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.

 

Two Kinds Of Churches

A friend of mine once told me that there were essentially two kinds of churches: the kind that are concerned primarily about who’s already there and the kind that are concerned primarily with who’s not yet there. Pope Francis certainly wants his flock to be the latter kind.

While reading through his wonderful little recent work Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of The Gospel), I came across this passage which summarizes what motivates the church that is always looking beyond the boundaries of its existing community to those not yet there:

 I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion”.

Immediately the protest from those inclined to a church that prioritizes those who are already there will be something like: “What about caring for the sheep?!? You can’t neglect the needs of the community for the sake of outreach!” Pope Francis anticipates this objection later in the document when he talks about pastoral care:

Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock. We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders…One who accompanies others has to realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without. The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37). Someone good at such accompaniment does not give in to frustrations or fears. He or she invites others to let themselves be healed, to take up their mat, embrace the cross, leave all behind and go forth ever anew to proclaim the Gospel. Our personal experience of being accompanied and assisted, and of openness to those who accompany us, will teach us to be patient and compassionate with others, and to find the right way to gain their trust, their openness and their readiness to grow.

He expresses a deep and sensitive pastoral concern for God’s people, yearning to seem them shepherded and cared for in intentional and compassionate ways. But he goes on to add the following, which is a crucial point:

Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelization. Paul’s relationship with Timothy and Titus provides an example of this accompaniment and formation which takes place in the midst of apostolic activity. Entrusting them with the mission of remaining in each city to “put in order what remains to be done” (Tit 1:5; cf. 1 Tim 1:3-5), Paul also gives them rules for their personal lives and their pastoral activity. This is clearly distinct from every kind of intrusive accompaniment or isolated self-realization. Missionary disciples accompany missionary disciples. [emphasis mine]

The healthiest people in the church who are experiencing healing and in the process of spiritual formation do so unto a purposeful end: joyful participation in the Mission of God in the name of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Most Prevalent American Heresy…The Danger of Confusing Heresy and Sin

False doctrine corrupts the life of the Church at its source, and that is why doctrinal sin is more serious than moral. Those who rob the Church of the gospel deserve the ultimate penalty, whereas those who fail in morality have the gospel to help them.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Roger Olsen, one of the deans of North American theology, recently posted some thoughts on the greatest heresy besetting the American Church. As a self-confessed theological nerd I clicked on the link with great anticipation. I was surprised at what I found.

The heresy is a new one, not ever officially condemned by the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Confessional Protestant churches. The sin is “repectabilism”.  Olsen defines it as follows:

Can we give the heresy a name? I think so: the desire for respectability and domestication of the gospel and the church. If you need a single word, then I suggest “respectabilism.” We want our churches to be respectable.

What is the sign that you are in a heretical church? Does your pastor not challenge you enough? Do the sermons not convince you that you’re living a godless lifestyle? If you are not afflicted in the sermons as much as you are comforted, you’re in a heretical church. Another sign that your church is beset with heresy is if it has a disproportionate number of businessmen on its board. Does your church rely on staff leadership for key roles in community life. This too is a sign of heresy. Does your pastor have an honorary doctorate, and is he or she called “Dr.” on your church’s signage or in your church’s literature? You’re probably in a heretical church.

Generally in the past “heresy” has been a term reserved for ideas advocated by individuals or communities that so distort the story of the God of Israel revealed in and as Jesus Christ that those professing it can no longer really be seen as brothers and sisters in Christ. Sin doesn’t do this. Sin is us falling short of God’s glorious and lavish grace and love. But sin has been defeated in the cross of Christ. That redemption accomplished 2,000 years ago in the backwaters of the Roman Empire can be applied in the here and now and all things can be made new. Unless of course the good news of that grand old story can’t be told anymore because of doctrines and beliefs that so contradict it at the ideological level that there is no hope. This is why Bonhoeffer said that doctrinal sin is more serious than moral sin. Moral sin can be overcome by the Gospel. You get the doctrines wrong because of heresy, you’ve lost the source of life that can overcome the worst of failures. What Olsen calls heresy strikes me as sin.  Perhaps there is still hope for the American Church.

During a period of severe depression I was watching a fundamentalist mega-church pastor on TV, one with whom I had numerous and deep theological differences. His church no doubt is heretical by Olsen’s standards, and thus no church at all. But I was so moved by his sermon that I called the hotline for prayer. The volunteer talked with me compassionately and patiently, prayed for me, then covenanted to continue praying for me for 40 days. I asked her to personally thank her pastor for me. Despite our deep disagreements, I realized just what a brother at that moment he was, because he graciously pointed me to our mutual heavenly Father.

