Friday, March 11, 2011

Belief

But in making this or any other assessment about the denomination, any reviewer is confronted by the difficult of 'finding' Adventist theology.

Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart
Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-Day Adventism and the American Dream

From the outset of my time with Seventh-Day Adventists, I have been wondering when I would confront some of the doctrines which I find strange or silly. I have noted a few of those in previous posts, such as the belief in the six-thousand year-old earth that fundamentalists find in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Adventists also believe and hope fervently for the imminent return of Jesus Christ, whose coming will initiate a sequence of apocalyptic events that lead to the end of the world.

Last Wednesday, after a prayer meeting held in the sanctuary, I stuck around for a while and talked to one of the prayer service leaders. I have been hanging around the church enough now that I have made a few friends, and so our conversation ranged back and forth between personal and theological matters.

As I was getting ready to leave, I told him how impressed I have been with the warm and welcoming nature of the church, and with some of the specific practices I have witnessed during the prayer service.

“In the end,” I said, “if we were to sit down and talk about some of the specific things you guys believe in, I'm sure we would have some disagreements, but mostly I've really learned a lot here.”

“You're Catholic, right?” he said to me.

“Yes.”

“Do you believe in everything that the Catholic church says?”

I laughed. I'm not a very doctrinal Catholic.

“Of course not.”

He smiled.

“Same thing here. People in here believe in all kinds of different things. What's important is that you believe. You gotta have faith.”

Afterward it occurred to me how much I judge believers in other religious based on their official doctrines. Adventists, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Muslims—all of these religions espouse theological doctrines or political views that I find strange, silly, or off-putting for one reason or another. And so whenever I think about or meet someone who belongs to one of those religious traditions, I immediately put them into the box of that religion's official doctrines.

And yet, of course, I wouldn't want anyone to put me in the box of the Catholic Church's official doctrines. It seems silly that I would have to spend all this time and energy on my spiritual quest to learn the very simple lesson that other people are just like me—that I shouldn't assume the next Mormon or Muslim I meet follows the doctrinal party line on all religious matters, and that in fact we may have more in common, in terms of our beliefs, than I might have ever guessed.

Of course all of this raises a larger question: why do people, myself included, join or remain in religious traditions with which they might have fundamental disagreements?

Good question, but too large for this blog. I will save my thoughts on this for the book project—but, in the meantime, would welcome your thoughts and comments below.

11 comments:

  1. Interesting question, Jim. I guess there are all kinds of reasons people stay put within a denomination. People may figure that there's no system they're going to agree with completely, and the one of their youth is therefore as good as any. Of course, for many friends, there's familial pressure, so by the very fact of not caring about doctrine anyway, some folks must figure they'd may as well take the path of least resistance.

    The stakes were raised higher when I worked for the Presbyterian church in a two-year domestic missionary program; half of my peers were in the program as a step toward seminary, and I ruled myself out because I felt to be a pastor, you must personify a much higher percentage of the church doctrine. (I don't know if this was true, but it felt true at the time.) So imagine my delight when I first started going to First Unitarian and realized that, in that denomination, I COULD have credibly sought a ministerial career. It does make a difference. -- LAND

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  2. Your commenter above has hit on a discovery I made in my life as well - though I was never seriously considering a career in ministry...ever. I think Unitarian Universalism "catches" a lot of people who don't feel comfortable staying in a religion where they have to ignore "silly" concepts or official church positions on issues with which they fundamentally disagree.
    I left the church of my youth because I felt hypocritical staying in a club whose rules I was certain I never would follow. I just didn't see the point of staying in a religion that asked me to believe some pretty preposterous notions about God and Man.
    I guess I'm a purist - I grew up listening to pastors who denigrated "cafeteria-style" practitioners who picked and chose the aspects of the church they could live with, so I guess it was natural for me to move onto a place where it's expected that each person will build his or her own theology.
    You might be interested to know that for years the 5/6th grade Religious Ed curriculum for UU churches was "The Church Next-Door" (or something like that)in which the kids went to a service and a RE event at a variety of worship spaces. Over the course of the year the kids went to at least 7 different churches/temples/synagogues/mosques. It's possible they still do this.

    This is a great blog post that addresses a question I ponder often - why do people stay in religions that they don't follow if there are others out there that they COULD practice without any qualms what-so-ever?
    Thanks - g

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  3. You will likely find that the reason for staying in a denomination are about as varied as the beliefs of those within a denomination. It is really only the denomination purists who ask the question why do you stay if you don't follow everything we proclaim!

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  4. People stay because it's safe and comfortable and familiar.

    Or, one day, you wake up in your 30s and realize you cannot stay in the Adventist church (which you've been in your entire life) any more because you suddenly do NOT agree with a lot of it. You don't agree with most of organized religion and you suddenly desire an organic, real relationship with Jesus outside of an institutional church.

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  5. Small but significant detail is that the name of the denomination is Seventh-day Adventist (small D).

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  6. Most people, I'm sure, are better than their ideology. Ideology only penetrates so deep in normal people. At a certain level social intelligence and compassion seems to take the edge off the most extreme positions. For that reason ideology will always be more extreme on paper than in real life. Of course, there will always be people whose last name will be Stalin or Hitler and who walk on paper.

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  7. Growing up in the Adventist church and since rejecting belief all together, I can attest to the truth of your blog post. People, including some of my family members remain in the church while disagreeing with much of what the church officially states as "Belifs".

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  8. Speaking for young Adventists in Australia, the majority are *not* highly theological. For any denomination, the majority of leavers have had a relational issue, not a doctrinal one. If one from the younger generation chooses to stay, it is because they stick to a general Christian faith, and because of a *minimal* Adventist theology, like the Sabbath.

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  9. Beliefs are not the place to start in trying to understand a group, religious or not. Start instead with practices...what do people DO? Then ask, what do they WANT and what do they OFFER? Any beliefs or structures can then be understood in the context of lived experience. Try it out on Adventists and any other group you come across.

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  10. Thanks to everyone for their posts above, beginning way back with Anonymous and wormtowngirl, and including the correction on the capitalization of the "D" in "Seventh-day Adventist." This posting has received the most views and comments of anything I have written on this blog, so it seems to have struck a nerve somehow. You all have made many excellent points above, complicating the question and any possible answers we might find.

    I think I am going to try to answer this question for myself by reflecting on why I have not (yet) officially left the Catholic church, despite my many disagreements with it. I hope to post that blog tonight or tomorrow, so check back for more.

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  11. What's the point of being a Roman Catholic if you question papal infallibility vis-a-vis the elevation of Mary as intercessor? What's the point of being a Seventh-day Adventist if you doubt the veracity, importance and specificity of a seventh-day Sabbath in the week-long creation account?

    If there's no point one's better off, as many commenters noted, becoming a Universalist Unitarian where anyone can believe anything and everything and still get along. Inter-denominational? It's inter-religious! There's a seminary for this you know... Claremont School of Theology trains Muslim, Buddhist and Christian clergy side-by-side in their M.Div. program.

    It struck a nerve because we want things to be free.

    We appreciate community but we don't want to make the commitment true community requires. We want to feel as if we belong to something greater than ourselves but we don't want to believe in that greater power.

    It struck a nerve because most want spiritual community without the cost Christian discipleship requires.
    -J.R.

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