Anyone interested in modern-day Universalism, or simply in authentic spiritual journeys, should listen to the recent episode “Heretics” of NPR’s This American Life radio show (available for free listening here; go to the page for the episode here). It describes beautifully the transition of Pentecostal Bishop Carleton Pearson from a preacher of hellfire to a believer in what he terms “The Gospel of Inclusion,” as well as the enormous price he paid for turning toward love. Along the way, Rev. Pearson personally moves through many of the stages of classic institutional American Universalism: for example, at first being convinced of God’s all-loving nature, then looking to see where the Bible must have been misinterpreted of mistranslated, then coming to realize that one need not be a Christian to participate in God’s grace. It is a heart-breaking but also inspiring story of a contemporary man suddenly shown the enormity of God’s love and the sinfulness of preaching damnation of any of God’s children. And it does end on a positive note, so don’t despair.
Bishop Pearson is the founder of New Dimensions, once an evangelical megachurch, now permanently meeting in a Unitarian-Universalist church (appropriately named All Souls). New Dimensions is growing again, and Rev. Pearson combines a Pentecostal style with Universalist theology. It isn’t exactly how old-school Universalists went at it–while their salt was a good bit more savory than ours today, 18th and 19th century Universalists nevertheless didn’t go in for tongues and so forth–but it’s probably not too far from the more emotional manifestations of that older Universalism. Check here for a brief message from Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, minister of All Soul’s Unitarian Church, about the close relationship between New Dimensions and All Souls. An important aspect of this is the mutual respect of the two congregations and pastors. Philocrites has recently hosted a very interesting conversation on an evangelical megachurch pastor’s observation that “UUs don’t do transformation.” While there may be truth to that statement, there’s a counterpart to it in Rev. Pearson’s declaration that All Souls is offering “the most inclusive, relevant, honest and meaningful expression in the city.” This from a man who once ran one of the most nationally prominent of all megachurches.
Unitarian-Universalists of all stripes will probably find the broadcast fascinating. It would also prove a good teaching tool. It can be downloaded for free by podcast subscribers and purchased individually for less than a buck. It is easy to imagine a UU study group listening to the broadcast, with its warmth and turmoil, and then discussing the issues it raises. Smaller congregations without regular ministers might even play it in lue of a sermon.