Address to Morning Light Foundation Annual Meeting by Mark Sappenfield,
Editor, Christian Science Monitor
Atlanta • November 12, 2022
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This past spring, I was visiting a friend who invited me to his church. I’ve always been interested in how other people approach issues of faith, and these days I’m particularly interested in how churches are changing their ministries to meet today’s needs. So, I met him on a gray spring morning eager to soak in everything.
The first thing that was obvious was that the church conducted its services in some sort of local community center. While they had put up banners and curtains in an attempt to create more friendly spaces, it was still a pretty cold, sterile space. The actual service took place in a nondescript auditorium. It was a high-ceilinged, cinder block room with about thirty or so rows of seats bolted into the ground and a simple stage.
On the stage there was an array of instruments you might find at a rock concert – drums, electric guitars, a keyboard, and so on. And instantly I started to get a little nervous. As a lifelong Christian Scientist, I would say I’m somewhat wary of stuff like that. I always wonder: Are these sorts of things really a part of a service designed to move more deeply into Spirit, or are they distractions – an entertaining way to spend a Sunday morning with a few “amens” thrown in? The music started and I began to feel even more awkward. People were dancing. I had never danced in church. I was not entirely sure I wanted to dance in church. I was definitely not in Kansas anymore.
But then an interesting thing happened. I looked around, and I saw people of all different ages. I saw people of all different races. I saw people openly expressing the joy of loving God. At a time when so much of our society seems to view God as a four-letter word, I saw a completely different picture. I saw a congregation deeply committed to the idea that faith mattered. And this was not based on a shared culture. These people were from all different backgrounds. There was something in God that was real to them – that was bigger and more important than their differences.
In many ways, that was one of the most inspiring church services I have ever attended. I caught a wonderful glimpse of St. Paul’s vision of church. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus,” he wrote to the early Christians in Galatia (Galatians 3:28). If church is true, then it has to be for everyone, right? And that’s how we grow, right? All that thirst come to the waters, as Isaiah said (Isaiah 55:1). At another place, Paul said of Christ: “For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us” (Ephesians 2:14). That’s what I felt and saw.
For a while after that, I wondered what that service meant for my church, for Christian Science. Maybe the most obvious temptation was to think that a Manual-based service could never do that. There are no articles or sections for electric guitars and dancing. But was that really it? These days, lots of youth-oriented churches have modern services. I’m not convinced that all of them would have filled me with the Spirit I felt that morning. It had to be something else.
The more I thought on it, the more I came back to the pastor. He was humble, in that he did not appear on stage until more than halfway through the service. He showed a deep love for humanity, inviting a guest pastor from Africa to conduct the majority of the service. And when he came onstage, he delivered an inspiring and insightful sermon on one of the seven times Jesus spoke the words “I am” in the Gospel of John. The Easter theme of resurrection came alive in the beauty of his words.
And then it hit me: Is this what it was like during Mary Baker Eddy’s time?
Now let me be clear. I am not comparing this man, wonderful as he is, with the discoverer and founder of Christian Science. Instead, what occurred to me as I thought about this was that I had caught some small glimpse of what it was like to see the beginning of something – to see how one person’s inspiration could kindle something that grew and gained momentum. This man’s inspiration had started a vibrant church. Mrs. Eddy’s inspiration had started an entire global movement.
So, the question for Christian Science today – and the question I want to explore in this talk – is how do we keep that going? We know we’re challenged by a number of trends. People of all Christian faiths are going to church less. And people of all backgrounds increasingly live their lives online. All kinds of social organizations are having trouble, whether it’s the Rotary Club or bowling leagues. How do we solve these challenges when they seem so daunting?
A number of years ago, the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, gave a commencement address at Stanford University. His speech has since become famous, at least partly because he said something rather controversial. He said:
Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.
