Seventh-day Adventists are starting to show an interest in spirituality. At least, that’s what you might get from articles like that by Rachel Davies announcing a new Spectrum series. But as I’ve written elsewhere, Adventism has a rich heritage of well-grounded Biblical spirituality–even if we haven’t often used that word to define it.
How should we define spirituality? I use that definition suggested by Gustavo Gutierrez in his book, We Drink from Our Own Wells: spirituality starts as a personal experience with God that becomes “the subject of later reflection and is proposed to the entire ecclesial community as a way of being disciples of Christ.”
Seventh-day Adventist spirituality, as the name suggests, is grounded in the hope of the soon return of Jesus (as that hope took root in the Second Advent movement of the 19th century) and in the experience of the Sabbath. It is informed by the call to “worship the Creator” (Rev. 14), and by the Biblical understanding of man as a wholistic being. It is nurtured by the prophetic writings of Ellen G. White, especially her devotional book, Steps to Christ.
And that brings me to my major problem with Jon Dybdahl’s book, Hunger: Satisfying the Longing of Your Soul (Review and Herald, Autumn House, 2008). He appears to be writing to Adventists (the book was published by the Review and Herald, and distributed through Adventist Book Centers), and yet he seems deliberately to avoid discussing specifically Adventist contributions, concerns, and authors. The Sabbath and the Second Coming are strikingly absent, as is the Adventist understanding of the nature of man, the health message, the Adventist practice of the Lord’s Supper, “the morning watch,” Sabbath School, prayer meeting, testimony meetings, camp meetings—all of which seem to me to be key elements of Seventh-day Adventist spirituality. Ellen G. White, the most important and most widely read spiritual author of the church, is mentioned only in passing.
But something more foundational is also missing. Christian spirituality, I would argue, must be Trinitarian, joining through the Spirit in the prayer of the Son to the Father; living the new life in Christ through the Spirit sent by the Father. It is rooted in God’s self-revelation and giving of himself in his Son, in the incarnation and the cross, and in the joyful expectation of his return in glory. These concepts are all strangely absent. “The key role of the Holy Spirit” isn’t mentioned until p. 135.
The grounding of Christian spirituality in grace is overlooked. Grace is not mentioned until p. 119. Prior to this, the focus is all on us and our actions striving toward God, rather than rooting ourselves in his grace which has been poured out to us in Jesus. The Creeds are disparaged as “doctrine,” but they all focus on inserting our experience into the Trinitarian narrative of grace: God created us, gave us his Son, sustains us by His Spirit.
Dybdahl writes from his own sense of hunger. He says, “People assumed that I should pray, but they never required me to read a book on prayer or meditation” p. 15). I wonder–in his “20-plus years of [Adventist] education” did no one ever suggest that he read Steps to Christ–not even the chapter, “The Privilege of Prayer“?
Dybdahl refers to a “double longing” of God for us, yet the focus is on our “striving,” our “hunger,” our “thirst,” and not on God’s grace, his feeding us, his quenching of that thirst. I could not help but contrast his description with this from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2560 “If you knew the gift of God!”7 The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.
2561 “You would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” Paradoxically our prayer of petition is a response to the plea of the living God: “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water!” Prayer is the response of faith to the free promise of salvation and also a response of love to the thirst of the only Son of God.
I find it puzzling that the chapter on worship, which draws lessons from the Old Testament, doesn’t mention the sanctuary–a central theme in Seventh-day Adventist theology. Nor does it tie in with Revelation 14. Nor is the experience of the Sabbath explored. Nor is the communion service mentioned. Worship here is all focused on us reaching out to God; God’s reaching out to us in Creation and Redemption is mentioned only in passing. Absent is the concept of God coming to us in Word and sacrament, which was the heart of the Reformation theology of worship.
The chapter on repentance, confession, and forgiveness focuses on human psychology–I would have preferred a theological focus on the cross of Christ.
Dybdahl’s introduction of so-called “inclusive language” (God as Mother) is jarring, without context (p. 47). It focuses on Jesus’ passing similes and downplays his consistent address of God as Father (and ignores the Trinitarian implications: Jesus speaks of God as Father because he is that Father’s Son).
His discussion of “Eastern and Western Meditation” (p. 61) is overly simplistic. Much historic Christian spirituality is rooted in a Neoplatonic world view, going back to such texts as “The Cloud of Unknowing” and Pseudo-Dionysius’ “The Celestial Hierarchy.” This is the basis for a spirituality of ascent–and that’s what Dybdahl tends to describe.
In discussing “visualization” (p. 64) I wish he would have done more to warn against some popular techniques, such as guided visualization, that are forms of self-hypnosis. Also, I think he should have taken the opportunity to reference Ellen White’s counsel to “spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ” (Desire of Ages, p. 83), to show that this is already part of the Adventist heritage.
In speaking of community and small groups (chapter 7), he might have mentioned those ways in which Adventists have experienced community, such as in Sabbath School, at prayer meeting, in their practice of the Lord’s Supper, in testimony meetings.
The chapters on fasting and simplicity (8 & 9) would have been a great place to discuss Adventist teaching on health, on simple dress, on fasting from worldly amusements.
Chapter 10, “Why No Urgency?” would have benefited from a discussion of the Advent hope, and the Adventist understanding of Laodicea (which would have fit splendidly with his theme).
Chapter 14, which discusses spiritual classics and autobiographies, would have been strengthened by reference to Adventist classics such as The Autobiography of Joseph Bates, Life Sketches, and Steps to Christ.
The book gives the impression that Dybdahl, frustrated by some of his spiritual experiences as an Adventist, is eager to share with us books and techniques that have helped him. But he does not appear to have integrated his new learnings with his experience and knowledge of Adventism.
But I know of a different side to Dybdahl. I heard him give a series of presentations last summer. I went in apprehensively, wondering if those talks would be more of the same. They were not. There, I heard an emphasis on grace. There, he integrated his new suggestions with an appreciation for the Adventist heritage and the context of those to whom he was speaking. It was almost as if this book and those talks were written by two entirely different people. I wish this book were more like those talks, and I hope Dybdahl takes the time to revise this volume thoroughly–he does have some worthwhile things to say to Adventists on the subject of spirituality.
 For more on this question, see Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., ed. Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1992. See my review here.
 A good history of Christian spirituality is Jill Raitt, ed., Christian Spirituality. Three volumes. New York: Crossroad, 1987.