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.”

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Illusions

When I enter the Church of Christian Science, the proceedings have begun and I slip into an empty pew. I’ve seen the rare news story about a sick kid who died because his faithful parents chose not to seek medical attention. While Jehovah’s Witnesses are known to refuse blood transfusions, some devout Christian Scientists decline to see doctors. This is all fine and well for adults; for minors, the state may step in to charge parents with negligence.

The room feels more like a small court than an ordinary chapel. The pews face a raised podium that stretches almost wall to wall. Three women sit behind the podium and I imagine them in ethereal judge’s robes–though, from my perspective, I see them only from the neck up. Aside from two men, the congregants are all women. I feel as if I’ve stepped into a parallel society, some female-centric tribunal in a feminist alternative to The Handmaid’s Tale. That strange dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood I was assigned in high school haunts me still.

The wall behind the podium sports two quotes. On one side is Jesus: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” The other side is Eddy: “Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need.” I notice that each has been given exactly 12 words, but somehow I feel Lady Justice’s scales tip ever so slightly toward Eddy.

I try to imagine what it must have been like back in Eddy’s day to be trapped in a prolonged state of suffering. No one but my closest family members willing to come near. Suddenly a stranger who everyone admires and thinks is special, this sort of celebrity, approaches me and puts his hands on my head and looks me in the eyes. Perhaps he says, “God loves you” with such gravitas that I have no choice but to believe it. How much better would I feel from that small act of kindness? I might still have my ailment, but the degree to which I believe this limits or isolates me almost certainly would be diminished.

This makes me wonder if some of Jesus’ miracles weren’t actually rooted in a very human phenomenon, the simple yet powerful gesture of connection; in my mind, this would make them no less extraordinary. Quimby recognized this aspect of Jesus’ talent and he tried to replicate the technique. He employed compassion to break through the alienation that plagues the human condition.

Suffering is the same, but the names for it change. According to Quimby, the standard diagnosis of his day, “neuralgia,” was giving way to a “new invention called spine disease.” Mary Baker Eddy suffered all of the most popular ailments including neuralgia of the stomach, nervous inflammation of the spine, and the mysterious and unpleasant-sounding “renal calculi.” She was nearly an invalid when she sought out Quimby; under his care her health improved, though the year he died, 1866, Eddy relapsed dramatically after a slip on an icy sidewalk. The attending physician predicted she would die; instead, she discovered Christian Science. Quimby taught that physical ailments could be inventions of our alienation and other anxieties. Eddy saw further that disease and death were not real at all, but illusions of our mortal minds.

Calvin, like other Protestants, explained man as a thing apart from God. Eddy understood differently: God is all that exists so man can’t be a thing apart. Calvin saw that to achieve holiness, man must struggle against his creaturely nature. Eddy understood that man, having no identity separate from God, can be nothing but eternal and perfect. The struggle is to overcome all beliefs to the contrary.

I am agape at this other-worldly destination to which this journey has brought me—no need to leave the confines of my own community. I stand with the congregation as we open our Christian Science Hymnals to one penned by Margaret Matters, head of the “Mother Church” in the mid-1900’s. Accompanied by a piano, we sing:

O Science, God sent message!

Today Christ’s precious Science

thy healing power makes plain!

American Religion

I drive past the church several times without seeing it, which I find hilarious once I start to grasp the tenets of Christian Science. I don’t know if it’s because I’m expecting the exterior of the building to be white, which I’ve read is the color favored by Christian Scientists to represent the “divine light of truth.”

The third time past it seems to materialize: an ordinary little brown-shingled building, not particularly church-like, more reminiscent of a small medical office, but obviously my destination. I pull into the parking lot a few minutes late, and run inside.

Harold Bloom, the lauded cultural critic, uses the term “American religion” for those off-shoots of Protestantism invented solely on these soils. These include the Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists but culminate with Joseph Smith and his Latter-day Saints. It wasn’t until my journey through Christianity was well underway that I even dared pick up a copy of Bloom’s book The American Religion. It’s a good thing I waited, too, because otherwise I wouldn’t have understood what the heck he was talking about.

According to Bloom, early America was particularly ripe for religious innovation not only because of broad social changes like rapid urbanization, but also because the notion of God as punishing and judgmental had leached into every nook and cranny of the national subconscious.

The first waves of settlers had been heavily influenced by Protestant reformer Calvin who taught that everyone was either saved or damned from birth. Unlike Luther, who said anyone with faith could be saved, Calvin insisted God had made all those decisions before we got here; never could we know or change our status. This idea may have worked for a self-confident theologian and his supporters with prosperous and stable lives, but it was too much for most Americans whose difficult circumstances offered no proof of salvation. As if times back then weren’t stressful enough, here was another reason for one’s anxiety to turn crippling.

These years seem to be unique in the degree to which physical illness preceded religious innovation. Ellen White, spiritual head of the Seventh-Day Adventists, was often bed ridden. But perhaps no one suffered more than Mary Baker Eddy, who “discovered” Christian Science.

Phineas Parkhurst Quimby flat out blamed Calvin for the overwhelming number of ill patients who walked through his doors. Quimby was the clockmaker-turned-healer who treated Mary Baker Eddy when her condition failed to improve under the care of traditional doctors. He claimed his mission in life was to free people from Calvin’s “iron grip.” For many, Calvinism seemed to ratchet up the anxiety associated with perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the human condition: death. As Quimby surmised, “The fear of death is the cause of nine-tenths of all disease.”

Quimby was all for Christianity, but he advocated a return to the healing aspects of Jesus’ work. It’s hard to imagine today because so much progress has been made in the fields of medicine and psychoanalysis, but fewer than 200 years ago it was not unusual for doctors to give up on patients whose indeterminate sources of suffering did not respond to the usual remedies. This is where Quimby came in. He treated hordes of people, some of whom travelled great distances to his office in Maine for help.

What was Quimby’s remarkably effective medicine? Empathy.

He noted that if traditional doctors couldn’t categorize the disease, the patient would be labeled “nervous, spleeny or hypochondrical and receive no sympathy from anyone.” His treatment included holding hands with his patients and listening intently to their tales of woe. For a time, he cured Mary Baker Eddy with his care and attention.