As Christians and Christian Scientists, we would disagree with these comments on a fundamental level. Paul said that death was an enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26). Mrs. Eddy says in Science & Health with Key to the Scriptures: “Death can never hasten [the perfect] state of existence, for death must be overcome, not submitted to, before immortality appears” (Science & Health 75:29)
Yet purely from a mortal point of view, Mr. Jobs is unquestionably right. The business world has a term for what he’s talking about. It’s calls it the “business cycle.” It holds that all businesses go through four stages: startup, growth, maturity, and last either renewal and rebirth or decline. It’s hardly a controversial idea, if you think about it. This is the very nature of mortality. We see in nature that trees sprout and grow then die, and their decay becomes the organic fuel for the next generation. Materially, death is inevitable and fuels the cycles of life. You only need to watch “The Lion King” for proof. The business cycle is just how this works for organizations. The New York Times recently wrote a story about the closure of Barnum & Bailey circus. The conclusion: American views of entertainment of animal cruelty have changed so much that circuses are no longer a viable business model. So, they died. Even Apple struggled against these forces. As a designer of personal computers, it nearly died. Then it became a phone and entertainment company and was reborn.
The question I want us to ask ourselves today is: What kind of organization is the Christian Science church? Is it a mortal organization like Apple or Barnum & Bailey? It can be tempting to think so. In terms of the business cycle, we might be tempted to think our challenge is to find some new adaptation or idea that might move us into the renewal and rebirth phase. Like Apple did with the iPhone. But is that right? When our thoughts turn to whether we should have electric guitars in our services or put flat-screen TVs in our Reading Rooms, are we perhaps thinking of our church as a part of the business cycle? It’s not that either of those things are wrong. They could be very good ideas. But they could also suggest that we’re thinking about Christian Science the way Steve Jobs thought of Apple – that we need the equivalent of a new spiritual widget or app to survive and thrive.
My understanding of the Manual is that Mrs. Eddy was doing something entirely more revolutionary. The goal of the Christian Science church is not to master the business life cycle, but to destroy it. The question is how we do that.
If you look at the trajectory of the Christian Science church, it looks very much like the business cycle would predict. Mrs. Eddy gave us the ultimate spiritual startup, and the early workers helped bring it into a period of remarkable growth. By the post-World War II period we reached a point of maturity, and in recent decades we have been fighting the forces of decline.
Compare that with the church I attended last Easter. They’re now in their startup phase, which feels wonderful. But somewhere down the road they will face these exact same questions. So, let’s consider how we can better free the Christian Science movement from the claim of the business life cycle. What are some of the tricks of mortal mind that could tempt us to spin our wheels, focusing on matter instead of Spirit?
In the book of Revelation, John starts with seven letters to seven churches in Asia. These are not like Paul’s letters – actual letters to actual churches. Like everything in Revelation, they are symbolic. The seven letters address seven forms of ecclesiasticism that would impede the activity of the true church. Put another way, these letters are talking about exactly what we’re discussing today. There are seven ways the early church was being deceived into acting materially instead of spiritually.
In Revelation, numbers matter, and the number seven corresponds to completion. So, in the seventh church, named Laodicea, John is highlighting what he sees as the greatest threat to Church – the culmination of all the other challenges.
Here is what John has to say about Laodicea: “Thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Thou sayest, ‘I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing;’ and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Revelation 1:15-17)
There is a Christian Science-based Bible commentary called “The End of the Search.” It is a companion book to another commentary called “The Search for God,” and together the books offer some of the most incisive Bible commentary I’ve ever read. I want to highlight what the author says about Laodicea, because I think it has profound importance for this question we’re considering today. Here’s what she says:
“According to the seven messages, the best thing that can happen to any group of people who organize themselves to honor God is poverty and struggle and the chance to show faithfulness under persecution. The worst thing that can happen to them is the attaining of wealth and power and the consequent growth of self-satisfaction.
“Yet it is wealth and power that any organized group inevitably ends by wanting; and it is on this account that the seventh and final church, the ultimate portrait of ecclesiasticism, is so strongly condemned. It has achieved its purpose and has ‘need of nothing,’ and it is the wrong purpose it has achieved.”
What is the author saying here? She is saying that the danger of all material organizations is that they end up working toward material priorities. To put this in the context of today’s church, the author might ask us: We say we want more people in the pews and in our Sunday Schools. But why? Is it so we can be more satisfied with our material institution? Is it so we can be proud that our church is successful and influential? Is it so we can be self-satisfied? That’s something we need to reject to avoid the Laodicea trap.
