“Fundamentalists live life with an exclamation point.
I prefer to live my life with a question mark.” — Amos Oz
The state of absurdity (the tension between meaninglessness and meaning) is a very real experience that must be understood and appreciated by Adventists if we wish to develop a meaningful approach to evangelism in the secular sphere. It’s not simply that people disagree with our doctrines, frameworks or propositions. It’s that the self of the post-everything mind is sown in a field so divergent from what the believer knows that it develops an entirely different approach to life. Consequently, most people turn to either amusement, the duties of life or transcendence in order to deal with the absurdity that this tension creates.
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In this scenario, church and spirituality become meaningful only when the chosen system (amusement, duty, or transcendence) collapses. For example, the amused discovers pain in his pleasure after the novelty of said pleasure wears off. The musical artist Famba captures this experience best when he sang, “I’ve been searching for salvation in a bottle but I ain’t found nothing there but misery”. Or the man of duty finds himself dissatisfied and lost in passionless ethics. This leads him to the classic “midlife crisis” in which he attempts to recover some sense of what is wild and unscripted in life—an experience so common in the west that in 1965, Roger Daltrey of “The Who” sang the timeless line, “things they look so awful cold, I hope I die before I get old”.Or the transcendent one finds that, for all his philosophy and religion, the suffering of life overwhelms him nonetheless and he cannot escape its agony—an experience that has, in part—given birth to what Jean Francois Lyotard described as the postmodern “incredulity toward metanarratives.”
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It’s often at these junctures in life, that people will become open to exploring God. However, while they are open to the exploration this in no way means that the language Adventists speak will make any sense to them. This is because a mind sown in absurdity speaks a completely different language to a mind sown in faith. Thus, we cannot assume that once a person becomes open to God or embraces the reality of God’s existence that this somehow means they are now ready to consume traditional Adventist frameworks. Quite the opposite is true. In this scenario the secular man approximates the pond of Adventist thought and, driven by a desire to explore the metaphysical, dips his toes in the water. If he is met by fundamentalism, simplistic ideas or irrelevant ideas framed in a language he does not comprehend, he retreats. And sadly, our traditional evangelistic approach fuels this sort of repulsive experience. Thus, in order to begin drafting a new and more effective approach, we need to rethink our entire paradigm and I contend that this reimagining must begin at the level of truth.
Truth and the Absurdity of Life
One of the underlying presuppositions in Adventist evangelism is that we possess the truth. This truth, we believe, is something every soul needs to encounter in order to experience salvation. Of course, this position is both logical and biblical. However, where we get into trouble is when we assume that the culture views truth the same way we do. This is a simple way of saying that our ideas about “truth” are universally shared. But the truth is far more complicated.
To begin with, human beings tend to speak two different languages. The first I refer to as “conceptual language” which simply means the words, colloquialisms and terminology we use to express our concepts. The second I refer to as “soul language” or “the language of being”. This second language is deeper—it is the language our heart speaks and revolves more around our values and emotions. For example, a man can say he loves his wife but if pushed for a reason why, he eventually gets frustrated and says, “I don’t know, I just do!” What the man has encountered is that his conceptual language is not capable of fully communicating his language of being. The language of being is much deeper and cannot always be captured in clauses or idioms. Another example is a pastor who tries to copy the words and fashion of the youth in order to “relate” to them. Most young people see this as a gimmick and it doesn’t generally work. But most of us have seen that one old guy who, for all intents and purposes, is anything but “cool” and yet, the youth love him. Why? It is because this man has mastered the art of speaking to them at the inner level of being instead of trying to win them over at the surface level of style.
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It’s important to recognize these two levels of language in order to connect meaningfully with the culture. Returning to the concept of truth we can see that the typical Adventist has a conceptual approach to truth but also a “soul language” about it. At the conceptual level, truth is a very simple concept. That which is true is, well, true. It stands in contrast to that which is false. It’s black and white. Right and wrong. Up and down. Truth is factual, self-evident and absolute. At the level of “soul” language though, truth is more than just an academic concept but an enthusiastic idea, a treasure worth pursuing—to know it is to taste freedom from the oppression of lies.
