O Science

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.”

8 thoughts on “O Science

  1. Corinna said:

    “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?”

    Except it’s not all original: that entire premise is the basis of what is now referred to as “gnosticism”, a form of early Xianity which arose before the Literalist Xians (as typified by the Roman Catholic Church) finally managed to stamp out the Gnostics, labeling them as ‘heretics’. Eddy was resurrecting old thoughts and beliefs, which weren’t widely known about.

    The idea of gnosticism is that there are “outer truths” which are designed to attract many, and there are “inner truths”, which only a few attain. Gnostics believe that Earthly existence is only an illusion, not reality. Hence Jesus wasn’t focused on his life, since he knew it was an artificial construct; like the old nursery rhyme says, “life is just a dream”.

    The discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945 strongly confirmed the existence of various beliefs and practices existing in the 1st Century CE, including many gospels that, although popular with early Xian readers, were considered as too far outside orthodoxy to be accepted for canonization in 400 CE.

    eg most Literalist Xians have probably never heard of the Gospel of Judas, a recently-found text that claims that rather than betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot actually played a pivotal role in enabling the process of Jesus’ sacrifice, serving as the one who would be hated for his role. Jesus tells him that he’d be hated for generations, although Judas was in fact privy to inner secrets of existence and the most faithful of all the disciples. This fits in with Jesus’ words of being hated for one’s beliefs and actions, etc. There are literally hundreds of gospels that were written, and some texts have survived to this day (Gospel of Mary, Thomas, etc).

    A good primer on gnostic Xian beliefs for general readers (which I’d dare say is a foreign subject for 99% of practicing Xians) is, “The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus A Pagan God?” by Freke and Gandy.

    It’s their presentation of a well-known topic that’s been heavily investigated since the re-emergence of gnostic writings, raising awareness of alternate (and more ancient) forms of worship, many of which existed 1000’s of years BEFORE Jesus supposedly was born. While the book drags in the middle and is slightly repetitive, don’t miss the last 3 chapters.

    And although I don’t agree with the author’s conclusion (they feel that gnostic beliefs offer something of particular value to humanity; I don’t agree, because just like Literalist Xianity, they’re simply rooted in old myths and beliefs which MAY reflect universal truths of human existence, but all are simply mental constructs to explain observed reality, a role which the scientific method has proven to do better), I do think studying the forgotten (if not actively suppressed) historical beliefs of Dionysus/Osiris’ cultic worship is rewarding, and revealing of human behavior, in-and-of itself.

    Like the old saying goes, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it: that saying also applies to religious beliefs and theology.

  2. Corinna,
    Reading your piece makes me think of a favorite expression of mine: “Reality bites.” In other words, you can live in a world of esoteric ideas to explain everything, but when life intervenes with something painful, it kind of brings you back to earth. Thanks for your honest and thoughtful blog.

  3. Dave is right. Her religion is a form of Gnosticism which originated at the time of the New Testament. What happened was the some believers began to cut themselves away from their Hebrew roots and synchronize more with Greek and Roman pagan thought. Redemption was “spiritualized” rather than something that happens to the body. Some people began saying there was no resurrection from the dead. Paul spoke against this by saying Christ really lived and really died and was really resurrected. Without the resurrection (i.e., real, live salvation offered in this life) then telling about Jesus and believing in him is in vain. Gnosticism and its derivatives push away the vitality of a life truly reborn, which is accomplished by the God of the Old and New Testaments. Think about how the God of the OT asked people to be in the world (to care about the poor, the oppressed, and the foreigner; and to love God–this was all different than the normal default). Jesus brought this person (God) to us in the flesh.

    People can become misguided and get off the path. So when we follow a particular person and given them undue authority, then we begin walking on unreliable ground. People tend to want to place their trust in what is non-divine (another human) and a human cannot bear the weight. Authority lies in the Scriptures for the Christian. The Reformers saw the corruption of the church and turned to the Scriptures. Even Jesus said to discern whether someone’s teaching is sound.

    All that being said, Mary Baker Eddy being a woman who lived when she did, and accomplishing what she did, especially in the second half of her life, shows how gracious God is. The Holy Spirit which comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection, is given fully to both men and women, young and old. All are called to participate. Perhaps her contribution is to demonstrate that.

    • I liked your last paragraph best. As to Gnosticism it is filled with vitality because of the gnosis or realization of inner knowing. I liken the realization of the gnosis to the time of Jesus baptism. When he came up out of the water and the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove and the expression was given: “You are my son in whom I am well pleased.” In that moment Jesus came to a full realization of his role as the anointed Christ. It opened up to him a revelation of who he was and the work he had to do and a greater knowing of his self as revealed by God. His “light” shown everywhere after that and the resurrection hadn’t occurred yet. This vitality of life comes from having a personal relationship with the source of all Life, God which is not too different from what Jesus realized and experienced.

  4. “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.”

    This. This is what I believe you were trying to convey through this post? – that human nature is compelled to find answers throughout the ages, even if the answers arent based on reality (in Eddy’s case, very much literally LOL) and that human nature will continue to do so when those answers are not met through conventional religion or founded knowledge.

    When i think of Eddy’s world, during that time Anthropology was just starting to birth itself, Archaeology was promoted for gathering treasures and popularity mostly, and that Jung and Freud were just getting started, I can see where one would look upon a divorced mother who broke through the normal acceptance level of women in public (goodness, women couldnt even vote and in some areas even own property or be a custodial parent!) and consider her a “hero” of sorts with her freedom of the “mind, body, spirit” thinking – but like with most, these concepts become outdated as civilization moves on through the eras and learns more about its world and the universe that surrounds us.

    IMO Theres so much more to learn; to limit ourselves with one humans or groups interpretation just isnt…logical LOL

  5. Churches that are museums of mummies, rather than a living culture, confuse devotion to God with loyalty to a regime (church). Years ago, I took apart Eddy’s “Science and Health” and produced “21st Century Science and Health.” My goal wasn’t to describe Christian Science, but to interact. Books, or ideas take on new meaning as history unfolds.

  6. Like (I think) I said somewhere else, there’s always some element of truth in new theories. Mary Baker Eddy was certainly fascinating, although, I wonder, are we not supposed to think that she actually existed??? She must have thought (if she knew of them) that placebos proved her ideas.
    There is one thing that I find incredibly bothersome about her approach: having people read the Scripture, in turn followed by Eddy’s interpretive comments…..(other more “orthodox” Christians sometimes do the same….)
    I wonder what she thought of Hebrews chapter 1, which says that God spoke to us in the past in various ways, but in these last days has spoken to us through his Son…..? She must’ve thought the Son needed interpretation?

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