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

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 8.53.34 PM


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…


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 The Gospel Is For Us But Not About Us

Was doing some re-reading today in Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV.1. Barth is remarking on what it means for Christ’s work to be “for us”. He makes clear why the Church is not an extension of the Incarnation:

But we must be careful that the strict “for us” that we have to do with here does not become a “with us” which unites our existence with that of Jesus Christ, in which He is simply the author and initiator of what has to be fulfilled in and through us on the same level, in His discipleship and in fellowship with Him, as though the redemptive happening which has to be proclaimed and believed under His name were something which embraces both Him and us. It is true that Jesus Christ is the fellow-man who goes before us as an example and shows us the way. It is true that there is a discipleship, a fellowship with Him, and therefore an existence of Christians. It is true that what took place in Him, the redemptive happening which has to be proclaimed and believed under His name, does embrace Christian existence and in a certain sense all human existence. But if we are to look and think and speak more precisely it is not a redemptive happening which embraces both Him and us, but the redemptive happening which embraces us in His existence, which takes us up into itself. He is the fellow-man who goes before us as an example and shows us the way because and in the power of the fact that He is “for us”: in a “for us” which cannot be equated with any “with us,” by which every conceivable “with us” is established—as it were from without, from which all discipleship must derive its meaning and its power. Discipleship, the being of the Christian with Him, rests on the presupposition and can be carried through only on the presupposition that Jesus Christ is in Himself “for us”—without our being with Him, without any fulfilment of our being either with or after Him—on the contrary (Rom. 5:6f.), even when we were without strength, godless, and enemies. He does not become “for us” when there is some self-fulfilment either with or after Him, but He is for us in Himself, quite independently of how we answer the question which is put to us of our fulfilment with or after Him. The event of redemption took place then and there in Him, and therefore “for us.” In Him, as that which p 230 took place then and there, it embraces us, it becomes the basis of fellowship, it calls us to discipleship, but not in such a way that it becomes an event of redemption only through our obedience to this call, or is not an event of redemption through our disobedience, but in such a way that as the event of redemption which took place for us in Him it always comes before the question of our obedience or disobedience, it is always in itself the event of redemption which took place for us, whatever may be our answer to that question.

Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church dogmatics, Volume IV: The doctrine of God, Part 1 (pp. 229–230). London: T&T Clark.