One of the more baleful pieces that has recently appeared in the “Old Grey Lady” (and there are many) is their article on Bart Campolo and his decamping from Christianity to atheism. I am sure that some secular progressives have toasted each other (probably multiple times, with the predictable result for them) on this catch. And I am sure that many evangelicals have lamented his departure; one of those reflections is here.
For me, something of a perennial outlier in Evangelical terms, the thing that struck me about his “deconversion” (strange term in and of itself) was this:
His faith had already begun to falter by the next summer, while he was working at a camp for poor children in Camden, N.J. Some of his campers had been sexually abused, yet his religion told him that a benevolent God controlled every last thing that happens on earth. He had a hard time squaring these two thoughts.
His own bicycle accident iced his Faustian moment:
Now, after his near-death experience, his wife told him — more bluntly than she ever had — what she thought was going on. “You know,” Marty said, “I think you ought to stop being a professional Christian, since you don’t believe in God, and you don’t believe in heaven, and you don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead three days after dying — and neither do I.” He knew that she was right, and he began telling friends that he was a “post-Christian.”
It strikes me that his entire journey in and out of faith centres around the theodicy issue. For someone who came out of an Evangelical background, the concepts he was taught are normative, especially if the church you’re in is Reformed to some degree.
For me personally, it’s an entirely different ball game. If I had ever asked the question at home (and I can’t recall I ever did) “Why do bad things happen to good people,” the answer I probably would have gotten was, “So what? You just have to tough it out, and if you can’t, it’s too bad.” And, as I’ve mentioned numerous times on this blog, the home I grew up in was anything but an “ideal” Christian home. The difference between the two is significant. While Campolo’s concept on the existence of evil focused on God, the one I was presented with focused on me.
And why not? Christians were routinely portrayed by their opponents as weaklings in need of a “crutch,” never mind that same opponents spent much of their time high or drunk. There were always those whose secular success, especially in business, went forward without any clear help from “the man upstairs.” We lived in a world where the state-sponsored atheists, when they beat us into space, didn’t find God, and had nuclear weapons to boot. That was a high bar for someone not in the cocoon of the Evangelical system to hurdle.
But hurdle I did, first because God came to me, and second because I never saw in the Scriptures the idea that this world was going to be perfect, and that eternity was the most important goal and would overshadow the pains of this life. Eternal life was one the one thing that God could give me that the world could not. But perhaps that all was because I looked at the Scriptures informed by the secular framework I was raised in. The theodicy issue, such an obsession with so many, was never a big deal for me. If these humanists were such great people, why didn’t they solve the problem of evil in the world?
Unfortunately I find myself as always an outlier in this culture. We live in a consumerist mentality where those who mean anything to us are those who do for us, and only those who do for us, even if we have to pay for the service. Three score ago Jack Kennedy could challenge Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Today such a challenge would be met with derision, either by the country or by anyone else. And that applies to God and his church too.
As is their custom, Evangelicals are always chasing the culture’s trends, and moulding their message accordingly. But the price to pay in this case, easily predictable, is that when things don’t go according to our plan–and sooner or later they won’t–the first impulse is to bail.
I think it’s fair to say that Bart Campolo is ultimately both a victim of that Faustian bargain and a perpetrator of one of his own. But here’s where things turn unexpectedly: if a consumerist mentality is corrosive to Christianity, it’s also corrosive to the secular left. Gone are the days when the likes of a Nikolai Ostrovsky gave everything (and he suffered tremendously in his lifetime) to make the world a better place as he saw it. Today we have a deeply rooted entitlement mentality, where the arc of history will always bend our way no matter how slovenly or inept our effort is. (Or how good we think it is.) This past election cycle is a good example of how that kicked back hard.
That, in a sense, is the silver lining in the cloud of Bart Campolo. Those who carry the banner of atheism aren’t like their predecessors; they’re in a different part of the food chain, and for people who believe in evolution and natural selection, that should be the ultimate insult. That fact that it isn’t should tell us something, and be good news for us, if it isn’t–in more ways than one–for Bart Campolo.