Ten minutes with UCC's Carlton Pearson

Ten minutes with UCC's Carlton Pearson

September 04, 2007
Written by Bennett Guess

Editor's note: '10 Minutes With" is a periodic religion interview series in The Oregonian and distributed widely by Religion News Service. This week's conversation is with the Rev. Carlton D. Pearson, a member of the UCC, who lives in Tulsa, Okla.

Seven years ago, Bishop Carlton D. Pearson was a fourth-generation evangelical preacher and one of Oral Roberts' anointed; he had graduated from Oral Roberts University and served on its board of regents. He prayed with U.S. presidents, preached to 5,000 people in his home church in Tulsa, Okla., and to thousands more on television.

And then, in an interview, Pearson said that he did not believe God would consign countless souls -- or anyone, for that matter -- to hell.

In that instant, he broke ranks with those Christians who believe that unrepentant sinners will go to hell. That doctrine, called universal salvation, is an old one, but it's still not popular in some circles.

Pearson was denounced by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops and by the Rev. Ted Haggard, who was then president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Pearson's worldwide television audience disappeared. Only a few hundred stayed in his local congregation, and he lost the building itself in foreclosure.

Today, Pearson, 54, is still a bishop. ("Once a bishop, always a bishop," he says.) He's joined the United Church of Christ, and his steadfast disciples -- maybe 1,200 of them -- meet in an Episcopal church in Tulsa.

He talked about his new book, "The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God," and some of his own temptations.

Q: Describe your gospel of inclusion.

A: Well, it's really basic universalism, but I couldn't have called it that. I needed another name. I am an evangelical Pentecostal fundamentalist and we'd always believed universalism was wrong. But the gospel of inclusion says that the whole world is already saved -- they just don't know that. If salvation is a reality and people have been saved, the question becomes, have they been saved from God? Or for each other?

Q: If salvation is inclusive, why do people need to reform their lives at all?

A: To create a heavenly consciousness or reality or experience here.

Being good or kind or receptive or tolerant gives rise to some happier experience on Earth. To use reward and punishment is elementary; it will not work. If we stop this idea of a hostile God who is difficult to please or appease, when we get past that, the presence or reality of peace on Earth becomes possible.

Q: You still see yourself as an evangelical Pentecostal fundamentalist?

A: Well, I am reformed. I am a fourth-generation classical Pentecostal preacher. That's all we've ever known. I don't believe that Jesus came to start a new religion but only to reform his own. He was a Jew. ... He remained fundamentally a Jew, but he extended the love factor. He moved from the literal to the logical. The Bible says that the letter kills, but the spirit gives light.

Q: What impact has this turmoil had on you and your ministry?

A: It is humbling and sobering. You give more attention to details.

Before, I did a lot of generic, sweeping ministry and delegated all the responsibilities to my staff. I was like the drawing card, sort of a celebrated guest.

Q: Was ego an issue?

A: Sure. There is a huge amount of ego in a lot of cultures. Anyone who expects everyone to look at him, listen to him for an hour every week. ... They were here for me. I was young and cocky and arrogant then, I am sure.

Q: And now?

A: I'm reaping what I sowed. Now I am on the board of Planned Parenthood -- I was a strong pro-life advocate and now I am pro-choice.

Now they're saying I've gone a step beyond heresy. Now I am a reprobate, and I will be turned over to Satan. I am the anti-Christ, a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing.

But some of these jerks, clowns and clones are my family. I have a 92-year-old aunt who is the matriarch of my family and she called me: "I didn't see that TV program, but people have called me and told me that you don't believe in hell. But I have a lot of Bible verses for you, and hell is in every one of them. So you stop by now."

Q: Will you stop by?

A: Well ... people used to be courteous and accommodating when my family came to church. "You're Bishop's mother, Bishop's sister, you sit up front now." But now, my family is embarrassed and sometimes defensive. They love me, but they don't all agree with me.

Q: Are you still tempted by ego?

A: Of course. I will be subject to that temptation until they put me in the grave. The ego in all of us gives us the drive to exist, but we need to keep it in check.

I have a new understanding about what it is to be human. The church teaches self-loathing, teaches you to dislike yourself, but also to love others as you love yourself.

Q: It can seem like a mixed message.

A: The Bible sends a lot of mixed messages. I don't think of it anymore as the inspired word of God, but the inspired word of men about God -- and some of it has expired.

Nancy Haught writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.

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