Open Mind or Lack of Judgment?

Should not we, as Seventh-day Advent­ist workers, seek to find middle ground between dogmatism and cynicism?

RICHARD H. UTT, Book Editor, Pacific Press Publishing Association

A Jewish coed from New York City, a young medi­cal student from Wales, and I, a not-too-ancient-as-yet Sev­enth-day Adventist minister from California, found our­selves staying at the same pen­sion in Barcelona, Spain. As the only English-speaking guests in the place, we three gravitated to the same table in the dining room and introduced our­selves.

When I revealed my calling in life and mentioned a few of the principal points of Adventist belief by way of explanation, those two young sophisticates sprang upon me, figuratively speaking, determined to tear my flesh from my bones. That they should meet an ostensibly enlightened per­son who, in this twentieth century, claimed to believe in the Bible as truth, not legend, was to them incredible. Sooner had they expected to meet a living dinosaur or dodo than an anachronism such as me.

Since I too relish a good argument, we had a lively debate, two against one, for an hour or so. Eventually I asked, "Do you be­lieve, then, that when one dies, that is the end? In your opinion is there no sort of survival or future life?"

"I don't know," replied the young man.

"That's right," chimed in the young woman triumphantly. "We don't know. This is true humility."

In a university philosophy class attended by a person of my acquaintance, one of the students asked the professor, "Dr. Blank, do you believe there is a God?"

"That depends," replied the professor, who was suffering from an overdose of this same "humility." "If you ask me today," he continued, "I would say Yes, I believe there is a God. If you ask me tomorrow, perhaps my opinion will be that there is none."

These two cases furnish, I think, good examples of today's "open-minded" intel­lectual climate. Doubt is considered a hall­mark of intelligence; positiveness a sign of naïveté. Asking the right questions is the erudite thing to do, and never mind if you cannot come up with the answers. At least in the spiritual realm, it seems, one must know nothing for sure.

Certainly the world owes much to its doubters—open-minded men who have questioned established beliefs. Copernicus, Columbus, Galileo, Luther, Pasteur, the Wright brothers, and a long list of other notables challenged ancient dogmas, dis­covered new light, and in doing so changed the course of civilization. As Christians, too, we rejoice as men run to and fro and knowledge is increased. We hold no brief for a return to medievalism. We own no stock in the Dark Ages. Furthermore, we believe God's truth has nothing to fear from investigation, research, and careful thought, if carried on with proper rever­ence in approaching the mysteries of God. Seventh-day Adventism is a sorry cause in­deed if it must be bolstered by obscurant­ism, shoddy scholarship, or invincible ig­norance.

However, it seems to me that the spirit of unrelenting, "open-minded" inquiry, at least in spiritual matters, can lead us a long way from truth if the investigation does not operate within certain safeguards, certain well-defined boundaries. What brands of unbelief, what brand of agnosticism or of atheism, is not propounded in certain in­stitutions once founded by devout men to train Christian ministers, where for generations "open-minded" research and philoso­phizing have taken place unaided and un­checked by divine revelation?*

Must open-mindedness necessarily lead away from God? Can one preserve a spirit of unlimited inquiry, with no holds barred, and not find himself deprived of his belief in his God and his Bible? In an age of skepticism can the Seventh-day Adventist Church retain its historic faith, or must it retreat inch by inch before various pagan philosophies? How can Seventh-day Ad­ventist pastors and teachers void the out­moded authoritarianism of the past cen­tury, yet stave off a gradual eroding away of their faith through the skeptical ap­proach that prevails in the world's institu­tions of learning? Should Seventh-day Ad­ventist workers who spend several years in university environments try to shed the at­titude of free inquiry upon returning to their classrooms or pastorates, and resume an authoritarian stance? How "open-minded" should our Sabbath school class discussions be, our chapel talks, our ser­mons?

Perhaps I myself am becoming infected with the very questioning attitude I am de­crying, since I have just asked at least six questions and do not propose to furnish final answers to any of them. However, I would venture two suggestions:

First, I believe we should settle firmly in our own minds what is essential in Seventh-day Adventist belief, be convinced on those points, and be prepared to loyally, mili­tantly, defend them before friend or foe. Perhaps this smacks of dogmatism, and at this point some of my good friends will ac­cuse me of contending earnestly for a re­turn to the Dark Ages. Nevertheless, I be­lieve a certain amount of dogmatism, in the acceptable sense of the word, is neces­sary to the survival of Christian belief. Otherwise there is nothing in it that cannot be argued and caviled and debated away, as far as the individual's belief is con­cerned. This has been done in church after church, and it will be done in our church if we drive far enough along the road they have taken. If Christianity is not merely a philosophical system of man's devising, but rather a system of revealed truth from God Himself, then it seems to me a certain amount of positiveness—dogmatism, if you wish—is justified on the part of Christians who accept that God-given truth. Christ taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes. As God's mouthpieces, can we not also, without apology, speak with a de­gree of certainty and authority?

