I now have the privilege of watching a remarkable experiment unfold -- up-close and personal.
And where better to observe an experiment than at a research university?
My new colleague and friend, Bart Campolo, is the principal investigator. Bart is the new Humanist Chaplain at the University of Southern California. A former evangelical Christian leader with a national profile in his own right, he is the son of Tony Campolo, the famous evangelical preacher best known as the personal spiritual mentor to President Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky affair. Steadily, over a period of decades, Bart's credulity in evanglical doctrine eroded away until his wife convinced him that he was theologically past the point of no return. He burst his way out of the conservative Christian bubble, leading to hand-wringing on the pages of Christian Century, a major evangelical periodical.
Other offspring of notable evangelical leaders have wandered from the fold, among them Frank Shaeffer, son of Francis Shaeffer. What is remarkable about Bart is his loving, gracious attitude toward his past and toward his father's legacy. He is not against evangelical Christianity. On the contrary, he's a graduate of it, summa cum laude. He has taken from it all that is good, and is now translating that good into a new form. His experiment: creating a community of love and mutual support on our campus -- a church, for lack of a better word -- without any religious content.
Bart is genetically evangelical. His earnest intensity, his zeal, his uncontrollable and yet charming urge to bring people together for a higher purpose, are evident within moments of meeting him. There is an imaginary wraparound mike in front of him all the time -- probably even in his sleep. He gesticulates with his whole body, off-stage as much as on. But he's given up all the evangelical Christian content -- without resentment, without regret. And that's what makes his experiment so compelling.
A few weeks ago, I watched Bart in action at the Sunday night monthly dinner of the new "humanist" community he is forming on campus. The students attracted to this event were initially drawn to it in search of a support network for other students rejecting or recovering from affiliation with organized religion. But "rah-rah, we aren't religious but we're okay" is not much of a fight song for a strong campus club at any university. Bart understands this, and so he's offering an entirely positive reason for them to get them together: to create a community where people care deeply about each other. During the week, I watch him meeting with students, taking interest in them personally and offering them a listening ear and encouragement. He's very pastoral -- and the students love it. At the Sunday dinner, a full room of students enjoyed the meal and conversation. And then Bart stood up, and, for lack of a better word, preached. It was short and pithy sermon about the power and value of community. Leaning and plunging into the group, waving his arms, his eyes dancing, modulating his voice dramatically, he touched their hearts with a message of love. I could sense a mixture of amazement and delight in the -- for lack of a better word -- congregation. I felt like I was watching history in the making.
What will be the unifying principle behind this community? Is love and mutual support enough to hang it together? Will some distinctive message or activity or ritual be necessary to give the group an identity and a reason to continue gathering? The experiment is just getting started. The evidence and the conclusions are not in. Meanwhile, Bart's experiment has the attention of secular humanists nationwide. He's not a theist any more, but he's not a normal atheist, either.
Early in his tenure here at USC, I gave Bart a copy of my first book, Open Christianity, and he read it. "If I had read this a few years ago, I might have become a progressive Christian instead of an atheist," he told me. But neither he nor I regret it. The whole point of theologically progressive Christianity is that Christianity is not about turning people into Christians, or even making sure that they stay Christian. It's about the same thing that Bart is about. It's about love, and creating communities of love. If Bart can spread this love without Christian or any other religious content, I will holler a hearty hallelujia! His way is a good way, just as my way is a good way.
People are different. What works for some does not work for others. For those of us who love the myth and poetry and music and art and legacy of selfless service of Christianity, liberated from irrational and suffocating dogma, there will always be a home in progressive Christian communities. For those looking for communities offering the same kind of loving support, but without the religious language, what Bart is creating may be the answer. We share a common cause reached through different means. And we have a lot to learn from each other.
So stay tuned to the Bart Campolo show. The plot is bound to thicken!
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California