CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Christian Science: Principle and Pluralism

by Shirley Paulson
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2010 conference in Torino.© Shirley Paulson, 2010. Please do not quote or reproduce without the consent of the author

I’m probably not the only person who grew up thinking my religion had all the answers and that ultimately everybody would agree. I was convinced we’d live happily ever after. It didn’t turn out that way, and like many others, I have been pondering why not. Religious pluralism runs against the grain of most religious claims of ultimate truth, but this is the tension religious communities must confront in this age. Rather than changing religions or changing Gods in order to come to terms with these issues, I have found myself shifting in my understanding of God, even while remaining faithful to my religion.

As I thought further about a specific idea put forth by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, I began to see how this could help me conceive of the diversity of religious approaches to the ultimate truth without compromising the integrity of my faith. This idea is that God is Principle – divine Principle. This is the same God who is the creator of the universe, the one whom Jesus called “Father,” and the God whom the Christian scriptures call “Love.”

Thinking of God as Principle is unlike the relative principles of cultural values, where human opinions clash. But the divine Principle (with a capital P) functions more like a single central command system, or a consistent law that governs everything in harmony. As numbers in the number system are universally governed by the rules of mathematics, all of God’s creation is governed by an orderly, divine Principle - or God.

The main issue we’ll consider in this paper is how this one divine Principle can support individuality and promote loving engagement between diverse religious communities.

First I’ll describe why pluralism requires something beyond the human capacity to bring harmony between rivaling communities. Then I’ll address the way God, as divine Principle, can resolve the tension between our needs for an omnipotent, transcendent God and a loving, immanent God in our pluralistic world. And finally I’ll consider the means by which this divine Principle can help us deal with differing claims for salvation and ultimate truth.

The need for divine intervention

The first issue – “how the divine can help us deal with pluralism” - is now a necessity for humanity to come to terms with. Pluralism has been thrust upon us. It is here, because as many have noted, we all live too close to each other now. Churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues spring up in the same neighborhoods, and our children attend school with each other. We cannot circumvent the necessity to re-define our relationships within and without our own faith communities. In the Middle Ages in Europe, anyone’s denial of the divinity of Christ was enough to trigger another Holy Crusade. We clearly need a better way to relate to those whose religious views are radically different from our own. Tolerance is not enough. Neither is dialogue. We need honest, active, and even loving relationships established between faith communities of all sorts.

So, when the autonomy of one community is threatened by the autonomy of another, where do we find the authority to break the impasse? The social arrangement of human beings clearly requires the benign government of a power greater than humanity. Without it, we inevitably fall into relationships based on dominance and subordination. As usual, here’s another opportunity in the development of human civilization where religion can either solve the problem or make it worse – depending largely on our views of God.

As human beings, we want to preserve our cultural identity and autonomy, but we want outside help if we’re in trouble.

We want help when we’re in trouble, but we don’t want to be manipulated.

We want security, but we don’t want to be dominated.

We want freedom of expression, but we don’t want everyone else to be free to harm us.

We want to experience the beauty of the divine in proximity, but we want enough distance to maintain our own control.

We want assurances for the afterlife, but we don’t want to make promises now for the future.

In other words, as human beings, we want to thrive, to experience respect and joy, - and without being dominated. When humans are free to grab whatever they want - without divine intervention – they inevitably dominate others, as in the law of the survival of the fittest. There can be no resolution to this tension with humanity’s resources alone, because someone’s privilege is always going to be someone else’s oppression. We will only succeed in active dialogue and sincere love for one another when we see past our roles of domination and subordination.

Divine intervention, then, is a benefit to everyone, so long as we perceive that intervention as universal justice. This is precisely the reason that an understanding of God as divine Principle can give us a radically different perspective on inter-community dignity as well as intra-community harmony.

There is, understandably, human reluctance to giving over autonomy to an omnipotent, transcendent God. Women, in particular, are frequently hesitant to feel dominated by yet another layer of lordly power.

Transcendent and Immanent God

So, the second point I will address in this paper is the means by which this divine Principle can resolve the tension between our needs for a transcendent God and a loving, immanent God.

We think we want an immanent God who is here, close to use, and enabling us to touch and experience the sacred. We want to experience the beauty of the divine, and we want to be valued for our cultural identity and unique existence. On the other hand, we want security from oppressors and assurances for our after-life. We need that transcendent God who can expose and oppose evil on our behalf.

