Fathers and sons and the church

ReviewWhy I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversation on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son

By Tony Campolo and Bart Campolo with a foreword by Peggy Campolo

HarperCollins 2017


Review by Bob Lane

We certainly do not need to be reminded that history is filled with so called religious wars. In fact there are long lists available on social media (e.g., here) and, of course, there is an ongoing debate about just what contribution religion makes to our warlike history. William T. Cavanaugh in his Myth of Religious Violence (2009) argues that what is termed “religious wars” is a largely “Western dichotomy” and a modern invention, arguing that all wars that are classed as “religious” have secular (economic or political) ramifications. Similar opinions were expressed as early as the 1760s, during the Seven Years’ War, widely recognized to be “religious” in motivation, noting that the warring factions were not necessarily split along confessional lines as much as along secular interests. However anyone who has served in the military during wartime is aware that the chaplain is used as a motivator for getting the troops to sacrifice their lives for God and country (whichever God or country is at play).

The “war” in this book is between a father and a son, or between evangelical Christianity and secular humanism, and one of its virtues is that no one gets wounded or killed, unlike every other war in history. Instead it exhibits a loving discussion between two relatives displayed in twenty-one chapters and a joint conclusion – with no winner or loser, and with each holding the same beliefs at the end of the book as at the beginning: “what neither of us believes, however, is that the other is a fool. As we said at the beginning, while we come to it differently, each of us always reaches the same conclusion about this life: Love is the most excellent way.”

In those chapters we learn of how the son, Bart, is “deconverted” from the evangelical Christian belief system to secular humanism. And how the father, Tony, remains steadfast in his faith. What is not in these chapters, however, is any real philosophical discussion of truth or evidence. Each seems to feel a certain way about the world and the world of the spirits and gods. Although there is mention of Truth, especially by Tony, there is a lack of a discussion of what truth is. “Truth” like so many other terms, is not clear and unambiguous because we use the term in many different ways: there’s capital T Truth and there is small t truth.

Capital T truth often finds its home in certain kinds of texts, most often those called scripture by those who are insiders in a particular group. Religious Truths, political Truths, are the sorts of claims I have in mind. They are proclamations, articles of faith, rules of the game.

  • The free market is the only way to economic nirvana.
  • God is love.
  • God is peace.
  • Three strikes and you are out.
  • There are three downs in real football.
  • On Easter Christ rose from the dead.

Small t truth is quite different. It never parades as fixed and eternal, but is more modest. It is quite clear about its function in a sentence and disappears as soon as possible once its job is done.

  • It is true that there are 4 beer in the refrigerator.
  • “It is raining” is true if and only if it is raining.
  • Evolution is true.
  • Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.
  • It is true that the NFL and the CFL have different rules.

Notice the first set is made up of proclamations. These capital T statements are constitutive rules of the language game they establish. They really are not true or false, but are just True by definition of the game. Notice the absurdity of a baseball player trying to argue with the umpire that he should be allowed four strikes. Or a Christian who doesn’t believe in the resurrection. Small case true is a relational term – it claims a relationship between a statement and a state of affairs.

Capital T TRUTH is always delivered with certainty. Small case truth is more modest. It attempts to say what is, but can be emended if someone has drunk some of the beer.

Certainty tells us about the speaker’s state of mind and not about a state of affairs. Certainty is demonic.

Mark Twain gets it right: We are always hearing of people who are around seeking after the Truth. I have never seen a (permanent) specimen. I think he has never lived. But I have seen several entirely sincere people who thought they were (permanent) Seekers after the Truth. They sought diligently, persistently, carefully, cautiously, profoundly, with perfect honesty and nicely adjusted judgment- until they believed that without doubt or question they had found the Truth. That was the end of the search. The man spent the rest of his life hunting up shingles wherewith to protect his Truth from the weather.

Tony is certain in his faith. Christianity is True. Bart has read the Old Testament and the New Testament carefully and has noticed the problems therein. He no longer believes in True. He cannot commit to the faith required to continue in the “congregation of believers” but does not want to give up on the community of humans who are helped by those humanists and others who believe in helping others. And just as importantly he does not want to destroy anyone for his or her beliefs. Reason is trumped by love in this relationship. Tony tells us that the Gospel “has been set forth impossible to understand in purely rational terms on purpose” as an explanation for the inconsistencies that Bart has discovered. Bart, at one point in the conversation, tells us that “none of us really chooses what we believe” and later that “faith is a choice.”

At every time in our violent history, we humans could benefit from more love, more concern for others, more ways of getting along. But instead we continue to talk of “fire and fury” and remain in a constant state of “lock and load”. This book offers some notion of what that love might be like.



Bob Lane is an emeritus professor of philosophy and religious studies at Vancouver Island University.

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