Reith Reflections: Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Mistaken Identities

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Introduction: Who are We, Really?

The question of identity is basic to all humans. It is also basic to religious communities. The Adventist church has historically seen itself – and been seen, as a unique, special, even peculiar, people. We have identified ourselves using phrases such as the remnant, people of the Book, God’s Sabbath-keeping people, commandment-keeping people, and other similar phrases that speak to a common communal self-perception. At the basis of this perception has been our firm belief that we are led by a clearer view of scripture than earlier movements in the Protestant tradition have enjoyed. This gives us confidence and stability. Yet at the same time, we have always been a church of vigorous debate and theological disagreement. More so, the past decade has urged questions on us that challenge us to reevaluate the bases of our identity. As the church grows into an ever-widening mosaic of cultural complexity, questions on “unity versus uniformity” are all the rage.

A recent lecture by the renowned philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has given me cause to consider my own identity as a member of the Adventist faith community, and what it means for how I might approach the issues of the present and future. The first installment in this year’s BBC Reith lectures, the lecture is nothing short of a thoughtful, inviting reflection on how we identify ourselves within the sphere of religion. The lecture series is called Mistaken Identities, and in the first lecture he focuses on Creed as the expression of beliefs that, on the surface, appear to be based on the objective pronouncements of doctrinal statements, or scriptures. But beneath the surface – or above it, he argues – creed is really not what we think or believe, but what we do. Orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy.

In my assessment, and it is worth stating, Appiah’s lecture reflects his atheism as well as his own self-identification as a homosexual. But it does contain useful material, at the least for thoughtful consideration if not for instruction. He has, after all, been called a modern day Socrates.

Religion is Practice, not Belief

His first claim is that identity as we often speak about it today is a social phenomenon, one that is shared with others of a particular community and that gives a sense of mutual belonging. Secondly he asserts that within faith communities this social identity, though it appears founded on doctrine, actually precedes it – that “religion is not, in the first instance, a matter of belief.” For Appiah, practice and community are the real bases of this social identity, and supersede belief.

Appiah’s argument rings true on many levels. As a Seventh-day Adventist, I find myself strongly attached to a set of doctrinal propositions that I consider to be true. Like Jews, I believe that the Sabbath is holy and points to a Creator who also consecrates his creation – myself included. I also believe that certain foods should be avoided on account of being biblically proscribed. On the surface it would appear that I identify a Seventh-day Adventist because I believe these things. Appiah’s argument is that I identify as such because these beliefs find expression in my actions and in the actions of others in my faith community. This makes sense. Commonality of practice is mutually affirming within a social context.

If, for instance you are the only one in an Adventist church praying at the top of your voice during a service, you will soon realize from the reactions of others that you do not belong. In fact in some places an audible “Amen” will be enough to betray you, I’m told. Belonging is a psychological frame of mind that is built on conformity with the group.

New members and visitors often find it out. Many female converts take some time to understand our practice with regards to abstinence from wearing jewelry; most come to accept it before they even understand the underlying theology. Indeed, I can safely assert that very many remain unconvinced of the biblical foundations of the practice. Yet our orthopraxy with regards to jewelry is seen at least as a distinguishing feature of our faith if not a defining one: we are the people whose women do not wear earrings. Many who do wear them are looked upon with disapproval by more conformist sisters, and are often treated in less than a welcoming spirit. All this without any firm biblical convictions on the subject.

These things flow out of a religious identity that has been shaped over decades, bequeathed to each generation of Adventists. So our women may not fully understand just how the text proscribes it, but they have an unassailable faith in the correctitude of our orthopraxy. Serious theological resolution is ceded to the sufficiency of the collective mind, and as we conform, we deepen our sense of belonging… our identity. It is worth looking briefly at the legacy of identity that have been bequeathed the modern church, all of which still play their role in our religious identity today.

Our Historical Identities

The Great Disappointment

As I write, it is the 22nd of October 2016. Exactly 153 years ago the Seventh-day Adventist Church was formally organized, but nineteen years earlier the Adventists had come through a period marked by great disappointment. The Millerite movement had looked forward to the coming of Christ on this day in 1844. He did not appear, and the small band was threatened with an early demise.

Their hope had been based on belief, a specific interpretation of prophetic texts mainly from the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. But it was also based on the communal aspect, no doubt: people believing the same as each other, expecting as each other, and expressing that hope in communal worship and activity. The fact that it survived this painful beginning reflects the kind of responsible handling of scripture that I hope forms a basic part of our identity. The early Adventists were willing to accept that their interpretation had been faulty, but wise enough to realize that there remained a truth in the text that ought to be pursued.

