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Like father, unlike son

26 May 2017

Over a Thanksgiving dinner, Bart Campolo told his father, the evangelist Tony Campolo, that he no longer believed in God. In a new joint book, Bart — now a humanist chaplain — and Tony debate their beliefs and seek common ground

Bradley Siefert

Tony Campolo

Tony Campolo


Being a Christian is and has been, for me, a chance to be part of history’s ultimate movement. All the work in various ministries that consumed so much of my time and energy along with my preaching over the years have been carried out in the context of this biblical vision of the Kingdom of God, which even now is breaking loose in the world. Those who want to mock me can easily say that I sound like one of the Blues Brothers, declaring, “I am on a mission from God,” but it is this belief that has given form and meaning to my life.

Following Jesus rescued me, once and for all, from becoming one of what T. S. Eliot calls “the hollow men”, for whom the world will end not with a bang, but with a whimper because they have no hope. And trusting in Jesus continually delivers me from the cynicism growing up all around me, which concludes, in the words of Shakespeare, that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.



As I always tell my students, if this life really is all we have, the only rational choice is to make the most of it by proactively building loving relationships, doing work that makes things better for other people, and cultivating a sense of gratitude for the wonders of the universe and the privilege of being alive and conscious in the first place. That commitment isn’t a leftover from my Christian days, but, rather, a heartfelt response to my new understanding of the incredibly improbable way that I came to exist and what will — or at least what could — happen after I die. I am not just a student of nature and history after all; I am part of them.

To be a secular humanist is to embrace that opportunity and to dedicate yourself to making your verse a truly good one, not because you will be rewarded for it after you die, but for the pure joy of imagin­ing people yet to be born enjoying a world you helped make possible for them, whether they know it or not.


Leanna CreelBart CampoloTony:

Secularists contend that the wonders of the universe are nothing more than natural phenomena. Indeed, they go so far as to describe the existence of human beings — with all our physiological and intellectual complexities — as the intrinsically meaningless result of a series of random accidents of nature. Nevertheless, they tell us that in all likelihood there are more intelligent creatures in other parts of the universe. With an infinite extension of time, space, matter, and energy, they contend, organisms as complex as human beings are nearly certain to have emerged elsewhere as well. As Émile Borel famously put it, given enough time, even a chimpanzee punching at random on a typewriter would almost surely type out all the plays of William Shakespeare.

When considering evolution, however, we should reflect on the fact that many scientists do not believe that natural selection is simply a process of random trial and error. These scientists claim that there is something within organisms that drives them to make the needed adaptations for survival. In other words, the evolutionary development of living organisms is being guided.

I am not a young-earth crea­­tionist, but obviously I believe that the guiding force is the divine spirit we call God. So, then, you can count me in with those oft-ridiculed religionists who claim there is an “intelligent designer” driving the creative processes of the universe. Have I simply chosen to believe in a Creator who is revealed through the scriptures, who is at work in the conversions of broken people, and who regularly appears in my own life by way of transcendent spiritual experiences, and then cherry-picked those theories and arguments that best support that choice? Of course I have. Making that choice is my act of faith.

What I continue to wrestle with is why secularists like Bart choose to interpret the same raw data that I have in the opposite — and much less hopeful — direction. Surely, to live as though there is nothing and no one behind the awesome wonder of the universe or our most tran­scendent experiences, and then cherry-pick the theories and arguments that best support that lifestyle, is an act of faith as well.



Early in my secular journey, I noticed that the biologist Ursula Goodenough describes herself as a religious naturalist. I love that moniker and only wish I could use it without being mistaken for some kind of Bible-toting trail hiker. Like Goodenough, I’m a naturalist because I think this physical universe — or multiverse, or whatever we’re calling the totality of matter and energy these days — is all that is real. I’m religious not because I believe in a personal God or any other kind of supernatural force, but because I believe that natural reality — and in particular the parts of it that are alive and capable of transcendence — is more than wonderful enough to be worthy of my reverence, gratitude, and absolute devotion.

Don’t get me wrong here — the fact that I pledge my allegiance to this world and this life doesn’t mean that I think either of them has any overarching purpose or design. For better or worse, I’m afraid, my answer to that greatest of all philo­sophical questions — What is the meaning of life? — is that there isn’t one. In short, the universe doesn’t care.

We human beings do care, however, and that is my favorite part of the story of life. We still don’t know how that story begins, of course, but, thanks to Charles Darwin, we at least have a pretty good idea of how it moves forward from the simplicity of a single-celled something to the complexity of us, and somewhere along the way — right at the moment that animals started co-operating as a survival strategy — meaning emerged. That’s because meaning isn’t something we social animals find, after all, but rather something we make between us as we relate to one another.

That may well be the greatest wonder of them all, I think: that a cold and uncaring universe with no design or purpose whatsoever has nevertheless produced, at least on this one-in-a billion planet in this one-in-a-billion galaxy, loving and lovable human beings like you and me, who desperately want to understand and appreciate ourselves and everything around us.


Tony and Bart:

Both of us have spent most of our adult lives telling stories about the needs of people around the world who are hurt, oppressed, neglected, impoverished, or otherwise left out of those blessings the rest of us enjoy. We also tell stories about ordinary people who have re­­sponded to those needs in extra­ordinarily loving ways, always trying to illustrate the lesson we have learned from them over and over again: caring for others is the surest pathway to peace. As Bart’s agnostic hero Robert Ingersoll once put it, “The way to be happy is to make others so.” Or, in the words of St Francis, “For it is in giving that we receive.” In our storytelling, we do our best to highlight the value of thoughtful sacrifice and the beauty of practical love.

Obviously, each of us grounds his “here-and-now” call to sacrificial service in a very different grand narrative about the nature and destiny of the universe, and that is no small matter. There is a big difference between wisely investing the earthly portion of your life to help build the eternal Kingdom of God and wisely spending your precious few years of consciousness expressing your gratitude by paying it forward.

If you’ve heard us preach, then you know that difference generally shows up at the end. Tony finishes his sermons by proclaiming that no matter how bad things may be (”It’s Friday . . .”), Almighty God will surely prevail in the end (”. . . but Sunday’s comin’!”). Bart wraps up his by asserting that humanity’s uncertain future (”The universe is random and without purpose . . .”) only enhances our gloriously im­­prob­­able opportunity in the meantime (”. . . but we can manu­fac­­ture meaning in our relation­ships”).

What both of us instinctively grasp, however, is that it is only when we connect our own little stories to that overarching grand narrative that we most truly believe that people like us are inspired to reach our full potential. And so we preach on.

It may well be that one day, some day, Bart will see this heavenly vision realised and understand for all time that he was utterly mistaken about where it came from. Or perhaps, if Bart is right, Tony will close his eyes in the end and never discover that this mortal life was the only one he had in which to pursue it. In the end, undeniably, each of us believes the other is missing out on something infinitely valuable by persisting in his foolishness.

What neither of us believes, however, is that the other is a fool. While we come to it differently, each of us always reaches the same conclusion about this life: love is the most excellent way. Moreover, each of us is both sure and content that the other has found that way. For now, at least, that is enough.


This is an edited extract from Why I Left, Why I Stayed by Tony Campolo and Bart Campolo, published by HarperCollins at £16.99 (CT Book­shop £15.29); 978-0-062-41537-0.

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