Most everything we encounter teaches us to see ourselves as hopelessly imperfect.
|“Be reunited with God now, rather than after you have put yourself and those you love through Hell.”
—Bishop Carlton Pearson
Carlton Pearson was a Charismatic preacher in Tulsa, OK; from the time he was a boy, being a minister, helping others find salvation through the word of Jesus Christ, was all Carlton Pearson ever wanted to do. Based on a spiritual revelation, Reverend Pearson lost his church and was denounced as a heretic by preaching what he calls the "Doctrine of Inclusion". In this excerpt from the documentary “To Hell and Back” Pearson describes his moment of epiphany.
Announcer: There was a news story on about the refugee crisis in Rwanda.
Pearson: And you saw these African people—mostly women and children walking slowly back trying to come home. There was no light or life in their eyes. It was a horrible thing for me to see. Swollen bellies and skeletal bodies, emaciated... and then the babies looking at the mom and the mama looking out in space. It was sad. And I'm sitting there with my little fat-cheeked baby and my plateful of food, watching my big screen TV. A man of God, a preacher of the Gospel, and Evangelist, and I'm looking at those people assuming that they're probably Muslim and going to Hell. "'Cause God wouldn't do that to Christians," I'm thinking...
Morrison: They deserve hell.
Pearson: They deserved hell.
Announcer: And then, right at that moment, Carlton had his revelation.
Pearson: And I said, "God I don't know how you're gonna call yourself a loving God and allow those people to suffer so much and then just suck them into hell." And I believe it was the Spirit of God in me saying, "Is that what you think we're doing?"
Morrison: You heard this voice.
Pearson: Yes, sir. And I said, "That's what I've been taught"
Announcer: He talked back, he says, at that voice in his head.
Pearson: "God, I can't, I can't save the whole world." And that's when I heard that voice say, "Precisely. That's what we did. And if you'd tell them that they are redeemed, you wouldn't create those kinds of problems. Can't you see they're already in Hell?"
Announcer: Clear as a bell, says Carlton, he heard God telling him to preach this new message, that hell is a place in life, and that after death, everybody is redeemed.
When we are guilty of some minor trespass, in our defense we generally cite some variation of what seems obvious, and common sense: namely, that no one is perfect. To say we are perfect in God’s eyes is one thing, but in our culture as in most, to claim perfection is viewed as narcissistic. Even for those of us who are not of any particular religious or spiritual persuasion, the idea that in our present state, that just as we are, we are perfect, seems to violate some unnamed but all too real code or ethic.
In one of the most heart-rending scenes from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, Martha explains why she continually berates and belittles her husband George: “I cannot forgive (him) for having come to rest; for having looked at me and having said, Yes, this will do…”
Christian doctrine teaches that all fall short of the glory of God, and that grace is the means by which we are redeemed. Only when we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior can God then look at us and say, Yes, this will do. Most everyone would agree, our relative happiness or unhappiness depends in large part on how we see ourselves. Yet most everything we encounter teaches us to see ourselves as hopelessly imperfect.
In an, albeit brief, but mystical moment Rev. Pearson heard a voice that said hell is a place on earth, and whether we are religious-minded or not many of us agree, life is hell; I, myself, come from a fatalistic people, a long line of hardy, Irish-peasant stock, and growing up I often heard, “life is hard and then you die.” But regardless of who or what my creator may be, if I am able to envision something greater, something greater than “life is hard and then you die” must exist.
“Mysticism” comes from a Greek word meaning “to shut (one’s) eyes to”. This is not a denial or a life-negating stance, but speaks rather from abundance, expectation or opportunity; one looks away from that, in order to see this.
If you’ve ever crammed for an exam, or stayed up late with a book you couldn’t put down, then you know this experience: despite your best efforts, your eyes begin to lose focus, you realize you’ve gone over the same paragraph three times now and still have no idea what you’ve read—you roll your head from side to side a bit to loosen the muscles in your neck—and then you blink—you shut your eyes to this, and open them to that—and now you can return to the page you were reading, with new vision and new eyes.
Susan Atkins, devotee of Charles Manson, tells the story of the first time she met the hippie cult leader: he took her to an empty bedroom, told her to strip naked, and stand in front of the mirror. Atkins hesitated but complied Manson said, look at yourself; you’re perfect. You always were perfect. He is, in essence, telling her, look away from this which you believe yourself to be, flawed and imperfect, to that which I see, which is also yourself, but flawless, and perfect.
From that moment on, Susan Atkins was prepared to do anything Charles Manson asked of her, as much to our horror, we would later learn.
Susan Atkins may be an aberrant personality, even an abomination of a human being, and Manson may be worse. But this does not negate the fact that Manson was able to enthrall her, as he did many others, by offering her a new vision, a new perception of herself—by looking at her, naked as the day she was born, and simply saying, Yes. This will do. What makes it all far more terrible and absurd is, the feeling of being loved and accepted that Manson offered, Susan Atkins could’ve given to herself; if she was perfect, just as she was, she didn’t need Charles Manson to tell her so.
Her actions may have been beyond the pale, but Susan Atkins herself is, sadly, not quite the aberration we like to think she is. To a lesser degree, in almost every scene of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, Martha also behaves in a fashion we call monstrous; she only becomes human once we see her as she sees herself, once we understand the pain that lies behind her cruelty. Parents look with adoration at their newborn child and say the child is perfect, but few if any of us grow up hearing such a message. Perhaps it is our idea that such an affirmation will create a monster, a being that is little more than self-will run riot. But ironically, it is often those we label monsters who tell us they cannot recall a time when someone looked at them and said, this will do.
For most of us, mysticism is something far removed from our everyday lives, and few of us ever have the kind of epiphany Carlton Pearson did. But I suspect we can even go the Reverend one better: if after death everyone is redeemed, then everyone is worthy of redemption. If hell is a place on earth, maybe mysticism is not as arcane or even useless as it seems: with all the needless suffering caused by seeing ourselves as imperfect creatures, perhaps shutting our eyes to that and opening them to this, a new way of looking at ourselves that says, yes, this will do, would be the spiritual equivalent of blinking.