Imagine a community where people of all ages, nationalities and genders, can come for short stays and enjoy friendship and relaxation — a place that teaches love and kindness, encourages a strictly vegan diet, and demonstrates healthy ways of cooking and exercising. In this place troubled people develop confidence and wisdom while enjoying all sorts of massages, therapies and exercises. They learn to care for their bodies and to care for other people. They are exposed to the ideas of pacifism and a wide variety of moral lessons. And the separation of church and state is emphasized. All of this describes a place I find highly admirable.

Now imagine a place where lessons in health and medicine are sometimes distorted to fit certain preferred passages out of an ancient book of mythology, a place where magical beliefs are encouraged and people are told that death isn’t really death. On the basis of that belief, the importance of changing the world for the better is minimized, and isolation is justified. In this place dating and competitive sports are forbidden, sex and the Olympic Games are described as evil, and rock music is rejected as sexual. People are told what to believe and not asked to question it. All of this describes a place I find troubling and harmful.

Oddly, both are the same place, the Hartland Institute in Madison County, which I recently visited. Others, of course, may dislike some of what I admire about Hartland. Neither vegetarianism nor pacifism is a popular practice. Nor is separation of church and state; the state of Virginia has just ordered public school students to observe a minute of silence each day. And many will like some of what I dislike about Hartland. The belief in “life after death” is quite common, as is the notion that sex is dirty and vile.

The point I want to make is that I went to Hartland expecting to dislike it much more than I did, and found a great deal to admire in an unexpected place. I found many common positions with people who arrived at them from a different starting place.

I am not currently a vegetarian, though I have been and think I will now try to be again. I will do so because I think that, if done right, it can be healthier than a diet with a lot of meat, and because I know that many people can be fed with the crops it takes to produce meat for one person, and because I dislike cruelty to animals. The Seventh-day Adventists at Hartland are vegans because they interpret certain selected passages of the Bible as telling them to be so.

I will not fight in a war, because I cannot imagine a war occurring that I would see as just or beneficial. If drafted tomorrow, I will declare myself an objector and go to prison. The Seventh-day Adventists, unlike the Quakers, don’t follow exactly this path. They have traditionally served as medical help in wars, because – as the dean of the school at Hartland put it – they don’t want to kill another being but they want to honor their country. To me this notion of “honoring” an authority even when you disagree with it is a mistake facilitated by the habit of obeying an imaginary authority. I say, aid the war if it is a good thing and impede it if it is not. That is how you can make your country a better place. Serving as a doctor in an unjust enterprise won’t keep you pure. Nonetheless, I was delighted to find this pacifism at Hartland.

The dean also said the moment of silence in schools is, “a trend that concerns us. If you recall history, whenever the state gets control over religion, there has always been severe oppression and a lot of blood shed. The United States was founded on freedom of religion….There are troublesome signs from so-called Christian conservatives, people saying we need to be legislating religion with the 10 commandments in schools. That concerns me, because you cannot really force religion on people. Jesus Christ did not do that. He drew the people with love.”

The health focus of the Seventh-day Adventists and of the Wellness Center at Hartland is a refreshing recognition by a religious group that people have bodies below their necks. “The body is a temple,” they told me, quoting their favorite book.

Of course, “a healthy sex life” was not mentioned. And there is something strange, to me, about speaking of learning how to lead a healthy long life, and in the next breath declaring that life minute in comparison to the much better life that will get started as soon as this one is allowed to end. It’s not the reasoning I admired at Hartland, but the actions. The ellipsis two paragraphs above eliminates some discussion of Eve having had a choice in the Garden of Eden. I don’t favor freedom of religion because of that story, and don’t find it a convincing argument. But I’m delighted with the conclusion it has lead to.

I disagree on a great many topics with the people at Hartland, but they did not try to proselytize and I did not argue with them. Instead, they showed me what they had to offer, and I found much in it to appreciate and learn from.

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