CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Living Among the Mormons: Two Lives in Utah

by Dan Johnson
A paper presented at The 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 11-13, 2009

The position I am presenting in this paper is that the deeper the spirituality within a religious theology and praxis, the greater its power, and therefore the greater impact on society. Mary Baker Eddy’s work provides a valuable case study for understanding the impact of such deep spirituality, because of its position on the practical relevance of God’s presence and power. She named her work “Christian Science,” but she used other terms synonymously with it – for example, “Divine Science, or Mind Science.” The implication is that the idea was conceived as a universal one, and not restricted to a denominational praxis. In the same way, mathematics is a universal principle, even if various applications may have particular names and forms of practice. First I will define the term, “spiritual,” as it is used by Eddy. Then I will illustrate the power associated with this spirituality. And finally, I will discuss some aspects of its impact on society in early Christianity as well as today.

Spirituality defined

Eddy uses the analogy of the relationship between sun and earth to explain her understanding of the spiritual relationship between God and creation.[1] From our position of standing on the earth, observing the sun, we see a distorted relationship between the earth and sun. That is, the sun appears to be revolving around the earth. If we could position ourselves to observe the earth from the point of view of the sun, it would be easy to see the correct relationship – that is, the earth is moving around the sun.

Likewise, Eddy points out, as we mortals attempt to observe God from our finite point of view, we perceive a distorted relationship between God and us. That is, we tend either to make God in our own image and likeness -- flawed as we are,  making mistakes, being vengeful, or weak – or else we make ourselves into something grossly unlike the image of a good God. If there were some way to reverse our points of view, and observe ourselves from God’s infinite perspective, it would make sense that God sees us as God’s own image and likeness. God, who is not weak, sinning, sick, or even dead, beholds the image as sinless, healthy and whole, as in Genesis, where God “saw everything that he had made it behold, it was very good.”

In the case of the sun and earth, since we are not able to view the earth from the point of view of the sun in order to actually see the correct facts, we use the knowledge of astronomy or mathematics, and thereby we can understand the truth of something beyond our physical senses. And likewise, since we are not God, we need the knowledge of a spiritual Science to move our finite perceptions to the opposite perspective of infinite God. Eddy sees this movement of thought to the other position, or understanding the truth, as the work of Christ.  It is the office of Christ, or God’s Word, to speak to and guide human consciousness.

One significant aspect of this analogy is the logic of reality. Even while humans continue to perceive the sun’s apparent movement around the earth, there remains one reality – namely the reversal of that appearance, or, the factual movement of the earth around the sun. Despite two perspectives, only one is reporting the truth. The analogy holds true in the relationship of God and God’s children. Even while mortals continue to observe apparent flaws in God’s creation, there remains only one reality – namely the opposite, or perfection of God and God’s creation. Again, despite two perspectives, only one is reporting the truth of the relationship. That truth must originate in the creator, as the truth of the sun’s relationship with the planets originates in the sun’s central position in the solar system.

The term, “spirituality,” then for Eddy, refers to all things that proceed from that perspective, where God “saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good.” And it is very real. It requires an absolute yielding of finite, mortal thought, or abandonment of the physical sense position, in order to perceive spiritual reality. And here is where the Bible is so essential to Eddy’s spirituality: Christ, or God’s Word, is necessary to enable humans to know what God’s view is. An example could be a heart softened (by Christ’s guidance) to consider forgiveness in place of revenge. In that case, the knowledge of God’s love and constant goodness would help the forgiver “see” the transgressor in a better light, or as God “sees” the genuine, sinless image and likeness of God.

Another example, in Jesus’ day, would be his instructions to the 70 to go out to evangelize. (See Luke 10.) Upon their return, Jesus’ followers reported their surprise at their power to drive out demons. Jesus’ response to them was that their seeing was blessed; many prophets and kings, he explained, had wanted to see as they did, but were unable to. They were evidently seeing a very different “reality” from the ordinary viewpoint; and this reality – what Jesus had been teaching them – had the spiritual power to restore harmony.

The power of spirituality

An incident in Eddy’s life triggered her suspicion that the power those disciples experienced was not confined to them alone. Three days after a fall that caused serious, perhaps life-threatening internal injuries, she caught a glimpse of that spiritual shift in thought while she was reading the Bible. She was suddenly, completely cured. Although she experienced a brief relapse a few days later, the experience of the sudden cure drove her deeper into the Bible to discover where that power had come from. She did regain her full health, and then spent the next three years searching the Bible for a full understanding of that spirituality consistent with Jesus’ teachings and healing power. When she found it, she began writing notes for her book ultimately titled Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Although her own story clarified for her the meaning of spiritual consciousness – seeing as God sees only goodness – her book is not about her. It expounds upon the universal capacity for humans to engage in that divine power of healing and restoring good to humanity.

Late 19th and 20th century America exploded with a revival of metaphysics in a variety of forms. It included New Thought, Transcendentalism, occultism, spiritualism, and theosophy. Eddy’s work was just coming into focus at the same time. In fact, her studies with Phineas Quimby have often – wrongly – associated her with these other metaphysical theologies. The distinction between them is important in order to ascertain accurately the power of profoundly spiritual theologies. Robert Fuller includes Eddy’s work with the other metaphysical models of theology, claiming them all as a “harmonial” spirituality. From his perspective, these metaphysical models all have “no formal connection with the Bible or conventional theology.” Instead, he claims, they are “predicated on the conviction that spiritual composure, physical health, and even economic well-being flow automatically from a person’s inner rapport with a metaphysical reality.”[2]

Fuller misses the distinction between Eddy’s metaphysical premise and that of the others he describes by failing to discern the direction of the “flow” of spiritual power. Eddy’s “divine metaphysics,” as she refers to it, originates in God, whereas the others arise from within the human consciousness, as Fuller indicates. Eddy argues, though, that the power of God includes no psychological attributes of the human mind, since God is the only cause. On this position, Eddy is more aligned with conventional theologies, such as John Calvin and Karl Barth, than with the more subjective theologies of the “harmonial” religions. Indeed, in further contrast with her metaphysical religion contemporaries, the foundation for Eddy’s work is in every respect Bible-based. But she moves a step beyond Calvin and Barth by identifying the God-power as the only ontological truth. Theology for Eddy is therefore a praxis theology, resembling the apostolic era.  

The power that surprised Jesus’ disciples, according to Eddy’s understanding of spirituality, was the effect of the human thought yielding entirely to God’s supremacy. This power is beyond human intellect, human strength, human medicines, and human technology. Biblical accounts illustrate this divine power as able to immediately strengthen the limbs of a paralytic man, restore sight to the blind, and calm storms, to name just a few examples. Although no one person has exercised this divine power to the extent that Jesus did, there have been reports of such healing power throughout Biblical times before and after Jesus, as well as throughout much of Christian history. Eddy’s biographers have attributed dozens, if not hundreds of healing works, i.e. physical bodies restored to health, to Eddy’s own demonstration of the power of God to heal. So convinced was she that the power to heal broken hearts as well as broken bodies came from God, and not from her own psyche, she devoted the rest of her life explaining and teaching it to others. It was, as she saw it, the universal divine Science of Christ, not a personal power.

Her teaching of the presence, power, and action of God’s being results in a form of prayer somewhat different from the conventional. Rather than lifting up prayers asking for God’s intervention, the goal of prayer is to welcome Christ’s movement of one’s thought to discern and experience what God is already doing. Human thought adjusts, rather than God; and God’s power is thereby brought into play.  For instance, in the example of forgiveness mentioned earlier, prayer can cause one’s thought to move from anger or revenge to compassion and patience. Perceiving the situation from God’s viewpoint changes victimized reaction into a loving awareness of the original image and likeness of God, one who might need encouragement to discover his God-given worth. The evil-doer needs Christ’s correction in order to stop the ugly thoughts resulting in bad behavior; but the so-called victim, whose prayer turns his or her thought away from self, experiences more compassion than hurt.

The power behind prayer-based physical healing works on the same basis. However, the evidence of physical healing resulting from the shift of thoughts has generally been so mysterious to human thought, it has been labeled a bit dismissively as either miracle or magic. Without understanding the law of spiritual power originating from God and bestowing itself universally, the notion of healing as either miracle or magic eliminates such power from ordinary praxis. Yet, the power to heal oneself or others is as readily available as the sunshine that warms the earth.

The impact of ultra-spiritual theology on early Christianity

When Peter and John, apostles of Jesus, encountered a severely crippled man seeking alms outside the temple gate, they hinted at the distinction between the earthly perspective of the man’s suffering and his God-given power to be healed. Alms would temporarily care for worldly needs, but they have no power to strengthen muscles or align someone’s bones for walking and leaping. Peter’s response to the beggar’s request for alms was to lift the man’s thoughts from hand-outs to the source of Peter’s spiritual authority. Peter himself had been taught in numerous ways to release his grip on earthly ways and to live more faithfully to the presence and power of God’s goodness.

While we cannot determine the specific thoughts of Peter and other early Christians when they healed, it is not unreasonable to impute their healing method to the model described centuries later by Eddy – specifically referring to the shift of perspective from human suffering to the point of view of God who causes all good. Unlike magic, the application of a universal principle – in a way similar to that of mathematics – is available to anyone who strives to learn it and gives extraordinary power to those who practice it. This wide-spread applicability sheds light on the innumerable reports of healing by Jesus’ followers, even centuries after his presence on earth. Conscious of the extent of the power available to those who would take up their own cross (which could include forsaking their own physical sense of reality) and follow him (which could include “having the mind of Christ”{Phil 2}), Jesus anticipated healing of the sick and sinning, and raising of the dead. The good news of the presence of God’s kingdom was intended to lift oppression from sufferers.

