Bart Campolo vs. Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the future of Spiritual Community

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A lot has been written about Bart Campolo’s transition from Christian faith to atheism.  This isn’t surprising as he was a high profile Christian speaker and activist. What’s most interesting is what Bart is doing now. He’s a USC humanist chaplain. While no longer believing in God per se, Bart spends his time:

…developing a community that offers regular inspiration, pastoral care, supportive fellowship and service opportunities to students, faculty, staff members and local families and individuals exploring or actively pursuing secular goodness as a way of life.
(for an engaging brief talk he gave at the Secular Student Alliance national meeting click here)

Bart no longer believes in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. But he’s a strong believer in the church. Or at least in a secular version of it. In general what I hear most often in blue state metropolitan areas is a deep interest in spirituality, even in Jesus and traditional Christian concepts like grace and vicarious redemption. I don’t encounter loads of atheists. But this interest in spirituality and even willingness to give a hearing to some traditional Christian beliefs usually is stilted by an mention of the church or religious community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer perhaps foresaw this trend when he wrote the following words in a Nazi prison camp:

We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…And if therefore man becomes radically religionless—and I think that is already more or less the case (else, how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)—what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?.

Bonhoeffer thought this “religionless Christianity” would be expressed primarily through prayer and acts of love in the world:

The Christian needs to be alone during a definite period of each day for meditation on scripture…and for prayer…even during times of spiritual dryness and apathy. It matters little what form of prayer we adopt…or how many words we use…It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming—as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom… Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time.

Bonhoeffer thought in the midst of skepticism, genocide, totalitarianism and materialist excess that “only the suffering God could help.” But he knew too well that so many would be ambassadors of the suffering God would be poor emissaries because of the trappings of religion and its tribalistic, legalistic and judgmental tendencies. While he knew that ultimately one can’t separate the Head from the Body, or Christ from the Church, he was willing to consider a radically new understanding of what the Body could and should look like. Bart Campolo thinks the way forward for life giving spiritual community is much different than Bonhoeffer’s. He thinks the hope isn’t in a renewed and radical commitment to faith in the God-Forsaken Suffering God that might require costly sacrifices where the church’s life and structure are concerned. Instead the social structure of the traditional church and even and especially the high school youth group can be retained and utilized. It’s just belief in God, the suffering God, that needs to be dispensed with if we are to have any redemptive hope.


Law, Grace, Ferguson and The West Wing

I can’t imagine what it was like to be on the grand jury that dealt with the question of Darren Wilson’s guilt or innocence. So much to take in, so much to weigh and so much to be responsible for in the days, months and years to come. Michael Brown’s family and their sense of loss, rage and victimization. The Wilson family and their friends who know him as colleague, husband, neighbor and son. You sit there not as a legal expert or analyst. You’re just another neighbor, wife, uncle, cousin, business owner. Maybe you feel like a sinner. Maybe a saint. Probably both.

Michael Brown’s parents through this process have been absolutely remarkable and inspiring. They have called on people to focus on the the fragility of life, community and society and to be careful and full of care in the wake of a verdict that must be unimaginably painful. President Obama also had great words to say. Miroslav Volf says that when we’re in a hurting, sinful or broken place we’re often quick to, “exclude our enemy from the table of humanity and ourselves from the fellowship of sinners.”

Race, oppression, systemic injustice, fear, insecurity and anger. That’s a lot. Jesus’s injunction to not throw stones is a good one. It might be good to let the dust clear so that after the trauma we can really look at how prejudicial the system is for those outside the privileged class, as well as consider how gun laws, income inequality, family breakdown and a host of other issues place what feels like a strangle hold on our entire culture. Then maybe a new gracious and tenacious protest movement might arise. One rooted in amnesty for all through the kind of one way love that comes through the action of God in Christ. He didn’t just refuse to throw stones, he subjected himself to judgment, humiliation and execution for his enemies to open up knew possibilities for abundant life for oppressed and oppressor, victim and victimizer.

Maybe we need a little more President Santos…


Pope Francis, Old Princeton and Evolution

FullSizeRenderPope Francis made some statements affirming the validity of evolution which some no doubt find     controversial, especially those of the conservative protestant stripe. What’s interesting is how much of what he said seems to echo what the 19th century Old Princeton theologians had to say on the matter (whom many evangelicals look to as theological ancestors, especially where the doctrine of inerrancy is concerned).

In a recent review of Bradley J. Gundlach’s Process and Providence: The Evolution Question at Princeton, 1845-1929, the reviewer points out the Gundlach’s research demonstrates that while the Old Princetonians rejected atheistic naturalism, they were quite interested in what some today call forms of theistic evolution:

Gundlach devotes the subsequent two chapters to surveying the relationship between progressionism in evolutionary biology and progressionism in orthodox Calvinist theology among the generation of Princeton scholars who succeeded McCosh and Hodge. Gundlach’s examination of the views of the theologian B. B. Warfield might surprise contemporary readers who assume that Warfield’s commitment to biblical inerrancy inevitably led him to reject evolution. Well-known for co-authoring an 1881 article with A. A. Hodge that articulated the Princetonian understanding of inerrancy, Warfield, like numerous Princetonians before him, criticized atheistic naturalism. Yet Warfield, who embraced evolution even more than McCosh, went so far as to consider the possibility that an immaterial aspect of animal life served as a precursor to the human soul, constituting a second and essentially separate evolution alongside the physical one.

Warfield also stated:

I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.

Maybe some room for ecumenical rapprochement?

Why Redemptive Change Seems So Fleeting So Often

One of the most frustrating aspects of life is the predictably unreliable nature of our better angels. Our best selves seem to elude us so often, and when they do emerge the moments seem uncontrollable. It’s as if we are outside looking in at some of the best moments of life, feeling less like actors on its stage and more like patrons in a theater. It’s this perennial and universal experience that leads people to give up on faith, New Year’s resolutions, diets, relationships, and even on themselves.

I was reading from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s sermons this morning when I came across one entitled “Christ’s Resurrection as the  Image of our New Life.” It concludes with these words which hopefully illumine the one step forward two step back character of redemption:


And lastly, my friends, we cannot feel all these comforting and glorious things in which our new life resembles the resurrection life of our Lord, without being at the same time, on another side, moved to sorrow by this resemblance. For if we put together all that the evangelists and the apostles of the Lord have preserved for us about His resurrection life, we still cannot out of it all form an entirely consecutive history. There are separate moments and hours, separate conversations and actions, and then the risen One vanishes again from the eyes that look for Him; in vain we ask where He can have tarried, we must wait till He appears again. Not that in Himself there was anything of this broken or uncertain life, but as to our view of it, it is and cannot but be so; and we try in vain to penetrate into the intervals between those detached moments and hours. Well, and is it not, to our sorrow, the same with the new life that is like Christ’s resurrection life? I do not mean that this life is limited to the few hours of social worship and prayer, glorious and profitable as they are; for in that case there would be cause to fear that it was a mere pretence; nor to the services, always but small and desultory, that each of us, actively working through the gifts of the Spirit, accomplishes, as it were, visibly and tangibly according to his measure, for the kingdom of God. In manifold ways besides these we become conscious of this new life; there are many quieter and secret moments in which it is strongly felt, though only deep in our inmost heart. But notwithstanding this, I think all without exception must confess that we are by no means conscious of this new life as an entirely continuous state; on the contrary, each of us loses sight of it only too often, not only among friends, among disturbances and cares, but amidst the commendable occupations of this world. But this experience, my dear friends, humbling as it is, ought not to make us unbelieving, as if perhaps our consciousness of being a new creature in Christ were a delusion, and what we had regarded as indications of this life were only morbid and overstrained emotions. As the Lord convinced His disciples that He had flesh and bones, so we may all convince ourselves and each other that this is an actual life; but in that case we must believe that, though in a hidden way and not always present to our consciousness, yet it is always in existence, just as the Lord was still in existence even at the times when He did not appear to His disciples; and had neither returned to the grave, nor as yet ascended to heaven. Only let us not overlook this difference. In the case of Christ we do not apprehend it as a natural and necessary thing that during those forty days He led a life apparently so interrupted; but each of us must easily understand how, as the influence of this new life on our outward ways can only gradually become perceptible, it should often and for a long time be quite hidden from us, especially when we are very busy with outward work, and our attention is taken up with it. But this is an imperfection from which as time goes on we should be always becoming more free. Therefore always back, my friends, to Him who is the only fountain of this spiritual life! If, ever and anon, we cannot find it in ourselves, we always find it in Him, and it is always pouring forth afresh from Him the Head to us His members. If every moment in which we do not perceive it is a moment of longing, as soon as we become conscious of the void; then it is also a moment in which the risen One appears to our spirit, and breathes on us anew with His life-giving power. And thus drawing only from Him, we shall attain to having His heavenly gifts becoming in us more and more an inexhaustible, continually flowing fountain of spiritual and eternal life. For this He rose from the dead by the glory of the Father, that we should be made into the likeness of His resurrection. That was finished in His return to the Father; our new life is to become more and more His and the Father’s return into the depths of our souls; there they desire to make their abode; and the life of God is to be ever assuming a more continuous, active and powerful form in us, that our life in the service of righteousness may become, and continue even here, according to the Lord’s promise, an eternal life.

a prayer for the United States of America on the occasion of her anniversary…

I am an American. There are days I take the blessing, privileges and rights  that come with my citizenship for granted. (okay, that’s most days). There are days when I turn a blind eye to the injustices committed in our past and present (that’s even more days). As I look to the future I’d love to say my track record will improve, but if Dr. Phil is worth his salt July 4th, 2015 is likely to bear eerily consistent statistics where my Americanness is concerned. My prayer for us as a people is not my own, but that of another disciple’s. #bobdylan