Reimagining Adventism, Part 12a: Unity and Absurdity

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Reimagining Adventism, Part 12a: Unity and Absurdity

Society is not homogenous, and those who do not deliberately close their eyes have to recognise that men differ greatly from one another from the physical, moral, and intellectual viewpoints. – Vilfredo Pareto

 

The doctrine of unity is not one that we often turn to when thinking about secular outreach. In the realm of modernist skepticism, Christian apologists turn to natural theology and other philosophical arguments to make a case for the existence of God. It is thought, in this discipline, that if the culture is given enough grounds to see God as the best possible explanation for life and existence, then perhaps this will make said culture easier to reach. I certainly don’t doubt the impact and validity of contemporary apologetics, but to suggest that logical or rational argumentation suffices to lead a wandering soul to Christ is certainly an overstatement.

 

Likewise, in the realm of post and meta-modernity cultural apostles invest time in reframing the gospel to speak meaningfully to the secular mind. We invest energy in coming close, listening, understanding and then, contextualizing our approach. In fact, this model is essentially what this entire series is built on. However, to think that reframing the gospel to interact meaningfully with contemporary sensibilities and value structures suffices to bring the post-church heart to Christ is another example of overconfidence in ideological discourse.

 

Now of course, these elements are necessary. There is nothing worse for a secular mind than to contend with a Christian who lacks the capacity to understand her language and speak meaningfully to her heart. Nevertheless, as is the case with rational argumentation, ideological contextualization is simply not enough. Instead, what the culture most desperately needs is a demonstration of divine love in action. It is the pragmatic conduct of the collective Christian mind that provides the greatest evidence and most effective invitation to the secular mind. This, I believe, is precisely why—despite all the enlightening ideas revealed in scripture—Jesus laid the evidence of his authenticity as messiah on the least expected thing when he said,

 

By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another (John 13:35).

 

Adventists quote this verse often, but I’m not so sure we understand it. Jesus is stating that all men will know we are his, not by our prophetic insights, systematic cohesion, evangelistic methodologies or theological propositions but by our willingness to bring food to each other when we are sick, pray for each other when we are lonely, embrace each other when facing difficulty, and inconvenience ourselves with no reward to ourselves. Somehow, the tiny and often imperceptible actions of life—the random acts of kindness, the acceptance and listening ear, the caring and providing for one another—are the ones to emerge as the primary evidences of Christ’s messianic legitimacy, not the apocalyptic visions of Daniel or Revelation.

 

However, as is the case with all Biblical teachings, the doctrine of unity has been perverted to the point that rather than attracting the culture, we end up repelling them. Therefore, in my experience connecting with and reaching out to secular minds I have found it necessary to revisit the topic of unity and discover precisely how God intends for this practical mode of being at the front and center of the church’s universal attractiveness to function. In doing so, I have uncovered three simple keys that have helped me navigate my own concept of unity from what it has become to what God originally intended it to be. Those three keys I refer to as,

 

  1. the fallacy of homogeneity
  2. the paradox of attachment
  3. the divine oneness reflected

 

In this present article, I will comment on the first and expand on the other two in the next installment.

 

The Fallacy of Homogeneity

 

When I was a soldier, one of the values stressed most often for military precision was the value of being “uniform”. Uniform, in military culture, refers to much more than the combat gear everyone wears. Rather, uniform in that context is a reference to a culture of single-mindedness and functional predictability. Everything had to be uniform. Our combat gear, barracks, hairstyles, motor pools, and equipment inventories were identical. In combat scenarios, items were stored in the same exact place each time in order to maximize reaction time during high-stress scenarios. The entire military structure was set up this way in order to engineer a culture in which every mind thought, conducted itself the same. This approach increased compliance with the rule of law while decreasing individuality and insubordination—modes of being which had the potential to derail a company from its intended mission.

 

As far as military operations go, this method works quite well. The military is not something you join for the sake of friendships, emotional and spiritual healing, or to celebrate the uniqueness and diversity of each individual. Instead, the military is a machine with one purpose—to wage war as effectively and efficiently as possible. And to that end, emptying each mind of its unique attributes in order to maximize the reliability of national defense measures was imperative.

