November 2015: #1 (God, suffering, questions, answers)

So, our November season of basic Christian apologetics for Seventh-Day Adventists is a five-part series, beginning with this question:

Is it at all possible to give answers that will make sense to those who are experiencing such tragedy if they do not subscribe to the belief in an All Powerful and Loving God?

This is a great question for a philosophically-literate theologian, but this answer needs to be readable by as many church members as possible. That said, we won’t be skimping on the rigorous thinking itself – we’ll just have less plates spinning in the air – at least, for now.

However, there are a few things which need to be flagged. Some of you will not like reading this, but historically, US education has generally focussed on the accrual of information under the misguided notion that information = knowledge. This has led to a state of affairs in which all manner of questions are assumed to fit into a category where the answer is either black (thesis) or white (antithesis). Thanks to Antonio Gramsci we have a very useful concept to help anyone understand how certain culturally-specfic values and constructions can become celebrated outside their geographical starting point: “cultural hegemony.”

I am not anti-American in any way. But I am certainly against the values of US general education, and this is where the rubber meets the road. Global Adventism still looks back to the motherland for everything to do with what it means to be a ‘good Adventist’ and the sad truth is that the overwhelming majority of economic, ecclesiological (i.e. Conferences, Unions, Divisions, the GC etc) and intellectual powerbrokers in the world church are either American or American-educated in some way. And so they will naturally work within American educational values without questioning them.

While the roots of 21st-century USA lie in Europe, Africa, Asia (shall we spare a thought for the native American Indians here?!) etc, since the 19th century the USA has been able to assert its own identity with increasing clarity and force, and now that identity has been exported as a world value to every continent. The global SDA church is an excellent example, because here in British Adventism, we now export North American Adventism at such a rate that it is no wonder our own people never get to develop world-class ministries (how often do we export to the USA?) – because if someone with an American accept and sharp cloths and and even sharper haircut does not say it, we ain’t even listening. That is with apologies to our Anglo-European brethren, who tend to frequently question American Adventism in ways that African-Caribbeans do not. And what label do African-Caribbean British Adventists tend to apply to Anglo-Euro Adventists who drink coffee and wear more makeup and jewelry than some of us (though this latest generation is changing that – fast!)?

LIBERAL.

You’re now wondering what my point is, right? Fair enough, I’ll drop the hammer. We’re quick to do that sort of thing because we assume that all conservative Adventists will think in the same ways about all of the same things. We’ve failed to clock that a person may dress like a conservative but have the theology of a liberal, and vice-versa. And there are a whole slew of Adventist speakers out there who will have some serious problems at the judgment bar of God, because not only have their slovenly habits of mind reduced them to belittling others who don’t think as they do: they have infected many others with their own prejudices. And here in the UK, the North Americans now officially do our thinking for us, so if they’re not on tap, we’re scuppered…

NOT ALL QUESTIONS CAN BE REDUCED TO “EITHER/OR!” But alas, the damage is done, and now the result is that when we’re asked serious, searching questions by people who don’t believe as we do, if the answers I’ve heard (and seen) with my own ears from:

  • Sabbath school teachers (and students)
  • Elders
  • Evangelists (in some cases, so-called)
  • Bible Workers
  • (occasionally) clergy
  • local church celebrities (including on Facebook)
  • numerous famous presenters

are anything to go by, it is no wonder that we lost 5.9 million members between 2000-2013 as a world church – and in percentage terms, of all the people we baptised in that period, we lost 43% after baptism.

British Adventists have to think like Brits to survive in the workplace, but like Americans to survive in church, and so we are appallingly badly equipped to actually make friends with those who are not like us and bring those folk to church.

~

The first thing you do when someone asks you a question is to make sure you’ve understood it. That’s a way of showing that you’re actually interested in them as a person, not as a potential Adventist. Here is how I personally break down every question that I am asked: I ask what I call ‘basic’ questions as follows:

  1. What are the elements in this question?
  2. What are the presuppositions?
  3. Are there any implications? If so, what are they?

