“A Thought-Provoking Book” series (post #2)
We’ve begun a series of posts on the book, Why I Left, Why I Stayed. The book is coauthored by the father-son team of Tony and Bart Campolo and explores the reasons why Bart Campolo chose to abandon Christianity and turn atheist while his father, Tony, still clings to it. In my previous post, I provided some of the highlights of Bart’s opening chapter, which is entitled “How I Left.“
I don’t mind admitting that if either of my two sons had written that chapter my response would have been different from Tony’s in his followup chapter, “How I Stay.” My counterpoint chapter would probably have focused on why my son shouldn’t have left Christianity, or it would have at least offered refutations to the arguments he had used to make his case. Tony Campolo, on the other hand, lets Bart’s arguments stand as written while he explains why he himself chooses to continue in Christianity. My guess is that he does this out of love and respect for his son.
Tony retraces his life, citing various experiences, to show how his Christianity involves more than just a doctrinal textbook and a set of rules. To him, Christianity is a relationship rather than a religion. One of his quotes is:
I’m still a fairly good Christian apologist, but at the end of the day, I have to admit that the primary foundation of my faith is not what I know, but rather what I feel.
Along the same lines, he offers this paragraph:
I can’t remember when I did not accept the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, but before I met Burt and Tom (two members of a youth group Tony was a part of in high school), those doctrines were simply historical facts to me, not life-changing experiences. So then, while I cannot pinpoint exactly what an old hymn calls “the hour I first believed,” I know it was during high school that I gradually came to realize my soul was hungry for something more than just salvation, and by the time I enrolled at Eastern Baptist College, the inner presence of Jesus had become for me an everyday conscious reality.
You see, what Tony is describing there is something that can’t be quantified. It’s intangible and untouchable. It’s something that can’t be reduced to an equation or a formula. You don’t get it from reading a prescribed list of Bible passages, hearing an evangelistic sermon, or praying a canned “prayer of salvation.”
He describes it correctly as the inner presence of Jesus because that’s exactly what it is. It is God the Holy Spirit, whom the Bible calls “the Spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9), literally dwelling inside one’s body. Furthermore, the indwelling Spirit performs various ministries inside the person. For example, He revives the person spiritually so that he or she can rightly worship God. He empowers the person by giving him or her at least one spiritual gift, that gift being a skill to use in service to Christ. He takes over the person’s conscience and turns human guilt into divine conviction. He provides direction, guidance, and instruction, and makes the words of the Bible come alive to the person.
But the problem we Christians face anytime we start talking about what’s going on inside us is that atheists won’t consider any argument that smacks of emotion. They want facts, not feelings. They want science, not scripture. They want the visible, not the invisible. They want God’s existence proven in the ugly here-and-now, not in the sweet-by-a-by.
I once heard the famed preacher, Adrian Rogers, say, “A Christian with a glowing testimony is never at the mercy of a pagan with an argument.” While I understand that line of thinking, atheists in this age of “the new atheism” really don’t care about a Christian’s emotions, feelings, or experiences. They want cold, hard evidences they can judge with their eyes and approve with their minds.
In the latter half of the Campolos’ book, Tony devotes an entire chapter to the idea that transcendent experiences can be classified as evidences that God exists. He entitles the chapter “Not From Nowhere: Why Transcendent Experiences Point To God.” Here he treads much of the same ground he treads in the chapter “How I Stay.” He writes:
I often wish that everyone could spend a few hours a week in a really good Pentecostal worship service. In such churches, the power and presence of the Holy Spirit seem more tangible, which is very important. Being a Christian is much more than affirming doctrine, after all, as important as that may be. True discipleship is ultimately about having a personal encounter with the living Jesus, and mystically (his emphasis) sensing His presence.
Unfortunately for Tony, one of Bart’s best chapters is the one he offers to refute the idea that transcendent experiences prove God’s existence. As Bart shrewdly points out, humans enjoy transcendent experiences all the time that have nothing to do with any kind of god. He writes:
If you don’t believe in human experiences of transcendence, I say with a sly smile, then clearly you haven’t attended the right rock concerts, or used the right drugs, or made love with the right partner, or been crowded into the right football stadium when the home team scores its winning touchdown on the last play of the game. Otherwise, you would know that we human beings aren’t just susceptible to being overwhelmed by feelings of deep connection or oneness with other people, with nature, or with the universe itself, we are positively hardwired to crave and enjoy those feelings.
