I remember the first time I ever watched a daytime talk show. I was in the University of Iowa student union of my college, killing a few minutes before my next class. So it had to be before 1981.
Right near the communal newspapers and some couches was a large television. It was playing the Phil Donahue show, at the time perhaps the only widely syndicated talk show; this was long before Oprah, Jerry Springer, and all the rest. Wikipedia suggests that the genre got its big push in 1976 when Donahue moved his show to Chicago. I gather at some point Donahue’s shows got more sensationalistic as the genre did, but at the time, he was a fairly sober, liberal guy who was exploring nooks and crannies of American culture that didn’t usually show up on tv.
(For example, Wikipedia says, “In 1984, Donahue introduced many viewers to hip-hop culture for the first time, as a program featured breakdancing for the first time on national television, accompanied by a performance from the rap group UTFO.”)
On the day I first saw his show, Phil’s guest was a religious opthamologist who claimed that she had patients who could see through a glass eye. Donahue was incredulous. He asked her several times about it and she stood her ground. Finally, he asked, do you mean to say, you, a board-certified opthamologist, who went through college, then medical school, an internship, special training in opthamology, a residency, you’ve been educated in colleges and hospitals for 12, 15 years, and you’re saying that someone can see without an eyeball, that they can see out of an empty eye socket?
The opthamologist looked straight at Phil and said, “With the Lord, all things are possible.”
It was quite a moment for me, a third-generation atheist from New York City.
In discussions of religion, the Maginot line between believers and atheism is the question of whether God intervenes, or may intervene, in the world in a way outside the natural causal chain of events. The atheistic belief is that, by definition (of “nature” and “cause,” among other things), that can’t happen.
Some people believe there are no deathbed atheists, so it should come as a surprise that if there’s a Belgium through which religious belief is evading that Maginot line, it lies in the medical profession. But as it turns out, the doctors are doing at least as much of the marching as the patients.
Doctors and faith
U. OF C. HEALTH STUDY | Physicians believe God can help patients get healthy
April 10, 2007
BY JIM RITTER Health Reporter
A majority of American doctors believe God or another supernatural being intervenes in patients’ health, a study has found.
And nearly two in five doctors believe religion and spirituality can help prevent bad outcomes such as heart attacks, infections and even death, according to the University of Chicago nationwide survey of 2,000 physicians.
54% of doctors surveyed believe God or another supernatural being intervenes in patients’ health.
I would like to ask those 54 doctors whether people can see out of eye sockets if it’s the will of the Lord. After all, once you let the door in for God to do his good deeds, what’s the difference between that and a surprising heart attack recovery? Is one any harder than the other for God? Is God less motivated to let people see?
What I would like, in other words, is for religious people to have the courage of their convictions, whatever they are. There are plenty of religous people who don’t believe that “God intervenes in patients’ health” or in anything else in the world. But, it’s my experience, they tend to hide that belief, perhaps because Occam’s Razor and common sense suggest a further step of omitting God from any cosmological understanding of the world.
Then there are the religous people who do believe that God intervenes in the world. They are the ones I most would like to see have the courage of their convictions, the courage to say that people can see through eye sockets.
At least the current Pope has the courage of his convictions.
Hell makes a comeback
This news item got remarkably little coverage in the U.S.: Pope Benedict XVI has reinstated hell as a real place where the heat is always on. This seems to contradict his predecessor, John Paul II, who said that hell is not a place but the state of those who separate themselves from God.
The Pope’s views are expressed in a new book, Jesus of Nazareth. As such, the Pope is speaking personally, not ex cathedra. The AP reports,
Benedict stresses that the book, which he began writing in 2003 when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is an expression of his “personal search for the face of the Lord” and is by no means an official part of Roman Catholic Church doctrine.
“Everyone is free, then, to contradict me,” he says.
Still, contradicting your predecessor, who, after all, was infallible, can make for some complications, so the Vatican is pedaling backwards as fast as they can. The Australian reports that
Vatican officials said the Pope – who is also the Bishop of Rome – had been speaking in “straightforward” language “like a parish priest”.
He had wanted to reinforce the new Catholic catechism, which holds that hell is a “state of eternal separation from God”, to be understood “symbolically rather than physically”.
Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, a church historian, said the Pope was “right to remind us that hell is not something to be put on one side” as an inconvenient or embarrassing aspect of belief.
I can’t speak to the doctrinaire correctness of either Pope’s views, but I think he’s right to insist on the reality of hell from a practical point of view. Without the fear of hell to keep people in line, mainstream Christianity starts to fall apart. At least, that was the experience of Carlton Pearson, a 54-year-old evangelical minister who, as a fourth-generation classical Pentecostal preacher once had one of the largest churches in Tulsa, as he described in an August 2006 interview with Keith Morrison of Dateline.
Pearson: I know that we had about 5,000 – 6,000 people come through there every week. And every seat would be filled.
Collection income was up to $60,000 a week. And during the nineties, Carlton put on huge revival meetings. He called them Azusa conferences, “Azusa” after the name of the original Pentecostal crusade 100 years ago.
At Carlton’s Azusa, as many as 40,000 people would fill the bleachers over seven days, and sell out all the hotels in the city.
Oral Roberts personally baptized one of his children and in 2000 he was invited to the White House. He was made a Bishop by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops.
But then he started questioning the Christian concept of hell.
And then one day, it happened. Bishop Carlton Pearson was sitting in the living room of his big house in Tulsa having his dinner in front of the TV set.
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…
Pearson: They deserved hell.
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”
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?”
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. Everybody.
Pearson started to preach that there was no hell. But if you’re already redeemed, maybe you don’t need to go to church. So Christian leaders, including his mentor, Oral Roberts, denounced him.
And it was more in sorrow than in anger that the old evangelist sent his favorite student a long letter of rebuttal.
“This doctrine is as dangerous as any I’ve come in contact with in 66 years of ministry,” wrote Roberts. “Give it up, I pray, I beseech, I plead.”
And so did worshippers. The couldn’t handle what he called the Gospel of Inclusion.
And then, it was an avalanche. His great army of friends and colleagues departed.
The massive congregations melted away. Within a few months, the 6,000 who had crowded the pews on a Sunday had shrunk to a cold and lonely few hundred. Of course, collections dried up, too.
He couldn’t meet the payroll. The Azusa conference dwindled away too. The big Gospel singers, who’d once clamored to perform on Carlton’s stage, now shunned it. In 2004, the conference sputtered its last and died.
This American Life devoted an entire episode to Pearson back in 2005, which it called “Heretics.” You can download it for 95 cents at that link or stream it for free. It’s an hour of your life you’ll never want back.
In 2004, the Pentecostal bishops declared Pearson a heretic. But Pearson is back on the mend, sort of. He lost his big church, but a new one, formed with the few remaining parishioners who stuck with him, seems to be viable, albeit much, much smaller. He has a book out, God is Not a Christian.
But his life is dramatic evidence that in practical terms, the current Pope knows how to keep the people in the seats and the money coming in. You can bet that Jesus of Nazareth will sell a lot more copies than God is Not a Christian. And I guess a daunting number of them will be bought by doctors.