Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book Review: The Gospel of Inclusion

I first heard about Bishop Carlton Pearson on a This American Life segment entitled "Heretics." Within this segment, Pearson, a former Pentecostal Bishop, recounted his moving experience of coming to the "heretical" (to Pentecostals anyway) conclusions that (a) Hell does not exist and (b) all people are saved, even those who are not Christians. After coming to these conclusions, which he believes were revelations from god, the Pentecostal community branded his beliefs heretical.

That is what his book, The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God and Self, is about.

1) The Gospel of Inclusion

In a nutshell, Pearson's Gospel of Inclusion is essentially that all of humanity is already saved because when Jesus died on the cross, he "achieved what He set out to achieve: total salvation" (5). Thus, the purpose of ministry "is to awaken people to the extraordinary love and hope of that truth- to become not necessarily Christian but Christ-like in bringing humankind together as one in spiritual consciousness" (Ibid.).

Why does Pearson want to spread this message? Well, first note the distinction he makes between becoming a Christian versus becoming Christ-like. The latter, becoming Christ-like- is much more important than the former. Many non-Christians are well aware of the fact that being a Christian is no guarantee that a person is Christ-like, and not being a Christian is no guarantee that a person is not.

In fact, Pearson finds that "a pompous, poisonous, subculture" flourishes in modern organized religion (17). It is "an insult to Divinity and humankind" (18). It has "become an armed front with two factions facing off: 'we,' the true believers, and 'they,' everyone else (who are all obviously bound for hell. This lends 'we' a sense of superiority, but also populates the world with enemies and casts believers as self-appointed soldiers in the army of the Lord" (18-19).

As someone who tends to hold Ghandi's view of the state of modern Christianity ("I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ."), both the Gospel of Inclusion and Pearson's critique of modern Christianity are highly resonating. I am sure many non-Christians would agree. It is divisive, insulting (to god and to humanity), and arrogant for Christians to regularly inform other humans that the only way not to burn in "Hell" for all of eternity is to believe exactly as they believe about Jesus.

And, at this point, I have to give Pearson enormous credit for his moral courage in preaching his Gospel of Inclusion. In general, within Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, the Bible is thought to be the inerrant, literal word of god and, as such, the devout are discouraged from doubting certain interpretations of that word. Beginning to question certain Biblical Truths is thought to mean that one's personal relationship with god is faltering. Oftentimes, questioning one facet of the Official Truth will knock the entire house of cards down. Pearson grew up in and was a rather successful bishop within this setting.

Christians expect those outside of the Christian community to criticize and question their faith. Yet when people who are or were respected insiders do the same, I think their words can be a bit more meaningful. The "attacks" are coming not from the so-called hostile, secular world, but from one of their own. And indeed, Pearson makes many cogent points about the petty, vengeful, all-too-human "God" that some Christian sects offer us and about the failings of the religion that is built around Christ.

And, Pearson has much to criticize with respect to the current state of fundamentalist religion in general, and fundamentalist Christianity in particular. He continues that it is an anti-intellectual movement that, because of its "unquestioning believers," is stagnating (26). Rather than adapting to changes in society and seeking relevance, religious leaders seek to dominate society by insisting that certain dogmas are "untouchable" and "sacred" (35). It has a "profound, unmerited victim consciousness" based on scripture that has been misinterpreted over the centuries (143). Because of John 15:18 in which Jesus says "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first," some Christians are taught early on that "the secular world would always hate [them,] and possibly persecute and torture [them], even to death (Ibid.). We see this in today's Christian Persecution Complex that insists every Holiday Season, for instance, that the secular world is victimizing Christians via the "War on Christmas."

But, perhaps worst of all, fundamentalist Christianity presents "God" as having "angry-god syndrome" and presents Jesus as a caricature of who he really was. An "infantile belief" common to many religions is that "man has the capacity to anger God, causing Him to throw a temper tantrum" and that manifests in some sort of natural disaster or eternal damnation to "hell" (90). Yet, would the most supreme of all deities truly be so unjust as to send billions of "his" creations to eternal torment, and would "he" even be worthy of worship if "he" did? "Maturity requires that Christians stop using fear tactics to force others into salvation" (146).