 

However, as brilliant as this approach may be in a military context, it is tragic in just about every other environment. If a parent attempts to raise their children in this manner, by repressing their individuality, the results will be disastrous. If the home life is to be warm, welcoming and inviting individuality must be celebrated and embraced. If a child is to grow with any level of emotional balance and autonomy, his individuality must be nurtured. And likewise, if the church is to succeed in its mission of spreading the gospel it must come to terms with the celebration of the other, nurturing and empowering the authentic self of each member, for in doing so the gospel moves from a mere ideological construct to a promise revealed in the diversity of life and being. The tragedy that I observe, however, is the disturbing tendency in the church to aim for a militarized environment of uniformity while claiming it is unity. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

On March 3, 2020 author and speaker Ty Gibson posted the following thought-provoking thought on Twitter:

 

The unspoken quest to produce the homogenous Christian person—all of us thinking, feeling, vibing, dressing, singing, articulating, expressing within the same narrow cultural spectrum—has the effect of shutting people down and crippling the church’s witness.

 

In this Tweet, Gibson provides us with an excellent definition and diagnosis of the problem of pursuing uniformity (which he terms homogeneity). This unspoken quest that he speaks of then, is really a perversion of true unity that purports to be its ally. All throughout Adventism, this fallacy plagues us and challenges us at every step because it takes the biblical concept of unity and morphs it into the authoritarian concept of uniformity. Therefore, whereas unity sees the people of God loving one another, supporting one another, and working together despite our diversity in culture, temperaments, and convictions the quest for homogeneity insist that we must all be identical. Therefore, all Adventists must sing hymns and if you don’t sing hymns you are not an Adventist. All Adventists must dress like Europeans and if you don’t dress like a European you’re not an Adventist. All Adventists must comply with my version of modesty and if you do not, then you are not an Adventist—not a true, authentic one anyways. Calling this perversion out also proves to be tricky because it is like a slithery snake that quickly hides behind pious phrases like, “can two walk except they be agreed?” or “to the law and to the testimony”—a verse that is often quoted, not to defend what is written “according to this word” but to defend what is written “according to my opinion”.

 

The problem, of course, is compounded when we realize that much of what is accepted as traditional Adventist culture is merely a recapitulation of old Euro-American trends. None of our dress, music, or language came to us from heaven. On the contrary, all of it is but a mere reflection of the Anglo North American culture in which Adventism evolved. And when we attempt to manufacture a homogenous Adventist culture that reflects this one-dimensional cultural expression of old-suburban men in suits and women in flowery swing dresses, we end up communicating that the only way to be a faithful, godly Adventist is to first dress, sing, and talk like a white person from the 1950s. And anyone who cannot fit themselves into that narrow, oppressive mold we relegate to the pile of worldly, carnal people who reject God’s end-time standards.

 

It is this quest for homogeneity that has ruined our ability, as a church, to be truly united. Because the moment the youth want to sing Hillsong, or the pastor wants to hang up the suit and dress a bit more casually we go to war in the name of “we must be united” without realizing that unity is not about everyone having the same convictions and expressions, but about everyone being driven by such a deep love that they can serve, honor, and support one another in the midst of diversity, not its absence. To that end, I would say that the fallacy of homogeneity is that it is not truly unity because homogeneity removes the necessary elements for unity to thrive in. It gets rid of uniqueness, individuality, and diversity, and thus creates a pseudo-unity—one in which the church flows in harmony only to the degree that no one messes with the pre-approved status quo. And because this status quo often seems to favor a bygone generation, emerging secular and unchurched neighbors in our communities who visit our churches find that, despite the potentially insightful message we carry, they simply don’t fit in.

