DeMarco: What Christians Can Learn from Humanists

The Op-Ed Page

Bart Campolo

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

The first time I heard the term “secular humanism” many decades ago, it was in a negative context. I translated it as “angry atheist” and stored it in my mental junk drawer along with other assorted concepts I wasn’t sure merited further investigation.

Humanism reemerged as something to consider when I came across the story of Bart Campolo. Bart is the son of Tony Campolo, a progressive Baptist preacher and former spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton. Bart entered the family business as a spellbinding evangelist and founder of Mission Year, an urban ministry focused on improving the lives of young people. Through his twenties and thirties his faith eroded and he now rejects anything supernatural. In 2016, he started a podcast called Humanize Me. I’ve listened to dozens of episodes and, despite the trauma of his public deconversion, he remains a charismatic, insightful, and loving human being.

The trouble with humanism, Bart admits, is that it’s hard to gather a community around a belief system grounded in this world and not in the next. He has been able to generate a faithful online following but the idea of a humanist church has not been a galvanizing one. Bart attempted to start an in-person community in Cincinnati called Caravan, which, based on the website, appears defunct. But the four founding principles of Caravan are profound: building loving relationships, making things better for others, cultivating awe and wonder, and worldview humility.

Christians are familiar with the first three precepts but not the last. Most Christian churches, though not all, practice the opposite, what might be called worldview hubris. We are sure we have found the way to heaven and we’re doubly sure it’s the only way.

A couple thoughts about our certainty. First, the math of our proposition doesn’t seem compatible with a loving God. I suspect, when creating the universe, God knew that many of us would not be Christian (currently Christians make up about a third of the world’s population). Would God knowingly create a world in which so many of his children would miss the mark? Many Christians say they believe this, pointing to verses like John 14:6 in which Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” However, few are moved to invest time or money evangelizing the lost. According to the missionary organization The Traveling Team, for every $100,000 that Christians make, we give $1.70 to the unreached.

I respect those who believe Jesus is the only way. If you interpret the scriptures literally, you have a strong case. My view is that the Bible is authoritative but not inerrant. In John 14, Jesus also says “The Father is greater than me” (verse 28) and “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (verse 11). The message I get from the whole of John 14 is that belief in the Father is the critical piece. If you define God as Love, as almost all religious people do, then loving God by loving others is our highest obligation. If love is at the center of Christianity rather than belief in Jesus, we no longer are forced to be exclusive.

Again, I realize this is not the standard interpretation of the Bible preached from most pulpits. Nor am I a theologian. However, decades of Bible study and worship have shown me the hazards of an exclusive Jesus.

First, it instills an oppositional mentality. It’s us (the saved) among them (the lost). It’s virtually impossible not to pity or fell superior to people whom you believe have made a choice that will haunt them for all eternity.

Second, it can make us solipsistic. Why waste time dealing with people who are different from us and are dammed to hell anyway? Most churches are demographically homogenous – far more so than our cities, towns, or workplaces. The temptation to retreat into the cocoon of one’s comfortable church circle is strong.

Third, it makes us afraid. We worry that there is something wrong with “those people” who either worship differently or don’t worship at all. We fear becoming close lest their foreign ways lead us astray.

Last, it makes us incurious. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and peoples of the world’s many other faiths (and no faith) have traditions that can add to our understanding of the world. Many years ago while visiting Tucson, Arizona, I came upon a group of Buddhist monks meticulously crafting a sand mandala. These flat, intricate sand sculptures take groups of monks days or sometimes weeks to construct. Once completed, they are carefully dismantled, symbolizing the impermanence of the material world. The monks’ egoless devotion to their task, which they complete in silence, and their willing acceptance of the mandala’s destruction has no parallel Christian ritual but has been a lifelong inspiration to me.

I had a Jewish patient who taught me a deeper understanding of the concept of shalom. I had a Muslim student who taught me the discipline of Ramadan. We Christians have our own array of deeply meaningful traditions, but we must allow the possibility that we don’t have a lock on the Truth.

