By Barry Casey … One of the things that enlivens any gathering of Adventists is the flow of stories about their upbringing. There will be stories about polishing shoes for Sabbath on Friday afternoons or cleaning the house or what could or couldn’t be done on Sabbath afternoon. Some will raise memories of Sabbath School, others of falling asleep to the bedtime stories of Uncle Arthur and of the change from the Youth’s Instructor to Insight.

These are origin stories, something like a personal Genesis of Adventism. We would be incomplete without them, both as individuals and as a community. Were we to do this ritual in any country in the world with fellow Adventists, we would hear continuity and disjunction, common themes as well as all the particularities of place and time, gender, ethnicity, and language? As has been pointed out many times, Adventists are wonderfully diverse.

Diversity within Adventism brings its own tensions: witness the painful struggle to come to terms with our sons and daughters in the LGBTQ+ community. Progress toward equality for women arrives in fits and starts, especially concerning women in leadership, including pastorships and the ordination that should accompany it. Racial inequality continues to shake our foundations, challenging the assumptions of the North American church.

It’s the assumptions that undermine us. Most of the time they are hidden, like foundation stones, and as long as the house stands upright, everything at right angles, they rest unchallenged. But when the house begins to sink and tilt, we dig down around the foundations and hope that it’s not too late for major repairs.

As they relate to diversity of thought within the church, there are two assumptions I have had to examine for myself.

The first is the construct that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is playing a unique and decisive role in history, that it will stand forth as the hinge upon which the whole universe will turn.

This was so much a part of my religious education that I saw no reason to question it until I began to read and study other world faiths and traditions. Then it became clearer that in order to maintain this unique position, it was necessary to believe that other religious traditions were either victims or perpetrators of deception. Our unique role was to save the victims from their deception and refute the deceivers.

The questions I had were about the certainty of our interpretation of the Bible and of prophecy, and whether the Holy Spirit was exclusive to our domain. In time I came to see that our truth claims could be understood from different perspectives, not all of them asserting that we had sole rights to The Truth.

It seemed likely that the emphases on the beauty and creativity of the Sabbath, the assurance of the Second Advent, and the importance of caring for the body, mind, and spirit, were recollections of resistance to a materialistic and despairing world. They offered practical ways to live from a stance of hopefulness. Our remembering and living out of this resistance were our contribution to humanity. These modest truths were among the many ways the Spirit had lifted up truth in the history of Christianity.

These truths that we hold in humility and exercise in grace do not—and should not—keep us from enjoying and benefiting from the rich traditions of other Christian traditions and other faiths. Every religion has something of value to share with us among a long history of practice. We can work alongside them, enjoy their worship, and be in fellowship with them. We may learn through comparison and contrast: the similarities will strengthen us; the differences will cause us to test our own assumptions.

The second assumption I continue to examine is related to the previous one. If the first singled us out from all of humanity, the second assumption, exclusivity, is the result of the first. It’s not something entirely within our control. Paul calls us to live sober lives, to live according to the Spirit and not the flesh. Yet, Jesus calls us to be light and salt and yeast in the world, to immerse ourselves in our communities and to be present to others. We are fallible humans attempting to be faithful disciples.

This is one of those fruitful tensions in the Christian life—how to be in the world and not of the world. I think it begins with humility and is sustained through grace. Before we are Christians, we are humans: fallen beings of glorious potential. We are part of the human race, subject to all its failings, horrors, despair, and fallibility. Humility is the proper response to these limitations; grace is the means to live with them.

This does away with triumphalism and the arrogance of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” It calls us to avoid the prosperity gospel in all its forms and its opposite, a martyr complex that results in paranoia. We are here on this earth, and we have been called to God’s kingdom. We live in that tension.

This tension speaks of the most basic and most pernicious assumption, the one we rarely confront: that diversity as a fact within Adventism is an obstacle and a hindrance to uniformity. But that is a discussion for another time.

Practically speaking, living within that tension blurs the line between the so-called “sacred” and “secular.” As Jesus said to the Samaritan women, we will worship neither in Jerusalem nor in Samaria, but in the Spirit—a portable worship within the world. Like Jesus, we do this in order to speak and to listen to those who are unlike ourselves. This is hard. This is something I shrink from, even as I am curious and hungering to know how others think and act. But these metaphors of salt, light, and yeast are the very templates of life in Jesus’ kingdom.

The experiences we live are the currency of human communication. The experiences of others—written, spoken, lived out, viewed—are our textbooks for life. But I should amend that: to call them “textbooks” connotes a fixed curriculum, a grade, and a final result. They are more likely points of contact between people and imply a presence that lingers, overcoming distance, time, and prejudice. It is through this presence, a voice and a spirit, that we grasp by analogy what it means to worship God in spirit and in truth.

If our experiences of God in Christ mean anything, they will come to us as we are immersed in our lives of doing laundry, sitting in traffic, and trying to understand and be understood by others. God is God overall. This continual act of translation between the inward work of the Spirit and our outward life with others invites suppleness and receptivity rather than isolation and exclusiveness.

The most authentic response to the Spirit I can make every day is to recognize the risen Christ in the midst of the buzzing, blooming confusion of life. The work of the Spirit is to lead me into truth, not once for all, but continually, day by day, for life.

–Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost, was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]