This history is certainly a part of our religious identity. We are the people of the Great Disappointment. But Since then, the church has gone on to evolve an admirable tradition of Bible study, research and scholarship. We have also adopted policies that allow us to evolve our view of scripture over time. Our articulation of faith, however, is guarded by our belief in the infallibility of God’s revelation in His word. So in a way, our identity is fluid as regards our interpretive orthopraxy, but fixed in terms of our epistemological conviction about the existence and revelation of God in scripture and in the prophetic ministry of Ellen G. White.

The Remnant (Church)

We also identify ourselves as the remnant people – or church – of God, called like ancient Israel to remind the world of the truth of God’s law and to give the final warnings mankind will receive about God’s end time judgment. This belief is very basic to our self-identity. We draw it from texts that others have never seen as supporting the idea that there is an end-time remnant at all, let alone that we are that remnant. This basic identity we hold is clearly a product of our own interpretation of Scripture. It also flows into practices that colour us distinctively in the Christian landscape.

A Bible People

Quite similarly we see ourselves as a truly Bible based, Bible defending church. “We have the truth” is a common phrase, one that often earns us the accusation of religious exclusivism. Of course we do our best to explain ourselves, but we do not cower down from insisting that we more than anyone else uphold the tenets of sola scriptura and tota scriptura: the Bible alone, and all the Bible. Of course, once we come to that second tenet, our belief flows from a theologizing process that categorizes the texts and applies them differently on the scale of significance. What is “salvational”, and what is not? This is a common question.

Not a Cult

Sometimes identity is a negative construct describing what we are not. As a church we have had to deal with an insistence within mainstream (mostly Protestant and evangelical) Christianity that we are really a cult. This idea is not so prevalent today as it used to be, and that is no accident. The need to define ourselves to others has led to re-articulations of our faith that have not been without controversy. The 1957 publication of Questions on Doctrine sponsored by the General Conference, for instance, raised controversy within that persists to this day. But it also helped to reshape our identity in the eyes of our erstwhile skeptical Christian counterparts. Clearly this “image management” was deemed worth the internal disquiet about apparent watering down of doctrine that it provoked.

Moving Forward

It is clear from these instances in our history that the deliberate activities of interpretation and articulation have greatly shaped how we have self-identified over the past century and a half. How will this tradition play out as we move into the future?

By many standards we are still a conservative church, yet we have also seen our orthopraxy shift over the decades on issues like going to the movies, participating in competitive sports, celebrating Christmas and Easter (whatever celebrating might mean), and our rhetorical approach towards Catholicism in our preaching and evangelism. Much of this change has happened without any significant reinterpretation of relevant Bible passages. The fact is that on each of these issues, there has always been sufficient textual material on both sides of the argument, material that sustains disagreement to this day. But despite this the church has largely moved towards more liberal view of things solely on the level of majority practice.

This picture, as well as the paradigm presented by Appiah, poses a challenge to us, especially as we enter a stage in our history when the issues of importance are, well, a little more important. We are facing questions concerning the role of women in ministry, the place of homosexuals in the general community and in leadership, and the older question of racial separation of congregations particularly in North America.

These internal questions feed into and are fed by larger social trends on these issues. As members of the general society Adventists have to deal with race-related police brutality in the United States, social hostility against LGBT persons in Africa, restrictions against freedom of worship in many countries, socially sanctioned gender inequality in Africa and other places, as well as a host of other issues. Homosexuality and women’s ordination are currently the touchstone of the problem, but there is also an increasingly complex landscape of ethical questions. The progress we make in science seems to heighten the complexity of issues like abortion, euthanasia, animal experimentation and stem cell research. Are the answers to these questions theological or practical? Our answer depends in large part on whether we think we are what we believe, or what we do.

To be fair, in Appiah’s model these need not be mutually exclusive options. He argues that interpretation itself is something we do. He sees belief as something we can derive from a process of interpretation, so that in a real sense we create and own our beliefs. Remarking on medieval Jewish commentary, he says, “abstract beliefs mean very little if you lack a direct relationship to traditions of practice, conventions of interpretation, and communities of worship.” Taken to its logical conclusion, we can simply decide on an interpretation – or interpretations, and allow them to shape our belief on whether or not to ordain women and homosexuals into ministry, for example.