The Caravan website reminds us how most of us come to our world view: “(M)ost of our ideas and convictions are inherited from other people and/or conditioned by circumstances beyond our control. In other words, we are well aware that if our lives or brains were different, then our worldview would be different too, and we’d be using different arguments to defend it.”

When we meet someone of a different faith, our choices include conversion, consternation, or curiosity. Choose wisely.

A version of this column appeared in the February 3rd edition of the Florence Morning News.


11 thoughts on “DeMarco: What Christians Can Learn from Humanists

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Wow, I could write a book on what you say here. Actually, I’ve been thinking for years about writing a book on just one of several important aspects you’ve touched on. So I guess I could write several books in response, if I had the time and economic independence.

    But let me just quickly TRY to touch on several points:

    1. First, that term “humanist.” There are several kinds of humanists. The reason people use that phrase “secular humanist” is to distinguish the unbeliever from, for instance, a humanist such as Thomas More, saint and martyred defender of the faith. He was a Renaissance humanist, or a Christian humanist if you prefer.
    2. I’ve gotta differ with you here when you say, “Christians are familiar with the first three precepts but not the last,” referring to “building loving relationships, making things better for others, cultivating awe and wonder, and worldview humility.” Say what? Paul, Christians — every single one of them who has ever lived, if you don’t count Jesus as a Christian — falls short on EVERY measurement, at different times. And I look around, and I don’t see them falling short on “humility” any more than on “loving relationships.” It is very popular among unbelievers, of course, to stress that last one, I suppose because they tend to consider believing at all as being too sure about something. Whatever. Anyway, Christians are called to be many things, and one of the most important demands is that they be humble. (And yes, before someone tries to explain it to me, I know you said WORLDVIEW humble, but humble is humble.) And boy, do we fall short on that one. I certainly do and it is incumbent on me to work on it, hard.
    3. What does Campolo mean by the word, “supernatural?” Assuming that’s the word he used to describe what he couldn’t accept; it wasn’t a direct quote. I remember many, many years ago when a dear atheist friend of mine said she could not believe in the supernatural. I remember thinking, well, neither do I, the way a lot of people use the word — to mean UNnatural, or impossible, or magic (oops, now we could go off on a lengthy tangent on what “magic” means). For instance, the second sense in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature.” But if God exists, God is normal and natural. But then if you go to the Latin roots and think of it as ABOVE natural, it works, and that is the first sense that dictionary gives: “of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe… especially : of or relating to God or a god….” Anyway, it’s an interesting thing to contemplate, and you can end up going in circles. It’s like the word “possible.” You can say Jesus did the impossible by raising Lazarus, but if he did it, it’s possible.
    4. Finally, sort of to come back to the whole point that your column is about… I think one of the things Christians are worst at is telling people quickly and simply what they believe. And while this definition falls short in a number of ways, I’ve always thought atheist Douglas Adams did a better job than most creeds when he said, “Then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…”

    What Adams wrote doesn’t explain it completely, but it gets in most of the points we’ve been talking about here…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That one thing you touch on, which I think of as the “I’m saved, and to hell with you” attitude…

      There’s no doubt I see that all around me. I’m sure there are Catholics to whom it could apply, but one reason I’m Catholic is that I see it less. We’re Original Sin people. We also tend to see being Christian as a lifelong process of growing and becoming. You’re not supposed to be thinking, OK, I’m done, so I can just coast the rest of my life. (Although the sacrament of confession leads to some hilarious misunderstandings along those lines.)

      But there are definitely folks who call themselves “Christians” who really think that way… The problem for the rest of us comes when people generalize that to ALL Christians. It tarnishes the brand…

  2. Barry

    Good column.

    Paul wrote……. “It’s us (the saved) among them (the lost). It’s virtually impossible not to pity or feel superior to people whom you believe have made a choice that will haunt them for all eternity.”

    I mostly agree with this characterization- because- humans tend to fall into an air of superiority when they believe they know better.

