From mid-2012 to mid-2016 I was the editor of Salt Cellar: a magazine for Christadelphian young people in Melbourne. One year ago today, I produced my final Salt Cellar and wrote my final editorial. It contained an important message about seeking out truth, though that message was concealed behind scriptural wording. Now I can reveal the real message behind the editorial.
Have a read of the editorial here.
I have already discussed the issues of being a leader while planning to quit. They applied to my last exhortation, and they apply here: I was in a position of authority, and I didn’t want to abuse it. At the same time, I had a message to give, and since it could be defended from the Bible and from Christadelphian history I had no problem giving it.
For me, Salt Cellar had a special place, because it was one of the few things that was really mine. Various other people contributed, but I was the one who put it together and filled up the gaps that were inevitably left. I had spent nearly four years managing it, and now I was voluntarily giving it up.
But it was also special because the target audience was fellow young people, my age or younger: they were my friends, and they were also the future of Melbourne Christadelphia. To remain Christadelphians, they will need to figure out how best to respond to a world that is changing from the world their parents and grandparents know. Along the way, they are sure to face pressures from those older than them, conservatives and liberals alike. And I want them to face it by focusing on truth rather than on conformity.
So I spoke of the importance of seeking truth and doing the right thing no matter what the cost. Hey, Jesus said it, why couldn’t I? And I spoke about the danger of unthinkingly following what our parents taught us or what those around us are doing. Obviously, my opinion of what was true was very different from theirs, but hopefully we could agree on the overall goal.
But there was one vital piece of context known only to me. A few months before, a prominent brother had been disfellowshipped for belief in evolution. I won’t mention his name here, since it’s not relevant, but probably quite a few Christadelphians will know what I’m talking about.
I doubt many young people heard about it, but it was widely discussed among their elders. It seemed there were concerns about whether due process had been followed and whether ecclesial autonomy had been infringed. But, whether or not it was acknowledged, the debate wasn’t just about due process: It was about whether there should be a division between those who believed in theistic evolution, and those who rejected it.
There were some in Melbourne who supported the action. But there were plenty who felt that either way was acceptable, and that it would be wrong to split the brotherhood and force believers to pick sides one way or the other. I was in one lengthy meeting with people from both sides, and it got nowhere. I described it to a friend afterwards as “corrosive”. And I don’t think it’s going away: the entire issue threatens to divide friends and to force people to choose sides, whether they like it or not.
So my comments about Jesus being put on trial and condemned for speaking the truth weren’t accidental. And when I said “Would we try to get rid of voices of truth if their messages made us feel uncomfortable?”, it wasn’t just an idle question. I believe this is exactly what happened in this case.
While I disagree with the brother in question on many points of interpretation, I have no reason to doubt either his sincerity or his intelligence. He has spent many years searching for truth, and has come to conclusions that probably shocked him as much as they now shock his hearers. Does throwing him out invalidate the research he did? Or the conclusions he came to?
I mentioned only yesterday that searching out the truth for yourself is an important Christadelphian principle. In fact, John Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphian religion, gave these principles:
Never be afraid of results to which you may be driven by your investigations, as this will inevitably bias your mind and disqualify you to arrive at ultimate truth. Investigate everything you believe - if it is the truth it cannot be injured; if error, the sooner it is corrected the better.
Of course, the reality is that it is not that simple. The expectation is that those searching for truth will come to the same conclusions as everyone else, particularly on matters of “first principles”, though there isn’t always agreement about which things qualify as first principles. It is notable that the document defining these first principles came after the death of John Thomas, during a time in which the denomination became much more of a closed shop and suffered high profile divisions.
However, those who don’t stick to the party line are liable to being accused of being misguided or acting in bad faith. And those are the nice critics.
Harsher critics are more inclined to view these sincere truth seekers as corrupting the church, being divisive, and leading people astray. One description I saw tonight on a public Facebook group talked of “seducers with oily words beguiling ‘silly women laden with sins’, and the simple who are not rooted and grounded in the faith”. These people were “reprobate to the faith and wilful destroyers of it”, and it wasn’t even worth arguing with them.
I know some of the people mentioned, and I’m pretty sure they don’t have a deep and hidden agenda to destroy the church. They are just earnest seekers after truth who have realised that the party line is difficult to defend and probably wrong, and they want to share what they have learned. Ironically, it is the people who want to split from them who accuse them of being divisive - despite the fact that these seekers after truth say “We can accept your faith - why can’t you accept ours?”
When I described my editorial to a friend, I said that I was only pouring about 1% of the passion I felt into my editorial. A year on my thoughts about the topic have probably changed, but my passion remains the same. So let’s put it bluntly, without dissembling: There are many people who have gone out earnestly looking for truth, and found that the traditional Christadelphian model didn’t fit. This isn’t a defect. It’s not a problem with their thinking that needs fixing with more faith or more Bible study. It is a foundational Christadelphian principle: the search for truth.
If you think the correct solution to an inconvenient truth is to silence dissenting voices and cast them out, you will have problems. You may hold a small section of the religion together, but many will feel unable to remain, and many potential converts will be put off by it. Some will leave because they hold the wrong beliefs, but others will leave just because they are unhappy with the amount of division and in-fighting. My former ecclesia was mostly free from these problems and open to differences of opinion. Long may it stay that way!
But for me, this is personal: This insistence on preserving the Truth will probably leave behind some of my friends, perhaps some of my family, and anyone else who, like me, comes to honestly recognise how much evidence there is in favour of evolution. It will lead to a toxic environment, forcing people to hide what they have learned for fear of getting in trouble. Even if there is no official split, the interchange of ideas between ecclesias will be lost because they don’t trust each other. And in spite of all this, a long term future is not guaranteed: even those who survive will have difficulty keeping their children and grandchildren safe from the scourge of evolution. In some cases, this will mean broken family relationships and years of guilt, anger, shame, and confusion.
And what do you gain? The only real benefit I can see is keeping the purity of the Truth. Being able to maintain that the supposedly literal interpretation of a book written by unknown authors more than 2,000 years ago has more value than the investigative work of thousands of scientists over the last couple of hundred years.
Yes, that’s an atheist viewpoint, but if you come across someone who feels unable to take the Genesis account literally, take the time to try and understand why. You might be surprised by the answer. You might also be surprised by the firmness with which they are clinging to the same faith as you, in spite of discovering evidence that you believe would break your faith. You might even learn something.
So please, don’t just fall back to wishful thinking and doing what everyone around you does. Seek for truth. Look for evidence wherever it leads, and don’t silence voices of truth to make yourself feel more comfortable. You may not come to the same conclusions as me, and that’s fine. I don’t claim to be infallible. But arguments from ignorance don’t help anyone. Nor does silencing dissenters help anyone, no matter how sincerely you think it’s the right thing to do.