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- Jimmy Miles
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Change is Hard
"What happens when one has striven long and hard to develop a working view of the world, a seemingly useful, workable map, and then is confronted with new information suggesting that that view is wrong and the map needs to be largely redrawn? The painful effort required seems frightening, almost overwhelming. What we do more often than not, and usually unconsciously, is ignore the new information.
Often this act of ignoring is much more than passive. We may denounce the new information as false, dangerous, heretical, the work of the devil. We may actually crusade against it, and even attempt to manipulate the world so as to make it conform to our view of reality. Rather than try to change the map, an individual may try to destroy the new reality. Sadly, such a person may expend much more energy ultimately in defending an outmoded view of the world than would have been required to revise and correct it in the first place."
-Dr. M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, p. 46
Whatever one believes about how the human mind came to be what it is today-- whether designed by a creator or evolved by selection or some other explanation-- there is a fact about how the mind works which has become very powerful to me lately: Logic is important to the human mind. Maybe that's a no-brainer (pun intended) to many readers. When I was young, I found logical thinking came naturally to me, and yet I possessed many interests in the creative arts, far outside the disciplines of logic. I think I too quickly took logic as a given, and failed to give it any further attention. Perhaps bored with the work required to become proficient in thinking logically, I found refuge in artistic endeavors like music, fiction writing, and humor, where one is allowed and even encouraged to be illogical. But now, in my late 40's, I am returning to the logic of my youth.
Beyond disciplines which make heavy and obvious use of logic, such as philosophy, computers, mathematics, and science, it has come to my attention that logic is also used in less obvious areas, like morality, beliefs, ethics, and values. This is leading me in some interesting directions, including a quest to build a personal system of morality and ethics which is free from any religious influences. Please note that I am not in search of a morality which is the opposite of that found within religions; in fact I am already finding significant overlap of specific values, even if the beliefs underlying those values are very different. My former fellow Christians probably think that morality is impossible outside of the religious context. I used to believe this myself, but now I am finding it very interesting that this is not, in fact, true. Even more surprising: a better source of beliefs and values is found outside religion. Before going further in this direction, a bit of history will be helpful.
For most of my adult life, I trained my mind to reason within the context of Christianity, specifically Seventh-day Adventism (SDA). The SDA Church is friendly to intellectuals-- up to a point. Their foundations are rooted in prophetic calculations which relied heavily upon the use of research. Fervent study of history, ancient languages, textual criticism, chronology, archaeology, and even astronomy informed the Bible interpretations of the founders of Adventism, all the way back to William Miller and the off-shoots who formed the core doctrines.
Early in the denomination's development these studious pioneers established a school system which grew into its present K-12 plus college and graduate school network that spans the globe. Getting a Bachelor's Degree in Religion at an SDA college felt like an intellectual exercise; at least it required very little of the passion or emotion usually associated with Christianity. I enjoyed the challenge of mastering the art and science of teaching SDA doctrine. Their devotion to health-related education and health-care delivery, including a world-class medical school at Loma Linda University, makes it seem like a modern church which welcomes intellectual development for its own sake. I believed it was, anyway-- up to a point.
From the beginning of my life as an Adventist I had asked a question: Why hasn't God "advented" yet? Where is this Second Advent He promised so long ago? Why the delay, the increasingly awkward and unnecessary delay? I never did get an answer which made any logical sense. Oh, I got answers, but no good ones. Answers I got include: "The character of Christ hasn't been perfectly reproduced in His people yet;" "A day with the Lord is like a thousand years;" "Be patient and keep working-- He has perfect timing and after it all finally happens we'll look back and see how perfect His timing was." In other words, a lot of bullshite.
Every year, every Bible class I taught, some bright young Adventist would look me in the eye with that seriousness only found in the young and ask ME a version of the same question: "Why hasn't Jesus come back yet, Mr. Miles?" With every year that went by and my own research on that question only turned up more BS versions of the same answers, I could only offer what I was finding, and pretend that the answers were good enough for me. In more courageous moments, I would sadly admit that I really didn't know why He hasn't come back.
I ask you, dear reader, and invite your comments and replies: What possible greater good is achieved by delaying Jesus' second advent, and allowing evil to pile up higher and higher, as if what we've already seen isn't a sufficient display of "The Results of Sin"? Is the divine jury box loaded with the most skeptical beings in the entire universe? Is God somehow interested in seeing the final outcome of global greed, global warming, human trafficking, child slavery, the poisoning of the air, water, and food supplies, terrorism? Is He disappointed that World War III hasn't happened yet?
At some point, I became interested in questions which were not welcome inside the official SDA Church. It began with questions related to leadership policies and practices. Eventually, I was a veteran teacher in the California SDA K-12 system, and toward the end of my employment there I learned of some disastrous positions and decisions that had (and will continue to have) terrible consequences for good people whom I know deserve much better from the Church to which they had devoted their lives. I will not be any more detailed than this in describing specific cases, since the worst of it is remains wrapped tightly in the grasp of denominational lawyers, and I would not want to do anything to jeopardize the outcome of pending legal decisions concerning people I still consider my friends, even though we do not worship together anymore.