    Of course feeling “pity” for someone else is not a bad thing, especially if you think their choice is one that will hurt them. Especially if it motivates the caring Christian to reach out in love to them in a manner that is polite, respectful, and appropriate. However, treating them poorly, referring to them in negative terms, or feeling superior to them because of that is wrong- and bad.

    Of course those that believe the sacrifice of Christ on the cross paid the full price will typically state that salvation is nothing they earned by anything they did. But the reality is, many act as if they are worthy because of something they did. That’s the rub.

    Let me also say, I do believe there is only one way. In the Gospel of Matthew, as part of the what we call the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus described the way as “narrow.”

    …..Narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it…..

    Of course people can interpret this any way they like. I personally believe the concept here of “narrow” would have been an odd description if it wasn’t narrow. But, I this isn’t a religion class.

    I have known faithful Christians who did live a life of total humility. Sadly, I don’t know a lot of them. Of course, most non-Christians don’t live humble lives either. But, Christians are supposed to be different – because that is something we claim.

    One was a former associate pastor at our church. He’s passed away now. But he was a special person who cared deeply about everyone, and meeting him only for a few seconds gave one a sense this was truly a humble man. He was a friend to everyone, especially visitors at our church. I heard stories of him hugging cashiers at stores that shared with him that they were having a tough time. I heard stories, that I believe are true, of him praying for them there on the spot and sharing his personal contact information so he could follow up with them and try to assist them in ways that were helpful. These are stories he never shared with anyone.

    There are humble Christian servants out there like that – that never want recognition and only want to help.

    I’ll also add one more group – there are a handful of Sunday School teachers at my church that teach children that I have personal experience with that are truly humble Christian servants. How they deal with these young children year after year after year – long after their own children are grown – is remarkable. Both women and men teachers that work with these young children. Never any glory, Never really any recognition. Just quietly going about teaching and working with them week in and week out.

    But our culture and our current political Christianity doesn’t seem to create too many folks like this anymore – and something I have noticed- many of the most vocal, self professed Christians on social media and in the cable and talk radio show worlds fighting all the culture wars don’t seem to have a church home at all- and seemingly never or rarely attend. They certainly don’t seem to work and participate in church life.

    That makes it even sadder to watch too many Christians take their marching orders from such hypocrites – and that hypocrisy is driving away people from the church that could likely benefit from being involved in the local church life of a church that does want to focus on serving others.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Let me address one part of your comment, in which you raise several points. You say,

      “But our culture and our current political Christianity doesn’t seem to create too many folks like this anymore – and something I have noticed- many of the most vocal, self professed Christians on social media and in the cable and talk radio show worlds fighting all the culture wars don’t seem to have a church home at all…”

      First point:

      You say, “But our culture and our current political Christianity doesn’t seem to create too many folks like this anymore…” Well, no. In fact, our secular culture and especially “political Christianity,” as it is too often manifested, work AGAINST the mission of “creating folks like this.” Those who would be such folks need to get their formation and inspiration elsewhere.

      I love social media. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t spend so much time on Twitter. And the thing is, you CAN find profound Christian ideas on social media, assertions that do credit to the faith. But that’s not who gets attention, or stirs arguments, and gets magnified. The angry dividers do. That’s a huge reason why Trump became president. He is all about conflict and division, and gets magnified even by those libs in the mainstream media who are supposed to be his nemeses. Truth that speaks to us all tends to get ignored.

      I cringe a bit when you say the angry culture warriors “don’t seem to have a church home at all,” because while it’s true enough, I hate to agree with it and give the impression that you have to go to church, or some particular church, to be a good person. People might misunderstand me, and we’d be off on another pointless, divisive yelling match. But here’s the thing — going to a real, true Christian church and listening and trying hard to absorb the messages and live by them, HELP with being a good person, and a blessing to other people.

      I believe deeply that we come to wisdom in the company of other people. As an introvert, I’m easily tempted by the “stump-sitter” approach — referring to the folks who believe they can commune better with God sitting on a stump in the woods that cramped together with all those crabby humans in a church. But I believe going among other people is important to being the kind of people we’re supposed to be — even though it is not instinctively my favorite thing…

  3. Barry

    many churches are nothing but right wing political gatherings now pushing their preferred politicians. I have no use for such. My values are now different.