But the real value of this bit of commentary is in how the author says we avoid falling into this trap. The way church breaks the business cycle of growth, maturity, and decline is by operating in a way that is completely illogical to mortal mind, she says. While all mortal institutions seek material gain – to get more money, to get more members, to increase their influence, and so on, the church does the exact opposite. It seeks material loss. It seeks “poverty and struggle and the chance to show faithfulness under persecution.” This is what it wants. Church most succeeds, the author suggests, when it is poor and persecuted.
This is clearly a paradox. We know that, as Christian Science grew, it thrived even by material standards. It did grow in wealth and size and influence. So, was that actually failure? Of course not. The real questions here are: What are we seeking? What are our motives? What is our model for success? If our model for success is material – money and members and influence, then you could say we have fallen into the Laodicea trap. It means we are not prioritizing Spirit alone. And prioritizing Spirit alone is the only way to break the business cycle.
The paradox of Church is that when we begin to think about church as a physical organization that needs to be tended to, we’ve already put ourselves on the wrong path. And of course, that makes sense. When we turn to Christian Science for personal healing, we don’t start by saying, “Something’s wrong with this mortal body, and I need Christian Science to fix it.” In Science, Spirit is All-in-all and there is no other presence or power. Healing comes from recognizing that fact and witnessing the demonstration of it. Christian Science healing does not make matter better, it destroys the belief in matter in some way that significantly shifts our views of reality spiritward. Shouldn’t our prayers for Church be the same? If we spend our time trying to heal “empty pews” or “not enough visitors in the Reading Room,” aren’t we doing the same thing as trying to heal matter?
I think we can all see how that makes sense. But why are poverty and struggle and persecution so important to church? What do they accomplish? Well, most obviously, poverty and struggle and persecution make us uncomfortable. In their most extreme forms, they can even appear to defeat us. But the spiritual thinker sees a different scene. Poverty and struggle and persecution force us to turn to God precisely because there can appear to be no human solution. These tribulations, viewed rightly, make us prioritize Spirit alone. They keep us on the right path.
In Revelation, look at what Christ exhorts Laodicea to do: “I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see” (Revelation 1:18).
This is the great revolution Mrs. Eddy planted in her Manual – the seed of a spiritual organization. The world has never really seen a spiritual organization. Mrs. Eddy quotes an early Christian who says the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church (Science & Health 37:5-6). Martyrdom is not holy suffering or noble sacrifice. It is the absolute determination to win a spiritual victory no matter what the mortal picture. It is the realization that the ease of mortality cannot compare with the richness and comfort of Spirit. This realization changes and reorders our lives. All Church is, is the collective expression of a community committing itself to this transformation. That’s it.
We all know that Mrs. Eddy’s definition of church has nothing material in it. She says: “The Church is that institution, which affords proof of its utility and is found elevating the race, rousing the dormant understanding from material beliefs to the apprehension of spiritual ideas and the demonstration of divine Science, thereby casting out devils, or error, and healing the sick” (Science & Health 583:14).
In laying the cornerstone of the Mother Church in Boston, Mrs. Eddy said something else interesting about church. She said: “The time cometh when the religious element, or Church of Christ, shall exist alone in the affections, and need no organization to express it” (Miscellaneous Writings 145:3-5).
In her questions and answers in Miscellaneous Writings, she explains that point further. She writes: “It is not indispensable to organize materially Christ’s church. It is not absolutely necessary to ordain pastors and to dedicate churches; but if this be done, let it be in concession to the period, and not as a perpetual or indispensable ceremonial of the church. If our church is organized, it is to meet the demand, ‘Suffer it to be so now.’ The real Christian compact is love for one another. This bond is wholly spiritual and inviolate” (Miscellaneous Writings 91:4).
As I understand it, Mrs. Eddy is not saying we should disorganize churches. She is saying we need to understand clearly what role churches play in the spread of the Christian Science Cause. To put it rather bluntly: The world does not absolutely need the Christian Science church as a material organization. It absolutely does need Christian Science, which is salvation from the claims of sin, disease, and death. At the present time, material organization can help in that ministry. But only if we have our priorities right. The world does not need a church that cleverly figures out how to succeed in the business cycle. The world needs the Divine Science that elevates the race, waking people from material thinking to the realization of the present reality of Spirit, which overthrows mortal error and heals the sick. How can we best support and maximize that essential work together?
