“This American Life” is a radio program on public radio (PRI) that my station plays at noon on Saturday which is the main reason I listen to it -- I’m usually sitting next to the radio to eat my lunch. But yesterday’s program was interesting enough that I made a mental note to be there. It was about a heretical minister. The thing is, his heresy is an old American one that many people had thought was laid to rest: “universal salvation.”
I wish I could remember this minister’s name, but he’s a major figure in the right-conservative-fundamentalist-evangelical-Pentecostal whatjamachallit wing of American Christianity. Or was. A black man, he was highly educated in terms of theology and religious history, and served a free-standing Bible-based church in LA that had a loose affiliation with Oral Roberts. This church got so big that they hired eight pastors, most of them white, which freed this main man up enough to do some study. His preaching was lively and informed.
He actually tried to tell his congregations what he learned as he studied. Most of the mammoth “big box” churches, which are often their own denominations, are actually “prosperity based.” That is, if you belong, you are assured that not only will you go to heaven, but also you will be blessed with success in this current incarnation. Part of their dogma is that the Bible is inerrant and holy, directly dictated by God. But this pastor knew that the Bible was a loose box o’ books that were little more than pamphlets written by different factions of the early Christian groups and often contradicted each other. Why would early Christian groups be any less schizmatic that the contemporary ones? It seems to be built into the nature of the beast. Um, “creature.”
To allow for growth it was important to get everyone on the same page, so there was a big conference in the fourth century after Jesus and the important leaders (all male) sat around a table and went through this collection, saying, “This one is in, this one is out, this one should be burned right now.” The ones that are in are the New Testament. (The Old Testament was created by the Jewish rabbis.) The ones that were out, but not destroyed, became the Apocrypha (which is printed in some versions of the Bible and eliminated in others). The ones considered really dangerous and awful have been floating around in back corners of the world ever since, early versions of the National Enquirer.
The pastor knew this and tried to tell his congregations, which mostly went into “blank stare” mode. They had no mental pigeonhole for this information. However, the pastor himself -- especially when reading the Old Testament -- became gradually more and more upset as he reflected about the “biography of God” presented there. Jehovah appears to be an unforgiving, tyrannical old monster who punishes humans for nothing, kills children, and allows suffering.
The pastor had discovered “theodicy,” the persistent problem of every “theos” (god) system that insists that God is all-powerful and merciful and loves us, but still tortures us while we live on this planet and condemns otherwise innocent unbelievers who don’t toe the line to eternal burning in an indescribably horrible hell. Macleish in “J.B.” cast this problem in a couplet: “If God is God, He is not Good. If God is Good, He is not God.” So, as the pastor suggests, if a devout and conscientious Buddhist man in China who does nothing but good his whole life is condemned to hell after death, then this is unreasonable. Anyway, the people who wrote out this idea had a very weak awareness that there were any other people than themselves -- quite apart from the concept that others were as human as the writers.
So the pastor rejected the theological concept of hell. When he preached this to his congregation, they rebelled and mostly left. The white adjunct pastors came to him and resigned en masse. The two black ministers respectfully asked to be released in order to start a new church not far away. The money disappeared as fast as today’s world recession. This is all fairly predictable since it happened to the early Universalists of the 19th century as well. Of course, on the other side of the schism, the pastor and church began to attract a new set of people who had come upon this puzzle of “theodicy” and eternal hell themselves. There were fewer of them but one could argue they were braver and more “hip.”
What interested me is that the members who left were interviewed to see why they insisted on believing in hell at the same time they claimed to worship a benevolent god. They said, in essence, "We don’t want to think about such matters. We signed on for this set of rules, which have blessed our lives, and if you tinker with any of the ideas, we might lose money." In other words, it wasn’t a rational account of religious truth they were after -- it was a magic formula for a recession-proof life. Theology, they seemed to assume, was just a lot of garble that one had to agree to pretend to believe in order to belong to the club. In other words, if things go bad, they’re gone.
Well, I’ve often wondered why Christians didn’t act much like Jesus and now I know.
The interviewer pointed out that there are many religious systems that don’t include Hell. (He failed to point out there are also many that don’t include God.) When listing them, he mentioned Unitarians, but he was wrong. He meant “Unitarian-Universalists” because it was the UNIVERSALISTS who got their name by rejecting the Calvinist idea that God would torture and destroy all those who didn’t obey the book. (As interpreted by church authorities, of course, who would point out whether they wanted THIS part or THAT part to be noticed.)
This pastor said he prayed to God to ask why so many babies in Africa were starving to death with distended bellies and starvation-rusted hair and limbs like sticks. Why would they go to hell? Why can’t we save them? He said that God’s answer was, “These people are in hell on earth. Hell is something in THIS life. If you want to save them from Hell, get busy!” So now he’s caught up with the American Friends Service Committee and the UU Service Committee and all the other many organizations -- many of whom daren’t declare themselves as faith-based because the right wing insists that faith would mean only adherence to the dogma that birth control is wrong, homosexuality is wrong, and prosperity is right, but sin must be punished by Hell (as defined in the fine print). He is now aligned with the idea that salvation means getting heaven into the people right here, not getting these people into heaven through dogma.
Theology is the study of God: “theos” is god, “ology” means knowledge. Signing up for inerrancy hardly amounts to study. Depending on being “raptured” is hardly an effective way to get into heaven. Going to church and pledging generously is only paying the dues for a club. If being a good Christian is an investment that returns dividends, one doesn’t need an institution. And don’t expect the returns to be in cash. Oral Roberts might not remember your name, which might be an advantage when his organization is fund-raising. That alone will save you money.