    COVID revealed a lot of warts existing on churches.

    I stopped going after 40+ years and have only returned a handful of times in the last12 months. i am no longer active and do not participate in any activities. When i attend, i arrive as the service starts and exit immediately as things conclude and i am in my car headed home within 3 minutes, speaking to no one.

    i use to be heavily involved but no longer want to be.

    My oldest no longer attends.. . My wife does take my teen daughter most weeks. But she is too young to decide for herself.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “many churches are nothing but right wing political gatherings”

      So go to one that isn’t. Find one that you would not describe that way. Because I hear you saying you sometimes go — meaning you’re drawn to faith in some manner — so why not go to one where you can feel some fellowship?

      Mind you, you’re not ever going to find one where you’re happy with everyone sitting around you in the pews. They’re all sinners, and some will be of the irritating variety. That’s because they’re humans, and it will be like that wherever you find a gathering of the species. But you ought to be able to find one where you don’t feel the need to avoid everyone.

      A side note: Although I found it sad, I did smile a bit when you said you are “in my car headed home within 3 minutes, speaking to no one.” That made you sound kind of Catholic. That’s what Catholics do.

      I was baptized in a Baptist Church — my mother’s family church in Bennettsville — although I mostly attended generic protestant services at military chapels over the years before I grew up. I started going to Mass with my Irish Catholic wife when we started dating in 1973. I was quite comfortable there, and played on our parish’s softball team in the late 70s. I was one of several players who weren’t actually Catholic — we couldn’t have made up a team otherwise. I used to worry about some of the other churches raising objections, but no one ever did.

      Anyway, I converted in 1981. And this is where I need to be.

      But there are still areas where I think Baptists have the right idea. I just happened to mention this to my wife on Sunday. Baptists are all about socializing after their “services” (I’m never sure what term to use, since they don’t have a Mass). They stand around outside and mingle and chat for the longest time (or so it seemed to me as a kid). It’s almost like they’re doing it as a Baptist substitute for cocktail parties. 🙂

      But I think that’s the way it should be. Oh, we linger behind briefly after Mass to chat with people we haven’t seen in a while. At least, my wife does, not being an extreme introvert like me. But it’s not as much of a ritual as those mixers outside Thomas Memorial Baptist Church when I was a kid, and I think those were a healthy thing.

      Christianity is about other people…

      1. Barry

        “So go to one that isn’t. Find one that you would not describe that way. Because I hear you saying you sometimes go — meaning you’re drawn to faith in some manner — so why not go to one where you can feel some fellowship?

        I meant to reply.

        I’m no longer interested.

        I also no longer believe attending church is necessary for faith or fellowship (and I am not really interested in fellowship with folks that are almost certainly going to start up a political conversation- and one where we are not going to find any agreement).

        As COVID was starting, one of my last Sundays at church- I was stopped in the parking lot walking between buildings and engaged in conversation by a friendly man at our church. (He really is friendly). He knew my disgust with Trump and he told me the typical ‘I don’t like Trump but…>”

        I stopped him mid -sentence and told him I didn’t want to talk about Trump or any other politician on church grounds and that I just wasn’t interested. I then told him we were unlikely to agree and didn’t want to debate or discuss politics and then I walked on and that was it. I didn’t want to upset him but I felt like I needed to be very clear because I knew he likely would stop me again at some point if I wasn’t clear.

        I think of that encounter even now quite frequently.

        (I also had a rule that I avoided sports discussions at church because too many men only want to talk sports and nothing else and with the divisiveness of people liking different sports teams- I have had this rule for myself for 15+ years. My wife knows this story but there were numerous guys at church that the only thing I knew about them was what team they liked – guys I had seen at church for over a decade and the only things they talked about would be the Gamecocks or Clemson, etc… No thanks.)


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