Not too long ago, the Christian Science Publishing Society put out a book called “In My True Light and Life.” It’s a massive paving stone of a book with tons of details on Mrs. Eddy’s life, but there’s one unpublished letter that speaks to what we’re talking about today. It’s quite bracing, which is perhaps why she never published it, but I’d like to read it in its entirety here, because I think it speaks directly to the conditions that are necessary for the success of the Christian Science church. The letter is called “False & True.”
[You say] “Christian Science has come to stay!” Yes, but on what terms or conditions? I will name a few of those terms: “He that would be master, let him be your servant.” “He that is least among you shall be greatest.” “Except ye leave all for me, ye cannot be my disciple.”
But you say that Christian Science has come to stay on the present existing condition: “Who shall be greatest?” “I will serve for money and popularity, but when it comes to taking up the cross, I will desert.” “I will leave a portion of the false claim of the senses, but I will rather retain other portions, for I cannot get on without this half-way obedience.”
Your conclusion that Christian Science has come to stay on your conditions, instead of the terms that Christ has demanded, are like a student standing before the blackboard working a problem contrary to the principle and rule and declaring that, because these are correct, the right result has come to stay – and so work on contentedly in a wrong direction, as the prophet declared, “Crying peace, peace, when there is no peace.”
The disciples of old disobeyed the directions of their Master, deserted him in his hour of need, and after his departure from them – because of this – saw their mistake, tried to recover their lost opportunity, because Christ’s Christianity was truth and had come to stay. But they failed on this ground, and Christianity according to Science was lost sight. And they wakened through the door of death from their false dream, and the world went on to say, “Christianity has come to stay,” when the fact was that it was only their false sense of Christianity that stayed, and nineteen hundred years has not yet recovered it in the genuineness of the Master’s teaching and demonstration.
Are the Christian Scientists today making the mistake of the disciples of yesterday while satisfied the Christian Science has come to stay, although they are trying to work out the problem of being contrary to its divine Principle and given rules? Let them look into their own hearts and turn upon themselves the magnifying lens of truth that brings to light their errors, and then answer: Are you solving the problem of your being according to the First Commandment – “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”? Have you not the gods of popularity and ease to serve, whereas Jesus was the despised and rejected of men and bore the cross, resigning all human claims of need or pleasure?
Jesus said: “Fear ye not them that destroy the body,” etc. Do Christian Scientists watch the inroads that evil in its new and aggravated means is making on their lives – their conscious sense of right and wrong, their proper sense of individuals – as closely as they would watch its ravages upon their health and life? If they are not, they are disobeying Jesus’ command, and I perceive that they are not as sensible of the demoralizing effects of psychic malpractice as they are of its mental effects. Hence the answer: Christian Science has not come to stay with them [on] these conditions, and although it is eternal and ever-present, it will never be cognized and demonstrated until the First Commandment in the law and the Golden Rule in the gospel are obeyed in the spirit of self-abnegation, meekness, and might on the very cross-bearing and world-hating basis that Jesus demanded.
A practitioner I knew called the section of “Christian Science Practice” that begins on Page 388 of Science & Health “the fighting pages.” This article feels that same way to me. She’s telling us straight up: This is what real Christian Science requires. Are we up to that demand? If not, we shouldn’t fool ourselves in to thinking that the Christian Science church will survive as merely a material organization. In her Message for 1900, Mrs. Eddy said: “The song of Christian Science is, “Work — work — work — watch and pray.” (Message for 1900 2:7-8)
So how do we do that work? I love what she says right at the end of that letter. She says we must obey the First Commandment and the Golden Rule in the spirit of self-abnegation, meekness, and might; and this must be done on the cross-bearing, world-hating basis Jesus demanded. I don’t think this means hating the world in a way that would drag us down or have us give in to hatred. It’s the opposite. It’s absolutely refusing to believe that any good has its origin in matter. All good is Spirit and comes to us through Spirit, even at this very moment, and we will not under any circumstance be persuaded to believe otherwise. This is what I take “world-hating” to mean.
And I’d argue that, in the context of church, there are two specific ways that the world gets us to drop this standard. Of course, I’m sure there are far more than two. But I only have an hour, and this exercise is really just to get you thinking.
The first temptation I call the “good human discount.”
