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Finding My Way in Christianity

Finding My Way in Christianity: Recollections of a Journey

I’ve tried to make a habit of writing some personal reflections on the books my company, Energion Publications, publishes. That doesn’t usually involve that many posts, but I got behind earlier in the year, and I’m catching up. This one is going to be longer than usual because these are personal reflections, and this book gets rather personal for me.

Finding My Way in Christianity leads me to some very personal reflections, so you can expect me to talk about myself a great deal here. While all the books I publish will connect in some way with my own spiritual life and experience, this one connected very directly with my personal experiences. The author, Herold Weiss, taught at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, and while he left about 10 years before I arrived as a student, a number of names he mentions are very familiar. I knew some of his colleagues, and he also had some of those who would later be my professors in his classes.

In particular I noticed the name Sakae Kubo, who became the dean of the School of Theology at Walla Walla College while I was a student there. I studied epistles in Greek with Dr. Kubo for two years, and he was the one who encouraged me to apply for a fellowship to study at Andrews University, where I subsequently received my MA. Amongst other people mentioned are Earle Hilgert, whose name I heard repeatedly, Siegfried Horn (though I studied under his successor, Dr. Larry Geraty), and many others.

By the time I was at Andrews, the controversy had moved on to different names, but the same issues were involved. There was a great deal of controversy around Dr. Desmond Ford’s teachings at the time I was there, and there were still many people demanding that one accept the interpretation provided by Ellen White as definitive regarding any particular scripture.

Let me start with a couple of stories from my time at Andrews University that seemed small at the time but have turned out to be pivotal for me in my own journey of “finding my way in Christianity.” The first was when I was invited to watch an Assyriologist at work in the Horn Museum at Andrews. I had no idea where anyone got the idea that I wanted to be an Assyriologist. I was taking Akkadian, but only as one of the languages, not my major language. (I took a concentrated quarter of study in that language.) Nonetheless I went to observe this man at work. Now it was fascinating to watch him. He was transcribing tablets and his skill and speed at drawing the signs was impressive. He asked me why I wanted to be an Assyriologist, at which point I told him I didn’t. He had apparently been told I was interested in doing my doctoral work in that area.

What that session actually accomplished was to crystallize for me the work I really wanted to do, which was to be able to talk about the issues of history, language, and background to non-specialists–to be a popularizer. Now I suspect that I was sent to watch this man and encouraged to think about a specialized career partially because of the dangers inherent in being an SDA scholar interpreting biblical scholarship to the people in the pews.

I had come from Walla Walla College where I found the attitudes of the professors universally helpful. At least in private, people were willing to discuss just about anything with me. In classes, they were more careful, though I thought they were generally quite honest. There was a view I learned first from my uncle, Don F. Neufeld, who was an associate editor of the Review and Herald at that time, which suggested you didn’t need to tell people everything you knew. The phrase my uncle used was “pastoral concern.”

So out of pastoral concern you wouldn’t discuss the problems with a literal interpretation of Genesis with people whose faith might be shaken by such ideas. I had many personal conversations in which he acknowledged that the earth really couldn’t be 6,000 years old, and that the Geoscience Research Institute’s tours were really exercises in futility. He wasn’t sure that even the folks who led them really believed what they were teaching.

I was reminded of those conversations when I read Dr. Weiss’s comment that these presentations sounded to him like “special pleading,” and that he “got the distinct impression that the presentations were efforts at treading water in order not to sink.” That is indeed the feeling one gets in such presentations. I remember seeing GRI ads offering grants to do scientific study to prove the young age of the earth, surely a case of putting one’s conclusion ahead of the evidence.

I noticed a change when I went from Walla Walla College to Andrews University. None of my professors in either place challenged major SDA doctrines in their teaching. But questions were heard and discussed at Walla Walla, even if not all of them were answered. (One can hardly expect answers to all questions.) At Andrews, I found it easy to discuss languages and history, but questions on broader issues were much less welcome. The atmosphere was different.

But a second experience reinforced this view. One of my professors recommended that I submit a paper I had presented in his class to Andrews University Seminary Studies for publication. I naively did so, not really thinking about the result. One of the reviewers for the paper was another professor, one with whom I was not nearly so much in tune theologically. According to the editor, who discussed the result with me, this reviewer said I was “trying to be a second Wellhausen.”

That was, of course, both very flattering for a mere MA student, and also very dangerous in Adventist circles. The professor himself, who started avoiding me on campus, never commented on this to me until after I had graduated, at which point he stopped me to warn me of the dangers of the course I was following. I had benefited greatly from his linguistic knowledge, but had found that he would always choose the interpretation that supported traditional Adventist theology, whether or not the text supported that.

The article was not published, and I didn’t bother submitting it elsewhere. By that time I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to manage to make a career as a Bible teacher in the Seventh-day Adventist Church even though I did try for another couple of years.

Now let me turn to the book. No, I haven’t forgotten the book on which I’m supposed to be reflecting. Receiving manuscripts is an interesting experience. I started Energion Publications, and for some time it was a part time job for me. We’ve moved beyond that point in the last couple of years. The first several things I published were solicited. It’s not that I didn’t receive manuscripts; it’s just that I didn’t receive publishable manuscripts in the early days without going out and asking for them.

Over the last couple of years I’ve had to put together a good process for selecting manuscripts because I’ve been receiving many that require more than five minutes to reject, and a few that I can accept. One part of that process is that I have specific people to read manuscripts so that I don’t just publish what interests me.