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However, the culture today does not have the same relationship to truth at either the conceptual or soul level. Conceptually speaking, that which is true cannot be contrasted with that which is false for both can be true and false at the same time. Thus, British playwright Harold Pinter could say,
There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.
For the secular mind then, truth—if there even is such a thing—is more grey than black and white, and different shades of grey at that. It is not as simple as right and wrong, for context changes the relation of things so that what is right for you may very well be wrong for me and vice versa. There is a distinction between “facts” which we can all affirm as a shared perspective because it is objective (like the White House is in Washington, D.C.) and “truth” which cannot be affirmed as a shared perspective because it is subjective (like Jesus is thesavior). Thus, the concept of truth—whatever it may be—is not self-evident and certainly not absolute. To know truth is to know your truth and thus to taste yourfreedom from your lies. But your truth and your freedom are for youmeaning that if applied to me, the same truth that has liberated you may in fact result in oppression for me.
That last line deserves more exploration for it reveals that there is more to the cultures relationship with truth than the basic conceptual relativism we often boil it down to. For the culture, truth is not simply a non-thing but a deplorable thing. For some, absolute truth lies at the foundation of every injustice from racial oppression to sexual orientation and gender discrimination. For many others, the very concept of an absolute truth, even if divorced from injustice, simply lacks finesse and beauty. The postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard summarized this perfectly when he noted that,
Postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.
And these “random” and “empty signals”—this experience of “fragmentation”, “disposability”, “evacuation” and “dissolution” are beautiful—something to be celebrated not repaired. Thus, it’s imperative to understand as Adventists that this perspective of truth is not necessarily something the secular man finds troublesome. At the level of “soul” language, no truth is liberating! French philosopher Jean Paul Sarte surmised it best when he penned, “no meaning is relief”.
Thus, in the secular vision du monde(worldview) there is no absolute truth, no clear purpose for existence and this, rather than being terrifying, actually sets me free to determine my own truth and my own direction. This means that I can live my life with total autonomy. There is no religious figure restraining my impulses, no ancient text controlling my ambitions and no communal social conventions that forcefully mold my life. Best of all, there is no metaphysical judgement at which I am held to account. This is not some philosophical excuse for hedonism as some Christians attest but rather is an invitation to live freely in the absurdity, to dance with the meaninglessness and emptiness of it all, and to allow my life to become a work of art that creates meaning and beauty in a world of my own design.
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This absence of truth offers the culture freedom from the oppression of the religious boundaries that have, as history so clearly unveils, stunted man’s progress and social evolution for far too long. Thus, while the Adventist loves truth, the secular mind detests it at best and is indifferent to it at worst. The absence of truth is therefore not something to be lamented in the post-everything world, but rather something to be celebrated. At the level of soul language truth is to the Adventist freedom, but to the secular mind freedom is actually found in the absence of truth. This leads the mind of the culture toward the fulfillment of what Gabriel Marcel described as “to rejoice in his own annihilation.”
PERSPECTIVES ON TRUTH
|Mind of Faith||Mind of non-Faith|
|Conceptual Understanding||Truth is absolute, factual, self-evident||Truth is relative, distinction between facts and truth, not self-evident|
|Language of Soul||Truth is freedom
Lies are oppression
|No truth is freedom
Truth is oppression
With this divergence in our understanding of what constitutes truth, it is clear that the church is not only contending with its lack of relevance in an absurd world, but it is also up against a cathartic suspicion, loathing, and indifference toward truth. The end result of these divergent perspectives is collision. Along comes the Adventist with the “truth” assuming the people around him share his enthusiastic appreciation of truth. But they don’t. So the proclamation of truth, rather than reaching the hearts of the secular listeners, collides violently with the impregnable wall of incredulity that protects them from the thing they deem oppressive. Understanding this challenge must lead us to ask, how then can we approach the culture with the truth?
