First, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about Christian Science under this topic of “Health and Vitality in Western Alternative Spiritualties from 1875 to the Present.” And you may be aware that since 1875 is within our Panel’s title, I’ll just mention that it is a significant year for Christian Science because that’s when its Founder, Mary Baker Eddy, first published her primary work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Eddy lived from 1821 – 1910, having discovered Christian Science in 1866 and spent her remaining 45 years writing, publishing and founding her Church.
In the spirit of disclosure I am a lifelong Christian Scientist and rather typical of those who have been raised in it and stayed in it: our family has had many healing experiences that have convinced me of its veracity. Having graduated from San Francisco Theological Seminary with a Masters of Theological Studies degree, I’m also aware there are assumptions about Christian Science that often need clarifying and distinctions that can be thoughtfully drawn. That’s why I appreciate this opportunity to serve on today’s panel.
I’ll address three points that will hopefully assist in placing Christian Science in an appropriate context, as well as draw distinctions from certain philosophies and religions with which it is often associated. Perhaps this will work toward the goal of providing a bit more clarity into both the theology and role of healing in Christian Science. These three points include:
#1. Christian Science and Harmonialism
Harmonialism, a term coined by historian Sydney Ahlstrom, is one of the more common but inaccurate ways that Christian Science is classified, with many thinking that Christian Science is yet another offering in the New Thought movement. Certainly other faith traditions use the term ‘science’ and one might naturally think we all live under one big ‘belief umbrella’.
Harmonial or metaphysical religion, as it is often characterized, emerged as a kind of mental science and mind cure at the end of the 19th century. It is considered the root system for the movement now referred to as New Thought and loosely includes groups such as Divine Science, Unity and the Spiritual Living Center (formerly, Religious Science.) While Christian Science is often included in this collection, that would be quite inaccurate. Why? The aims of harmonialism and Christian Science are profoundly different.
While harmonialism seeks a happy outcome and has transcendentalist tendencies of seeing the positive in everything, Christian Science demands, as Christ Jesus did, a hard look at the human self that needs redeeming. Whether it was disciples arguing about their pecking order in heaven, or Peter denying the Master Christian the night of his trial, Jesus demanded his followers repent of such narrowness, and live lives of unselfish service. Students of Christian Science are expected to apply this same Christian rigor to their own thinking and lives.
Mary Baker Eddy was grounded in the Bible and the Christian experience of redemption and salvation, Christian terms that go to the heart of the message of Christ Jesus. Just as Christ Jesus had a compassionate motive to relieve people of pain, or states of invalidism, distress, torment, or condemnation as a sinner, so Mary Baker Eddy also was motivated by a deep Christian caring to lift up her fellow human beings when she established Christian Science. This focus on healing one’s self and others is quite different from a tradition that applies positive human thinking to gain material success.
Historian Stephen Gottschalk underscores a key aspect of Eddy’s discovery when he wrote:
What Eddy felt she had discovered through her exploration of Scripture was a radically new and enlarged concept of God that correlated with her own deepest religious experience....
For her this meant that God was real, sovereign, and absolute in a way that contradicted materialistic assumptions far more radically than traditional Christian theology had ever conceived. Given Eddy's strong religious background, it would simply never have occurred to her to question that God was the intelligent, loving Father to whom Christians prayed. But she held too that the full promise of Christianity could not be realized until God was seen as the Life, Soul, and ordering Principle of all being, which must like [God] be spiritual - until it was understood that there could be no actual life, substance, or intelligence apart from him....
Eddy and her followers saw her teaching as opening a new stage for Christian experience, restoring 'primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.'...1
These points help to locate Christian Science within the spectrum of American Christianity as one of those groups in the radical Reformed Protestant tradition that insists upon going back to pure and normative Christian beginnings....
A document, titled “Self-Understanding Document of Christian Science”, posted on the Church’s public website, has this to say about healing.
The theological premise in Christian Science that God is infinite and omnipotent Love guides the Church’s mission to and blessings for the world. Christ Jesus’ message that the kingdom of God is here is the authority from which his disciples (then and now) heal suffering of all kinds in the world. True healing prayers are “deep and conscientious protests of Truth – of man’s likeness to God and of man’s unity with Truth and Love.” Prayer, therefore, is considered the greatest blessing to oneself as well as the greatest service to the world. Physical cure through prayer demonstrates God’s unconditional and powerful love for all.
Healing in Christian Science is not willing the sick to recover, but a humble response to God’s loving care for the whole creation. Today, as in Eddy’s time, the Christian Science Church encourages its members and all people to take part in the healing of illness and oppression anywhere in the world.
That idea about ‘God’s loving care for the whole creation’ is best reflected in the Church through its international daily newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor. Now available on the web, the Monitor was started by Eddy as an initial response to the wave of yellow journalism, and also the daily wake up call for students of Christian Science to look outward to pray for the world’s ills. For over one hundred years the Monitor has developed a strong reputation for fair journalism, earning seven Pulitzer prizes along the way, and living up to its motto to “injure no man but bless all mankind.” Problems that address communities are in part covered to not only inform anyone of global challenges but to alert Christian Scientists to pray about such community issues.
#2 What about Mary Baker Eddy’s motivation to start a church: was it to promote faith healing or a different kind of healing based on a science, thus its name, Christian Science?
While healing has become more of a norm in Christian churches, that was not the case in the 19th century when Mary Baker Eddy founded her church:
“to reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.’
I grew up nearby, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where our family had first hand experience with one of the early faith healers, the TV evangelical Oral Roberts, based there. While Roberts first attended a Christian Science church and was healed of tuberculosis, that he publicly testified to, he was interested in spreading the Gospel in a different way.
As you may know, Roberts went on to do a great deal of faith healing in front of the camera, with dramatic pictures of people throwing away crutches, giving new meaning to faith healing. Many of those early guests were from Tulsa and what started emerging locally was knowledge of relapses occurring weeks after the public performance.
This was not a surprise to Christian Scientists aware of Mary Baker Eddy’s early experiences with Phineas Quimby, a New England healer who she sought out, and from whom she found temporary relief. But she experienced relapses, just as Roberts’ people did, and it was those very reversals that plunged her more deeply into the search for how Christ Jesus healed. She was convinced that lasting, permanent Christian transformation – not just physically but morally – was possible -- just as Jesus’ healing work transformed both character and body. It was this she discovered in 1865 and spent the rest of her life teaching others.
Biographer Robert Peel, who produced three volumes on Eddy, wrote:
At first she had been far from wanting to start a new denomination. Her mission, as she saw it, was to Christianity, and through that, to the world. But when organized Christianity itself had treated her spiritual radicalism as an unreasonable disturbance of the religious status quo, she had seen nothing for it but to have a church of her own.
Eddy’s ‘spiritual radicalism’, as Peel described it, had to do with the way she thought about sin. For her it was thinking rooted in material appearances that had no intention of acknowledging a transcendent spiritual power. She saw this phenomenon, something she would later define as ‘animal magnetism’, as the same resistance found in the New Testament when the man with the unclean devil cries out for Christ Jesus to let him alone. “Are you come to destroy us”, it asked. “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Luke 4:34).
Thus Eddy wanted her Church to represent the substantiality of Spirit that would destroy the very notion of evil or any power opposed to the Allness of God, Spirit. You might say founding her Church was a way Eddy saw to empower a beleaguered Christianity that had long since abandoned Jesus’ practice of healing in the mainstream church, and to challenge an overconfident scientism that was all too quick to dismiss Christian and religious values as passé.
But to the specific subject of ‘faith’, Eddy would place it as one of three key factors in healing, thus it is not an either/or to healing, but an ‘and’. The very first sentence of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures delineates these three aspects of healing, of which faith is the first:
“The prayer that reforms the sinner and heals the sick is
This statement, as much as any in the seven hundred pages of her primary work on the Scriptures and Christian healing, shows how prayer begins with faith that with God, all things are possible. That grows to a ‘spiritual understanding’, that then demands ‘an unselfed love’ – both elements of which demand faith in order to take seed and bloom.
There are over 80,000 documented healings in the weekly and monthly magazines published by the Christian Science church for more than one hundred years without interruption. A number of these have medical affidavits attached verifying the individual’s diagnosed disease that was healed through Christianly Scientific prayer.
Healing, for Eddy, was the result of following Christ Jesus’ admonition to seek the truth, to seek an understanding of God and man’s relationship to Him. “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’”(John 8:31, 32).
So for the Christian Scientist, healing has everything to do with pursuing Truth, not intentionally avoiding medicine.
The fruits of discipleship – healing – were as important to the early Christians as a successful experiment in the laboratory would be to a scientist today testing a theorem. For the student of Christian Science, such proof attests to the reality of Spirit and the subsequent non-reality of matter.
As Albert Einstein and quantum physicists would corroborate in the 20th century, the substantiality of matter proved to be a myth. Einstein became an active reader of Eddy’s work, Science and Health, in Princeton, NJ, when he came to the Advanced Institute of Physics there after World War II. The professor would later tell people that he and Eddy had discovered the same thing: the unreality of matter, but from two differing standpoints. He from physics; and she from metaphysics.
And this past point is possibly one of the greatest theological differences between Christian Science and mainstream Christianity that believes God both created and works through matter. The Christian Scientist, rather, takes literally the radicalism of Jesus’ words: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (John 6:63).
A final quotation from Robert Peel’s other work that addresses this point of the motivation for healing in Christian Science:
The purpose of spiritual healing is never simply to produce physical ease. It is rather to put off the limited, physical concept of man, which binds thought to matter, and thus bring to light Paul’s ‘new’ man. Bodily conditions they view as effect rather than cause – the outward expression of conscious and unconscious thoughts. The purpose of turning to God for healing is therefore not merely to change the evidence before the physical senses but to heal the deeper alienation of human thought from God.