Paul found the men of Athens agnostic, questioning, loving to discuss, but igno­rant of God, and he set about positively, dogmatically, filling in the gaps in their knowledge: "I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you" (Acts 17:23).

While I believe in the open mind, and try to keep the lid of my own mind, such as it is, somewhat ajar at all times, I believe there are times when it should not be left too wide open. A thing is not necessarily bad because it is closed, or good because it is open. Granted, before you can pour honey into a jar you must open it—take off the lid. However, if you leave the lid off indiscriminately thereafter, you may find that a few ants, bees, and moths, plus a cockroach or two, have fallen in and expired. It is preferable to leave the jar—and I believe this applies to our minds also —selectively open.

We wish, as hospitable persons, to keep the doors of our homes open to friends, neighbors, and even passing strangers. But this is something different from taking the doors off their hinges and allowing packs of neighborhood dogs to run in and out of the house at will. Would such a practice not be overdoing the open-door policy? And is it not likewise possible to overdo the open-mind idea? Adam and Eve were warned to refrain from investigating a cer­tain matter, as they were better off igno­rant of it. They thought otherwise, and the results of their open-minded inquiry brought them abundant knowledge of something they were better off without.

My second point is that "to everything there is a season ... ; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak" (Eccl. 3:1, 7). "A fool uttereth all his mind: but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards" (Prov. 29:11).

Thus far we have considered to what de­gree we should keep our mental faculties ajar with relation to what enters. But as Adventist workers, there are also times and places, in my belief, when we should keep our minds and our mouths shut in order to prevent certain items of information therein from escaping. We may know a juicy morsel or two of scandal, or have a slightly offbeat viewpoint on doctrine, which, expressed, will cause our hearers to oh and ah at our intelligence, sophistica­tion, or discernment. Or we may derive the highest enjoyment from deliberately confusing others relative to some Bible doc­trine, with the excuse that we are "teach­ing them to think." It is, of course, one of life's pleasures to say shocking things and watch our hearers' mouths drop open in wonderment. We may defend ourselves in using this procedure, saying that we do so in the name of free discussion and mental stimulation. But is it always wise, and are we prepared to face the possible results in eternity? To thus make sport with sacred things is an evidence not so much of open-mindedness as of unbalanced judgment.

I have sat and winced as one of our min­isters used a half-hour devotional period to castigate the denomination for its al­leged mishandling of a major financial and administrative problem, as several hundred employees in one of our institutions listened. (Why do some people think it a mark of superior intellect or spirituality to make a whipping boy out of the General Conference?)

On another occasion I had invited to Sabbath school and church a young man from China. He had never attended a Sev­enth-day Adventist church in this country before, but was somewhat interested in our church. In this Sabbath school to which I had brought him, to my dismay a major portion of the lesson study half-hour was devoted to a brutally frank discussion of some of the alleged faults of our Seventh-day Adventist educational system. The question was raised, "Is it easier to be a good Christian in a worldly school than in a Seventh-day Adventist school?" The question elicited an immediate "Yes" from a member of the audience, and nothing was done to clarify the matter before the class was dismissed. The teacher was an indisputably loyal Seventh-day Adventist worker, but one who loves to ask shocking questions to "stimulate thought." In this he succeeds nobly, and of course he intends to undo the evil by disentangling his hear­ers if there is time before the study is over. But although the shocking statement is us­ually remembered for months or years, the tortuous reasoning employed to disentan­gle the hearer is quickly forgotten.

My Chinese guest who heard this criti­cism of Adventist colleges had recently writ­ten a letter to a close friend, an Adventist worker, in which he stated the following: "I remember the evening you came to our house . . . and upon your encourage­ment I accepted God. But to be very frank with you, I must say I still have many doubts in my mind. The kind of training in logic and psychology I am getting here at ____________  only tends to strengthen such  doubts, rather than dispel them. But you know my serious intention, and my desire to seek faith and truth. I must frankly admit that I am often bothered by worldly pursuits, by considerations that may be said to reflect 'normal' behavior of man. But I feel I am far away from God—or God is far away from me."

