This post is part of the #RIPGC Synchroblog for Great Disappointment Day, 2015.
“From error to error one discovers the entire truth.” —Sigmund Freud
One of my favorite TED presentations comes from journalist and researcher Kathryn Schulz. Her talk, “On Being Wrong,” starts with uncomfortable, knowing grimaces and chuckles from audience members remembering—or so they think—how it feels to be wrong. When asked to name the emotions of wrongness, they mention embarrassment, devastation, and rejection. “But actually,” Schulz says, “You guys are answering the question ‘How does it feel to realize you’re wrong?’ Realizing you’re wrong can be devastating, it can be revelatory, it can actually be quite funny… [But] being wrong feels like being right.”
The Disappointments of 1843, 1844, and for some Adventists, the unsettled decades between 1844 and the late 1860s, represent a period in early Adventist history when our community lived out what it meant to both be wrong and also realize we were wrong. Through our early writing and teaching, we responded to our realization of wrongness by revising and refining new explanations of October 22, 1844, and its implications for our theology and daily lives. But we haven’t sat with the beingness of wrongness, and we sharply resist anyone who suggests we might be wrong about any substantial belief today: such people are dangerous, threatening, and must be avoided.
Over the last two decades, I’ve begun noticing ways that our aversion to error plays out. College and university researchers whose very discipline depends on healthy protocols for failing and adapting have found they can’t openly explore or question conclusions that the Biblical Research Institute or current GC president have determined. There’s a long line of human casualties to this pattern in Adventist science, theology, psychology, and medicine going back to the 1800s. Over 170 years, we’ve accreted an intellectual climate that’s hostile to young scholars who train for years to explore ideas and then graduate into a community that’s deeply ambivalent about the openness and vulnerability that research requires.
I worry about that. Unlike the early members of our church who shaped this community over decades with new stories about the scriptures and the God who inspired the minds, lives, and experiences of His children, we’ve spent prime community years reluctant to face up to what we think we know and what life mirrors back to us, and to think new thoughts as a result. Like farmers refusing to drop seeds into the soil, like stewards burying the potentials entrusted to us, we’ve been failing by being unwilling to fail. The very culture of listening and learning that allowed Adventism to become what it is has become a monster to resist. That shift isn’t sustainable for our community or for the individuals who compose it.
On those issues where we perceive the stakes as too high for us to change, where this group or that is warned about the lake of fire and the loss of souls, we’ve had little room as a movement to move beyond what Adventist philosopher Timothy Golden has called “epistemic hubris.” The only options we’re acknowledging right now are “stay the course” with all the suspicion of difference that that entails, or open up the gate of our world and risk destruction. We’ve been taught that only one of these ways is viable, and so that closed perspective is what we use as we work and vote in the church community.
But it is possible to discern truth through relationships with people who are different from us, to risk learning something new with and from those who vary from us, and to account for this learning as we see our old, familiar world with new eyes. It is possible to do this and not in fact be destroyed. Our Adventist ancestors did it and we’re the proof of their survival.
October 22 isn’t just a milestone for our church. It’s also the birth date of my grandmother, a wiry high-cheeked Jamaican woman who moved fluidly between the market, the kitchen, and the weekly Sabbath School. Grandma was born just 72 years after that first Great Disappointment. Had her parents’ parents heard the Millerite pitch about the coming of Christ, maybe they too might have watched the skies into the wee hours of the next morning. Grandma died over a century after 1844, still waiting, still hoping, now with a passel of descendants to wait and hope as she once had.
My church and my grandmother both were born in a different world than the one we live in today. But Grandma grew with enough grace to receive reason and express faith as change. As a convert in the 1930s, she learned to honor the Sabbath by so vigorously guarding the principle of limited labor that she, her husband, and her ten children would not bathe on Sabbath morning and ate juice and cold meals after church. She was relieved when the family discovered that these rules, well-intentioned as they were, were neither necessary nor helpful to them. I will not mock her or the church that taught her rules she later grew beyond and shed.
Grandma was blessed as she fully inhabited the truths she could perceive. She was just as blessed as she saw more truth and trusted the Truth-Maker enough to digest the nutrients in yesterday’s wisdom, release the husk, and openhandedly receive the wisdom that the Spirit deigned to share each new day. We too ride that cycle of insight, release, and learning as we revisit where our community has been and reflect on what it might become.
As Paul wrote so many moons ago, we see through a glass darkly, and when completeness comes, what’s in part disappears. We’re nowhere near open enough to risk the destruction we fear from releasing our partial views of God, the world, and each other. Our challenge today is to grieve our disappointments and release our expectations in such a way that we keep our connection to each other warm and whole, and stay open to new material, new perspectives, new thoughts, and new people. Our openness to the new is not for its own sake, but for the sake of the health of our community. All living things grow. All living things change.
Any habit of mind or behavior can become entrenched with enough practice: restricted risks and suspicion of change certainly are Adventist storylines, but they aren’t our entire story. The root that the early Adventists worked with all those years ago is also part of our communal culture: adaptability, imagination, disciplined reflection, and an openness to wisdom that heals and enriches all kinds of people, not just some.
That’s the root that I want to water now. No more nourishment to the models that are passing away; just the water of love on the root of my faith. Wherever the new springs up, wherever the wind takes it, whether it unfolds in familiar places or blossoms as the rose in wildernesses far from home, I’ll be there.
Blessed are the mistaken, for they shall inhabit a new story.
Even if it’s a story we write together on the way.
This article is part of the RIP GC synchroblog. Read the other contributions on the #RIPGC Twitter hashtag or the RIP GC website.