Jack W. Provonsha, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics at Loma Linda University.

 

IT IS A truism in cultural anthropology that a people becomes increasingly isolated from its neighbors as it becomes a prisoner to its language. Conversely, isolation is a major factor in the development of language. Groups possessing common genetic and cultural ancestry may in the course of migration and expansion find them selves cut off from one another by natural barriers—mountains, deserts, bodies of water. Initially they may continue at least limited intercourse, but as their visitations become less and less frequent the separated groups develop divergent customs, ways of looking at things, and most important, different language with which to express these. Finally isolation may become virtually total, and a group on one side of a barrier may come to possess only a hazy and distorted awareness of what is taking place on the other.

This is not only a truism in social anthropology, it is a fact of life in the sociology of religious movements. And this is a fact that a people committed to a mission "to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people" would do well to ponder. There are many kinds of barriers, some of them not literal bodies of water—and there can exist linguistic isolation even within the same mother tongue. There are even generation barriers.

It is important to recognize this. It is also important for us to be aware of the extent that it may be happening to us. There is reason to believe that many of us have increasingly come to talk only to ourselves and to others who are very much like us in belief and vocabulary. Some give the impression of being virtually unaware of that growing number of people being spewed out on the other side of that gulf by the vast megalostructure which is the American educational system; people who seem to have little interest in or understanding of the things we love to talk about, and have long since ceased asking many of the questions to which we continue to address our answers; people whose world views and customs have become so different that for many of us they have practically ceased to exist. At no time since the first century has the church had so great a need for the outpouring of the gift of "tongues," that is, for persons gifted with the ability to communicate this truth in innovative ways and moreover with the courage to do so. Unless we receive and develop that gift and soon, we may well find our selves thrust aside by a world hastening to find its own answers in its own way. The worst thing that can happen to a "voice crying in the wilderness" is that it find itself alone in that wilderness with no one to listen or to understand.

Bridge-building must be attempted again and again even if one runs the risk of being misunderstood. To keep in touch with all of that world for which Christ died may tax the creative skills of all of us. But it may also call for innovation in the realm of ideas. The words innovation and new, as in "new light," have much in common. In the words of Ellen White in Counsels to Writers and Editors, pages 38 and 39: "Whenever the people of God are growing in grace, they will be constantly obtaining a clearer understanding of His word. They will discern new light and beauty in its sacred truths. This has been true in the history of the church in all ages, and thus it will continue to the end. But as real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God's word, and discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative, and seek to avoid discussion.

"The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God's people, should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. There is reason to fear that they may not be clearly discriminating between truth and error. When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves, to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition, and worship they know not what."

It might also be useful to recall her statement that at the end of time "the warnings that worldly conformity has silenced or withheld must be given under the fiercest opposition from enemies of the faith. And at that time the superficial, conservative class, whose influence has steadily retarded the progress of the work, will renounce the faith and take their stand with its avowed enemies, toward whom their sympathies have long been tending." —Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 463. If the church ever loses its capacity for clearer visions of God, new insights and under standings, it will have betrayed its divine calling.

Perhaps "innovation" is too strong a word here. It may be that terms such as "creative" or "progressive" would be more appropriate, for "new light" is an expression containing two words, the second being light. If light refers to truth and truth is a unity, all "new light" is continuous with what went be fore and belongs to it. There may be progression and development indeed must be—but not in discontinuity with the past.

But that does not mean that there cannot be new ways of stating the truth. (It is unfortunate that some Christians are more acquainted with the language of Christian faith than they are with its essence and thus do not recognize it in unfamiliar dress.)

Finally, it is important to recall that for innovation to contribute to the progress of truth there must be a community. Creative people require a community of other minds who become the shaping context in which the effort becomes fruitful. No one can be sure that his work is truly creative if he is forced to carry it out in isolation. Creators need other people as both positive and negative sounding boards, as well as for encouragement in the effort. The effort requires courage, and courage feeds on encouragement.

To repeat, what this implies is that there be a community. And community presupposes trust. Unless the church can become a collection of people who trust one another, who are willing to assume the best until forced to admit the worst, that which we so desperately need to complete our common task will elude us.

Can there be an innovative Adventism? There must be! The world and the times demand it. The task before us re quires the utmost in creative effort in every direction including progressive openness to new ideas and methods, and it requires persons with sufficient courage to face up to it.

Above all, the times demand that a community of people draw together in mutual trust and confidence so that the effort can be that of all of us together. Come to think of it, this kind of love and unity might just be the greatest innovation of all.


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Jack W. Provonsha, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics at Loma Linda University.

April 1976

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