furthermore, comprehend the global impact the Seventh-day Adventist Church could have if self-supporting schools across the developing world educated a generation of men and women to be thinkers and not reflectors of men’s thoughts—not simply the implications for the growth and development of the Adventist Church, but also in terms of economic growth, scientific innovation, moral reform, and democracy. Maybe we could finally become a true “spectacle unto the world, unto angels, and unto men” (1 Corinthians 4:9, KJV).
Throughout the world, society is in disorder, and a thorough transformation is needed. The education given to the youth is to hold the whole social fabric. (The Ministry of Healing, p. 406)