But traditionally, an understanding of God as transcendent is in tension with an immanent God. Too much transcendence leaves us with an autocratic deity far removed from the lives of immigrants, colonized people, or the poor. Too much immanence tempts us with idolatry and pantheism, or worshipping what is not God.1 The tension in pluralism appears to lead us to an unsatisfactory situation of having to choose between one or the other.

However, the concept of God as divine Principle includes both transcendence and immanence. It is difficult to find metaphors that express precisely a spiritual idea, but this one may serve our purpose in illustrating this point. Imagine a rose suspended by itself inside a six-sided cube – each side, a mirror. We could envision six completely different views of that rose, even though they are images of the same rose. If we were to multiply each side by ten, we could encircle the rose with sixty mirrors – and then we’d have 60 different views of the same rose. In a similar way, our relationship to God is like countless reflections of the one central Being, from whom we each find our wholeness. We are not made alike, as if there was only one mirror with the same image. Rather, we each derive our unique individuality from the same origin, or Creator. No one is an imitation of another, but we are all the image of God.

If transcendence is the power we need beyond human capacity, then we access that kind of power by reflection. As the flower in the middle of the room gives color, shape, and beauty to the reflected flower, we also gain the dignity and worth of our lives by virtue of a reflected relationship to the omnipotent God. We are not dominated by a different reflected entity. If immanence gives us a God who is with us and who cherishes the unique purpose of each of us, then we are embraced by virtue of being one of those intimately related reflections of God. In the metaphor of reflections around the rose, one could argue the rose would not be fully appreciated – or glorified – if one of the mirrors was missing. Our unique importance is not self-made, but established by the original.

Transcendence needs not exclude immanence, nor vice versa. How helpful it is to realize that the principle of mathematics is universal. Whether we live in China or Latin America, a number 3 operates in the same relationship with a 6 for everyone. Everyone benefits from a reliable principle of numbers. Realizing that the universal Principle of our lives is actually divine Love is beautiful. Love never fails, as the Bible says. And never failing is a transcendent concept. Love also blesses and supports and cherishes each individual – which is a sense of immanence.

The divine Principle, Love is able to nurture, encourage, and enable each of us to thrive. When Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, he used both Greek terms for love, agape and filia. Agape love is universal, blessing all. Filia is a particular love that embraces the details of each individual. When the divine Principle, God, is Love, then our God is both universal and particular.

Jesus’ life and teachings make the theory practical for us today. His humanity points to the origin of his divinity, as the reflections of the rose point to the flower in the center of the room. Jesus, the Jew, lived as a Jew, supporting its virtues and critiquing its practices. But he revealed himself as the Messiah to not only a Jew – Peter – but also to a Samaritan woman. He told a Canaanite woman that she had enough faith to experience the power of God’s healing for her daughter. And yet with his divine power, he did not confront the domineering Romans. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” he said. He was living his cultural identity, but he neither dominated other cultures nor enabled them to dominate him.

Examples in Jesus’ life show us how to discern the transcendence of the Immanent and the immanence of the Transcendent. Jesus’ provision of food for 5,000 people, for instance, was evidence of the work of the divine Principle, Love. For those who actually ate the fish and the bread, this was a very practical and present experience of the Immanent God. Their immediate needs were met, and they were not merely theorizing about the abundance of a remote Kingdom. And yet, we would probably all agree there was a power at work beyond the human capacity to produce the food. There are no laws of physics by which food could multiply itself. By law of the divine Principle, what works for one must work for all. If there is enough for one, there is enough for all. Here the transcendent omnipotent power was also the immanent existential realism of the presence of food.

It is not surprising that large percentages of women are generally more attracted to the Immanent God than the Transcendent one. Their institutional access to the divine is so frequently blocked, they more naturally seek the sacred presence in the world they live in. When God is repeatedly associated with the Lord, Master, male-dominant figure, who prefers the repentance of women and wisdom of men, is it any wonder that women would shun an omnipotent God? The same can be said of all oppressed or dominated people, and this injustice again highlights the importance of a divine Principle that unifies the transcendent with the immanent God.

