By Paul V. DeMarco
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.