A number of articles have come out on Bart Compolo’s embrace of atheism. As the son of Tony Compolo, a famous evangelical writer and speaker. In particular, Bart’s statement that once he started to doubt this or that doctrine, he moved quickly from progressive Christianity to atheism. Many conservative writers have been quick to embrace the idea that the moment you start questioning any doctrine, the logical end result is atheism. So we get these quotes from Bart Compolo to back up their claim.
“Because once you start adjusting your theology to match up to the reality you see in front of you, it’s an infinite progression. So over the course of the next 30 years…my ability to believe in a supernatural narrative or a God who intervenes and does anything died a death of a thousand unanswered prayers”.
Campolo continued: “I passed through every stage of heresy. It starts out with sovereignty goes, then biblical authority goes, then I’m a universalist, now I’m marrying gay people. Pretty soon I don’t actually believe Jesus actually rose from the dead in a bodily way.
Campolo is predicting that as many as 40% of progressive Christians will become atheists over the next decade. In his view, the process of abandoning Christian doctrines is almost addictive. Once you start, you don’t know where to stop. It might begin with “dialing down” your view of God’s sovereignty, but it could easily end with unbelief.
“When you get to this ragged edge of Christianity when people say ‘God’ they sort of mean ‘the universe’ and when they say ‘Jesus’ they sort of mean ‘redemption’ – they’re so progressive they don’t actually count on any supernatural stuff to happen, they’ve dialed it down in the same way I did.”
Bart says he’s “skipped over” the “progressive re-vamping” of Christianity and gone straight to the logical conclusion that God doesn’t exist. He reckons that Progressive Christians should stop pretending God exists in the form of “the universe” or other wishy-washy language.
Now, it’s not clear to me that the process Bart went through is how it works for most people. I have known folks question a few doctrines and then find an equilibrium that creates for them a viable faith. There is nothing inevitable about doubt and its results and how it is that people come to their faith stance.
But since I did, in fact, experience a similar process to Bart Compolo, I thought I’d respond to this claim. I did come to doubt every doctrine I could within Christianity. I do reject the supernatural and according to most of the historic creeds, I am a heretic. But I do claim Christian faith, I do believe in God, and I do believe the tradition gives us a language and a means to relate to what ultimately matters.
The difference between Bart and I is that I did not skip the “progressive revamping” of Christianity. He did. And while he considers it the logical result of doubt, I think this “revamping” could just as readily be the end result of doubt. I doubted everything to clear out what I did not believe so that I had the space to reconstruct what I in fact believed and why.
This is to say that doubt was not just destructive of old beliefs that I no longer held. Doubt is a necessary ingredient, a creative one too, that helped fill in what I believed and why.
The key for me was Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstruction Judaism. Once the old meanings and understandings of religious terms fall apart, the question is: how do you re-invest these terms with new meanings and understandings? The continuity is found in how the new meanings allow the term to do the same work as the older meanings did.
So I believe God is the creator of the universe. But this cannot mean the earth was created 6000 years ago. Given our knowledge post Darwin, that old understanding falls apart. To provide a new meaning to this idea, one could look at how we conceive of God given the evolutionary process. What acts in the world to create and sustain new life? There you will find God.
This new understanding still captures the idea of God as creator. And it is not wishy washy, in my ears. Why? Because it captures reality. It captures what is holy in reality and therefore what is worthy of reverence. While conservatives downplay experience, they do so by mistaking personal feelings for experience. Experiences shaped by the disciplined study of reality anchors religious doctrines.
And if we assume religious doctrine should illuminate the world as it is, this task of reconstruction is of utmost importance for those who care about doctrine. But the question I’m often asked is why? Why is doctrine important? Why not simply develop new language that captures our understanding of the world instead of investing new meanings (even if they have continuity with the old)?
Because this engagement with our world is not new. It’s been going on for several millennia. And even if the language is different and some of the understandings are as well, I do believe that folks, in the past, captured important ways of living in the world. I’m apt to believe Augustine knew something about evil, Aristotle on ethics, Mencius on human nature, the Upanishads on defining self hood.
I do believe, in other words, that often in the past, we got things right. What I am proposing, from Kaplan’s thought, is that what we got right in the past needs to be in conversation and thus formulated by the best of what we know now. The process of reconstruction is not a way to start fresh. It is designed to take the best of the past and create a bridge towards where we are at now.
And I assume that this process would continue on wards to meet newer understandings and knowledge. Sometimes this is investing older symbols with newer understandings. But it could as easily be retrieving forgotten understandings from the past. Perhaps the the ancient views on salvation from the eastern Orthodox could be retrieved and put to use today, for instance.
I think of the tradition as all the stuff in one’s attic. There are some treasures there that need to be reclaimed and held up today. There are other items that need to be cleaned up a bit, refurbished, used for a different purpose than in its day. And then there is just garbage up there, that needs to be thrown out. I take progressive faith as not just dumping the garbage but reclaiming and restoring what is valuable.
And, to some degree, this describes how traditions have normally operated in the past. They have never been static. They have been in the same process of revising ideas. The bull of Jacob in Genesis is not exactly the same as Aquinas’ God, even if they have continuity. The point is to be explicit and democratic about this process of change, as opposed to pretending it’s never happened.
So why do this process as a Christian? I do so, because I believe it is important to be well acquainted with a tradition and dig into deeply, not a surface level of knowledge. The interfaith version of this is that everyone in their respective traditions would do likewise and we could share those insights in ways that impact the rest of us for the better.
But I also do so because of my personal biography. The way that I, given my history, has encountered what is worthy in life is in and through a tradition and a community of faith. My belonging to such a community is not predicated on a set of beliefs. They are predicated on joining in the ongoing conversation, of reconstruction, to bring to the fore what is life giving in our tradition.
This is what Bart Campolo is doing as a humanist in his tradition. This is what I’m doing in the Christian tradition. And while both have integrity, I see no reason that one tradition should necessarily lead into another, beyond a set of shared values. Sometimes this process can lead to atheism. I’ve seen it lead to an eclectic spirituality. I’ve even seen it lead to a deeper commitment to Christian faith.
Dwight Welch is a UCC pastor who teaches religion and philosophy at Oklahoma City Community College.