How Secular Should Adventist Theology Be? part 2

How Secular Should Adventist Theology Be? (Part 2)

CONTEMPORARY secularism in North America is generally comfortable, satisfied, and confident. 1 This attitude, of course, is fundamentally mistaken. But the best response is not head-on contradiction or (even worse) condemnation. For that is inevitably regarded, not as good news, but as bad news, and nobody is naturally attracted to that. . .

-dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Loma Linda University at the time this article was written

CONTEMPORARY secularism in North America is generally comfortable, satisfied, and confident. 1 This attitude, of course, is fundamentally mistaken. But the best response is not head-on contradiction or (even worse) condemnation. For that is inevitably regarded, not as good news, but as bad news, and nobody is naturally attracted to that. Rather, the Adventist message is most likely to be heard and accepted if it comes as the good news it actually is. If we make the good news clear enough, even the secular mind will listen. 2

This is not always easy to achieve, however, because it takes much less effort to disagree and denounce than it does to build the bridges of good news that will enable a person to move readily from his comfortable secularism to a vigorous, challenging Adventism. Yet it can be done. And the following examples suggest that it may not be as difficult as it seems to be:

God is. This fact is where the good news begins, because it means that human existence is not just a fortunate accident in a mindless universe. You do not just happen to be here; instead, you are part of the fulfillment of a transcendent intention. Therefore there is meaning and direction to your life that cannot be negated by anything that happens to you. And on a larger scale, the same thing is true of humanity as a whole.

God loves and forgives and claims. The good news of the Adventist message includes the fact that God loves this world this messy, confused world populated by and made that way, by sin-cursed, confused people. Every pagan religion believes that the gods like the good people and reward them for proper behavior. The unique conviction of Christianity is that God loves all people, is willing to forgive their selfish misbehavior, and wants to claim them as His own sons and daughters. So you don't have to earn God's love; it is a gift. The human tendency, of course, is to want to try to earn it, to deserve it, to somehow win it. But this attempt is never finally successful: you can try to base your security and the meaning of your life on the fact that you are good, but you are likely to be forever haunted by the suspicion that you are not really good enough.

God wants us to actualize His love. This means that you don't have to stay the way you are. The future need not be a repetition of the past. And this is good news indeed. For it means that you can come closer and closer to the fulfillment of your destiny not as a result merely of your own effort, but as a result of what God offers. He tells us what His love looks like in the everyday existence of human beings; this is the function of the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and similar instruction. And this comes not so much as a demand, but more as a liberation: not so much as "You must," but more as "Now you can."

Besides telling us what the possibilities are, God gives us the incentive and the ability to actually reproduce His love in our lives. The incentive is the recognition of what He has already done for us. The ability comes from the security we have in His love. Knowing that God loves you, you want and can afford to love others, to care and invest yourself for them. To be freed from self-centeredness, self-will, and self-righteousness is a glorious liberation.

The Sabbath is still part of God's intention for human beings. This too is good news. The Sabbath means that you don't have to spend all of your life at work, earning money to take care of your financial obligations. Here, every week, is a whole day designed to give you time to find out and be what you really are: a son of God. Here you can experience and reflect on the presence of God in your life. Here you can put your whole life in the perspective of God's love. The Sabbath is no mere recuperation from, or preparation for, a week of work; the Sabbath itself is life par excellence, a celebration of the fact that you belong to God.

The particularity of the seventh day, which comes as a problem to some people, is in fact also good news. For it makes the Sabbath a uniquely powerful experience as well as expression of the ultimacy of God's love and will in your life. Since the only basis for the seventh-day-ness of the Sabbath is the fact that "God said so," it is uniquely significant as an acknowledgement of God's right to be sovereign, not only over nature, but also over human beings. The Sabbath is a weekly restatement and re-establishment of your supreme values, your commitment to God's sovereign love as the functional center of your whole existence. This keeps the Sabbath from becoming trivialized, like the typical American Sunday, into a day for tennis, television, and washing the car.

History is nearing its consummation: Jesus is coming soon. There is good news here in the fact that you can be sure of the final outcome. It is like being sent in to play in the last few minutes of a football game. Of course you want to play as well as you can; but the end is not in doubt. You know that you are on the winning-side because the game has already been won. The primary significance of the coming of Jesus and the end of the world is not destruction, but victory and deliverance. All that is bad in human experience will be eliminated, and all that is good will become even better.

Then why do we call the Adventist message a warning message to the world? It is a warning a warning not to "miss the boat," not to ignore the deliverance, not to lose out on the eternal life that is soon to begin.

The church is God's community. The good news is the fact that you don't have to "go it alone" as a Christian in a predominantly secular world. You have the company and support of a whole family of brothers and sisters. For the church is people who belong to each other because they share a common faith and therefore have become a community of faith. It is a place where human barriers of all sorts social and economic, racial and national, educational and professional can be over come. And the church is people who love and care for one another in spite of their imperfections. Thus it is a means by which you experience God's forgiving love. It is also a means by which you grow in your understanding of God's Word, yourself, and your service for your Lord.

As we reflect on some of the ways in which the Adventist mes sage is obviously good news-, the only surprise is the fact that this emphasis is not more prominent in Adventist theology.

Secularism is probably here to stay until the end of history. Unless there is a disaster of unprecedented magnitude such as a nuclear war or worldwide famine it is not likely that the trend toward secularism in North America will be reversed. The externals of religion may continue for a long time; there may be prayers at public ceremonies, Christmas carols, and attendance at religious services. But the religious commitment that puts God's love at the functional center of individual and collective life is always going to be a rarity.

Yet secularism is not an impossible mission field, provided we are concerned enough ourselves to try to understand it, learn its language, and express the Adventist message in that language" in such a way that it will be heard as good news. And if we who live in the middle of a secular society do not effectively communicate the Adventist message to it, who will?


1. This is why existentialism, which is generally disturbing and pessimistic, has never really caught on here. There are some important existentialist strands in contemporary American theology, to be sure; but neither American life nor its religious thought has ever been fundamentally existentialist. So expending one's en ergy in an attack on existentialism, as Francis Shaeffer and also some Adventist theologians tend to do, is appropriate to the situation in Europe but not in America, where the major challenge is secularism.

2. This does not imply that anyone should be expected to believe the Adventist message simply because it is presented as good news. Whether any religious message is to be believed depends on the evidence that it is in fact true. The point here is that unless a person is attracted to the message in terms of his own interests, he will probably not consider the evidence of its validity.

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-dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Loma Linda University at the time this article was written

November 1974

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