In the summer of 1865, 10 years before the publication of Science & Health, a Methodist preacher in London decided that the old model of church was no longer working. He looked at the plight of the poor and wondered how society – particularly a Christian society – could accept such a situation. So, he founded a new organization determined to address the twin crises of poverty and religious indifference. He organized soup kitchens and housing for the poor and was determined to attack the problem with military efficiency.
He said: “While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight. While little children go hungry, as they do now, I’ll fight. While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight. While there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight. I’ll fight to the very end!”
This was the beginning of the Salvation Army. During Mrs. Eddy’s time, many churches reconsidered their role in addressing public suffering and religious indifference. The Salvation Army is one of the most enduring examples, but it was hardly alone. Looking out at today’s landscape, one could feel very much the same. The list of things that need our urgent attention seems almost endless. The world is calling us to come to the ramparts, to take up arms, and to do something about any of them. To fight! And as Christian Scientists, we are called to bring healing to these problems. But how?
The actions of the founder of the Salvation Army point to one way. And there is no doubt that the charitable activities of churches have done remarkable good. They express what Mrs. Eddy on page 115 of Science & Health defines as the second degree of mortal mind – the moral thought where evil beliefs are disappearing. Among the qualities expressed by these activities are humanity, affection, compassion, hope, faith, meekness, and temperance.
But Mrs. Eddy did not establish Christian Science charities. Why?
Here’s one thing to think about: How does Christian Science address social inequities and suffering? Clearly it must, because Jesus’ ministry did. Jesus’ followers were often the weak, the infirm, the outcasts, and the despised – to the degree that Jesus was frequently mocked by those of wealth and influence. He was an activist. He was engaged. But not like other people were.
What was his motive in healing the lepers or forgiving the woman whom Simon the Pharisee reviled? Was he trying to fix their mortal problems – to give them a better mortal life? Did he seek social justice for them? Did he work for their political freedoms? We have no evidence that Jesus was concerned about any of those things. In fact, the Gospels indicate he rejected many attempts to define his ministry in that way. When the Pharisees tried to pin him down on the political injustice of Roman taxation, Jesus rebuked their mindset. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” he said. “Render unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
Jesus’ focus was not on helping people manipulate their mortal conditions or environments. It was on helping them understand their present indestructible relationship with Spirit. That relationship then destroyed the physical evidence contrary to Spirit. We see this so clearly in the story in the book of John about the people who sought him out after he gave the multitudes the loaves and the fishes (John 6:22-71). They wanted more food, and he refused to give it to them. He promised them only the bread of Life that would feed them forever – their understanding of their divine identity.
Aren’t we tempted to just give bread sometimes? Isn’t this the danger of the charities approach? Not that giving bread or giving to charities is wrong. Mrs. Eddy gave extensively to charity. But that isn’t enough. What I call the “good human discount” is the belief that human goodness is enough. Human goodness is essential. It is the step upward into the third degree of spiritual understanding. But if we stop there, thinking that being nice or humanly advocating on behalf of some cause can bring the change we want, we are stopping short of where we need to go. We’re still thinking the Christian Science church is a tool for fixing material things.
Not too far from here in rural Georgia a few years back there was a fatal police shooting of a Black man. The police said their actions were justified as a drug squad was carrying out a search warrant. Others in the community, including much of the Black community, saw the shooting as an injustice. A protest was organized with members of Black Lives Matter coming to town to bring attention to the shooting. The town’s main street basically cleared out. Shops closed. Doors were locked. There was the fear of violence even amid assurances that the protest would be peaceful.
But one business stayed open. A Christian Science Reading Room librarian was there and very much on duty. She had no interest in taking sides. But this was her community and she wanted to love every single person she saw that day. As the protest made its way to the center of town, it was peaceful and orderly. But as it began to make its way back out of town, things seemed less calm with stomping and yelling and more obvious signs of frustration and anger.
So, what did this librarian do? She ran out into the crowd. That week, the Sentinel cover story was titled, “My prayerful protest to injustice and inequality” (Christian Science Sentinel, August 21, 2017). So, she went out with as many photocopies of that cover as she could make. And she went out with a mission: To see the Kingdom of God, right there. “All I can do is go from sense to Soul,” she said.
“It was like I was handing out goodness,” she said. She just kept telling everyone she met, “God is already here. Justice is already here.” She said she never got more hugs than she did that day.