So in this case, let’s start with the elements:

  • Answers
  • Therefore, questions
  • Sense (aka coherence)
  • Experience
  • Tragedy
  • Belief (itself)
  • Belief in something (Someone) specific – a deity, in fact – who is (apparently) all-powerful and loving

Now, the presuppositions: an SDA is posing this question to other SDAs. As such, it is being taken as read that:

  • this God is real
  • He is indeed all-powerful and He is loving
  • the tragedy that people experience is real, and not a figment of their imagination
  • it is a good and reasonable thing that people should receive answers to their questions that actually make sense
  • that there may be certain questions which may be much harder to answer if the potential recipient of the answer does not have a belief in an all-powerful and loving God

Here’s an example of an incorrect assumption of a presupposition: an inexperienced analytical thinker could assume that a presupposition behind this question is that such answers might actually not exist. Two rebuffs, one on a level of principle, and one on a personal epstemic level (i.e. I know something). First, just because a question is asked, do not assume anything about what the one asking believes about the potential of any potential answer. You have no idea what’s driving the question unless you know the person and have a starting point (and even then, people mess up on that all the time!). Second, I know this person well and I know that although they’ve asked this question worded: “is it possible….” that they DO believe that it must be possible.

Are there any potential implications? Yes. This is linked to both outreach and inreach. What a person believes will have an impact on what ideas they will be willing to receive and those that they will not. So in this case, a person who has no belief in an all-powerful and loving God is not necessarily an ‘atheist’ (please, go easy on these words unless you know what you’re talking about). They may well be a theist, but not in a Biblical sense. They may believe that God is love, but that His power is limited. Or they may believe in His omnipotence, but not His love. Or they may believe that God is the sole author of both good and evil (one of my very good friends is in this category having been an outright atheist for 34 years – makes for fascinating but very challenging interactions).

I hope that someone has begun to “join the dots” in their mind whilst reading this. This is an intriguing question because with no qualifications and caveats, there is no categorical universal answer to this question. ‘Sense’ can only be determined by every individual. Something may be literally and fundamentally wrong, but if it makes ‘sense’ to a person, then it is what they have chosen to accept. We may argue that certain beliefs (like certain of those held by JWs and Mormons, for example) are beyond sanity and logic, but those faith traditions are continuing to find new members and baptise them. Moreover, when we decide to use a stupendously weak framework for an argument to support our Scriptural interpretations, and then deny another Christian the right to use that same type of argument to defend their position, we lose credibiity as well as the argument. When we decide that something makes ‘sense’ because we like it – but then deny another person the right to do the same with a doctrinal issue that we have strong feelings about, we hinder ourselves from ever being credible to certain persons who have thought more about what they do not believe that most of us have about what we do believe.

~

But I know what the person meant. And the answer is: ‘yes’ – we can give answers which do make sense to people who remain living victims of tragedy who do not believe in an all-powerful and loving God. But most of you have fallen for American spiel, and you think that every question must have an answer. This is an information-based approach, where you want what you call ‘knowledge’ which could be bereft of genuine understanding. A significant number of high-profile Adventists are fully culpable for teaching many of you that you just need the right answers. Sometimes, you need to take apart the question (gently) rather than answer it.

But this is where I will finish: DO NOT EXPECT to be credible in giving answers to very challenging questions at times of great tragedy and loss to secular, educated Anglo-Europeans if you are not a person who regularly scrutinises your own thought and your own ideas. Unless you really and truly are a genuinely sweet-natured person filled with love – the kind who can be respected for being a lovely person to be around even if not much else is going on – you and I cannot expect to win in spiritual warfare on the merits of personality and sincerity alone – for one can be sweet, sincere, and totally wrong!

Secular people who actually think do know when they are talking to someone humble enough to question their own ideas and question their faith and when they’re talking to someone who just wants to be someone with the ‘right answer.’ And until you place a higher value on knowing God more through the life of the mind that He has given you, it is a waste of time searching for “answers that make sense to someone who does not believe in an all-powerful and loving God.”

 

 

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