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In order to set a foundation for exploring this question meaningfully we need to explore two different approaches to truth and how they interact with the secular mind. To keep things simple, we will explore truth using the imagery of water in a stagnant state and a flow state.
Truth as Stagnant
We will begin with a brief look at truth as stagnant. We have all seen a stagnant body of water. It is a breeding ground of bacteria and filth, something we naturally stay away from. In the same way that stagnant water repels us, stagnant truth repels the culture. By stagnant I mean truth that doesn’t move. It is set, cannot be questioned, deconstructed, or modified.
Consequently, this perspective nurtures a culture of elitism and narcissism where the believer sees himself and his/her community of faith as exclusively righteous. Seventh-day Adventists do tend to fall for this trap because of our high regard for the concept of truth. The end result in most cases is a culture of people who cannot engage meaningfully with anyone outside their own immediate community of faith, whose secular or non-Adventist friendships rapidly dissipate and who, in the words of Amos Oz, “live life with an exclamation point”.
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To the contrary, and as cleverly summarized by Oz, the secular mind prefers to engage reality with a “question mark”. Thus, even when such a person begins to explore God and faith, a person or church with this perspective on truth will speak a language of being that is far too intense, rigid and arrogant. In such scenarios, the Adventist fails to capitalize on the secular minds introspective season by, instead, repelling the seeker with too black and white a vision of reality. This is because the secular mind sees the absence of truth as freedom and the presence of an absolute truth as oppressive. Thus, while open to faith no man is ever open to oppression, preferring instead to remain in darkness despite its absurdity. For at least the darkness gifts the conscience with autonomy.
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The key to connecting with the culture then is to approach truth in a different frame. This leads us to the concept of truth as flow.
Truth as Flow
Truth as stagnant has a number of problems starting with the fact that it’s simply not biblical. Instead, truth in scripture is presented as a progressive flow. This means that it has a simple starting place, a spring if you will, that then travels through time, culture and season bringing with it new revelations and insights. Like a body of water that flows into the immensity of the ocean, so this perspective of truth views truth as process much like a small body of water flowing from a mountain top, down through time, and into an infinite ocean of reality. The truth-seeker in this scenario can be pictured as a man leaning over the current and scooping some of the freshwater in his hands to drink. The water being truth in motion toward an infinite ocean of truth where we, as temporal beings, can only ever consume small portions of it.
The practical outworking of this view is threefold. First, its proponent understands that they don’t know all truth. They only know the little bit that they have scooped from the river. They expect to learn more as time and seasons come and go. Second, its proponent accepts that he is not infallible. For them, truth is absolute in the sense that it has a reliable ontological source (objectively absolute) but my personal understanding of that truth is constantly evolving because while truth is infallible I am not because at any given time, I am consuming a mere handful of this truth. And third, not only does its proponent expect to learn more truth as time advances but they also expect to relearn the little bit of truth they already possess. In other words, as God reveals more truth they expect that new revelations will not simply agree with old ones but that they will expand, enhance and clarify the truth they already possess. Ellen White captured this view of truth well when she wrote,
“The truth of God is progressive; it is always onward, going from strength to a greater strength, from light to a greater light. We have every reason to believe that the Lord will send us increased truth, for a great work is yet to be done. In our knowledge of truth, there is first a beginning in our understanding of it, then a progression, then completion; first the blade, then the ear, and after that the full corn in the ear. Much has been lost because our ministers and people have concluded that we have had all the truth essential for us as a people; but such a conclusion is erroneous and in harmony with the deceptions of Satan; for truth will be constantly unfolding.”–White, Ellen G: Sign of the Times, May 26, 1890.
