Seventh Heaven: An Introduction
‘[E]ven if you cannot find a church big enough to hold all that you know to be true about God, what do
you do with this strange attraction to go where other people go when they feel it too?...
What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they
are supposed to believe?’
- Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church, p 28 222
Anyone attracted by the title Seventh Heaven might first think that it is about some ancient, mystical system of advancement towards spiritual enlightenment. However, the reference above to an oblique view of Seventh-day Adventist spirituality quickly dispels any such impression. This collection of ideas is firmly planted in the modern world. It is about the enrichment that may come from a consideration of the spiritual life of Seventh-day Adventists.
Though Adventism is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition it is not always considered mainstream. The Gospels teach that it is often worthwhile listening to voices from the margins. Since our beginnings in the nineteenth century Adventists have tried to revitalize Christian faith and practice in various ways.
Seventh Heaven is a response to the clear evidence that appetite for spiritual understanding seems to be sharpened while, in the western world, interest in organized religion is on the wane. This, I hope, justifies further reflection on the subject of spirituality. It is written primarily for those who may know little or nothing about Adventists but who are attracted by the idea of a spiritual journey and need all the help they can get.
Seventh Heaven – the choice of title 1
I have chosen to call these opinion pieces Seventh Heaven for several reasons. To say that someone is ‘in seventh heaven’ is simply another way of saying that they are extraordinarily happy. Though it is perhaps not a phrase you will hear every day its use is common enough for most people to get the gist if you used it. You might describe a young man as being in ‘seventh heaven’ after the woman of his dreams accepts his proposal of marriage. The word ‘heaven’ indicates some sort of religious provenance perhaps but beyond that the origins of the phrase would remain obscure to many.
In some expressions of the Abrahamic religions the ‘seventh heaven’ provides direct access to the throne of God. It is an exalted place. In Islam, Paradise consists of seven levels and you find your place in one of them according to the level of righteousness you have attained. But the concept is older than that and can be traced back to early roots in Judaism. The sky or the heavens were the home of God. Since seven is the perfect number in Judaism, it is not difficult to see how the idea of a seven-layered universe might have developed. Each layer, or heaven, was assigned a particular function. One would accommodate the souls of the righteous, another was the dwelling place of the hosts of angels, and the highest was the actual place of the throne of God.
The hope of the Jewish mystic was, by disciplined spiritual effort, to move through the various levels of heaven until at last he could approach the throne of God Himself. Scoring highly enough to earning access to the next stage of a computer game offers a crude analogy
The Kabbalah is a set of mystical teachings which first developed in Judaism around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in southern France and Spain. Its purpose was to help followers to progress towards this full realisation of their spiritual powers. It raised profound questions about the meaning of existence and the place of human beings in the universe. It found inner meanings in traditional stories. This form of Jewish mysticism is still cherished by Hassidic Jews. You can get a very good picture of the Hassidic Jews in modern New York City in the novels of Chaim Potok. My favourite is My Name is Asher Lev, and The Book of Lights is specifically about the Kabbalah. Hassidism offers a picture of a modern community where the idea of a storied universe is still familiar.
In Christianity, there is a tantalizing and mysterious glimpse of a similar tradition in a letter from Paul to the believers in Corinth (II Cor 12.2-5 NRSV):
‘I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses’.
It seems that an acquaintance of Paul – and perhaps even Paul himself – experienced some spiritual even mystical journey. He wants to say that he has made some progress towards the very presence of God while also wanting to avoid all appearance of pride. The essence of the idea then is that one who is attaining an ever more highly exalted spiritual state is somehow progressing towards the seventh ‘storey’ of heaven.
Seventh Heaven – the choice of title: 2
The ‘seventhness’ of my title has further significance. Adventists celebrate the seventh day as a time of special spiritual opportunity and a foretaste of heaven. The Sabbath is a kind of vantage point in time. The Adventist pioneers in the mid-19th century did think that Adventism was a much-needed refinement of the Protestant faith which, they believed, had atrophied over time. For them, their doctrinal innovation, most notably the restoration of Sabbath observance, not only restored the gains of the Reformation but took the Church back to the purity of the Early Church. In the fervour of 19th century religious revivalism in the USA, this was easier to believe than perhaps it is today.
Seventh Heaven – the choice of title: 3
A further reason for the title relates to the idea of top quality. A quick internet search for ‘seventh heaven’ will show that the phrase has been used to advertise products allegedly of the highest quality. The phrase helps to sell treatments in beauty clinics, business class in an airline, beds, and bridal wear, just to name a few. It suggests a kind of perfection in the product, a product which will make you supremely happy. If we are wise we approach all such claims with caution, particularly any religious ones.
A new perspective
By now you will have got the idea. My purpose in the postings which will follow is not to try to convince you of the supreme value of Adventist spirituality but rather to provide a way of considering ideas in the realm of Christian spirituality through a different prism. Whatever the departures and arrivals on your own spiritual journey, I invite you here to approach some familiar ideas from a new perspective, rather like suddenly coming upon the vast magnificence of St Paul’s Cathedral in London from a side street rather than via the traditional approach up Ludgate Hill. It is a journey which I hope you will find is worth making.
An oblique view
The subtitle describes this collection of ideas as offering an ‘oblique view’ of Adventist spirituality. The Adventist Church has produced many volumes about doctrine, lifestyle and history. Many of them show evidence of serious scholarship, and deserve to be taken seriously but they are often not designed to meet the interests of an uninitiated reader. Further a good number of such books are parts of polemical exchanges, within the Church and beyond, between writers espousing differing interpretations of doctrine. Many such books are very specialized and can make for rather daunting reading. Some books on Adventist spirituality are apologetic in nature designed to persuade the reader of the rightness of the view being explored.
The purpose of this collection of ideas is different. The aim here is to offer the reader some fresh spiritual insights. It attempts to provide the reader with an account of teachings and ways of living which may have become obscured in other traditions, and are at least worth reconsidering in our ever-changing world. The pieces will attempt to offer a guide to Adventist spirituality which is clear and honest, and in touch with life as we all live it in the twenty-first century. They are shared simply as bread for the journey.
The approach is also described as ‘oblique’ in that it will approach Adventist life, teaching and history via routes which are not normally taken. The aim is to begin very much in the public square of today, where people are, and to lead the reader along some less familiar streets which may nevertheless be fascinating. It is rather like wandering from the busy city centre of many European cities into the old quarter not knowing quite where you will end up, and chancing upon some timeless scene. Just so, ordinary Adventists lead ordinary lives as richly as possible in the backstreets of their tradition.
These pieces tell the story of living well within a spiritual tradition. More than that they issue an invitation to readers to visit this community of faith in their imaginations, and understand what it is that attracts so many people of so many different types to make their spiritual home here. My purpose is to help the reader to understand a little of what makes Adventists ‘tick’. Seventh-day Adventists know well enough that we as a faith community are a very long way from any ‘seventh heaven’. We also know that it is not a bad place to call ‘home’.