Divine Principle and salvation

My third point is that this Immanent and Transcendent God who is divine Principle can help us respect differing claims of salvation and ultimate truth without losing the integrity of our own faith. Pluralism is forcing all of us to consider whether salvation may take on any form other than that which is conceived in our own systematic theologies. If we are going to honestly respect the culture of others, we will inevitably have to reckon with their understanding of salvation. Someone else’s route to salvation may look like a very different side of the “rose” we’ve never known to exist. But by imagining the rose as the ultimate truth, or the absolute complete being, we can see how people on the other side of the rose might see their pathway to that central place completely differently from our own. Respect for the other’s view is possible by the realization that we all are conformed to the same “rose” – or Principle, Love. If we can conceive of salvation as the discovery of the original – or, in Christian and Judaic terms – the image and likeness of God – then our orientation is toward the rose, not so much our claim for the process.

Whatever is not “rose-like” - or the likeness of God - in our lives, does need saving, or correcting. The only way to discern in ourselves the original likeness of that perfect Principle, Love, is through what we have called salvation. In my view as a Christian the adjusting requires repentance and is achieved through the work of Christ. Again, as mortals, we need that transcendent power to turn us back toward the original. Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” serve as guideposts for lost mortals to find their way. In my opinion – again as a Christian – Jesus is the most able human on earth to accomplish this, because he never lost sight of what he called his Father’s house – or, the “rose,” as we’ve been calling it. It is from the source of the divine power that he is able to exercise the grace of healing and salvation.

Our God, Love, is always going to be there, like the rose in the center of the room. So our prayers move the angle of the mirror if it has turned away. But our prayers do not change or turn the divine Principle, which remains eternally good. For Christians, our Savior moves us into alignment with God. It does not ask God to become more compassionate with our particular sufferings. This transcendent aspect of Love is important when we know we need help. We know quite well what happens if we’re drowning in either the ocean or the waters of hell, and someone who feels just as weak as we do, jumps in to help us. Our tragedy is more likely to end in a double drowning. Whereas if the savior stands firmly on the ground and sends us a secure line, that line will move us in the direction we need to move. That kind of a savior may not be in the drowning waters with us, but it is definitely a loving act for this savior to reach us right where we are, and move us to safety.

I think of the way Jesus had his meals with people who were regarded as misfits. He touched the people who were considered unclean, like people suffering from leprosy. He calmed the storm when danger surrounded his disciples. He cast out the devilish spirits that tortured the man living in the cemetery, and the boy with some kind of epilepsy. He liberated women suffering from things like hemorrhage, fever, and spinal curvature. He comforted parents whose children were dying or dead, by bringing them back to life. He was there. Touching them, loving them, binding up the broken hearted, and freeing them from their suffering. This is as immanent an image of God as we can conceive.

And yet this example of immanent love indicates why this Savior is not separate from the transcendent authority of divine power. Beyond the cultural taboos of not touching the unclean, and beyond the fear of evil spirits, and beyond the powers of disease, and beyond human inevitability of death, this Savior exercised the Transcendent power of Principle to bring justice and peace to the particular situations.

Here is where the analogy of the rose breaks down, however. A rose is not actually God, or Principle. It indicates a spatial relationship between God and us, and that is not a spiritual concept. A rose is the expression of a beautiful idea, perhaps the principle of grace and beauty. It is not Love itself, but the effect of God’s love. The difference, then, is that Love is not a static entity suspended in space. It is the active movement of good that blesses. Therefore, as reflections of that Principle, Love, each one of us must necessarily engage with each other in the act of love. Jesus’ teachings that above all things, we must love God with our whole hearts and love our neighbors indicate the nature of this universal Principle.

As a Christian, I am most satisfied that Jesus is “the way” to salvation. But if Jesus is showing us the way to his Father’s house, or the realm of God, or the reality of the absolute Principle, Love, then it is conceivable to me that others may find just what they need along their journeys too. Those on the other side of the mountain may encounter sheer cliffs, when others enjoy open meadows. But the summit must be the same for all. It is no wonder that the Golden Rule is an essential teaching in all the world’s religions. That must be a necessity for humanity’s discovery of the absolute, divine Principle, Love.


In conclusion, the requirements of religious pluralism today are neither an invitation to defend our turf ever more vigorously, nor to denounce our faith homes which have brought us closer to God. Rather, each faith tradition ought to inspire more loving engagement with others, even as we adjust to new theological necessities. The implications of God as divine Principle give us a transcendent power that nullifies the injustice of dominance and oppression. It also gives us the immanent divine presence that cherishes and nurtures every unique individual. How satisfying it is to realize the privilege of loving our neighbor as ourselves, even when their pathway to salvation is so radically different from our own.