(At this point in my story, many readers who are religious will assume, incorrectly, that all that follows in my post-Christian life journey is explained by labeling me a "disgruntled former employee" who gave it all up in a rash decision after some bad treatment from a "few bad apples" in the denomination. Many have already contented themselves to close off any further questioning or information through the use of this defense mechanism. Anyone else tempted to stop reading here is referred to the quote by Dr. M. Scott Peck found at the beginning of this essay; please read it, and carefully consider what it has to say.)
I am in no way referring to any treatment I myself received from the church or its leadership, which I've never felt was serious enough to write about in detail. It's not important enough to me to rehearse and relive anyway. Compared to that which I saw happening to my colleagues and their families, my situation was little more than a minor inconvenience in my life as I transitioned out of a religious life into a non-religious life. The important point is what all of this did to my way of thinking about God.
Back then I truly believed-- and taught my students to believe-- that we can be certain that God personally built the SDA Church, guides it, and will give it a prominent place in the final events of human history. That the SDA Church is God's One True Church. These evil political machinations within the leadership of that same Church set up a nagging cognitive dissonance inside my intellectual brain. It did not compute logically. How could the cream of the crop of the leadership of a God-ordained organization perpetrate such horrible behavior upon its own employees and church members with impunity?
Whether or not any of the particular employees and members forgave the church for how they were treated, or rationalized it away as a necessary evil to endure, or as a character building experience, or some kind of blessing in disguise-- none of that softened the blow to MY MIND. Logically, my mind was not able to ignore or justify such a great weight of evidence, and I knew that if I was not able to ignore it, then surely the just and holy God who sits on heaven's throne can not ignore it either. He cannot ignore it and remain a just and loving God, worthy of the high praise heaped upon Him daily from my classrooms full of earnest young Christians. But how to explain logically why God was allowing bad behavior among the leaders of His church to continue for decade after decade, poisoning the health of the body of Christ?
What if the only logical conclusion is that God is not who I was teaching Him to be, and thus does not deserve that high praise and worship?
As I learned of the unforgivable and unjustifiable behavior of "God's leaders" and church officers, I had to ask why the absentee landlord-Lord wasn't participating in guiding and directing the One True Church. If this God we worshiped in my Bible classes every day was as all-powerful as depicted in our songs, our scriptures, and our prayers, then why the hell was he ignoring the leaders of "His Church"? Why do the most slick, self-serving politicians the church is capable of producing end up in the highest positions on governing boards and in official offices?
I get the aphorism that "everybody's human and fallible," but how does that explain the dismal track record of denominational leadership? They seem to be much more human and fallible than the average population. I think if you literally grabbed random individuals of no particular religious persuasion off the street and traded them into every position of leadership in the Adventist Church, you'd find the denomination suddenly behaving in a much more ethical, humane, reasonable, and compassionate manner than will ever happen at the direction of the current office-holders. Why was God tacitly approving of the slow, spiritual bankrupting of what we told ourselves was the "apple of His eye" (the Church)?
Again, I ask you dear readers, and invite your responses (and I guess this applies to Christian organizations beyond Adventism, and so to my Catholic and Protestant readers in general, I ask): Why does God refuse to lead His people anymore? If you believe that the One leading your church today is the same God who grabbed the reins of leadership in the days of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, and in the days of Noah, and the days of Moses and the Pharaohs of Egypt, and the Babylonian Captivity and Nebuchadnezzar, and the days of Jesus and the Apostles, then why has he dropped those reins of leadership for the last two thousand years?
How do you compare the absence of divine intervention of the past two millennia to Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16) or Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5)? Are the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon really equivalent to God's personal, powerful leadership of the twelve tribes of Israel? Is the awful and embarrassing history of the papacy, the reformers, and the malaise of modern Christianity even worthy of comparison to the Acts of the Apostles?
The history of Adventism, 1844 to the present, is a microcosm of Christian church history, from the New Testament to the present; both present the truth of Proverbs: when the leaders lack vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18, KJV). It's the history of a religious movement which started with excitement and progress toward a goal which galvanized the first generation, but evolved in future generations into just another self-serving dogmatic religious institution, endlessly splintering into factions along the political spectrum, each splinter more spiritually dead than the one before. No one except those who begin with the conclusion that God exists and is leading His church would look at the evidence of the last two thousand years and find a connection between the Biblical God's leadership of people, and what happened with Christianity (and if I may be so bold, with Christianity's sibling religions of Judaism and Islam).
