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Christian Science Today: Resuming the Dialogue

by Stephen Gottschalk

Mr. Gottschalk is a Christian Scientist who works as an editor and consultant for the Church of Christ, Scientist. He lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 17, 1986, pps. 1146-1148. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


From its inception in 1879, the Church of Christ, Scientist has had but one agenda: the practical implementing of a theology in which the healing of sin is primary and the healing of disease indispensable. Indeed, there is a built-in limit, rare in our time, to the degree to which Christian Scientists can compromise this commitment without invalidating the very reason for the existence of their church.

It’s no secret that this church is facing tough times today. Judging by such objective indicators as the number of branch churches and of practitioners (those in the spiritual healing ministry), its membership has been declining at about the same rate as, or slightly faster than, that of several mainline denominations. Questions about the practice of Christian Science healing for children have been raised in such forums as the New England Journal of Medicine. The media have brought to public attention several cases in which Christian Science parents have been prosecuted for the deaths of their children while under spiritual treatment (cases, which the church argues are unrepresentative of its healing record). And fundamentalist literature targeting Christian Science as a cult has been circulating in unprecedented volume over the past several years.

At the same time, however, Christian Science has a clearer relation to issues before the Christian world than it has had for many decades. The opening up of the whole subject of feminine spirituality in recent feminist literature, for example, has led to a marked increase in attention to the character and social role of founder Mary Baker Eddy. And the revival of interest in spiritual healing among many denominations is making the historical role of Christian Science in stimulating this development an issue which cannot be ignored.

Though most Christians would probably agree with William H. Willimon that Christian Scientists are "part of the family, distant relatives at least" ("Are There Cults at Furman?" January 19, 1983, Christian Century), it is unlikely that they would have more than the vaguest notion of the contours of Christian Science theology. Quite possibly, they would not think of it as having one. In this respect, they may be the unwitting inheritors, and perhaps perpetuators, of the viewpoint that a woman cannot have anything serious to say, at least not about theology. A recent study in a feminist periodical presents considerable evidence that reductionist stereotypes of Eddy that are still current, even among feminists, sprang to a surprising extent from resentment directed toward her as a woman making serious truth claims in a male-dominated society (Jean McDonald, "Mary Baker Eddy and the Nineteenth Century ‘Public’ Woman: A Feminist Reappraisal, "Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion [Spring, 1986], pp. 89-112).

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were substantial ecumenical contacts between Christian Scientists and mainstream Christians at various levels. In 1968 and 1969, for instance, representatives from the Mother Church met with mainline leaders in New York and other cities for a series of intense and fruitful theological discussions, which resulted in a booklet of position papers called "Ecumenical Papers" (still available from the Christian Science Church). At the grass-roots level, Christian Scientists articulated their faith before hundreds of religious education groups in mainstream churches yearly.

Such exchanges have declined precipitously in recent years. Indeed, it requires an act of historical imagination to recapture the atmosphere in which they occurred, so fractious has the religious environment become. Useful theological distinctions have too often been overridden in textbook rehashes of Christian Science that try to make it "lie down" in some prefixed category (idealism, "Harmonialism," Gnosticism, etc.). It seems an appropriate occasion, then, to try to revive an honest theological dialogue between Christian Science and mainstream Christianity.

On the crucial theological point of the deity of Jesus, there is a clear and unambiguous difference between Christian Science and traditional Christian doctrine. For example, the fact that Christian Scientists do not believe in the deity of Jesus precludes their church from membership in the World Council of Churches. But their position is seriously misread if it is not understood that in Christian Science, Jesus is regarded as the figure through whom, supremely and uniquely, God’s nature was manifested to humanity. In Eddy’s theology, Jesus’ virgin birth, crucifixion and bodily resurrection were the pivotal events in human history, absolutely indispensable to human salvation.

However distinct the metaphysical context in which she defined the meaning of these events, Eddy saw them as having revelatory meaning precisely because they were historical events. In an age when church leaders can dismiss the virgin birth and question the resurrection without seriously rattling theological teacups, this conviction is bound to seem positively conservative. The first step in grasping Christian Science is to recognize that it not only accepts but builds upon these events, as well as upon the healing stories. As Eddy put it, "The life of Christ is the predicate and postulate of all that I teach" (No and Yes, p. 10).

It might be said that Eddy "demythologized" the healings of Jesus and his resurrection—but in an opposite sense from the way that Bultmann did. She did not deny that these events occurred, but she denied that they should be understood under the category of "miracle." Christian Scientists see these events not as supernatural interruptions of the natural order but as a revelatory appearance of a spiritual reality, shaking the very foundations of human perception.

For Christian Science, this spiritual reality is the Kingdom of God revealed through Jesus’ life of obedience and sacrifice. Jesus showed that this spiritual reality is not merely an ethical ideal to be realized, or a future state to be attained; if God is really God, if he is present and supreme, his kingdom must be a present reality. As Eddy wrote, "Our Master said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Then God and heaven . . . are now and here; and a change in human consciousness, from sin to holiness, would reveal this wonder of being" (Unity of Good [First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1887], p. 37).

In a sense, the theology of Christian Science takes with radical seriousness the classic Christian doctrine of sin and what the change "from sin to holiness" must include. But it believes that the gospel offers the data of a new reality which, far from being some abstract metaphysical ultimate, can be progressively realized through Christian discipleship. Jesus’ emphatic command to heal the sick indicates that this discipleship leads to freedom from disease as well as from sin.

