Thursday, December 11, 2008

His Karma Ran Over His Dogma

Via Amanda at Pandagon, I found this wonderful episode of This American Life. I sat and listened to the whole thing, and I really enjoyed it.

It's the story of Carlton Pearson, a man who grew up in the evangelical tradition. He was a protege of Oral Roberts, who sometimes referred to Pearson as his "black son." Pearson was a well-known and influential fire-and-brimstone preacher. He was the head minister of a Tulsa church with two thousand members and eight ministers. Until, one day, Pearson decided that there was no hell.

It seems to have come to him gradually and then suddenly. He thought about what he had been taught -- what he had been teaching -- and realized that it didn't make a whole lot of sense. God is a loving parent, who roasts people in hell for all eternity if they don't toe the line. As Pearson now says, Hitler only killed six million. He didn't torture them forever. Is God worse than Hitler?

Pearson decided no. He didn't (as Amanda suggests) lose his faith in God or in Jesus. Rather, he decided that God's grace -- and Jesus's sacrifice of atonement -- extends to all people, even the ones who don't happen to believe the same thing as Carlton Pearson. It extends to Jews, Muslims, atheists, gays...everyone. Pearson started preaching that the reason to be a good person isn't for fear of hell, but for the love of your fellow human beings.

Two stories that Pearson tells stuck with me. The first is a parable, really. He tells the story of a kind Buddhist. A man who lived a simple life, loved his neighbors, tended his sheep, and never did anyone harm. One day, the man went for a walk, slipped off the path, and fell to his death. Who was there to catch him? The old Carlton Pearson would have said the Devil. The man wasn't a Christian, after all. The new Carlton Pearson is convinced that it is Jesus. This Buddhist's life is every bit as precious to God as Oral Robert's life is.

The second story is one that really happened. Pearson -- the new Pearson -- was visiting a church that was much more liberal than any church in his upbringing. I think it's safe to say that the old Pearson never would have set foot in this place. He tells a vividly detailed story of watching a man dance for joy. He later came to hear this man's story. He is gay and HIV positive, and his fundamentalist family had disowned him. He was dancing for joy because he had found a new family, in this church that accepted him for who he was. It struck me that Pearson had found out something wonderful -- that loving someone for who they are just feels a lot better than hating them. Moral superiority just isn't as rewarding as empathy.

Needless to say, all this went over poorly with Pearson's former associates. His church membership dropped from the thousands to a couple of hundred. His associate ministers resigned en masse. He went through financial and spiritual hard times, but never stopped believing that he was right. And I understand that things are looking up. He has a new ministry, with a new sort of congregation. He's still an engaging and charismatic preacher, but now he's teaching love instead of judgment, and acceptance instead of exclusion.

I truly believe that Carlton Pearson has heard the voice of God. It's clear to me that his current teachings are much more in line with Jesus's message than his old teachings. I wish him the best of luck.