The Bible stories teach that He holds the leaders of His people to a much higher standard than anyone else on earth, except for His prophets--they are held to the highest standard of all. Which leads me to another major hit on my intellectual brain, which happened a year or so after I terminated employment with the church and moved away from California. The brazen, extensive plagiarism of Ellen White is an open sin, breaking the third, eighth, and ninth commandments, and is accepted by virtually every Seventh-day Adventist. The documentation of the plagiarism is ongoing, and decades old at this point. The Internet era has opened the facts of her sins to any and all who choose not to hide from it. The fact of her plagiarism establishes another fact: she was a false prophet, for a true prophet of God would not say "I saw..." or "the angel told me...", followed by the words of other writers she copied without citation or reference. Even Bible prophets point out when they are quoting other Bible prophets. We cannot claim that standards for giving credit to other authors have changed since Ellen White's day, especially since a prophet is held to the highest standard of ethical behavior, and a modern prophet would not be held to a lower standard than that of the biblical prophets. Note that Moses didn't get away with even one temper tantrum (Numbers 20:10-12)!
When one rejects Ellen White's legitimacy, one has rejected the heart and soul of Seventh-day Adventism. Attempting to remain a faithful conscientious Adventist while knowing the truth about Ellen White would be like attempting to keep a person alive while extracting every bit of their nervous system from their body, starting with their brain. It won't work, and will be painful and ugly. I have elsewhere written extensively on the prophet of Seventh-day Adventism, Ellen G. White. That essay is found here: http://jimmiles.hubpages.com/hub/What-Twenty-Years-in-the-Adventist-Church-Taught-Me.
Jim Teaching At FAA
After comparing the Bible teachings of other churches to that of my former SDA Church's, I gave up a short-lived quest to find a home in an alternative Christian community. Adventism convinced me that their interpretation of Christian doctrine is the most faithful to the original intent and text of the Bible (despite being deceived by Ellen White about many things). I was subsequently forced to experience another major hit to my intellectual conclusions regarding religion. I knew that to be a Biblical Christian, I had to incorporate more than just the New Testament as my Scriptural authority. The Old Testament belongs in the authority structure of Biblical Christianity. The SDA Church has arguably the most extensive and accurate body of writings on the Old Testament from the Christian perspective. Their unique devotion to the doctrines of Creation and the Sabbath are direct results of their tendency to treat Old and New Testaments as a balanced, connected set, a continuous revelation of God's will from beginning to end. I failed to find any other Christian denomination which treated the Old Testament with as much respect and scholarly study as did the Adventists. I remain convinced that the only believers who are treating the Bible as it should be treated, are those who make little practical distinction between Old and New Testaments. I say this to the credit of the scholars of the SDA Church; they make a very convincing case that Biblical Christianity has to do with the proper interpretation of the 66 Protestant books of the Bible.
The most recent revelation to come from pondering biblical religion with logical reasoning is perhaps the biggest game changer for me so far. It has to do with what happens when you construct a system of beliefs, ethics, and morality without reference to any religious text or church dogma. One such system finds that the best basis for morality begins with human needs. What do we need to live? How do we get what we need, and what resources are available to meet those needs? These are objective questions, and we can answer them objectively, using reason and logic. While it is true that religion also offers answers to these questions, it is not necessary to consult religion to determine the best answers. What emerges is a morality that pursues what is best for human societies in the most inclusive, fair, compassionate, and just manner possible, much more inclusive and fair than is ever possible within religion's restrictions, which always draws unnecessary boundary lines between the saved and the lost, the saints and the world, and often very arbitrary distinctions between "good and evil."
The revelation is that what is possible within a non-religious system of ethics is often MUCH BETTER than what comes out of religious systems of ethics. This is illustrated by examining Christianity's record of God's own behavior in the Old and New Testaments. For example, the definition of terrorism includes the targeting of innocent civilians, including children, for death and injury. Secular ethics will always protest terrorist behavior, and the only correct moral posture to take toward terrorist behavior is to "socially, financially, and politically ostracize" it (http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2005/09/anti-waranti-terrorism.html). Biblical Christians cannot consistently adopt this correct moral posture, however, for it would call into question the many times God called for the extermination of Israel's enemies, including innocent children (e.g., Psalm 137:9, "Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks"). The Old Testament God promoted the use of terrorism, an immoral practice that non-religious ethicists easily determine is not worthy of human, much less divine behavior. This means that the God of Christianity is not worthy of worship or devotion. Notice that this is a logical conclusion to reach without ever calling into question the existence of God. In fact, this value judgment is only reasonable if we assume that the Bible is a valid authority, and a real and living God inspired its account of His acts in human history.
If you would like to read more from two authors I've enjoyed lately, who have helped me understand how to think logically and ethically about morality, please see their blogs:
- Secular Ethics (http://secularethics.wordpress.com/)
- Atheist Ethicist (http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/)
So, logic makes its demands on me lately. And it's an interesting, challenging journey I find myself taking, every bit as fascinating as (and even more rewarding than) the twenty-five year journey I recently completed which took me into and out of Adventism, Christianity, and religion.