books

Review: Why I Left / Why I Stayed

Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son

Well-known evangelical author Tony Campolo, and his ex-evangelical humanist son Bart, trade chapters in a book that’s meant to be representative of the conversations they had after Bart left the faith. It’s not so much an apologetic debate (though there is certainly some of that), but more about relating their personal narratives and exploring what they each see as the philosophical implications of their beliefs. They discuss believing (or doubting) the basic tenets of Christianity, the pursuit of moral goodness in communities with or without God, the significance of death, and more.

Most of the people I know in this situation are evangelical Baby Boomer parents with ex-evangelical children. From the little I knew of both men prior to reading this book, I had assumed the Campolos more or less fit that scenario. But the Campolos are a generation removed from the audience they hope to encourage; Tony is north of eighty, and Bart north of fifty, the latter de-converting after decades of youth-rousing ministry following his father’s footsteps. Another interesting difference is that while most of the ex-evangelical Millennials I know have embraced a social-justice ethic in stark contrasts with their conservative forebears, the Campolos had both embraced that concern for the poor and marginalized from within Christianity, as part of their holistic understanding of the gospel. Of course, every individual and family narrative is unique, and readers will no doubt find fascinating and thought-provoking comparisons and contrasts. Despite the short book’s abundant weaknesses, it may serve a useful starting point for some families in similar situations.

Bart’s chapters are more articulate, as Tony himself admits (unfortunately, and perhaps a reflection of generational distance, I thought many of Tony’s arguments would seem trite and stale to my secular friends). I found myself in agreement with a lot of Bart’s remarks. I enjoyed his thoughts about death as a motivator to make the most of our limited time, the perspective of appreciating the very fact that we are alive at all, and the value of vicariously enjoying the joys and successes of others over resentment and bitterness – though I see all of that as perfectly fitting with a Christian worldview. Even beyond that, though, my overall outlook on the world is more “humanistic” than it used to be, but I find none of that at odds with my Christianity – in fact, I see it as the fundamental driver of that outlook (more on that below), and I would agree with Tony in affirming those things as evidence of the work of God within humanists like Bart, despite their firm denials.

I identified with the youthful radical passion of Christian Bart and his closest friends, and that attraction to Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace,” whatever the rest of the church seemed to be doing. But Bart saw a lot of suffering through his inner-city ministry, and he cited some of these up-close-and-personal encounters with the problem of evil as a major factor in his de-conversion. (While I haven’t been affected in the same way, I can relate in a parallel way; the greater my awareness of the poverty and persecution of deeply faithful Christians outside the United States, the greater my inoculation against the many flavors of prosperity gospel within this country.)

Many Christians can’t fathom alternative bases of morality without the Bible. Bart argues that even Bible-based moral systems are more subjective than Christians think, and he does a fair job defending his basic interest in human flourishing. But I’ve already trod that ground (a la Sam Harris), and I want to move beyond the binary question of whether secular people can be “evil” or “good” (from a humanistic standpoint, that is – from a Calvinistic standpoint we’re all totally depraved), and ask the more interesting question of how good people can be.

Considering the widening circles of concern that Bart alludes to – i.e. self, family, nation, species – I acknowledge that secular morality can rationally extend concern to all of those circles, yet I also assert that the level of concern naturally drops off with each level. The question of how good people can be could also be thought of as a question of how steeply a person’s concern for others drops off once they get past their immediate family. A “weak goodness” doesn’t want to hurt people, and hopes all people will prosper, but isn’t going to sacrifice too many personal conveniences to make that happen. In other words, it’s a goodness with steep slopes. By contrast, a “strong goodness” is what I see in the Christian ideal, which radically flattens those slopes. Jesus redefines the “neighbor” that you love to include foreigners and enemies. Every service for the “least” of humans is equivalent to serving Jesus himself. It all hearkens back to the original declaration that all human beings – male and female – are created in the “image of God.” Unfortunately, the lives of many Christians only reflect a “weak goodness,” but it is only the growing conviction of the true message of Christianity that has led me to pursue a stronger, flatter goodness.