This approach to truth, when embraced at the visceral level generates an approach that is capable of journeying with the secular mind. We approach the seeker as fellow seekers, not as gurus. We admit our limitations, our fallibility and the fact that even what we do know is but a tiny flow into an infinite ocean of knowledge we have not even begun to scratch. Not only this, but we can admit that even what we do know is but a basic understanding of much bigger themes that time will unfold for us. Thus, the threat of an absolute truth with its totalistic claims and oppression is calmed. The secular man knows that to pursue truth with this perspective means that wherever he goes there will be no compulsion, no coercion and no provocation. His conscience will retain its autonomy even when being challenged by meta-truths. Thus, even if there is an absolute truth, it is not oppressive and does not stake a claim over individual conscience. This is a truth perspective which the secular mind is more likely to engage with for it interacts meaningfully with the language of his soul.
|Truth as Stagnant||Truth is oppressive meets truth is absolute, “I know it all”||Interpreted as a threat, Collision, Reluctance|
|Truth as Flow||Truth is oppressive meets truth is progressive, “I am seeking too”||Interpreted as safe,
Awakens Curiosity, Willingness to explore
The above scenarios are more than the mere opinionated codification or observation of this one author. Rather, they flow from the very real experience of modern day people who interact with our evangelistic approach. Thus, in their “Millennial perceptions of Adventist public evangelism” research project, Dr. Allan Parker and Emily Charvat found that, despite a relatively positive experience and appreciation for Adventist evangelism, millennials noted that “Adventists (74%), conspiracy theorists (57%), and Christians of other faiths (47%) are [most] likely to be attracted to evangelistic meetings based on the advertising.” With regards to attracting “non-Christians” only 20% believed our approach is effective with that number dropping to 6% for “millennials”. The research also found that most millennials have a “poor impression” of how these series are advertised and are “not very likely” to invite a friend. Most consider the approach to be altogether “outdated and irrelevant to a younger audience.”
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In other words, these series are designed to speak to a culture and generation that no longer exist. They make assumptions about their listeners that end up attracting everyone but the secular culture that surrounds us. It’s not simply the clash in conceptual language that appears to drive these conclusions but the clash in language of being. Our approach is literally using a different language both at the level of concept and being and is, consequently, interpreted as a threat even by those who have entered a season of introspection and are open to seeking God. Dr. Jesse Wilson summarised this best when he wrote,
It’s obvious why some evangelistic ideas and efforts are unfruitful. The calendar has changed, but the methods are the same. Going to the evangelistic campaign is like taking a nice stroll down memory lane.
I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s time that we Adventists developed an approach to evangelism that speaks to the soul of a culture that finds beauty in the absurdity of life. And it begins with adopting a perspective of truth as flow, capable of interacting meaningfully with the secular mind. From that starting place, we can now begin to explore our doctrines and reimagine them as revelations that offer something of meaning to a culture drowning comfortably in absurdity.
 Famba. Lyrics to “Swear to God” © Ultra Tunes, Songtrust Ave
 The Who. Lyrics to “My Generation” © Universal Music Publishing Group
 See Nasrullah Mambrol, “The postmodern as ‘incredulity towards metanarratvies,'” [Web: https://literariness.org/2016/04/03/the-postmodern-as-the-incredulity-towards-metanarratives]
 Harold Pinter. “Harold Pinter – Nobel Lecture,” [Web: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2005/pinter/25621-harold-pinter-nobel-lecture-2005]
Jean Baudrillard. “Simulacra and Simulations” University of Michigan Press, 1994
As summarised by The School of Life video “Philosophy – Sartre” [Web: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bQsZxDQgzU]
Wikipedia. “Gabriel Marcel,” [Web: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_Marcel#cite_note-11]
Richard Reeder. “The Words and Wisdom of Amos Oz Live On,” [Web: https://aliteraryreeder.wordpress.com/2018/12/29/the-words-and-wisdom-of-amos-oz-live-on]
Allan parker and Emily Charvat. “Millennial perceptions of Adventist public evangelism,” Slide 18 [Web: https://www.slideshare.net/parkersda/millennial-perceptions-of-adventist-public-evangelism]
ibid., Slide 20
ibid., Slide 23
ibid., Slide 51
Jesse Wilson. “How Adventist Evangelism Hurts Adventist Evangelism,” [Web: https://drjessewilson.com/bad-evangelism]