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.

Do Rules Help Us Change?

One of the most challenging things about the spiritual life is progression. How do we change? What’s the key to transformation? How do we make and embrace rhythms that will foster the kind of growth we desire (or at least claim to desire). This is a problem for those who explicitly identify as religious and count themselves as members of religious communities and institutions. It’s also a problem for those who would identify as spiritual but not religious. Whether it’s body image and weight issues, general health, overcoming co-dependent tendencies or dealing with deleterious habits, the problem is the same: how do I embrace what I know is good for me, but hard, without being consumed by resentment or just becoming plain exhausted?

Rules tend to not work very well. The problem is that the deepest transformations in our lives come from the inside out, not the other way around. We are creatures of desire and unless we desire the thing that is good for us we’re not likely to pursue it in any deep sustained fashion. You can make a law that prohibits theft or embezzlement, and it might stop someone from stealing, but the avarice or sense of entitlement that create the motivation to steal in the first place remain impervious to legislation. Hence Augustine’s famous prayer: “Lord command what you will and give me the grace to will what you command.”

This passage in Frank Lake’s  Clinincal Theology is instructive here:

When a man becomes related to the law by effort, instead of to the Lawgiver by affiance, related to the ethical demand but trying to satisfy it, instead of to God by trusting the satisfaction of Christ, related to the standards by discipline instead of to the Person by discipleship, he frequently ends up in depression. This is because the law of the Spirit of Life is not to be found in the law of self-effort, self-discipline, or will-power. The spirit of joy is the fruit of a life in loving relationships on the human level, and ultimately with Christ Jesus on the divine. In His concern for the truth of eternity, the Holy Spirit must withdraw Himself and His endowments from the man whose life is centered in regulations, especially religious regulations. Depression, and aridity as one of its cardinal symptoms, is a direct effect of disobedience to God’s law of life through-interpersonal-contact with His creatures.