This young man had definite spiritual needs; he felt far from God. I hope some part of the Sabbath school program gave him spiritual food, but I fear his principal reaction to the "lesson study" was thankfulness to be attending________ rather than an  Adventist college, where "it's so hard to be a Christian."

If we have doubts about our denomina­tional leadership or our brethren, or if confusion or questioning exists in our minds relative to Adventist belief or prac­tice, do we do well to spread such thoughts around our churches and schools? "If you talk out your feelings, every doubt you ex­press not only reacts upon yourself, but it is a seed that will germinate and bear fruit in the lives of others, and it may be impossible to counteract the influence of your words. You yourself may be able to recover from the season of temptation and from the snare of Satan, but others, who have been swayed by your influence, may not be able to escape from the unbelief you have sug­gested. How important that we speak only those things that will give spiritual strength and life! . . .

"Make it a rule never to utter one word of doubt or discouragement."—Steps to Christ, p. 119.

Someone may object that it is very well for one to be guarded in one's speech when in the presence of children, or with the average church congregation. However, with college students, they say, give it to them straight. They're going to find out what life is all about soon anyway, so why spare them now?

I know not what answer others may have for this question, but at the risk of being misunderstood, may I say that I believe many college students are an immature lot of human beings. Many of them, though Adventist church members, have sketchy re­ligious knowledge and underdeveloped re­ligious convictions. They may be well ac­quainted with Lawrence Welk and Willie Mays and the insides of the Alpha Romeo, but possibly they have never learned much about Moses and Elijah and Daniel at mother's knee. Many have come from homes in which one parent is not an Adventist, and probably only a small mi­nority have a firsthand acquaintance with regular family worship. During the three or four years they spend in the Adventist college most of them will be greatly influenced by the teachers they most admire and will, consciously or unconsciously, im­itate the admired teachers' attitudes toward the church and its doctrines. If the teacher shows in both word and life a deep loyalty to the Advent message, coupled with a willingness to discuss with reasonableness the student's doubts and problems, the col­lege student's religious experience will, I believe, crystallize and mature with a simi­lar attitude of loyalty to the church.

A 1959 graduate of one of our senior colleges later wrote the following paragraph in a letter to a friend: "Your reference to 'proper spiritual perspectives' bids me to clarify my present position. After years of difficulties with SDA doctrine, I have been baptized into the Catholic Church recently. Although this creates certain problems between me and my family, college chums, et cetera, I pray God to give us charity to understand one another as Christian (separated) brethren."

I am in no position to assess all the fac­tors that led this young man to graduate from a Seventh-day Adventist college and then be baptized a Roman Catholic, but I think it illustrates the fact that some of the students attending our colleges have only the most tenuous relationship with, and understanding of, the Seventh-day Adventist Church and its teachings. They desperately need the help that some loyal—though not authoritarian—teacher could give. Certainly a classroom diet of cynical questioning of the church, its leadership, and its doctrines, will not help remove the difficulties.

Someone may object, "How can you have mental growth without free discussion?" Growth, of course, is not necessarily good in itself. It depends on what is grow­ing. It is good when a tree grows, but not when a cancer grows. I am pleased when grass grows on my lawn, but I try in every way to discourage the dandelions. In my opinion, our schools should be places for growth of understanding and culture and spirituality, but not fertile soil for the pro­liferation of doubt and cynicism.

It nourishes the ego of us twentieth-century thinkers to have others look up to us as liberals, worldly-wise men, iconoclasts. We dearly hate all that smacks of the trite, the pedantic, the dogmatic, and the tradi­tional. However, I believe that when it comes to our religion the knowledge that we are handling sacred things, revealed truths from God Himself, should cause us to temper our desire to give vent to that which is shocking, novel, or critical, and which could lead astray someone who is weak in the faith. "It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck . . ."

Is there not some middle ground be­tween yesterday's dogmatism and authori­tarianism, and today's cynical questioning of the fundamentals of Christian faith?

Should not we, as Seventh-day Advent­ist workers, seek to find this middle ground?

* Compare the religious outlook of Paul Dudley or Increase Mather, for instance, with that of Harlow Shapley or George G. Simpson

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RICHARD H. UTT, Book Editor, Pacific Press Publishing Association

November 1962

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