Further, Pearson maintains that "fewer people would reject Jesus were He presented closer to the way in which He presented Himself as He walked among men" (35). "Religion," he argues "has never treated Jesus as it should.... Religion seeks to replace the complex Jesus with a tailor-made Christ that reflects each denominations bigotries: rejection of science, domination of secular government by mean-spirited theocracies, hatred of homosexuals and other deviants, promoting war with the intent of bringing about the Second Coming, and other misappropriations" (238). Pearson argues that Jesus came, not to reinforce our human bigotries and failings, but to emphasize our connection with God.

Yet, continuing their mis-use of Jesus, Evangelical Christians teach us that unless we recognize Jesus as Savior, we will not be saved and will not go to heaven (124). Rather than being a message of love, the Evangelical message is one of, to paraphrase, "you better believe this, or else." Instead of this fearful, demeaning message, Pearson argues that Christians are supposed to be telling people not "how evil and wrong they are, but how loved they are by God" (159). That is, perhaps, the real truth of Jesus. Can you imagine how different our nation, and the world, would be if that was the message fundamentalists were telling us?

Taking all of Pearson's criticisms regarding fundamentalist Christianity together, I think they would account for the majority of the reasons why so many people consider themselves to be atheist, agnostic, or otherwise non-Christian. Devout Christians seeking to understand why so many people become Godless "heathens" would do well to understand that people reject religion moreso because of organized religion's failings, rather than their own personal ones.

2) My Criticisms

While I appreciate Pearson's moral courage, his inclusive doctrine, and his criticisms of fundamentalist religion, I do have two main critiques of his book.

For one, as one who rejects the divinity of Jesus, it is almost offensive for someone to benevolently insist that the Real Truth is that Jesus died for everyone. And, Pearson is quite specific in his belief that "Jesus Christ (not Christianity) is the only way to God in redemption" (83). It is a kind thought, that Jesus has already saved us all. But ultimately I find Pearson's reliance on scripture to support his belief as persuasive as the version in which only Christians can go to "Heaven," which is to say, not very. I share Pearson's belief that no human will burn in this thing called "hell" for all of eternity, but I do not believe that it is because of Jesus.

I'm not opposed to Jesus, per se, I just foresee some of the same divisions cropping up when people insist that one historical figure is to be renowned as Savior over another, given that such things are ultimately not subject to verification. Couldn't we save ourselves so much pain by (a) acknowledging that the Bible is not an authoritative account of the One True Savior to many people in the world and (b) that no matter how much a person may believe otherwise, our shared reality is that we must co-exist within a framework of disagreement?

Secondly, I find his book about inclusion to be, ironically, exclusive. Many of you who read my blog regularly probably know that I am not a fan of the "generic he" to refer to all of humanity nor of religions that gender god as male. Unfortunately, Pearson does both in his book, regularly referring to humanity as "man" and to god as "he." At one point, he even in confides in us as "One Adam to Another," even though Eve also played a pretty prominent role in the Garden of Eden myth (243). Indeed,it has been her role in the myth that Paul of the New Testament used to justify the "full submission" of women. I think, at least on that point, that we "Eves" deserve a shout-out of our very own that goes beyond being subsumed within "Adam."

To be fair, Pearson briefly devotes one page to acknowledging the "cultural chauvinism" and "gender bias" within our culture that genders "God" as male. Specifically, he recognizes that "[n]early every reference to God in the Hebrew Bible is plural" suggesting that God might more accurately be conceived as "The Gods, or Heavenly Parents" (228). Unfortunately, Pearson fails to correct his own gender bias in the book which, I believe, serves to alienate and exclude half of humanity from his Gospel of Inclusion.

Perhaps recognizing the femininity of this thing called "God" and the femaleness of half of humanity is ultimately even too heretical for a heretic.

Nonetheless, as a message to Evangelicals and other fundamentalists, this is an important book with a message they truly need to hear if their religions are to survive and retain relevancy. As an end point, Pearson's Gospel of Inclusion doesn't suffice for me personally. Religious beliefs that effectively exclude half of humanity from the divine and continue to refer to humanity as "man" are inappropriate and unacceptable from those who should (and who deep-down probably do) know better. Give me a spirituality that (a) doesn't insist on Jesus as the literal Savior of the world and (b) either completely de-genders "god" or defines it in terms of male and female, and you will have shown me something worthy of my devotion.

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