I grew up Seventh-day Adventist and was educated at Seventh-day Adventist schools all the way through college. I can tell endless quirky stories about growing up – about the time my parents gave me The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to read at the age of seven and I was certain, certain, that they had no idea what devilish literature they had given me (all those horrible hags and werewolves), so I promised myself never to tell them because they would feel so bad for having led me astray. (I figured it out when I reread the story at the age of nine.) About my joy in meeting missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, at the train station on my way to and from school, so that we could proof text against each other. I was always certain that my marked Bible (marked with Sabbath texts, carefully traced with different colored pens, based on a pamphlet I had picked up somewhere) would eventually lead someone to the truth. (Again, I was nine.) As I entered adolescence, I became increasingly worried about the early Adventist dictum that the degree of responsibility you have as a believer is proportional to the degree of light you have been given – after all, I had a lot of light! In fact, I knew the truth.
But no stories like this will tell the truth of my relationship with the church. Yes, I grew up in ways that seem strange to many people: keeping Saturday holy starting Friday at sundown, without TV or movies until about the age of eleven, as a life-long vegetarian (although I became a pescetarian in my twenties), believing that Jesus Christ will return soon, having read the Bible cover to cover by the age of nine (do you see a pattern emerging?), and so on. Having spent the last decade plus outside Adventist institutions, I know much more than I did then about the ways in which my upbringing and beliefs were unusual by mainstream standards. Yet unlike many people who become theologians, and unlike many women who become feminist theologians, I never experienced the church as a particularly repressive site, even though the external forms of my life look very different now. I loved the church, and despite some unfortunate experiences with authority during my high school and college years, the church gave me gifts that I have valued ever since.
First and foremost, it taught me what it costs to live a life that looks different. The way we lived when I was a child required enormous effort and courage. It may have looked stultifying, and sometimes it was – but it also offered visions of alternate forms of life. My father explained to me that keeping the seventh day holy was a protest against consumerism, since Saturday was the primary day for shopping in Norway. I took for granted that there was no hell – the worst Adventists could imagine was simply to die, forever. It was almost impossible for me to believe that people could be Christians and believe in a God who would sentence them to eternal torment! Anticipating the end of the world served as a promise of a different world – not an escape from this one, but a transformation of it. Although we only took communion (never eucharist) four times a year, we practiced footwashing every time we did it; admittedly, the most awkward ritual imaginable, but also a strong affirmation of bodiless and touch. And, most of all: we were told that it is the individual responsibility of each and every person to search for truth and to be guided by her own conscience rather than by a creed.
Was, and is, my church anti-feminist? It does not ordain women, at least officially. (Some local congregations and conferences do.) Seventh-day Adventists, once champions of religious liberty in the United States, are becoming increasingly indistinguishable politically from evangelical Republicans. The church is, officially, anti-gay. So yes, the church is anti-feminist – that’s one of the main reasons I’m no longer active in it. And yet.
Even as I live my daily life outside the orbit of Seventh-day Adventism, I remain grateful for the vision of a different life that it offered me. It helps me to connect with my students, many of whom come from different denominational backgrounds to divinity school and are forced to confront the question of who they will be when they return to their home churches. It taught me to dream of a different world. It taught me that things do not need to be the way they are – and just how hard it is to make that different world a reality.
Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, tentatively titled God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology.