Oral Roberts, Existentialist

Politico published an interesting article on Oral Roberts over the weekend.  Unlike the typical hit-piece one might expect on such a figure, the portrait of Roberts here is more nuanced.  Perhaps the key paragraph is this:

At the dawn of the modern media age, Roberts expanded the evangelical message from saving souls to helping seekers find happiness in the here and now. In a revolutionary departure, the minister encouraged people who grew up in punitive brands of faith, where disobedience led to hellfire, to instead see God as a powerful—and practical—force for good in their earthly lives.

The writer goes on to highlight Roberts’ interest in psychology and existentialism.  Whether Roberts correctly understood existentialism would need to be established by a more thoroughgoing analysis but what is clear here is that it appealed to him because of its emphasis on the present moment, the here and now. 

The pursuit of happiness as articulated by Roberts is somewhat nebulous.  His interest in psychology suggests that it might ultimately have been simply the quest for that feeling of being content and at ease with oneself and one’s world.  We might say he identified being happy in this world with being happy with this world.  That sells well to the prosperous because it affirms them.  It plays well with the poor because it offers hope.

The problem with that is that such happiness is both unrealistic and unsustainable in the long term.  Indeed, it is only sustainable in the short term by an act of denial.  Another theologian of an existential bent, Blaise Pascal, was surely correct when he saw that happiness rooted in a refusal to acknowledge mortality is merely an analgesic.  It does not really solve the human problem; it merely provides tools for ignoring the human problem – wealth, entertainment, unrealistic hopes and dreams.  Like confusing a painkiller with the actual cure for a disease, the prosperity gospels and the social gospels treat symptoms but fail to address the root cause.  Still, Pascal is still bing read some 350 years after his death.  Five years on from the demise of Roberts, who reads him any more?

None of this should detract from the brilliance of Oral Roberts, however.  Like many a preacher since, his philosophy of ministry was simple: find out what they like and how they like it and let them have it just that way.