Tullian Tchividjian, a pastor in Florida, recently wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post concerning the seeming decline of the church in our culture. His diagnosis is markedly different than Olsen’s, and his church’s size and staffing profile might land him in Olsen’s heretical category:

Sadly, the church has not proven immune to performancism. An institution theoretically devoted to providing comfort to those in need is in trouble because it has embraced the same pressure-cooker we find everywhere else.In recent years, a handful of popular books have been published urging a more robust and radical expression of the Christian faith. I heartily amen the desire to take one’s faith seriously and demonstrate before the watching world a willingness to be more than just Sunday churchgoers. The unintended consequence of this push, however, is that we can give people the impression that Christianity is first and foremost about the sacrifices we make rather than the sacrifice Jesus made for us — our performance rather than his performance for us. The hub of Christianity is not “do something for Jesus.” The hub of Christianity is “Jesus has done everything for you.” And my fear is that too many people, both inside and outside the church, have heard our “do more, try harder” sermons and pleas for intensified devotion and concluded that the focus of the Christian faith is the work that we do instead of the work God has done for us in the person of Jesus.

Furthermore, too many churches perpetuate the impression that Christianity is primarily concerned with morality. As my colleague David Zahl has written, “Christianity is not about good people getting better. It is about real people coping with their failure to be good.” The heart of the Christian faith is Good News not good behavior.When Sunday mornings become one more venue for performance evaluation, can you blame a person for wanting to stay at home?

As someone who loves the church, I am saddened by the perception of Christianity as a vehicle of moral control and good behavior, rather than a haven for the discouraged and dying. It is high time for the church to remind our broken and burned out world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a one-way declaration that because Jesus was strong for you, you’re free to be weak; because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose; because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail.

Grace and rest and absolution with no new strings or anxieties attached now that would be a change in substance.

Sin and idolatry will beset the Church until our future hope becomes the presence of one eternal day. Until then heresies threaten to cut us off from the source of living hope, while sin and idolatry provide the occasion to run into His open arms.

Why are Millenials Leaving the Church…?

In a recent post by Rachel Held Evans on CNN’s belief blog she addresses the question of why millenials are leaving the church. She contends the church often makes the mistake of seeking to be “more relevant”.

Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.

This focus is a mistake. She cites the appeal of more traditional liturgical expressions of the faith found in Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. Many millenials, like herself, are drawn into these communities because:

the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic…What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

She also cites the desire for an end to church based participation in the culture wars and greater tolerance and inclusivity on LGBT issues.

If millenials are drawn to Rome and the East because of substance not style, then they want more traditional and conservative expressions of Christianity. The Catholic and Orthodox are more traditional on LBGT issues than most of their Protestant counterparts, certainly more so on participation of women in the full life and leadership of the church. They are also more authoritarian. And in the West these communions are aligning with conservative Protestants to stoke the fire of the culture wars rather than let the embers cool.

Evans, like many evangelicals also fails to take cultural trends that make things like atheism attractive seriously, as Jeffrey Tayler points out in a recent piece for the Atlantic.

The question of fidelity in the Church’s missionary, evangelistic and shepherding efforts is a crucial one. It might require more careful and reflective analysis.

 

The Gospel isn’t about us, it’s for us, but it also includes us.

Reading more in Volume IV of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, in part 2. There Barth talks about the way that the Church is part of the totus Christus, or the whole Christ. It is popular today to talk about the Church as the extension of the Incarnation. Barth denies this, but doesn’t shy away for talking about the way the Church is included in Christ:

Similarly the formula ἐν (Ἰησοῦ) Χριστῷ*, which is so common in the Pauline Epistles, indicates the place or sphere in which (determined absolutely by it) there takes place the divine working, creating and endowing which moves the apostle and his communities, and also the divine revealing, questioning, inviting and demanding, and the corresponding human thanking and thinking and speaking and believing and obeying. The ἐν Χριστῷ* denotes the place where the sancta* are proffered and the sancti* are engaged in the realisation of their communio* with them and therefore with one another. Jesus Christ is, and in His being the apostles and communities are. For this reason, directly or indirectly everything that is said about the being of Jesus Christ can be only an explication of the being of Jesus Christ, and everything that is said about the being of Jesus Christ applies directly or indirectly to the being of Christians. A single presupposition emerges, and for Paul and His communities this is not a hypothesis or theory (and therefore not a problem); in the light of Easter, and in a present because renewed confrontation with the revelation of Easter Day, it is as self-evident as the air which they breathe. For this presupposition is simply the fact that the crucified Jesus Christ lives. But He lives—and this is now the decisive point—as the totus Christus*. And this means that, although He lives also and primarily as the exalted Son of Man, at the right hand of the Father, in the hiddenness of God (with the life of Christians), at an inaccessible height above the world and the community, He does not live only there but lives too (in the power of His Holy Spirit poured out from there and working here) on earth and in world history, in the little communities at Thessalonica and Corinth and Philippi, in Galatia and at Rome. He does not live primarily in their knowledge and faith and prayer and confession, or in their Christian being, but as the place in which all this can and may and must and will happen, in which they are Christians; as the air which they breathe, the ground on which they stand and walk. As we are told in Jn. 15:4f., they have no being or life apart from Him, just as the branches are nothing apart from the vine but can only wither and be burned: “Without me ye can do nothing.” But they need not try to do anything without Him. He is the vine, and they are the branches.