#3 The final assumption or distinction we’ll address: Is Christian Science is a ‘high demand’ religion that puts its adherents in a difficult position if they have to choose between medical assistance and Christian Science healing for resolution to a problem or emergency?
We live in an age of the ‘normalization of disease’. With the support of media and drug advertising, it seems virtually inconceivable that someone would not depend on drugs to get through every day challenges, much less the bigemergencies in life. One might assume that the practice of medicine is so safe and certain as to be a natural monopoly.
Yet why are some 50% of individuals in developed countries actively pursuing alternative or complementary medicine, meaning some type of practice other than traditional Western medicine -- including homeopathy, acupuncture, herbal remedies, prayer, etc.? (This is different from developing nations where access to medicines is restricted by lack of resources, such as in Africa where 80% of people rely on traditional tribal medicines. That is why these remarks are more directed to those who have a choice between Western medicine and alternatives.)
Such reflections are not meant to criticize those in medical professions so much as show the increasing skepticism of a public too aware of sobering medical reports, ethical disquisitions, economic analyses, legal decisions and academic investigations into traditional Western medicine. As a past Dean of Harvard Medical School stated: “Half of what we have taught you is wrong. Unfortunately we do not know which half”
This is the cultural soup in which Christian Science and its adherents swim. What might have appeared a short generation ago, as an unreasonable practice of turning to prayer rather than Western medicine is instead becoming an increasing choice of many beyond the confines of Christian Science.
The monolith of medicine is cracking as more increasingly opt for alternative health care, piercing the veil of a culture of scientific materialism and traditional medicine that would posture as omniscient, and dismissing Christian healing as children’s fairytales or mere positive thinking.
A Christian Scientist is not so much turning away from medicine as he or she is turning toward God, modeling the Master Christian’s example of going always to his Father. If one has had an experience of God’s healing presence – and that is why many are initially drawn to Christian Science – that event becomes a palpable, transformative moment that provides the life template to which the student of Christian Science returns again and again.
Within my family alone, we’ve witnessed healings of polio, tuberculosis, broken bones, blood poisoning, migraine headaches, skin rash, the effects of a serious car accident, heart trouble, financial challenges, a near rape, complicated business problems, and the list goes on.
Yet like Paul, most of us definitely feel we are a work in progress and can identify with the angst of his humble prayer in Romans: “I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it” (Rom. 7:19,20).
23 Christian Scientists are free to choose whatever form of treatment is best for them. There is no church hierarchy that forbids the choice of medicine as a solution, and Christian Scientists have been grateful for medical help when it seemed the best choice. If a problem has not been resolved through prayer in Christian Science treatment, temporary means are encouraged in Mary Baker Eddy’s primary work:
If Christian Scientists ever fail to receive aid from other Scientists, — their brethren upon whom they may call, — God will still guide them into the right use of temporary and eternal means.
Medical professionals themselves are beginning to say increasingly that prayer is the best medicine, acknowledging the mind-body connection that only a generation ago seemed so radical.
After more than one hundred years of Christian Scientists proving the effectiveness of healing prayer-- the consecrated act of turning thought away from the problem to a greater consciousness of God’s presence, power and love —Christian Scientists feel no monopoly on prayers for healing. Rather we see the increasing attention on healing by individuals, faith communities, and even medical institutions, as positive trends to nurture and encourage.
Sydney E. Ahlstrom A Religious History of the American People, with a foreword and concluding chapter by David D. Hall, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).
Stephen Gottschalk, “Critic’s Corner: Update on Christian Science”, Theology Today, April 1987, 111-115.
http://christianscience.com/community/circle-of-faith-ecumenical-and-interfaith; also in Ecumenical Trends, vol. 42, No. 5, May 2013, 4-7,15.
Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1875; reprint 1994) 12.
“At a meeting of the Christian Scientist Association, April 12, 1879, on motion of Mrs. Eddy, it was voted, — To organize a church designed to commemorate the word and works of our Master, which should reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.” Mary Baker Eddy, Manual of The Mother Church (Boston: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1895) 17.
Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston, MA: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1875; reprint 1994) 444.
http://nccam.nih.gov/news/camstats/2007/camsurvey_fs1.htm National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Center for Health Statistics, 2007 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS).
C. McDonald, M. Hernandez, Y. Gofman, S. Suchecki, W. Schreier. The five most common misdiagnoses: a meta-analysis of autopsy and malpractice data. The Internet Journal of FamilyPractice. 2008 Volume 7 Number 2.
Dr. Sydney Burwell, Dean, Harvard Medical School 1935-49. http://www.zoominfo.com/s/#!search/profile/person?personId=1134043744&targetid=profile