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…


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.


Do You Like Surprises?

Most of us hate surprises, at least where relationships are concerned. We think we like them, but we don’t. We walk into situations with co-workers, family members, friends, spouses and we think we know how it will go. Actually if we’re honest we “know” how it will go. They will be deceptive, obsessive, narcissistic, compulsive, detached, you name it. Of course we know they have their moments. We’ve seen them be truthful, dispassionate, unassuming, restrained, engaged. Those are the options: the devil we know and the angel we hope appears. How often to we make space for someone to surprise us?

Now realistically the way of the world that we all find ourselves in day after day doesn’t often leave room for surprise. Many, perhaps most days if we’re honest, make us feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. It’s realistic to assume things will be as they have been, that nothing much changes in this world. And yet we pack in to see a film like Les Miserables, which is all about spontaneous change that cannot be programmed, orchestrated or anticipated. Somehow something comes in, seeming from the outside in, and changes everything. True the moments seem fleeting, but are they so rare as to seem mythical. No. Les Miserables seems fantastic, but we don’t consider it a fantasy. It’s the precipice we all want nuzzle up to, hoping not only that we’ll fall into it, but that its mystical gravitational pull will draw us into its being, changing ours.

The problem is that you get an experience like this and you do one of two things: fight or flight. You either fight to remake the world into this surprising reality or you flee from the world in an escapist fashion, seeking life-giving surprises in a fantasy world removed from the gritty recidivist patterns of the reality in which we feel trapped.

The freedom comes in a Latin phrase (what doesn’t?): simul justus et peccator. We are both right, or justified (justus) and bent, broken and problematic (or in the word of the old time religion: sinful). We need something that allows us to see ourselves as human, which equates to flawed, finite,  in short fallen from the oasis of our highest aspirations, and also unconditionally loved. We need a reality to break in that helps us re-imagine what can possibly be and who possibly can be what, but one that is realistic. It comes with the realization that the mysterious reality that surprises us despite ourselves is in our midst, and yet ahead of us. It comes, yet can’t be caught or contained, only received. It’s already here, yet it’s not yet here. And it always leaves us satisfied and wanting, scared and assured.