An Agnostic’s Appreciation Of An Evangelical Pastor

By her mid 30’s Marian Evans was a major player in Victorian intellectual circles, writing regularly for The Westminster Review and translating important works of Feuerbach and Spinoza into English. For various reasons she used a pseudonym  “George Eliot” when she undertook fiction writing. Born in 1804, she was raised in a nominal or “easy going” Anglican home, she had a period of deep evangelical Calvinistic conversion, but in the context still of the established Anglican church. By her mid 30’s she was an agnostic, but remained sympathetic to the Church at least in part. The following excerpt is from her “Scenes of a Clerical Life”. The book tells the story of three Anglican clergyman. The one mentioned in this passage is an establishment evangelical:

The first condition of human goodness is something to love; the second, something to reverence. And this latter precious gift was brought to Milby by Mr. Tryan and Evangelicalism.

Yes, the movement was good, though it had that mixture of folly and evil which often makes what is good an offence to feeble and fastidious minds, who want human actions and characters riddled through the sieve of their own ideas, before they can accord their sympathy or admiration. Such minds, I daresay, would have found Mr. Tryan’s character very much in need of that riddling process. The blessed work of helping the world forward, happily does not wait to be done by perfect men; and I should imagine that neither Luther nor John Bunyan, for example, would have satisfied the modern demand for an ideal hero, who believes nothing but what is true, feels nothing but what is exalted, and does nothing but what is graceful. The real heroes, of God’s making, are quite different: they have their natural heritage of love and conscience which they drew in with their mother’s milk; they know one or two of those deep spiritual truths which are only to be won by long wrestling with their own sins and their own sorrows; they have earned faith and strength so far as they have done genuine work; but the rest is dry barren theory, blank prejudice, vague hearsay. Their insight is blended with mere opinion; their sympathy is perhaps confined in narrow conduits of doctrine, instead of flowing forth with the freedom of a stream that blesses every weed in its course; obstinacy or self-assertion will often interfuse itself with their grandest impulses; and their very deeds of self-sacrifice are sometimes only the rebound of a passionate egoism. So it was with Mr. Tryan: and any one looking at him with the bird’s-eye glance of a critic might perhaps say that he made the mistake of identifying Christianity with a too narrow doctrinal system; that he saw God’s work too exclusively in antagonism to the world, the flesh, and the devil; that his intellectual culture was too limited—and so on; making Mr. Tryan the text for a wise discourse on the characteristics of the Evangelical school in his day.

But I am not poised at that lofty height. I am on the level and in the press with him, as he struggles his way along the stony road, through the crowd of unloving fellow-men. He is stumbling, perhaps; his heart now beats fast with dread, now heavily with anguish; his eyes are sometimes dim with tears, which he makes haste to dash away; he pushes manfully on, with fluctuating faith and courage, with a sensitive failing body; at last he falls, the struggle is ended, and the crowd closes over the space he has left.

George Eliot. Scenes of Clerical Life

 

 

Ecclesiology as the Caboose To Grace

The Christian faith is thus ecclesial because it is evangelical. But it is no less true that it is only because the Christian faith is evangelical that it is ecclesial; that is to say, its ecclesial character derives solely from and is wholly dependent upon the gospel’s manifestation of God’s sovereign purpose for his creatures. The church is because God is and acts thus. It is, consequently, an especial concern for evangelical ecclesiology to demonstrate not only that the church is a necessary implicate of the gospel but also that gospel and church exist in a strict and irreversible order, one in which the gospel precedes and the church follows. Much of the particular character of evangelical ecclesiology turns upon articulating in the right way the relation-in-distinction between the gospel and the church-“relation,” because the gospel concerns fellowship between God and creatures; “distinction,” because that fellowship, even in its mutuality, is always a miracle of unilateral grace. It is this particular modality of the encounter between God and creatures-what Christoph Schwobel calls a “fundamental asymmetry’ between divine and human being and action-which I suggest is to characterize both the church’s constitution and its continuing existence.

Evangelical ecclesiology is concerned to lay bare both the necessary character of the church and its necessarily derivative character. Two consequences follow. (1) An account of the gospel to which ecclesiology is purely extrinsic is thereby shown to be inadequate. Much modern Protestant theology and church life has been vitiated by the dualist assumption that the church’s social form is simple externality and so indifferent, merely the apparatus for the proclamation of the Word or the occasion for faith conceived as internal spiritual event? Among some strands of evangelical Protestantism, assimilation of the voluntarism and individualism of modern political and philosophical culture has had especially corrosive effects, not only inhibiting a sense of the full ecclesial scope of the gospel but also obscuring much that should have been learned from the magisterial Reformers and their high Protestant heirs. “So powerful is participation in the church,” wrote Calvin, “that it keeps us in the society of God. Ecclesiology may not become “first theology”; that is, the ecclesiological minimalism of much modern Protestantism cannot be corrected by an inflation of ecclesiology so that it becomes the doctrinal substratum of all Christian teaching. In mainstream Protestant theology of the last couple of decades, this inflation has been rapid and highly successful: among those drawing inspiration from theological “postliberalism 4 among Lutherans who have unearthed a Catholic Luther and a catholic Lutheranism;’ or among those who describe the church through the language of “practice.”‘ The attempted reintegration of theology and the life of the church which stimulates such proposals is, of course, of capital importance; but, as we shall see, the underlying ecclesiology is commonly set out in such a way that it threatens to distort the asymmetry of gospel and church. Annexing much of its basic conceptuality from nontheological theory, it is often underdetermined by exegetical or dogmatic description, so that what is produced can appear more of an exercise in ecclesiality than an ecclesiology. A consequence (or perhaps a cause) is a rather immanentist account of the church which lacks strong interest in deploying direct language about God, since the church is the historical medium of divine action. A further consequence is heavy investment in the church as visible human communion. The derivation of the church from the gospel is, accordingly, rather remotely conceived; at best it forms a background affirmation, but one which exercises little critical or corrective force upon the way in which church practice is conceived. In short: Schleiermacher, not Barth.

John Webster, in Mark Husbands & Daniel J. Treier. The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology

Orthopraxy is Postmodern?

Great insight by J.K. Smith about how people pit orthodoxy vs orthopraxy, and see the former as modern and the latter as postmodern:

So this is why I think the distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is a moot point. Any community of practice is going to have both. It’s not doxa or praxis that’s at issue; it’s the ortho! On my account, the Christian community can’t avoid defining the ortho because no community of practice can be without standards of excellence.

(Permit a digression: I’ve never understood why some think that orthodoxy is hopelessly “modern” whereas orthopraxy is sexy and postmodern. Have folks not read Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, or his Critique of Practical Reason? The latter is a pretty classic “orthopraxy” it seems to me, to the point that Kant really doesn’t give a rip about the specifics of orthodox dogma, as long as you’ve got your orthopraxy in place. [Sound familiar? See any 15 popular “emergent” books of your choice.] Do we really want to suggest that Kant was a proto-postmodern? Or does this show us that those who make this doxy/praxy distinction are still locked within a modernist paradigm? Indeed, at the end of the day, isn’t it the ortho that they really resist?)

http://theotherjournal.com/churchandpomo/2012/08/02/response-to-deroo-whose-church-which-ecclesiology/

Too catholic to be Catholic

Peter Leithart recently posted a blog entry (http://www.leithart.com/2012/05/21/too-catholic-to-be-catholic/#more-14412) entitled “Too catholic to be Catholic”. It’s a wonderful piece about why he remains a Reformed Protestant, and his reasons are catholic ones. The post concludes with the following:

One final reason has to do with time.  I cut my theological teeth, and still cut them, on James Jordan’s biblical theology.  At the end of Through New Eyes, Jordan argues just as the temple was unimaginable to Israelites living through the collapse of the tabernacle system, so the future of the church is unimaginable to us.   We can’t see the future; we can’t know how God is going to put back the fragmented pieces of His church.  We can trust and hope that He is and will, but all we have access to are the configurations of the past and present.  It’s tempting to imagine that the future of the church will be an extension of some present tradition – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Anabaptist, whatever.  But the future never is a simple extension of the past and present (how can it be, with the massive surge in Christianity in the global South?).  So I remain contentedly and firmly in my reformed catholicity, but I remain also eager and impatient for the church to come.  Of that church we know nothing except that it will be like nothing we know.  We worship a living God, which means (Jenson tells us) a God of constant surprises.

 

What Breeds Gnosticism?

Before delineating the various aspects of the gnostic type, it should be understood that the one primary ingredient for the birth of gnosticism is a particular mood. The mood is one of despair. The gnostic solution can be satisfying only to those who have no tangible or rational hope. Because a certain number of people at every stage of history are caught up in despair, gnosticism of one sort or other always has a following. Throughout Christian history, certain individuals and small groups have been drawn toward the gnostic way. That historical reality is not terribly alarming; every great religion has variations on the theme. When, however, we come to a period like that of the first four centuries of the Church, when the gnostic way almost prevailed, how can we speak of a mood? Can an entire culture be in despair? And if so, why?

-Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics