When Doubt is a First World Luxury

Print Friendly

Trailer: “Far From the Tree” from John Wright on Vimeo.

And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias.

And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

Luke 4:17-19

The Campolo name is well known in the Evangelical and wider Church world – Tony, and later Bart, being known to many from about the mid 1970’s on. For those who inhabit (or once inhabited) this world, neither will need much of an introduction – from the early recognition of, ‘it’s Friday but Sunday’s coming’, to Bart’s contemporary atheism/ humanism, their particular stories and journeys reflect much which will be familiar. The main difference, perhaps, that their story has been told in the public domain – such, I suppose is the price of fame, even religious fame, and movie-making.

* * *

It was the up-coming movie which caught my attention, and which catapulted me back into a part of the evangelical world I had almost forgotten about and am keen to leave behind: salvation by doubt. It’s an appealing place, I must confess, and if the internet is anything to go by, a popular enough place where one can go to avoid the sting of faith. It is also a place fuelled by the easy certainties of an evangelical sub-culture. A sub-culture which places too much confidence in things like one’s own faith, passion, experience and purpose in life, and which, as a result, expends so much of its energy on these that it has no confidence left when confronted with the dark and sinful places of this world, or one’s own heart. In such a context it is understandable that one might seek to save oneself by doubt, and even by a liturgy of doubt in God; having been there, I don’t rush to criticise those who do. In the end, however, salvation is found neither in doubting God nor in trusting ourselves – and most certainly not by trusting in our evangelical activities. Personally speaking, I’ve found that it’s easy enough to doubt God until you lose faith in yourself – which is an apologetic not always explored as thoroughly as it might be.

* * *

Personal reflections aside, however, and to return to Bart’s humanism, one aspect of his rejection of Christianity strikes me as more curious than the others. “I don’t believe any of it,” is a statement which leaps from the high definition images of the trailer (above). Had this scene been recorded in a pre-digital age on flickering ‘Super 8’ one might have expected the film to slip or snap from the reel at this point, shoot off and clatter round – plastic on plastic – until someone found the ‘off’ switch and the room descended into darkness. I suspect the explosive effect played just before the apostasy is intended to evoke a similar mood.
This “not believing any of it” however, does not mean a rejection of those aspects of social justice so integral to his former way of life. These remain.

“Today, Bart Campolo is as animated by his social-justice values as ever. But he no longer sees a religious narrative as the source of those values.”  1

And the promotion of these values continues to be part of his life in his role as humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California  and as counsellor, coach and community builder. And all of that is good. It would be churlish and dishonest to say otherwise, and few Christians would deny the importance of temporal goodness from whichever source it comes. Likewise I am more than happy to recognise that it is possible to be ‘good without God’ (to borrow a phrase), although that is not the same thing as saying we can be good because there is no God.

Furthermore, it is important to recognise the vast contribution to social justice which people like the Campolos have made over many years. The Church is neither opposed to social justice nor is the Christian gospel without it – although it might be acknowledged that some Christian traditions pay too little attention to a person’s material well-being, and that in-spite of the themes of justice and mercy being a Biblical constant. As the brother of Jesus reminds us” James 2:15,16 “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” So all of this remains. What has gone, however, is any trace of the supernatural.

“The problem for me… I can’t believe that supernatural story anymore.”  (Trailer at 2:15) “When I took off on the bicycle that day,” Campolo says, “the supernaturalism in my faith was dialed so far down you could barely notice it.” 2

At this point it might be interesting to be diverted. On the basis of other recorded comments, “ “When people ask me when I started to ‘lose faith,’ ” Bart tells me, “I usually say, ‘Within about 15 minutes of becoming a Christian.’ ” 3 some might ask if he had ever been a Christian for more than 15 minutes, or at all. In a similar vein we might argue with his reasons for embracing the Christian community in the first place, or what his understanding of conversion or salvation is. Listen to his ‘testimony’, or read an account in this article.

