One thing I recall with a mixture of confusion and sadness from my fundamentalist days is the endless witch hunt for "false teachers." To explain: among ultra-conservative Christians doctrinal correctness is an obsession. Visit an average religious bookstore and you'll quickly notice a plethora of books raging against the latest "deception" to threaten the church.
In recent years prominent Evangelicals have railed against ministers such as Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis, who question the policies of the Religious Right. They have condemned those who seek to find a place in the church for gays and lesbians. Some of the witch hunters even battle among themselves, Calvinist vs. Arminian, Charismatic vs. Cessationist, Post-Tribber vs. Pre-Tribber.
However, some of their most caustic attacks have been launched against those who question their concept of God. I'm not talking here about thinkers on the far left such as Jonathan Spong who openly reject historic doctrines like the Trinity or the deity of Christ. I'm referring to a growing body of moderate pastors and theologians who question the degree to which the Almighty stands apart from the world as an omnipotent and all-controlling monarch.
For centuries Christian theology students have been taught doctrines about God that emphasize His sovereignty, power and unchangeableness. Influenced heavily by the writings of Aristotle and Plato, this notion of the Deity paints Him as in absolute
control of earthly events. In addition He is seen as possessing exhaustive knowledge of the future, including what humans will do before they do it. Further God is described as being absolutely complete in Himself, so much so that He in no way needs His creatures' fellowship or love.
If this God sounds odd to you then you're not alone. Numerous passages in both Old and New Testament describe a Divine Person who is deeply affected by his children's thoughts and actions. He is angered and saddened when they sin, and delighted when they change their ways and seek his face. He alters his plans when asked to do so by Moses or other prophets. On occasion he is even surprised by things that humans do.
It's interesting to watch Bible college and seminary professors from conservative schools dance their way around these passages. Ask them how the Bible should be understood and they will lecture you on the vital importance of literal interpretation. But confront with a God who doesn't match their ideal of a stern, impassive control freak and they use every trick in the book to explain such an unmanly deity away.
I write all of this to prepare you for a letter written by a nice fellow named Bart Campolo. He is the son of Tony Campolo, who is a professor at Eastern College and an early pioneer in the Progressive Christian movement. A self-professed Evangelical, the senior Campolo holds fast to orthodox views of God, Christ, the Bible, etc. while also espousing left of center politicial and social views. He is the author of many, many books, including a personal favorite, "Twenty Hot Potatoes Christians are Afraid to Touch," as well as the critically acclaimed "Red Letter Christians." While I don't agree with everything he says, I have profound respect for the man, who is as sincere and loving a follower of Christ as has ever walked the planet.
Bart, his progeny, is a great guy in his own right, and the pastor of a small church in Cincinatti, called Walnut Hills Fellowship, that ministers to residents of the inner city. The younger Campolo labors tirelessly among the poor, the destitute and the forgotten, showing them God's love in word and deed.
A few years ago he received a letter from a young lady named Sarah. She wrote to him about a nine year old girl who was gang raped, and consequently now hated God for letting that happen to her. Sarah asked Bart how he reconciled his belief in a good God with such horrible tragedies.
Wanting to provide an honest response, Campolo searched his soul, questioning everything he had been taught about Jesus and the Gospel. His internal struggle led to his writing the following letter, a reply to Sarah's:
Thank you for writing to me. Over the past few years, I have become convinced that yours is actually the single most important question in the world. As Rabbi Harold Kushner observes, “Virtually every meaningful conversation I’ve had with
people about God has either started with that question or gotten around to it before long.”
While I am sure my answer will not be as eloquent as his, I will do my best.
First of all, while I certainly believe my most cherished ideas about God are supported by the Bible (what Christian says otherwise?), I must admit they did not originate there. On the contrary, most of these ideas were formed during that difficult time I described to you, when I was suddenly disillusioned by the suffering and injustice I discovered in the inner-city, and did not trust the Bible at all.
At that point, for the first time, I realized that a person’s life does not depend on whether he or she believes in God, but rather on what kind of God he or she believes in. I also realized, for better or worse, that the only evidence I was could rely on was that which I saw for myself.
What I saw then, and still see now, is a world filled with dazzling goodness and horrific evil, with love and hate, with beauty and ugliness, with life and death. In the face of such clear duality, it seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that there are but a handful of spiritual possibilities:
1.) There are no spiritual forces. The material universe is all. Our lives bear no larger meaning, and those who hope for more hope in vain. In this case, considering that 9-year old rape victim, I despair.
2.) There is only one spiritual force at work in the universe, encompassing both good and evil. This world is precisely as this force wills it to be, and everything—including the rapes of children—happens according to its plan. In this case, again, I despair.
3.) There are two diametrically opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. Satan (or whatever one chooses to call that evil force) is most powerful and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl is but a foretaste of the complete suffering that is to come for us all. In this case, of course, I despair.
4.) There are two opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. God (or whatever one chooses to call that good and loving force) is most powerful, and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl - Satan’s doing - will somehow be redeemed and she herself will be healed as part of the complete redemption and absolute healing that is to come for all of us. In this case—and in this case alone—I rejoice, and gladly pledge my allegiance to this good and loving God.
I cannot prove or disprove any of these possibilities, of course, based on the evidence of my experience. What I know with certainty, however, is the one that makes me want to go on living, the one I choose for my own sake, the one I deem worthy of my allegiance. I may be wrong in this matter, but I am not in doubt. If indeed faith is being sure of what we hope for, then truly I am a man of faith, for I absolutely know what I hope to be true: That God is completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving, that God is doing all that He can to overcome evil (which is evidently a long and difficult task), and that God will utterly triumph in the end, despite any and all indications to the contrary.