Some would argue that we are doing exactly this. Many within the church are less than satisfied with a recent vote by the worldwide church not to ordain female pastors. They see in it, as well as in more recent attempts to enforce that vote, a coercive tyranny of the majority through policy that does not necessarily flow out of theology. For a church that claims firm foundations in the plain teaching of scripture, this is quite an allegation.

The typical response is that the process by which we determine policy is itself a part of our theologizing. We believe that the Holy Spirit works through the majority in a divinely ordained system handed down to us by revelation rather than human invention. In that sense there is theologizing power reposed by God within the church system, though (an this is important) it is subject to the Bible. Orthopraxy then must reflect the integrity of this theologizing process.

On the matter of homosexuality it has been argued that the theological arguments used to support women’s ordination open up the family structure to such modifications as will lead to accepting homosexuality as part of our orthodoxy. Clearly, there is a huge concern for maintaining sound doctrine as a basis for right practice. Appiah’s argument is that the formulation of doctrine itself is practice, and so we shouldn’t fuss. As he puts it, “even an avowal of faith is a performance as much as it is a proposition.” Belief then is only an illusion of objective scriptural foundation. The reality is that we already shape our identities ourselves, by doing things to the text through our interpretive activities.

The difference boils down to a simple question: which view of scripture will this question be decided on? Advocates of women’s ordination have often suggested that unity does not require uniformity. Their very appealing argument is that practice should reflect cultural diversity on points that are textually neutral or unclear. This idea almost perfectly captures the essence of Appiah’s suggestion; the locus of our religious identity is not so sacrosanct that it cannot suffer variation. It is not fixed like scripture, but can be seated comfortably within the various cultural contexts of our religious experience.

Go Forth and Multiply (Interpretations)

If orthopraxy is as basic to identity as Appiah suggests, however, we run the risk of creating different churches through different practice. The split that many dread may indeed happen in practice even if not in policy… the old de facto/de jure situation. Even more so if Appiah is right, then that reality will eventually catch up with policy as well. A house divided cannot stand.

Consider Appiah’s advice to British Muslims:

“Like the Muslims of much of Europe and North America, they have chosen to settle permanently in non-Muslim lands. Questions of gender, in this new setting, will be only part of the challenge. In meeting it, the recognition that identity endures through change—indeed, that it only endures by change—will be a useful touchstone for everyone involved.”

In other words, they should be open to the reshaping that the British cultural context will – it would seem inevitably – have on their notions of religious propriety. If they should take this advice, it might indeed be a passive process, but it will nonetheless be deliberate. It will be a willful capitulation to external influences on how they read their sacred texts and identify as Muslims. But Appiah goes further. During the question and answer section after the lecture he Appiah notes:

“Religious identities have survived in large measure, precisely because texts have been reinterpreted and understood to be reinterpreted by many of the most enduring and flexible traditions”. (Italics mine)

Again, remarking on the possibility within the Islamic tradition for women to enjoy greater status in the modern world, he proposed that the Islamic tradition – as well as all faith traditions – provides enough material for the rightly motivated individual to

“Take it and to read (in the case of Islam) both the Qur’an and the surrounding materials, which include Hadith and stories of the Prophet’s life, and out of them to build a very different view.” (Italics mine)

Such proposals flow logically out of Appiah’s view of orthopraxy, no question. But to say the least they are rather radical, an adjective that Appiah has no doubt come to be quite comfortable with through his impressive career. Such active, deliberate, agenda-driven re-conceptualization of scriptural texts does not appear faithful to the principle of unbiased truth seeking. In this paradigm Appiah advises Muslims “with the right attitude” to take the texts and infuse them with meaning that is better suited to the realities of contemporary society. He might well answer my concern by saying that it is only assumption that there is any truth to pursue at all in ancient texts.

My own feeling is that there is much merit in the assertion that our faith rests primarily on our interpretations of scripture rather than on the objective meaning of text itself, but to pretend that simply because that objective meaning is elusive we are better off pursuing our own hermeneutical fantasizing is a wee bit reckless. Who would not want to live in a society of perfect agreement and universal mutual acceptance? The reason we persist with doctrine is that we believe, beyond the claim of any text, that there is something in the text, even if we have not yet figured out exactly what it is.