We could also discuss his continued (vain?) hopes for building a secular community of his own, or the human need for relationships, purpose and identity; we might discuss why human beings are like this at all, or on the basis of Bart’s testimony the implications for contemporary Evangelical evangelicalism, but that’s not where I’d like to go in the next few paragraphs. Rather it is to this, his concern that “Theodicy (the theological attempts to justify why God allows evil) would exhaust him when he would encounter actual victims of gang rape or other forms of cruelty”  4 while at the same time holding to a new belief/trust/faith (for that it is) that, “the mystical concept of “love” itself is rigged into the system, selecting for altruism, community, self-sacrifice, gratitude, compassion and forgiveness.” which provokes his new challenge, which, “is to use this somewhat earthy, more grounded notion of love as an organizing principle for individuals and for communities of people.” 5

I have no doubt that through his mission work Campolo was confronted with abject cruelty, and have no wish to deny the challenges presented by the reality of suffering and faith in a good God, but I fail to see how we are any further on. If “ “love” itself is rigged into the system”, it’s doing a pretty poor job – and that’s an observation we can make without having to ask any kind of philosophical questions about what ‘love’ or ‘good’ are, or how they can be measured. The lack of ‘love’ in the system is something I can feel without having to ask any other questions. It is a felt reality true for everyone and not only those who have devoted their lives to Christian mission or social justice. It is felt by those who work in public service, in international NGO’s and by those who care for friends, family and enemies. It is something we can feel in almost every newspaper headline, every tragedy and injustice of history, every premature death, every broken relationship and every cruelty (or sin) one towards the other.

If I am being expected to believe that love is rigged into the system, then that is to introduce me to a delusion or to use Campolo’s phrase a “transcendental experience” as questionable as any myth. One thing it certainly can’t do is to explain the Cross, which at first glance might look like the perfect example of such a rigged system, until one reflects on the centrality of its injustice and cruelty, and to which the man hanging on it subjects Himself. Forgiveness shouldn’t really be needed if the system is engineered to select for love. And so we lose not only the supernatural story of Jesus, but His earthly example as well. But beyond all of that I have another even greater felt objection to the humanism which rejects the supernatural story but clings (as it ought and must) to the values of social justice.

And it is this.

It is a narrative which must always fail – even in the temporal arena, which is all it has. And it must always fail because there has always been injustice; and for those living now in the most desperate of circumstances, or those we have recently known who have faced the same, social justice without a supernatural gospel is a social justice which robs people of their last great hope. A Christian gospel which ignores temporal justice is bad enough; but for a ‘love’ which has never been able to deliver justice to all, to rob from those most in need of it the hope of another world, a re-creation, is a very bitter blow indeed.

In 1971, a certain Beatle composed a song with the well known line, “Imagine there’s no heaven”; he was worth $800 million. In 2000, the piano on which he wrote his imaginings was sold for $2.1 million. Some things are easier to imagine than others. And to tell the poor who will never become rich that there is no treasure in heaven; to tell the rich who oppress them that they have no need weep for miseries to come; to tell Babylon that there is no judgement; the widow that she will never again have a husband and the orphan that she will never again Father; to tell the meek that there is nothing for them to inherit; or to tell those who mourn that there no comfort in this world or the next, is a little like living in Narnia under the spell of the White Witch where it is always winter and never Christmas, or to put it another way:

It’s Friday, but, well, never mind


1  https://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2014/10/02/bart-campolos-heretical-and-liberating-1 leadership-journey/#14df41277e88

2  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/magazine/the-evangelical-scion-who-stopped-believing.html2

3   https://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2014/10/02/bart-campolos-heretical-and-liberating-3 leadership-journey/#14df41277e88

4  https://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2014/10/02/bart-campolos-heretical-and-liberating-4 leadership-journey/#6552db917e88

5  https://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2014/10/02/bart-campolos-heretical-and-liberating-5 leadership-journey/#6552db917e88

This entry was posted in Quick Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.