This is my first article of faith. I required no Bible to determine it, and—honestly—I will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that suggests otherwise.
This first article of faith was the starting point of my journey back to Jesus, and it remains the foundation of my faith. I came to trust the Bible again, of course, but only because it so clearly bears witness to the God of love I had already chosen to believe in. I especially follow the teachings of Jesus because those teachings—and his life, death, and resurrection—seem to me the best expression of the ultimate truth of God, which we Christians call grace. Indeed, these days I trust Jesus even when I don’t understand him, because I have become so convinced that He knows what He is talking about, that He is who he is talking about, and that He alone fully grasps that which I can only hope is true.
Unfortunately for me, God may be very different than I hope, in which case I may be in big trouble come Judgment Day. Perhaps, as many believe, the truth is that God created and predestined some people for salvation and others for damnation, according to His will. Perhaps such caprice only seems unloving to us because we don’t understand. Perhaps, as many believe, everyone who dies without confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior goes to Hell to suffer forever.
Most important of all, perhaps God’s sovereignty is such that, although He could indeed prevent little girls from being raped, He is no less just or merciful when He doesn’t, and both those children and we who love them should uncritically give Him our thanks and praise in any case.
My response is simple: I refuse to believe any of that. For me to do otherwise would be to despair.
Some might say I would be wise to swallow my misgivings about such stuff, remain orthodox, and thereby secure my place with God in eternity. But that is precisely my point: If those things are true, God can give my place in Heaven to someone else, and go ahead and send me to Hell.
For better or worse, I am simply not interested in any God but a completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving One who is powerful enough to utterly triumph over evil. Such a God may not exist, but I will die seeking Him, and I will pledge my allegiance to no other possibility, because, quite frankly, anything less is not enough to give me hope, to keep me alive, to be worth the trouble of believing.
You can figure out the rest. I don’t hate God because I don’t believe God is fully in control of this world yet. Heck, God is not fully in control of me yet, even when I want Him to be, so how could I possibly believe that God is making it all happen out there in the street? I don’t hate God because I believe He is always doing the best He can, within the limits of human freedom, which even He cannot escape.
On that last point, consider for a moment the essential relationship between human freedom and love, and then consider the essential identity between love and God. If God is love, if He made us for love in His image, then He had no choice but to make us free, to leave us free, and to win us for His Kingdom as free agents (which, evidently, is a long and difficult task). So He did, and so He will.
I don’t hate God because, although I suppose He knows everything that can be known at any given point in time, I don’t suppose He knows or controls everything that is going to happen. I also don’t hate God because I really believe in Satan (and also in my own, moving-in-the-right-direction-but-still-pretty-doggoned-sinful nature).
I don’t hate God because it seems to me that this world is a battleground between good and evil, not a puppet show with just one person pulling all the strings. I don’t hate God because the God I have chosen to believe in isn’t hateable, and because I refuse to believe in the kind of God that is.
Now here is the good news: I may be entirely wrong, but even in my darkest hours, my God of love hasn’t stopped speaking to me. On the contrary, I hear His voice in places I never did before, always saying the same things, one way or another: I am with you. I’m sorry about all the pain. It hurts me too, especially when my little ones suffer. I have always loved you and I always will. Do the best you can, but don’t worry. Everything will be all right in the end. Trust me.
And I do. And I hope you will too, sooner than later.
The above letter was published in a Christian youth magazine. Many of those who read it were touched by Campolo's sincerity and thoughtfulness. They noted how his words paralleled those of the Psalms that deal with the problem of believing in a loving God while living in a world of sorrow.
Not all were so charitable. Word of the piece reached self-appointed witch hunters, who bombarded the publication's editor with demands that it be removed from the organization's web site. They also commented at length on their own web sites about Campolo's letter. The following is a brief quote from one:
I don’t often link to “bad theology” articles in order to bash them, but I’m making an exception here. It is rare for a writer to be this honest about the functional sovereignty of his own mind in determining the object of his worship. In other words, Bart Campolo is an idolater of the first-order.
That is tame compared to remarks penned by other Guardians of the Truth, who openly called Tony and Bart a "father and son team of heretics" and called on them to repent of their false teachings. One site even said that the elder Campolo was a Marxist, due to his not towing the Religious Right's hard-core political line.
Somewhere in all of this they forgot that behind that letter was a man who was trying to make sense of the despair and tragedy he faces in his efforts to bring the message of Christ to the lost and dying. They claimed that their attacks on him were compelled by their love for Jesus. But given their approach that seems unlikely.
No, scratch underneath the paper-thin surface of their self-righteous fury and the truth emerges. Bart Campolo's real sin in his critic's eye was in thinking for himself. He dared to question the patristic, domineering, hyper-masculine God that his detractors created in their own image.
In doing so he challenged their power over their followers. They reacted as reactionaries and despots have throughout the centuries, with pompous insults and baseless accusations.
In observing their behavior I have drawn the conclusion that it is not the heretics we need to fear so much as those who call other people heretics. This doesn't mean that people with differing views should not defend their own beliefs and challenge those of others; far from it. But when a good man is slandered and his work censored, then it is time to call foul on the witch hunters.
I would also submit that Campolo is absolutely correct in saying that it matters what God one believes in. His opponents have dispensed with the God of the Bible. In his place they have substituted a cruel, capricious deity that possesses their own qualities. But I had better stop there, before I engage in the same sort of demagoguery I have criticized them for.
If you would like to know more about Bart Campolo and the work his church is doing, I refer you to their website: www.thewalnuthillsfellowship.org.
And if you want to learn more about the God he - and I - believe in, then I highly recommend the book "God of the Possible: a Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God" by Gregory Boyd, available at Amazon and other book sellers. Peace.