You may recall that back in 2014 Tony Campolo’s son Bart made news because he was serving as a humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. This is news first because Tony is evangelical royalty: a prolific Christian author, public speaker, and preacher. It’s doubly news because his son Bart (who is now in his early 50s) was apparently a Christian minister and speaker much in demand himself. So when it turns out that a long time minister and son of one of the most beloved of Christian leaders in the world is now an atheist (though Bart prefers the term “humanist”), that gets people’s attention.
While I had read an article or two on Bart’s story back in 2014, I had never followed up on it in any depth. So I was intrigued when I discovered that Hemant Mehta had interviewed him on a July 2015 episode of The Friendly Atheist Podcast. Now having listened to the episode, I can say that it was a great discussion. Bart is a very capable speaker (in this case the old adage is true: the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree).
The first thing I appreciated was Bart’s irenicism and positivity. As he noted in the interview, he was invited to provide pastoral care to secular students on USC campus. Bart recounted that there are about 100 student groups devoted to the spiritual needs of various religious communities on campus, but none serving the vast secular student body. When it comes to pastoral care, the typical angry new atheist is a poor fit. Bart, however, retains a great deal of respect for his evangelical background. Indeed, he is happy to describe himself as “religious”, whilst defining the term (quite plausibly, I might add) as consisting of a concern with life’s biggest questions. Consequently, Bart carries none of that asinine “us vs. them” thinking that is so common in the popular skeptical/atheist/humanist movement.
In fact, Bart notes that when a Christian student comes to him wrestling with some matter of faith, if Bart perceives a “small fix” is required, he’ll help that student through the problem, thereby leaving him/her with a stronger Christian faith. This good will gesture is borne of Bart’s perception that Christianity can bring a lot of good in the world, so there is no need to shatter the faith of those who are doing well as Christians.
I also appreciated Bart’s insistence that atheists/secularists/humanists need to become better storytellers. That is, they need to become more adept at presenting their belief system in a winsome manner. Bart knows well that the typical atheist storyteller is terribly bleak. Consider this oft quoted passage from Bertrand Russell’s essay “A Free Man’s Worship”:
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
Atheists like Russell seemed to relish stating their view of life in the starkest, bleakest terms, perhaps to highlight their iron constitutions, willing to face the meaningless of their own existence.
But this doesn’t work well for chaplains who are attempting to comfort people in the face of loss and encourage the grieving, the depressed, and the dissolute that this life really is worth living. It’s also mighty thin gruel for those simply concerned with the question “What ought I to do with my life?”
Enter Bart the humanist chaplain who tells the story differently. His approach is first to emphasize the beauty and goodness of existence itself. If you win the lottery, he says, the proper response isn’t to complain that you didn’t win more. And merely by existing we’ve won a lottery of sorts. To complain that we don’t have more is poor form. Let’s be thankful for the life we do have.
Thus far we have a cup-is-half-full apologetic for the fulfilled humanist life. But Bart also goes on offense by charging that belief in eternal life devalues the life we have now. In short, Bart appears to be appealing to a principle of scarcity value, the principle that the value of a resource is linked to its relative availability/scarcity. Think how the stipulation for a limited time only tends to increase the perceived value of something. All the more so, Bart opines, if that limited time is our seventy or eighty year life spans.
By this reasoning, if human life goes on forever then it is less valuable. In other words, we would value it less. The fact that it is finite and comparatively brief enriches the life we live. So says Bart.
So what should we think of Bart’s claim? Is life to be valued more greatly if it is finite in duration? There are many problems with this claim. But I’ll just note three here.
First, let’s grant for the sake of argument that life is more valuable if it is scarce. So long as this is understood appropriately, I don’t think it presents any problem to the Christian. How so? All we need to do is shift our gaze from life as the sum total collection of lived moments to those lived moments that comprise the set. You see, even if the set is infinite, the moments that constitute that set are finite, and that means unique, irreplaceable, and thereby scarce.
Consider, for example, the moments that constitute aging. At present my daughter is a teenager. Her days as a toddler and small child are lost forever, even set against the backdrop of eternity (though for another possibility see my book What on Earth Do We Know About Heaven?). Her teen years are likewise fleeting and will also soon be gone. The life we have now as a family, the memories we create with one another, with friends, with the community in which we live, are all soon gone. The two years my wife and I spent living in London, England are now long in the past. The years I spent growing up in Kelowna, BC are a receding memory.
But doesn’t it follow that in eternity we will inevitably fall into a rut in which deja vu takes over as we’ve done everything countless times before? Nah. As a remedy for that errant conclusion, I suggest Bart read (or reread) the ending to C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle where the repeated refrain is further up and further in, a never-ending journey of new discovery and growing excitement.
Thus, even if our life continues into eternity, the particular moments that make up that life now are still disappearing. And that grants the individual, finite, irreplaceable moments in a journey that meet Bart’s demand for a scarcity value.
Second, while Bart claims that the finitude of life enriches the value of that life, I would counter that it can also erode the joy of life and with it the value of that life. My claim is well attested. For example, in my article “Life is a concentration camp, so why are you smiling?” I discuss Woody Allen’s interview in the American Masters series in which he describes coming to terms with his own mortality at about the age of five. This realization left Allen with a melancholy streak that has come to define his experience of life. He says,
“And that thought over the years took different forms. As I later got older and always used my concentration camp example of people around me having fun, enjoying themselves, and I want to say to them ‘Don’t you realize you’re going to go up in a smokestack you know, in a short while? So why are you so happy? Doesn’t that thought sort of put a damper on things?
“We all know the same truth and our lives consist in how we choose to distort it.”
It seems to me very plausible to conclude that Allen values his life less because of its absurdist brevity. And countless people — atheists and theists — have shared Allen’s conclusion. Consequently, for many the belief in human finitude leads them to value their life less rather than more.
Finally, let’s consider Bart’s provocative claim that human existence would not be meaningful if it went on forever. Here I must say it is quite disappointing to find somebody who was raised in the church and pastored for thirty years demonstrating such a disappointing lack of imagination regarding life in a reconciled and restored creation. C.S. Lewis once wrote of “an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” While intending no disrespect to Bart, when skeptics opine that an eternity with God in a restored creation would surely get tiresome after awhile, I can’t help but think of that child whose lack of imagination leaves him satisfied with mud pies … and suspicious of beaches.
It should not be surprising that I am unpersuaded by Bart’s account of meaning. At the same time, I do think he is an outstanding communicator who has identified a real weakness in the skeptical/atheist movement. And his humanist brand of atheism is orders of magnitude more winsome than the caustic, condescending, reductionist anti-religious fundamentalism that has been in vogue since the new atheists took the spotlight. Moreover, I admire his desire to attend to the spiritual needs of a large constituency, even if I consider the resources he has to draw upon to be tragically impoverished.
You can find Bart online at http://bartcampolo.org/.