January 24, 2007

A Tragic Lesson

2007 1503 page5 caphile working on a manuscript on Jesus recently, I went back for illustration to one of the most engaging books I read during 2006—a superbly written biography of the late Episcopalian bishop, James A. Pike.1 An incredibly restless clergyman and theologian, Pike had run afoul of his church by denying certain key tenets of Christianity—among them the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the virgin birth.
I remember running into the bishop while I was a seminarian, just prior to his defrocking in the late 1960s. He’d come to the campus of Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, for a lecture during the height of his popularity and notoriety. Several hundred students and faculty of the Catholic institution, joined by off-campus visitors like myself, crowded the hall, dozens of us finding room only on the floor and (as in my case) on the platform behind and around the bishop.
His talk centered on the theological, political, and social issues of the day, particularly the Vietnam War and his personal conflict with the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church. With the audience eating out of his hands, the bishop was all aglow that evening. At the height of his presentation (as it all got to his head, perhaps), the clergyman gleefully leaned over on the lectern, laughing as he made his point, and simultaneously kicking both feet up in the air behind him. He gave the impression of someone on top of their game and loving every moment of the growing conflict, with him at the center.
2007 1503 page5It was probably in that same spirit that Pike, accompanied by his new wife, Diane Kennedy Pike, set out for Jerusalem in late August of 1969, destination Qumran. They would retrace the footsteps of the Essenes, a reclusive Jewish sect who’d lived in the area more than 2,000 years ago, and whom Pike considered the precursors of Christianity. He would demonstrate that the earliest creeds of Christianity originated with the Essenes, and that doctrines such as the Trinity or the virgin birth were “historical incrustations and not central to Christian belief or practices.”2
On September 1, 1969, at about midday, the couple headed out to the Dead Sea location in a rented vehicle, with no guide, and with just two bottles of Coca-Cola. They’d counted on a short trip; but the afternoon was hardly half gone before trouble struck. Their car got stuck in the middle of the wadi and they found themselves unable to free it. “Daytime temperatures [in the area] can soar as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit even in early autumn.”3
In a vivid description, Robertson captured the pathos of what happened next: As they trekked on foot in what they thought was the direction to Qumran, the bishop began complaining of heart pains, and insisted they rest. “Both were so enervated by the heat and their bodies’ lack of water that they could not summon the energy even to raise their arms and brush away the flies that were immediately attracted to their faces as soon as they lay prone inside the shade of the caves. At their second resting place, Diane felt the bishop raise his hand to her lips, carefully cupping some liquid for her to drink, and she realized that he had urinated into his hand in order to provide her some relief from her thirst. Gratefully, she licked the liquid; he did the same, and then together they spread the remaining urine over their legs, arms, and faces for its evaporative, cooling effect.”4
Eventually, with the bishop unable to go any farther, Diane left alone to get help. Five days later Israeli soldiers and police, using search dogs and helicopters, found the bishop’s body. He’d evidently attempted to scale the wadi’s walls when he lost his hold, plunging some 70 feet to his death.5
Though physically a small person, Pike in his heyday carried a persona as big as the state of Texas. Lawyer and priest; then chaplain and Religion Department chair at Columbia University; then dean at the prestigious St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City, with a weekly show on ABC television entitled, simply: Dean Pike; finally, bishop of the diocese of California.
Then came the defrocking; then came Pike’s defiant mission to Qumran; then came calamity.
What a tragic lesson for all of us!
1David M. Robertson, A Passionate Pilgrim (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).
2Ibid., p. 206.
3Ibid., p. 4.
4Ibid., pp. 221, 222.
5See ibid., p. 226.
Roy Adams is associate editor of Adventist Review.