A couple of pages later, he takes things even further by explaining that roller coasters and scary movies are specifically designed to manipulate people’s experiences. Then he confesses that he himself used to use jokes, stories, and body language to do the same thing from the pulpit. He says:
Many preachers ascribe that power to the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t stop us from carefully taking into account what we wear, the layout and temperature of the room, what kind of music is played before and after we speak, and a hundred other environmental factors that can influence our audience’s receptivity to what we have to say.
I’ve got to admit that he nailed me — and every preacher I know — with those words. As I said, his entire refutation to his dad’s assertion that transcendent experiences evidence God was strong. It got me to thinking about how certain concerts, movies, and ballgames have taken me to the emotional heights of human existence, heights I must confess I rarely reach while praying, reading the Bible, or attending church. Basically, I have to wonder how many times a “move of God” in our churches is, in reality, nothing more than the emotions of church members being well played by a pastor or a worship leader.
Now, as I begin to close this post, let me offer what I think is a solid comeback to Bart’s opening chapter, the chapter in which he describes the lack of “real life” evidence for a supernatural God who works miracles. Bart and his fellow atheists need to be reminded that even the miracles in the Bible are few and far between in terms of the totality of human history. Genuine miracles aren’t just rare today; they’ve always been rare except for a handful of eras in history.
First, God performed a cluster of miracles to give us creation and the human race. That’s Genesis chapters 1 and 2. Second, He performed another cluster over 2,000 years later in leading the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage and into a settling of the land called Canaan. Third, His next cluster took place more than 500 years later during the days of the prophets Elijah and Elisha.
Truth be told, these three clusters catch most of the Old Testament era, even though there are some other miracles such as God opening the barren wombs of certain mothers or providing certain healings. You see, approximately 4,000 years of Old Testament history teach us that God proving His existence by way of supernatural miracles is exceedingly rare. Frankly, if we live our entire lives and never see Him do it, we shouldn’t be surprised at all.
Someone says, “But what about all the miracles in the New Testament?” Well, here again the miracles occur in clusters, two primary ones. First, Jesus performed hundreds of miracles during the three-and-a-half years of His earthly ministry. Even at that prolific rate, though, He didn’t heal everybody in the entire land of Israel. Second, Jesus’ apostles performed many miracles in the early days of the church. Some of these miracles are documented in the book of Acts. Even in Acts, though, the apostles’ miracle-working power wanes over the decades of the book. Interestingly, in 2 Timothy, which is the last epistle the apostle Paul wrote, even Paul concedes that he had to leave a friend of his, Trophimus, sick in Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20).
Rather than God performing a miracle on every page and in every story of the Bible, the Bible makes no pretense that this world is an easy place in which to live. God didn’t perform a miracle to save Abel from Cain. He didn’t perform a miracle to keep Joseph’s brothers from selling Joseph into slavery. He didn’t perform a miracle to keep the Midianites and the Amalekites from stealing Gideon’s harvests every year. He didn’t perform a miracle to keep the Philistines from gouging out Samson’s eyes. He didn’t perform a miracle to keep Israel’s northern kingdom from being conquered by the Assyrians. He didn’t perform a miracle to keep Israel’s southern kingdom from being conquered by the Babylonians. He didn’t perform a miracle to save those babies that Herod the Great murdered in his efforts to kill baby Jesus. He didn’t perform a miracle to keep Herod Antipas from beheading John the Baptist. He didn’t perform a miracle to keep the Jewish Sanhedrin council from stoning Stephen to death. He didn’t perform a miracle to keep Herod Agrippa I from making a martyr of James the apostle. He didn’t perform a miracle to keep the Romans from banishing the apostle John to the island of Patmos. On and on I could go.
So, in light of all this, if you have to experience frequent manifestations of God’s supernatural power in your circumstances before you will give Him credit for existing, all I can say is get comfortable in your atheism. For that matter, if you have to see just ONE manifestation of God’s supernatural power in your circumstances, you’re on ice so thin it shouldn’t even be called ice. Speaking for myself, I’m 51 years old and I’ve never seen God work in my life in such a way that a skeptic couldn’t provide a reasonable explanation without bringing God into the explanation. And yet I do believe in God’s existence. Join me for my next post as I address another one of Bart Campolo’s chapters and in so doing keep exploring what has been dubbed “the new atheism.”