We must insist than that orthodoxy remains. There is no escape from epistemological subjectivity. Any truth we know can only ever be known at least one level of abstraction from the truth itself. That one plus one is two many mean in my mind different than it means in yours, but both our conceptions of that fact correspond to that objective truth. To dismiss orthodoxy then, on the grounds of its interpretive subjectivity is simply to rehash the now old postmodernist belief that because nothing can be objectively known, there can be no objective truth. Appiah’s take on religious identity then, is shown to be nothing more than a religious contextualization of standard postmodernist epistemology. This does not trouble me. If God saw fit to reveal Himself to creatures with brains, then I am satisfied. That I can only experience him subjectively is no logical ground on which to dismiss the possibility of His existence.

Indeed, this idea is neither new nor foreign to my religion as an Adventist. We are well aware that objective truth is a destination that our theology and practice as a church must be a diligent journey brighter and brighter light. It does not yet appear what we shall be, as the apostle John said. Even in the afterlife we look forward to perpetual study of His depth. The veil never completely disappears.

For now, and I believe in recognition of this, we have not shackled ourselves with unchangeable creeds. Rather, we have formulated statements of belief that reflect as accurately as possible our present understanding of what truth is. These statements are constantly being updated. Adventists understand that as products of interpretation our twenty-eight statements of faith are neither perfect nor final. They also flow out of our formal organizational practice, along the lines I have already described; practice that may soon birth a twenty-ninth. Time will tell.

Given the difficulty with the prescriptive destination of Appiah’s logic, how are we to face the questions of today as a faith community? It appears to mean that we have three immediate options.
• First, we can, like we usually do, study the issues and then take binding votes, which we then enforce.
• Second, we could allow theology to passively evolve over time to reflect whatever attitudes towards these issues prevail.
• Third, we could simply ‘detheologize’ these issues so that however members behave with regards to them do not form any sort of orthopraxy. Like we do when we say an issue is “not salvational”, just a step further.

The last option bears the risk of carelessly redacting theology. Even Appiah agrees that belief is one of the components of religion, and as a church we believe that scripture is the inspired word of God. It would be immorally careless to treat a subject as amoral or non-theological that the Bible actually has a moral and theological view on.

The second opens up the church to all the influences that members bring with them from the general society. These influences are not necessarily consistent with our faith in its totality. Also, we cannot be certain that all those influences will be the products of natural, unbiased, undoctored socio-cultural agendas. In an increasingly conscious postmodernist society where everything is driven by movements and interest groups, it is more likely that they will be. In short, malpractice can masquerade as orthopraxy. Are we willing to allow their unchecked percolation into the fabric of our faith?

The first option, the current approach, has the weakness of tending to leave us in disagreement. But it is my view that this is the most acceptable problem. It leaves us in the house squabbling, but the house stands. Neither our theology nor our history bears out a tradition of perfect agreement on issues. Even our fundamental beliefs have their contested points. Is it heretical to propose that disagreement is a part of any authentic human orthopraxy? I hope not, because it is exactly what I propose.

Finally, Locating the Faith

In the end, I think that the future of our church depends on a view of religious identity that does realize that its roots lie an interpretive layer above the objective meaning of Scripture, but which does not forget that the process of interpretation that takes us to that plane is not an wholly human one. It will be much easier for us to accept our interpretive roots – as well as differences – if we realize that at their very heart is the basic idea, one that is pure orthodoxy, that it is God who leads us through it all. We must not tear down the old safeguards. For example, we must not come to think that this gives the church authority over the text. Instead, by submitting our theology to the unending pursuit of objective biblical truth, however difficult it may be, we should find that the Holy Spirit’s leading fastens us in the authority that is already in His word.

The questions we face today, particularly on how we treat women’s ordination and LGBT issues, but also other issues, will both depend on and define our identity going into the future. We should realize that rigid, “fundamentalist” views on text are not necessarily correct views on text. Neither are old views on text. As Appiah notes, “When critics of fundamentalism say a religious identity requires a fixed set of beliefs or some fixed reading of its scriptures, they themselves have fallen for the fundamentalists’ fallacy.” We must be Adventist enough to see that he is right. At the same time, imperfect knowledge does not imply a license to re-imagine the text to suit our needs or preferences.

Our religious identity, then, is safeguarded not in understanding perfectly what all of Scripture says. Our religious identity is safeguarded by faithfully and honestly striving to do so, submitting continually to the Holy Spirit who is determined to lead us to all truth. If we realize this, it should become easier to tell what we must do with the points on which we disagree in the meantime: keep searching, keep praying, keep squabbling – in love, of course.

Photo credit: TED

The 2016 BBC Reith Lectures can be found here

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Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.