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Taking the reins

Carlton Pearson, paradigm shifter

I heard a really powerful hour of radio programming this weekend: the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson, an evangelical Pentecostal preacher (Reverend Oral Roberts, his mentor, famously considered him "[his] Black son") who underwent the radical shift from preaching a theology of hellfire (that most of humanity is damned to eternal hell, and only those who accept Jesus as their personal savior can be saved) to preaching what he calls the "doctrine of inclusion," a theology which holds that we are all already "saved" whether we know it or not and that hell is what we, here on earth, do to one another.

The radio show was This American Life, the episode was #304 ("Heretics,") and the creators of the show spent the entire hour on the story of Pearson's rise, fall, and new life as a preacher of universalism. It can be heard here (stream it for free using RealAudio, or purchase it as an audio download for $13). Go and listen: it's a beautiful piece of storytelling, and it moved me profoundly. Bishop Pearson is a paradigm-shifter, and in that he reminds me of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the zaide (grandfather) of Jewish Renewal.

Reb Zalman was ordained a rabbi in 1947 within the context of Chabad Lubavitch. Like the Pentecostal church in which Bishop Pearson was ordained, Chabad is characterized by charismatic leadership, joyful and impassioned worship, and an aim of bringing about the coming of the messiah. Some might see a similarity between Chabad's efforts to ramp up Jewish observance and evangelical Christianity's efforts to ramp up Christian belief (though Chabad only urges fellow Jews to join them; standard Pentecostal theology requires witnessing to all). The first part of Reb Zalman's rabbinate was happily spent within Chabad. But at some point, he had an awakening, and he left the fold.

In an interview published in Paradigm Shift, his interviewer asks what made him leave the Lubavitcher community. "That's a long story," Reb Zalman replies. "But one of the things was that doubt was not permitted." He left Chabad, and began to interact with and learn from the wider religious world. Today he teaches that no tradition has an exclusive franchise on the truth, and that every religion is a valuable organ in the body of humanity. (I've blogged about Reb Zalman before: here's my account of a week I spent learning from him, and I reviewed his most recent book here.)

I see strong parallels between Reb Zalman's story and Bishop Pearson's. Each of them was ordained in an intensive, immersive branch of his respective tradition; each underwent a profound change in theology which broadened his worldview; each has been accused of heresy by some traditionalist fictures (On Doctrine, among others, calls Pearson's teaching a dangerous heresy; Reb Zalman's text "Renewal is Judaism NOW," available here, used to be called "Renewal is Not Heresy," in response to that charge); and each has been a source of profound inspiration and hope for many.

And each can be a bridge figure. Reb Zalman enlivens liberal Judaism with the joy and passion of Hasidic worship, and reconnects us with our more traditional cousins. And because of his Hasidic roots, he may be able to share his openness to other traditions, his universalism, with the Hasidic world in a way that liberal Jews cannot. Just so, Bishop Pearson -- still pastor of Higher Dimensions church, though they are housed now in an Episcopal building -- can enliven the liberal Christian world with the passion and song of Pentecostal worship. And because of his evangelical roots, he may be able to bring his theology of inclusion to people who wouldn't be comfortable hearing it from, say, Chuck Currie or Father Jake or me.

God is Not a Christian! is Bishop Pearson's position paper on the doctrine of inclusion (now being expanded into a book which will bear the same title). There are powerful teachings here. For example:

When you make religion your God, you lose the God and often the good of the religion. Many Christians have made the religion itself pre-eminent to Christ. They defend the religion, while ignoring or perhaps never experiencing the relationship...

My desire is to know God totally rather than selectively. I'm even willing to suspend what I think I already know about God, in order to know Him in a way I have never imagined.

Replace the sentence about Christians with one about Jews ("Many Jews have made the religion itself pre-eminent to the God with whom it is meant to allow us to relate") and that could have been written by one of my teachers. Of course, there are also portions of Bishop Pearson's text which may be uncomfortable for Jewish readers. Like these paragraphs, which made me laugh but which also reminded me of where his theology and mine necessarily differ:

In a practical sense, would God send His son to buy our salvation and then make it contingent on whether or not the missionary could hear and obey the call, raise enough support to get a ticket to the foreign land in time to reach the lost heathen dying of some dread disease?

Why would Jesus pay the awful and awesome price to save the world and then trust its reality or its realization exclusively to a group of western Evangelicals, who for the most part can't even agree on the simple subject of water baptism or how and when to take communion, let alone with whom to take it?

Bishop Pearson's theology holds that we are all saved through Jesus' ultimate sacrifice, whether we are Christians or not. This assertion may push some Jewish buttons. But even so, I hope we won't let that discomfort blind us to the wonder of his theological transformation, nor to the places where his words and our beliefs do resonate. He uses a different metaphor than we do, but I think in the end we are talking about the same thing -- the truth that we are all beloved creations of God, and the path of God is open to all of us. Indeed, we're already "there," whether we know it or not.

Bishop Pearson's journey amazes me, and it brings me hope. We need more teachers like him, and like Reb Zalman. May we who learn from them continue to grow in wisdom, openness, and compassion, in accordance with their example.

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