Sitting in this Church of Christian Science, I think about founder Mary Baker Eddy’s detractors. Their common refrain: “What she discovered is neither Christian nor science!”
Perhaps they were thinkig too literally. She believed her discovery was something above and beyond human science, an alternate set of principles that govern the universe, the real rules which Christ demonstrated with his life. She could have called it “God’s Truth.” She collected her insights in a volume she named Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures; along with the Bible, this is the primary text used during services.
I can’t help but be awed by Eddy’s life story. Even Mark Twain, who wrote hilariously scathing opinions about this “discoverer of truth” seems to have respected Eddy as one of the most influential and fascinating women of his day. No doubt she was a groundbreaking person, especially for Victorian times. A divorcee who gave up her only biological child, she lived the first half of her life sick and weak and dependent. But the second half was all vitality and authority. If ever there was a role model for what can be accomplished after age 40, here it is. Churches built, devotees wooed, servants employed. She was almost 90 when she founded the award-wining newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor.
Even if her unconventional thinking was helped along by episodes of morphine dependency, as some authors speculate, I don’t think it changes the bravery of her vision. She offers the most original reason to forgo suffering from the human condition: neither are real.
You were never born so there’s no need to twist in the wind over your level of gratitude for that particular event. Furthermore, what’s the point of fearing “death” when it will never take place?
Yet, Eddy had to stretch the limits of her insight when her followers asked tricky questions like why they continued to perceive the birth and death of people. Mistakes in thinking, she answered. But what if more than one person perceives the mistake? A collective error, she surmised. As her explanations dance toward the edge of reason, I can see why historians draw parallels between the development of Christian Science and the dawning of the New Age movement. Both champion the power of thought to shape experience and embrace the possibility of a reality beyond our perception.
Just when I grasp a tenet of Eddy’s Christian Science and trace its meaning to a logical conclusion, I find that it seems to vanish, as elusive as a broken filament in an abandoned spider’s web. She says all suffering is caused by the false belief in a selfhood apart from God. Illness is illusion. Individual identity is imaginary. Matter is unreal. This discovery, writes Eddy, “rolls back the clouds of error with the light of Truth, and lifts the curtain on man as never born and as never dying…”
Yet, what to make of how real the human experience feels? My own little mind screams, “I exist!” My body, this chair, the room…they seem so true and solid. At the same time, the notion that God is all that exists and that I’m nothing more than some expression or fantasy of this enormous force of love is a beautiful idea to entertain. Just thinking it seems to ease my anxiety, if only for a moment….
At least some of Eddy’s followers were shocked when their prophetess appeared to die. They must have felt a sense of guilt knowing their erroneous thinking was to blame.
In the small chapel in which I sit today, all the way across the country from the denomination’s headquarters in Boston, I do not perceive Mary Baker Eddy as being physically present. I’ve seen pictures of her—she was exceptionally pretty with fine, high cheekbones—but none of these faces match hers.
Still, she is very much present in the sequence of the service and all the words, including little notes explaining elements of the service, which are read just as she instructed over 100 years ago. There is no traditional sermon, no new thoughts sprouting from the minds of these church leaders. The three women behind the podium give voice to Eddy’s sentences as outlined in a slick pamphlet produced quarterly by the Mother Church so that all her little church goslings are perfectly in step. Even the various readings from the Bible are followed by Eddy’s interpretations; up against Jesus, Eddy gets the last word. The service ends, as it always does, with the reading of what Eddy called “the Scientific Statement of Being, and the correlative scripture according to I John 3:1-3” from page 468 of Science and Health.
It might as well be Eddy’s voice as the reader intones, “There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all.”