Sunday, November 26, 2023

Bishop Carlton Pearson (1953-2023) & Cosmic Christian Universalism


Those “NPR moments” are probably right up there with yoga & pumpkin spice as an ultimate sensitive-progressive-white- person cliche, but this was one. 

I actually remember the day well, around the winter holidays, almost 20 years ago. We were on a long drive with my parents, coming back from Georgia to Tennessee, if I remember correctly.Though I am not a huge “This American Life” listener, we were that day, as we stumbled quite accidentally on the “Heretics” episode, featuring former Christian superstar, the  Bishop Carlton Pearson, & I was moved to my core & quite beyond myself. 

Pearson’s “heresy” was simple: there is no hell. This “revelation” cost him cash, status, real estate, & reputation, but he held onto more humanist, more loving, more flexible, & more radical theologies right until his death from cancer, at the age of 70, on November 19, 2023.

Pearson’s profoundly compassionate yet provocative “Gospel of Inclusion,” coming from a black, then-conservative, evangelical, Pentecostal place in the red-dirt heartland reverberated across the culture & foreshadowed the contemporary spread of Christian universalism among white mainliners & even some evangelicals, marked later by such books as “Love Wins” by Rob Bell & “That All Shall Be Saved” by David Bentley Hart.

The now well-known public-radio episode spawned a huge response & even a Netflix movie called “Come Sunday,” several years later. At the time I heard the episode, I felt profoundly tugged back toward the Jesus I knew as a child & teenager. At the time that I heard the episode, I was a 30-something neopagan, even heathen, but also struggling with yet-to-be self-diagnosed addictions & alcoholism. 

Now I want to say I don’t observe anything objectively wrong with being a heathen or a pagan or even with drinking or drugs per se (or abstinent or Buddhist for that matter), but for me at that time, the maniacally medicinal path wasn’t working. In my case, I was on a hedonistic trajectory for personal trauma & the reported rock-bottom of so many addicts’ journeys.

An attractive, subversively merciful, nonviolent Jesus who spoke in Zen-like riddles & metaphors drew me like a magnet. Someone with the honesty, backstory, & charismatic fire of a Carlton Pearson only pulled me in more. Around the same time I first heard this episode, I was also enchanted with the lyrics on U2’s 2004 album “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb,” lyrics that implied religious universalism, lyrics like, “blessings not just for the ones who kneel.” There’d be a few years between first hearing that episode (or that album) & my full-blown reclamation of my baptismal vows, but teachers who taught with such uninhibited & truly unconditional love really called to me. 

Among some circles of the religious, without the possibility of punishment, religion or even morality have no point. The logic goes that such a radical, loving, non-coercive Christ who wields no carrot-&-stick threats of torture can’t sell tithes or fill the pews. We’d all be raving rapists, murdering maniacs, & lusty losers, the argument proceeds, without a God whose plan for eternal infernos of incarceration eclipses any cosmic correlation for sweet salvation. Who needs generosity & goodness without cosmic cops to coercively chain-up the bad? Sadly, it’s often people who promote that human beings are irredeemably depraved who choose such despicable descriptions of the divine! 

Contrary to this cheap doctrine with its devil-fetishes & divine fascism, the mystic & revolutionary Jesus story is still truly strange & scandalous, no matter how familiar some of its traditions & trappings might be. Since my deconstruction journey began in 2020 (after serving as a pastor in the PCUSA denomination!), I have bounced around between different churches & different ideas about my own doctrines or theologies. I have had profound existential moments of the “eff-its,” which reminded me of my drug-addled departure from the church when I was 20-years old. I have also had fiery, Holy-spirit moments that have soothed my sore heart & sought me with infinite compassion. 

The last few years, my cravings to “come home” are triggered by the changing seasons & the start of a new Christian year, which on the calendar begins in Advent, late November or early December. Frequently, I am knocked over by certain events or even a series of events or by certain mystical experiences, sometimes triggered by intentional spiritual practices. Sometimes simply listening to an album on my headphones while walking will knock me out & turn me around. An understanding of universalism with its infinite mercy & endless forgiveness, this fits for a season of recursive & repeated deconstruction & reconstruction. 

It was at the conclusion of just such a recent walk, when I learned about the passing of Carlton Pearson. It hit me with such a gust of wind, such a punch to the guts, such an aching appreciation of everything Bishop Pearson did & said & with profound pull to the bosom of our brother Jesus, the cosmic & universal Christ.

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