January 19, 2019

Cliff's Edge--Rules of Engagement

In the months leading up to my new birth in 1979, I had been beguiled into the occult. Though I didn’t know what was really happening, or who was behind it, one or two excursions into the astral plane were all it took to free me from the intellectual stranglehold of ontological materialism.

But then something else happened that opened my mind even more to a reality greater than what chemistry and physics formulas could reveal. Facing hard times, walking down a street in Paris, I looked up and said: “God, if you exist, if you are there, I need a sign. Otherwise I will never believe, ever!”

Well, within a few weeks I met someone with my same name, Clifford Goldstein, who came from the same town that I did, Miami Beach, and who was now living not only in the same place that I had been living in Israel but in the same room and sleeping in the same bed (there were two). This Clifford Goldstein from Miami Beach had on the same bookshelf over his bed the same books that I had when I was there, except that they were his copies, not mine. I was a writer and Clifford Goldstein wanted to be a writer. He even had a blond Danish girlfriend named Tine, the name of my blond Danish girlfriend when I lived in that same room.

“Man alive!” a Jewish believer in Jesus, Elhanan ben Avraham, said to me. “You were asking God for signs, Cliff. What more do you want? The Lord is calling you by name.”

Though still not born again, between the occult experiences and meeting my double (“the sign”), I now knew that reality was more than quarks, leptons, photons, and gluons. But what that “more” was, and whether it included a personal God, I still didn’t know.

One more factor before getting to my point: at this time (I was 23) I was obsessed with one thing alone: writing a novel. I had started this book my senior year in college, and nothing else mattered—nothing. For me, reality had become divided into a Manichean moral dualism: what helped in writing the book was good, what hindered me bad. It was that simple.

One night in the fall of 1979 in Gainesville, Florida, I walked back to my room in order to work on the novel, which I had spend two and a half years writing (so far). As I sat down to work, I don’t know why, but closing my eyes I uttered a short prayer.

That’s all it took. Somehow, in the back and forth of the great controversy, though Satan had me into the occult (I even started weaving those experiences into the novel; that is, I started writing about the occult), that simple ignorant prayer opened the door for the Lord to approach me in a very direct and powerful manner—and He told me in that room that if I wanted Him I had to burn my novel.

I did, and that night I had become born again.

Though telling this story for decades, only recently did I start talking about that prayer, which I now see as key. Satan had me in his clutches, but somehow in the “rules of engagement” that simple prayer paved the way for the Lord to work in a dramatic manner that, perhaps, He couldn’t have had I not prayed.

I picked up the term “rules of engagement” from one of the best books I have ever read about the Christian faith, Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil, by our own John C. Peckham, professor of theology and Christian philosophy, at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Using Scripture and other theologians, Peckham brilliantly shows that the Bible teaches the great controversy, the metaphysic (if you like) that helps explain the prevalence of evil in a universe created by an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God.

“In brief,” Peckham writes, “I argue that God’s love (properly understood) is at the center of a cosmic dispute and that God’s commitment to love provides a morally sufficient reason for God’s allowance of evil, with significant ramifications for understanding divine providence as operating within what I call covenantal rules of engagement.”

At the center is free will, which love, to be love, demands. Peckham sets love—and the freedom, the real freedom, inherent in love—at the center of his theodicy. This position, he writes, “is based on the view that God desires genuine love relationship with creatures, which requires consistently granted free will. This model holds that love, by nature, must be freely given, freely received, and freely maintained.” Paralleling The Great Controversy, but never quoting Ellen White, he fleshes out the cosmic conflict scenario so convincingly that an evangelical publisher, Baker Academic, published Theodicy of Love,more proof that we don’t need Ellen White to justify Adventist doctrine.

Throughout the book the motif “rules of engagement” appears, a phrase that perfectly fits my experience that night. What those “rules” are, Peckham wisely doesn’t say, because they haven’t been revealed to us, and how could we, inhabiting a tiny patch of space amid infinity, and a tiny stretch of time amid eternity, grasp the moral issues that pervade both the infinite and the eternal?

We can’t. What I can grasp, however, is that in a room in 1979, in a tiny patch of space and time, I experienced the sacred but costly gift of free will and the life-changing power that a simple ignorant prayer can have in these “rules of engagement,” whatever they be.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His most recent book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.