By Kenda Creasy Dean January 5, 2017 – Bart Campolo, the humanist chaplain at U.S.C. whose drift away from Christianity was profiled in the January 1 New York Times Magazine, is a friend of mine. Now, to be clear, this is not an elite club, since Bart befriends practically everyone he meets. But our lives have crisscrossed, and I blurbed his recent book Why I Left, Why I Stayed (HarperOne, 2017), written with his father—a book that both broke my heart and gave me hope that it might get families, long conscripted to silence by differing views on religion, talking about faith again.
Yet what Bart—and now The New York Times—calls “faith” does not ring true to me, though I accept the wrenching honesty of Bart’s story. If this description of Christian faith is Christian faith…well, I would walk away too, as would many Christians I know (and to be clear, I hang with those maddeningly boring, mainline Protestant types). Theologically and historically, I belong to an evangelical tradition—a phrase I hesitate to use thanks to the political freight the term “evangelical” now carries in American culture. I go to a church, and teach at a seminary, where many people have never subscribed to things that Bart says he interpreted as signs that his faith was fading. Yet we count ourselves as hymn-singing, Bible-studying, critical-thinking, Jesus-y Christians who (like Bart) work hard for justice, pray for our children, get mad at our denominations for some things and champion them for others—and still make a case for things like grace, that give us hope that maybe there’s more to life than meets the eye.
That, of course, is where Bart and I differ. Yet I can’t read about such journeys “away from faith” without an angry knot welling up inside me, and it’s not aimed at humanists like Bart. How have we Christians allowed the word “evangelical” to become so dogmatically shrink-wrapped that somehow the only alternative to “evangelical faith”—as it is now narrowly understood by Christians and superficially described in popular media—is no faith at all? How have our churches failed to make Christianity look enough like Jesus for young people to notice, save for the actions of a surprising pope or the occasional extraordinary or provocative individual (Desmond Tutu, Father Gregory Boyle, Nadia Bolz Weber come to mind)?
How have we Christians allowed the word “evangelical” to become so dogmatically shrink-wrapped that somehow the only alternative to “evangelical faith”—as it is now narrowly understood by Christians and superficially described in popular media—is no faith at all?
In his book, Bart describes as evidence of his own faith drift teaching that hell is not a threat, officiating at the wedding of two dear lesbian friends, and questioning his former beliefs. That’s evidence, all right—but what if it’s evidence of a different sort? Scores of card-carrying Christians would see these as signs, not of fading faith, but of faith coming into its own—evidence of becoming more like Jesus, not less, reflections of a God whose love is so excessive that not even death can contain it, which of course is the difference between God’s love and ours. Scores of Christians would say that the mature faith is not checking off boxes of belief, but becoming more of what we love—in the West, mimesis or the “imitation of Christ,” in the East, divinization or becoming a participant in the life of God. What if, as we grow in faith, love that begins to reflect God no longer fits in the boxes people use to categorize one another? What if this isn’t apostasy, but the in-breaking of divine grace—God using smudged and imperfect humans to reflect Christ’s light in the world?
What if, dear Bart, Jesus got into your bones after all? What if the tomb of a shriveled, dogmatic, stars ‘n’ stripes Christianity couldn’t stop the Jesus in you from bursting beyond its confines to explode into “good news” in which Jesus is much, much bigger than we thought he was? What if I see your humanist students glimpsing Jesus in you, in spite of yourself? What if I’m a tiny bit glad for that?
What if the tomb of a shriveled, dogmatic, stars ‘n’ stripes Christianity couldn’t stop the Jesus in you from bursting beyond its confines to explode into “good news” in which Jesus is much, much bigger than we thought he was?
Of course (I see you smiling) you’re thinking: I would say something like that, something that reveals me as a Christian imperialist at heart, waiting for others to catch on that God really is at the bottom of things and we Christians think we have a secret key that others just need to discover. Forgive me (even Christians called that “secret knowledge” business heresy centuries ago). I don’t want to be that Christian. I want to honor your truth.
The trouble is, I just can’t shake mine. And what rings true for me is that the Christianity you describe is not the one I know. It’s a caricature, a dialect, a subspecies of Christianity, perhaps. But it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ as I have heard it.
Now, the odds are ever in your favor. We live in a secular age, as philosopher Charles Taylor reminds us, when it’s almost impossible for anyone to believe anything outside the humanist (he calls it the immanent) frame. So I’ll give you this one: You’re probably right. You’re probably nothing more than a really good example for your students, who are probably nothing more than hopeful undergrads with good hearts. The fact that I think it’s possible something more is happening is, well, a leap of faith on my part.
But to say that nothing more is happening is also a leap of faith—because, let’s be clear, this is still a conversation about faith. And whenever the choice is between narrow dogmatism, liberal or conservative, and anything else (as you know, Scripture is Exhibit A on this), you never find Jesus hanging out with the narrow religious types.
If all we have given each other is a false choice between caricature Christianity and no Christianity at all, then sign me up with the atheists. But that choice was constructed by American Christendom, not by the gospel. We had best come clean about that. Thankfully (warning: faith statement ahead): God paints with a bigger palette.