But Jesus also foresaw the turmoil that would ensue. In the same Gospel chapter (Mat 10) where his disciples are commissioned with healing power, he warns that “all men will hate [them],” and not to suppose he had “come to bring peace to the earth,” but a sword. Those of the same household would rise up against each other, he predicted. The “household” of the early Christians was indeed split into fiercely opposing camps, where the clearest line of demarcation could be designated between those whose power stemmed from looking up at God from a material standpoint versus those whose power stemmed from looking out from God's spiritual standpoint.

Karen King argues, for example, that the character and mission of Mary of Magdala was utterly subverted by the church powers, in order to preserve the hierarchical order and power of the ultimately recognized orthodox Christian church. Mary’s gospel that had been condemned to banishment has re-surfaced and exposed the existence of a far more active community of sincere Christians who believed in a spiritual creation. The orthodox and polemic view of this spiritual creation labeled it dualism, a grievous heresy. Bart Ehrman uncovers an inconsistency in the typical arguments against such heresies, thereby exposing the extent of the anger behind the invectives. He explains: “One of the few constants among all the Nag Hammadi [i.e. “Gnostic”] tractates is their ascetic orientation. Gnostic Christians appear to have believed, as a rule, in punishing the body, not indulging it. Apparently then, Gnostics were consistently attacked by orthodox Christians as sexually perverse, not because they actually were perverse but because they were the enemy.”[3]

The impact of ultra-spiritual theology on religion and society

Such attacks continue today, as Gillian Gill (a non-Christian Scientist) demonstrates in her assessment of the Quimby-Eddy controversy. She notes the same type of inconsistency in the accusations of Eddy’s critics, showing how they claim whichever argument would sharpen the sword against her claim to original work:  they vary “inconsistently between two incompatible positions, claiming…all in one breath that on the one hand, Mrs. Eddy’s ideas were bunk, and on the other, that she owed everything to the brilliant Quimby…”[4] Gill concludes that the polemics against Eddy are “not only weak but largely rigged.”[5]

I name these inconsistencies in the tirades against Eddy for the purpose of illustrating the measures taken by her critics to mount their attack. There would be no such effort if there were no threat. What is the threat? I argue that it is closely related to the menace caused by Mary of Magdala and other extremely spiritual thinkers. They undermine the power of the most venerable human institutions within religion and society. Both Marys exhibited a sufficient amount of spiritual authority to jeopardize the patriarchal dominance of their eras; both endured ridicule and attempted censorship by their male adversaries. They both represent opposition to the conciliar foundation of the Christian Church. A closer look into the gospel of Mary of Magdala reveals neither immorality nor elitism, the typical polemics used against her; instead it claims the spiritual nature of all persons, thus clarifying the source of the antagonism.  Similarly, Mary Baker Eddy’s spirituality opposed the creed positioning God’s creatures as sinners. Despite their opposite chronological relationships to the Church Councils, both of their ultra spiritual theologies have been considered anathema to the ecclesial authorities. But the threat would be imperceptible were it not for the validation in the visible power of healing. Healing through Christian prayer was a normal aspect of Christian ministry during the time of Mary of Magdela, but it gradually faded from Christian practice around the fourth century. Mary Baker Eddy not only healed numerous people on the basis of her theology, but she was able to demonstrate its efficacy through teaching others to do likewise.

Prayer-based healing, then, while it evidently brings comfort to those who experience it, undermines the hold on ecclesial power as well as the Western god of medicine. The relatively few numbers of people engaged in a wholly spiritual healing praxis may not appear as a threat to the prodigious Western medical industry, but the deeper challenge lies in the competing claims on reality. Is it truly material, or spiritual? Is it based on the human perception or on the view from the Mind of God? The question is reminiscent of Galileo’s efforts to convince the Church that a heliocentric design of the solar system represented reality, and a geocentric design did not. It took the Church 400 years to concede. And Galileo was a man. Only a little over 100 years ago, Mary Baker Eddy – a woman – claimed the finite human physical senses of reality to be false, and that reality is perceived through an epistemological shift to God’s (Spirit’s) perspective. Despite the stunning advances in the field of physics since that time, with its corresponding questions regarding reality, the reluctance to forsake our own physical senses in favor of spiritual existence is understandable.

There is encouragement, though, in the fact that Galileo’s threatening news for the church gradually yielded to useful information for humanity. The deep spirituality, wherein God governs the whole creation, may also lose its threatening impact, when people become more willing to admit the possibility and reliability of a wholly spiritual healing power. Humanity will discover the universal availability of divine power to heal the sick and sinning, as certainly as rockets can reach the planets. The threat to our finite comfort zones will no doubt yield to the usefulness of a larger, spiritual consciousness.

[1] Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston, MA: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1875, republished 1994).

[2] Robert C. Fuller, Religious Revolutionaries: The Rebels Who Reshaped American Religion, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 88.

[3] Bard D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scriptures and Faiths We Never Knew, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 201.

[4] Gillian Gill, Mary Baker Eddy, (Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1998), 338.

[5] Ibid, 146.