To Flee or to Stand

The PromiseIt’s a Sabbath afternoon and my family is driving to a lake where we’ll meet up with David’s family. It’s about an hour to the lake so as the car wends its way through the wooded hills the four of us—my parents, my brother Anthony, and I—become engrossed in a conversation that invariably touches on church politics.

“It’s unfortunate,” my dad says. And it doesn’t matter what’s unfortunate—as though movements in church culture were a matter ill luck. It’s the same discussion being had again and again. Elements within the Adventist church wish to cordon off the entire church, protect it with intellectual (and occasionally physical) walls, and maintain its purity through ignorance—that is, the act of ignoring ‘outside influences.’ Others, the types of others with cosmopolitan bookshelves, believe truth has nothing to fear from perspective, and perhaps they are optimistic.

“It’s sad,” I admit.

“This is why the church needs ya, kid,” says Anthony, bumping my arm. Anthony never chastises my doubt. He simply reminds me over and over again that I’m needed in the church.

The appeal to my activist instincts itches a little at the base of my spine. I’ve always been the ‘stand and fight’ type. I believe criticizing the leaders of an entity can demonstrate love for that entity. I believe that when a community begins to struggle the loyal and honorable thing to do is stay to help however you can. But I left.

I left because I felt like I was being asked to sacrifice my intellectual integrity for the sake of my faith, and I wasn’t willing to do that. I left because the seat of my Sabbath dress felt a little too warm in the pew, because despite the liberality and relative intellectual freedom with which I was raised the official voices of Adventism  seemed to demand a choice between it and the big, beautiful world of science, and technology, and philosophy, and research. And most of all I left because I couldn’t see myself in the label ‘Adventist’ anymore. My musings of the cosmic Something didn’t square with the deity so many describe with awe and whom I’ve come to utterly dislike. I left because I didn’t feel like I fit in anymore, and perhaps that was selfish.

I’ve been reading The Promise this week. It’s a poignant fiction work by Chaim Potok about navigating personal and religious identity (among other things). I can’t even begin to express the many levels upon which I relate to its protagonist. At one point a character named Abraham Gordon, a secular Jew and Talmud scholar, is speaking with the main character, Reuven Malter, about the choice he must make in his quest for rabbinic ordination:

“[Don’t] abandon it until you’re certain you have no alternative. First be absolutely certain you’re in an intolerable situation and you cannot alter it. Otherwise you’ll be torn the rest of your life.”

I first read this book for a religious sociology class I took the quarter after I returned from studying abroad. At the time I was seething in doubt, and questions, and confusion, and frustration, and hope. Now I’m relatively happy with my new labels, especially since, unlike my first, they give me room to evolve my positions. But re-reading the words of Abraham Gordon makes me wonder, did I leave too soon?

It’s worth mentioning again that my home was not particularly repressive. Mine is not the stereotypical story of the young, white, male, intellectual who disengages from his backwater conservative heritage with increased exposure to the secular interwebs. I wasn’t victimized by a church leader, faced (personally) with institutional misogyny, or guilted from the pew for my sexuality, dress, or choice in music. I came from a loving, stable home. Open conversations were the norm, and my intellectual pursuits were always encouraged. I didn’t leave a prison or a cult. I left a relatively liberal, loving community.

When you leave a bad situation the horrors of your past justify your willing gamble of an uncertain future. When you leave a good situation you only hope your reasons were good enough. I have often imagined I were an astronaut, floating in space with nothing to push off of or grab onto, aimless, without anyone or anything to intervene in my drift, lost in the black. I’ve often joked among friends that I am a ‘secular Adventist.’ “What’s that?” “Oh, it’s like being a secular Jew, but Adventist.” But it isn’t. Unlike Abraham Gordon, who still has his commandments, his kosher food, prayers, and festivals, I have near nothing. The protestant iconoclasts of the 16th century made sure the alter rails were broken up for all time. I have no liturgy, no festivals to observe—except, perhaps, the Sabbath. I have no prayers, no rosary beads. Or maybe I have more than I think, but simply choose to abandon it because the ritual prayers that exist, “May the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the love of God, and fellowship of the Holy Spirit…” feel like sand in my mouth.

There is another moment I the book where Abraham Gordon explains why he chose to remain within the tradition, even after leaving the faith:

“I gambled that there was enough strength and depth in the tradition for me to be able to make it into more than Sunday-school Bible stories…I wanted American Judaism to become something an intelligent person would have to take seriously and be unable to laugh at and want to love.”

I feel the same way about Adventism. It bothers me when people call it a cult or make unilateral statements about the sanity and sophistication of it adherents. I want Adventism to be a beautiful instrument in the world. I want it to be respectable. I recognize that in leaving I may very well have forfeited my opportunity to help shape Adventism in any way, and I wonder if I will be forever torn.


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