 

This war between unity and uniformity also finds itself raging wildly over the theme of Women’s Ordination. There are parts of the world that are not culturally prepared to embrace such a progressive step and parts of the world that are long overdue to make the shift. In an attempt to allow the parts of the world that are ready without imposing a value structure on others, the church was asked to vote on a simple proposition: that unions would have the capacity to ordain Women to ministry in the regions in which they saw fit to do so. But in the lead-up and aftermath of the vote the quasi-unity was evoked as a manipulation tactic intended to coerce the conscience in the name of homogeneity. The vote—we all know—did not go well. The tables have now been turned. The westerners who once spread their homogeneity on non-western cultures by forcing their value structures and perceptions of holiness unto others are now having to endure the reality that those same others are now the dominant members of the church and returning the favor by imposing their homogeneity onto us. It’s a tragic scenario really, but the worst part is this myth so many seem to have bought into—that if diverse regions operate in a diverse way that somehow this damages our unity. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is in the absence of diversity that unity is damaged. It is in its presence, that it thrives.

 

The Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto said it best when he wrote,

 

Society is not homogenous, and those who do not deliberately close their eyes have to recognise that men differ greatly from one another from the physical, moral, and intellectual viewpoints.[1]

 

The culture, of course, is fully aware of this diversity. The church not so much. And this, I believe, is one of the reasons why we struggle to connect meaningfully with a post-church age. We are either divided or uniform, and in our quest for uniformity, we merely exacerbate the divide. And the world can see this. Division does not attract the skeptic to the cross. Homogeneity does not either—especially when the culture we are contending with is one that values autonomy and self-determination as inviolable human rights. In this context, all displays of homogeneity in the name of this supposed unity serve only to fool us. They do not fool the seeker.

 

To this, some would disagree by suggesting that problems with unity cannot be the cause for our missional failure because unity is not itself among the chief of intellectual concepts in the theological fields that people are contending with. However, I would remind us of the words of Jesus who clearly stated that our love for one another is the greatest evidence of his truth. Without this love—which we will explore in more detail in the next article—we simply cannot fulfill our mission. It is also worth noting that despite the sophisticated anti-Christian diatribe of the day, one can never get away from the pragmatic difficulties presented by the church’s failure to live out the love of God in tangible ways. Argue for the existence of God or the solidity of Christ’s meta-narrative well enough and you will eventually arrive at the epicenter of many skeptics’ true problem—Christians.

 

In this sense, it appears that to a large degree it is not Christ or Christianity that is at the fore of the culture’s abandonment of the church but rather Christians. Those who self-identify as followers of the Christ and adopters of the Christian way but whose lives are inundated in judgmentalism, division, coercion, manipulation and spiritual abuse all in the name of maintaining the moral facade. Your apologetics are meaningless here. But show the culture a community of faith that truly loves and cares for one another, one in which unity dances with the beautiful colors of diversity, and suddenly the heart of many a critic softens just a bit. The walls lower a few inches. A curious peek from the other side follows. There is just something counterintuitive but likewise brilliant about the whole theme of unity. It proves Christ where science, theology, and dogma fail.

 

Ellen White also expressed this sentiment when she wrote,

 

We seldom find two persons exactly alike. Among human beings as well as among the things of the natural world, there is diversity. Unity in diversity among God’s children—the manifestation of love and forbearance in spite of difference of disposition—this is the testimony that God sent His Son into the world to save sinners.[2]

In these confronting and equally liberating words, White celebrates the diversity of the human species but goes a step further. She suggests that it is our ability to love and cherish one another in our diversity that testifies of Jesus’ salvific story. This is far from the fallacy of homogeneity. This is, by way of contrast, a harmonious way of being in which opposites are brought together to form a stunning mosaic that enraptures the heart of the onlooker and declares to the culture, “Christ saves”.

Click here to read the rest of this series on Reimagining Adventism.

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Notes.

[1] Hideaki Aoyama, et al. “Macro-Econophysics: New Studies on Economic Networks and Synchronization,” p. 53.

[2] Ellen White, Sons and Daughters, p. 286.

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About the author

Marcos Torres

Marcos Torres is a pastor in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. He loves talking about faith, culture and Adventism. You can follow his blog at www.thestorychurchproject.com.