Now getting a manuscript from a Seventh-day Adventist writer brings out mixed emotions. The first question is whether it is a manuscript that addresses specifically SDA issues. The second is whether it maintains an attitude of Christian charity towards the SDA church. Those are two hurdles that must be overcome in my mind. The third question is whether it is of interest to a more general audience.

This manuscript met the first two tests. Dr. Weiss speaks directly and forcefully on occasion, but no more so than his subject demands. I think some people will be unhappy with the stories that are told, but even though I was not at Andrews at the time in question, the stories ring true and mesh with what I learned of these things when I was in school. Dr. Weiss is calling for dialog; for an attitude that allows questions to be asked and the evidence to be examined.

I would contrast this to the idea of “pastoral concern.” As much as I learned from my uncle, this is an area where I disagree with him profoundly. I think that the unexamined question is an accident waiting to happen. I know people who have studied these questions and come to conservative conclusions. I know others who have come to more liberal conclusions. I respect both those groups and the many between. But I have a problem with those who won’t face the questions in the first place, or who don’t allow others to do so.

I have encountered many, many young people who say that their pastors and Sunday School (or Sabbath School) teachers have deceived them. It’s not that these people gave them the wrong answers. It’s that these people didn’t admit the questions even existed.

Such theological journeys do not occur in a vacuum, however, and I think that is the great strength of this book. Dr. Weiss recounts a cross-cultural journey that merges with the theological journey. This part of the book was another very attractive point for me. I grew up partly in Mexico and in South America myself, though I was the son of missionary parents, and I lived in the one English speaking country on the mainland of South America – Guyana. But friends and associates came from or served in many of the places mentioned in the book. The story, with each chapter titled after a geographical location, put theology in the context of a person and a community, as it should be.

There remains my third question regarding a book about the Seventh-day Adventist church, whether it is of interest to a broader audience. For this I had to get the opinions of others. Those opinions were favorable. On the one hand, this is because the experience of a spiritual journey in the Seventh-day Adventist church is not so different from such an experience in any other denomination as one might imagine.

On the other hand, this is because, contrary to my initial expectations, this is not a story about the SDA church. It is the story about a believer encountering his faith, and the challenges to it that we must face. Those challenges come both from the information and views that we encounter that might not fit, and also from those in our faith community who find the very idea of a spiritual journey threatening. I find this latter group most dangerous. Those who believe they have arrived will quit trying to travel.

I was thinking about the desire of some in the SDA church to avoid literature written by people from other denominations and to halt the inquiries of young minds who might look outside of traditional channels for information, answers, and new questions. This couldn’t happen in, say, the United Methodist Church, could it? (For anyone who missed it, I’m now a member of a United Methodist congregation.)

A church with which I’m acquainted was having trouble, as many churches do, keeping its college age young people. They started a young adult class. The teacher, not herself college age, went out of her way to discover what the two or three young people wanted to study. They ended up reading books of theology and philosophy from a variety of perspectives and discussing them in class. The class grew, even attracting a number of adults in the church to join. Young people were coming back to the church.

Then the complaints began. Some were not happy that some of these young people didn’t attend the church services. But the big complaint was that they were not using “approved curriculum.” They started an “official” college age class to replace it, using approved young adult curriculum. That new class lasted about a month and then it was over. Those young people who had attended just Sunday School but not church continued not to attend church. They just didn’t attend Sunday School either.

The problems described in this book can happen anywhere. It’s not just about SDAs. It’s about Christians–people–gathered into the groups we call denominations.

When I was struggling with my own faith following completion of my degree at Andrews, I was frequently told to “just have faith.” Others would ask me how I could question the faith of the pioneers, meaning, of course, the Adventist pioneers. But I find an appeal to numbers or an appeal to history pretty weak, especially if the numbers are small and the history short. To remain a part of Adventism, one has to have a personal conviction, and such conviction is not fostered by telling the questioner to believe and shut up.

I would address four groups of potential readers.

First, there are those who are in the Seventh-day Adventist church, whether you are a conservative Adventist or liberal. This book will give you some insights into the joys and difficulties of those who work within Adventism, yet want to be open, examining all things, keeping what is good, and rejecting what they find to be wrong. I wish I had been able to read something like it when I was going through Andrews. I doubt it would have kept me in Adventism–I lack the patience. But it might have spared me some of my detour away from Christianity.

Second, there are ex-SDAs. If you are angry at your former church, you will find that others have walked this road, and that there are many there who are, in fact, sincere seekers for truth. This book is encouraging to me, because I know that in my former denomination there are folks like Herold Weiss.

Third, there are those in the broader Christian world who face similar situations. Some of the particular doctrinal issues (the investigative judgment, the role of Ellen White) will be different, but others (verbal inspiration, creationism) will be very familiar. Some of you may be walking that kind of a road right now. How do you respond to the challenges to your faith? How do you respond to new knowledge that might make you reassess some of what you have believed?

Fourth, there are the heresy hunters. There are many divides amongst those who grew up in the SDA church but later left. One of those is between those who turn to a very conservative evangelical Christianity and those who take a more moderate or liberal route. Many who leave to join conservative evangelical communities become harshly critical. Many of these treat the entire SDA church as a cult. I think this book is a good read for these folks as well.

I’m glad I chose to publish this book, both from the personal perspective and as a publisher. I think it will be of value to the body of Christ.

Note: There are still advance copies available to reviewers, including those in our blogger review program. E-mail pubs@energion.com for information, or request your copy via our convenient request form.

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