Bart clearly still desires a radical love-your-neighbor-as-yourself “strong goodness,” but (in my view) he no longer has a compelling foundation to logically defend much more than a “weak goodness.” Bart agrees with Tony that humans “are hard-wired for heroism and can feel truly happy and fulfilled only when called upon to sacrificially use their gifts and energies in the service of a noble cause much bigger than themselves,” and Bart seems to think this truth justifies a global concern for the preservation of the human species. Clearly it does for some – look no further than the budding Effective Altruist movement. But while it’s all well and good to describe happy conversations with college students who already want to be “good without god,” I wondered what he would say to those whose concern for others drops off a steep slope once they get past their own selves and families.

The universal image of God is implicit in creationist theology, and it can be harmonized (with some challenges) into evolutionary theology, but the atheist’s evolution, with none of that divine intervention, seems to me to have plenty of justifications for steeper slopes. Is it necessarily best for the human species as a whole for all of its individuals to flourish, when that’s not true for any other evolved species under the sun? Without the image of God uniting us, without Jesus teaching that to serve the least is to serve Himself… shouldn’t different groups eventually diverge into separate species with separate outcomes?

Surely I’m not the only one who would at least entertain such thoughts apart from Christian doctrine. I view the post-Christian culture wars between social-justice humanists and alt-right nationalists through this paradigm, and I’m not convinced the humanists have much that’s compelling to persuade the nationalists to flatten their slopes; after all, they think they’re heroically saving civilization, too! The best at that flattening game right now, by far, is Jordan Peterson – and it’s no surprise to me that he’s doing it by digging into the astonishingly deep wells of the Bible, and cautiously leaving the door open to the truths of its fundamental metaphysical propositions!

Unlike many who have suffered more traumatic and tragic exits, Bart still has a largely positive view of the church, describing it as “one of the greatest community-building forces in history.” He now wants to recreate that community with his secular students, and he thinks it’s easier to build his secular community because he doesn’t have to drag along the supernatural propositions he always struggled to believe. But I’m not sure how interested I would be without the supernatural.

It’s not merely that I’m a selfish being who needs the threat of divine retribution to be good; I suspect I would maintain some form of self-interested “weak goodness,” and probably even pursue some level of life-fulfilling heroism. But at some point the principles of diminishing returns and the unavoidable uncertainty of outcomes would join forces with my selfish justifications. At least for me personally, to radically flatten the slope of my concern for all human beings, I don’t just need divine motivation. I need divine grace for my struggles and failures to live up to those ideals. I need divine power to guide me in specific directions toward fruitful opportunities. And most of all, I need the divine hope of ultimate victory to sustain me in spite of all the evil and suffering that remains.

I was surprised to read Bart claim that he’s still “very much attracted to the idea of a good and loving God who understands all that we don’t” and “utterly triumphs over both sin and death in the end,” and that he would “gladly swallow” a magic pill that would enable him to “truly believe all that again.” I found this statement hard to reconcile with his later arguments for some of the superiorities of his new worldview, and wondered how much of that was motivated reasoning. Perhaps he’s missing that divine hope more than he knows.

But I suppose Bart might say God didn’t give him enough of that divine hope and power, and without it his faith was unsustainable. What’s fascinating to me is that he hasn’t lost his desire for “strong goodness” which was always a part of his Christianity. I think I would be the opposite – without divine hope and power, I think my more recent desire for “strong goodness” would be unsustainable, and I would at least retreat at some level towards the weaker goodness of more nominal Christianity. But it’s also hard for me to guess because I think of my faith itself as having other independent supports. (Speaking of that, while both Campolos touched on the role of personal emotional experiences, with Tony seeing them as evidence of supernatural connection and Bart seeing them has nothing more than brain chemistry, I was surprised to see neither take a position on claims of personal miracles or other signs of external interventions, which have always played a strong role in my own apologetic.)

Of course, for all my armchair psychoanalytic attempts to rationally compare and contrast my worldview with Bart’s, I thought Tony made a good point about the “plausibility structures” of the people and influences with which we surround ourselves and which inform all of our beliefs more than we like to admit. Yet the way Tony described himself as “choosing” to believe felt a little wishy-washy and unsatisfying to me. By the end of the book, I wasn’t sure how much I agreed or disagreed with either man, but they did give me things to think about, and I applaud their efforts at modeling healthy relationships and conversations around disagreements about the most important things in the universe.

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