In spiritual healing as Eddy understood it, the human mind does not "do" something to another mind; rather, it witnesses through prayer and self-purification to the presence of the God supremely revealed through Jesus Christ. With the greater apprehension of that presence comes the dawning through "spiritual sense" (a term Eddy adapted from her "New Light" Puritan heritage) of what life in Christ even now can include. The love of God becomes more substantive; more palpable; the distortions and pains which plague human existence less necessary and authoritative. The new reality which broke into human experience in the person of Jesus becomes more distinct not through new conceptions about a transcendent reality, but through the growing experience of the power of that reality to bring transformation and healing in daily life.

A recent editorial in a Christian Science periodical proclaims that "healing, after all, is the name for how God is known and expressed in human experience" (A. W. Phinney, "What do you think about Christian healing?" Christian Science Sentinel [February 4, 1985], p. 195). But the purpose of this healing is not human improvement so much as it is the renewed God-experience it makes possible. Thus, the complaint that some people use Christian Science in order to attain secular ends of health, wealth or success is a wholly valid one from the point of view of Christian Science itself.

Many involved in Christian healing share the Christian Scientists’ belief in spiritual healing as an integral part of a living Christianity, and they share the renewed sense of God’s presence that issues from healing. They also share the conviction that God’s will is actively ranged against suffering and disease.

What other Christians do not share is Christian Scientists’ conviction that God is absolutely not the author of the conditions of finitude—meaning material existence—which give rise to suffering and disease. This may well be the most significant nonnegotiable difference between Christian Science and traditional Christian theology. Christian Scientists understand God as the sovereign creator, absolutely distinct from his creation. However, they see the finitude of God’s creation not as his creative will but as the way creation appears within the habitual limits of human perception.

This does not mean that Christian Scientists deny the intensity of the human experience of disease and pain. Eddy herself had far too deep an immersion in the fires of human suffering and spoke too feelingly of its importance in Christian experience to believe that the tribulations of what she once called "the ghastly farce of material existence" (Science and Health, p. 272) could be minimized or ignored. Yet her theology does maintain that sin and finitude are not part of authentic being in Christ, and that a deeper experience of God’s presence and our relation to him effectively diminishes and will eventually destroy the conditions of suffering which God does not sanction and never made. We might, therefore, speak of the theology of Christian Science as at once a theology of God’s presence and of God’s absence. For it holds that all the evils of the human condition are, in the final analysis, traceable to the drastic human failure to acknowledge and experience the reality of his presence.

From this standpoint, the question of whether Christianity is a healing religion is no minor speculative issue. It is a question about the very reality of the God whom the Bible reveals. Christian Scientists see their special role as that of pioneering in the spiritual healing which they see as a natural, though as yet largely unexplored, consequence of Christian discipleship. For them, such healing is the necessary and decisive proof of the revolutionary power of Christianity to transform human experience as a whole.

The focus on healing explains the relative de-emphasis in Christian Science—at least as contrasted with mainstream Protestantism—on the social dimension of Christian witness. But the term "relative" must be used here not only because the Mother Church has for years contributed substantial sums to relief efforts in wartime and emergency situations, such as the recent earthquake in Mexico, but because it continues to publish the Christian Science Monitor, in itself a far from negligible social commitment. For nearly seven decades the newspaper has helped orient Christian Scientists’ concerns to the practical problems of the world. Its four-part series "Hunger in Africa" (November 27-30, 1984), which concluded with a list of relief agencies to which donations could be sent, and the recent series "Exiles Among Us: Poor and Black in America" (November 13-20, 1986) are instances in which it has contributed significantly to public understanding of social problems.

The specific purpose of the church Eddy founded is to be an effective agency for the spiritual awakening upon which, as Christian Scientists see it, the solution of humanity’s manifold problems ultimately rests. Christian Scientists generally would agree that bringing prayer to bear on human tragedy and suffering does not preclude taking other practical steps to alleviate them. As a Christian Scientist said recently in response to a medical student’s question as to how she would help starving children in Africa: "I suspect if I were there I would do what you would do—cradle as many as I could and feed them with all the food I could lay my hands on. I hope I would remember to turn sincerely and expectantly to God for guidance as to how to do more—intelligently—to meet the immediate human needs of the multitude, but to take practical inspired steps for healing the fears, hates, misunderstanding, and cruelties that bring suffering to humanity" ("Some Questions and Answers about Christian Science," Christian Science Sentinel, September 2, 1985, pp. 1508-09). The underlying question about Christian Scientists’ social stance, therefore, is not whether they are too little committed to social action, but whether spiritual healing as they understand it can actually happen and whether it means what they think it means for Christianity.

How should one evaluate the healing efforts of a denomination which has been committed to Christian healing for over a century, and which endeavors to practice it amid a secular climate in which medical assumptions are axiomatic?

Christian Scientists point to their century-long healing experience as evidence that cannot be ignored. If this evidence is dismissed out of hand on the basis of rigidly reductionist standards, what does that say about our attitude toward the gospel? And if it is taken seriously, what are its implications for Christian faith?

Obviously, these questions have relevance that far transcends the interest of a single denomination. Christian Scientists remain rather like distant relatives who insist on raising uncomfortable questions—questions the rest of the family might prefer to ignore. There is still much for the family to discuss.

 


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