That night, a friend of hers was watching the news on TV and she noticed something odd. As the protest moved out of the city, she could see clear signs of agitation and anger, but when it reached where she knew the Reading Room was, everything became peaceful.
We know the temptation of today. We want to take a side. We want to stand with police to recognize their service and sacrifice. We want to stand with communities of color who have been struggling under the weight of discrimination and dehumanization for generations. We do this because we want to do good.
But only mortal mind splits good into sides. This librarian said, “If I take sides, then I can’t do anything.” The only side Jesus ever took was that of Spirit, the only power he ever wielded was that of Spirit, the only reality he ever accepted was that of Spirit. For a Christian Scientist, none of this is open for debate.
But this does bring us to a second temptation that would undermine church: the mistake of confusing Christ with the doctrines of traditional, organized Christianity.
I think it is safe to say that parts of the world are evolving in ways that could seem to threaten spirituality and Christian Science. Generally speaking, I don’t think I’m saying anything too controversial in suggesting that Christianity is losing its strong footing in American society and culture. At Christmas, our family sometimes watches the Charlie Brown Christmas Special and it’s almost jarring to hear Linus read out the Christmas story verbatim as told in the Bible. It doesn’t feel like a major television show would ever do that today.
And surely, many of us feel that there are other things gaining momentum that seem inconsistent with Christian Science. And these things can feel more urgent by the day. If we don’t address them, and soon, we could lose our church or our country. In politics, we call many of these things “culture war” issues, and they’re not dividing only the country, they’re dividing our churches.
What are we to do about this? Surely, one side has to change its mind, right? Actually, I’d argue that’s not the right way to look at this challenge. One of mortal mind’s oldest tricks is to turn our deep love for the church against one another. After all, it would seem the stakes could not be higher. If we don’t defend the church against these threats, we’re not being loyal and good Christians, are we? We’re risking the fall of our church and our values.
Of course, none of those impulses are wrong. We do care deeply about Christian Science, and we must defend it. The question is how.
What often happens in religion? The temptation is to look at other faiths or at other people in our faith and to judge whether we think they are living up the standard that God demands. In essence, we are tempted to say either inwardly or outwardly: The way you are practicing your religion – or practicing no religion at all – threatens society’s spiritual progress. More specifically to Christian Science, we could say: You are threatening the future of our movement, so to be obedient to God and faithful to our Cause, I must intervene.
On one hand, church discipline is sanctioned by our Manual. We are a community of spiritual seekers committed to the practice of Christian Science as laid out by Mrs. Eddy. She democratically empowered each church to draw those lines for itself. Does that mean some appropriate judging is needed to maintain the spiritual vitality of the church?
In thinking about this, it might be helpful to take a step back. Why do we think Jesus said, “judge not that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1)? Why is it important not to judge?
Well, when we judge, we are basically forming an opinion about some one or some thing, right? But consider this: What power does any one or any thing have to interrupt or defy the will of God? Let me repeat that. What power does any one or any thing have to interrupt or defy the will of God?
Mrs. Eddy repeatedly put the First Commandment at the center of Christian Science. What room does the First Commandment leave for the suggestion that God’s will can be resisted or undone? If we believe that a person or group can defy the will of God, then do we really think God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient? If we believe we need to take action to hold another person or group accountable for their actions, doesn’t that suggest we don’t think God alone is capable of doing it? If we don’t take action, does that mean God will fail? Has God suddenly become dependent on us? Isn’t that backward?
Jesus’ exhortation not to judge is not about protecting others. It’s also not about being humanly nice or endorsing some secular idea or moral relativism. It is about protecting ourselves spiritually. If we judge, we have just dethroned God and made ourselves wholly impotent in Christian Science. By not judging – by instead going to God alone for our understanding and perception of the universe – we keep our thought ordered properly. We cannot at the same time perceive a flaw in someone else and perceive God’s perfect universe.
I can never remind myself too often that when Jesus stood before a political official who had the mortal authority to torture him to death, he said, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above” (John 19:11). That is perceiving the universe correctly despite extreme provocation from mortal mind. And the resurrection and ascension would have been impossible without that correct statement of Principle.
Just as we can’t look at the poor and marginalized and make their suffering real from a desire to help, we can’t make the perceived threats to Christian Science real from a desire to save church. Why? Because that risks turning Christian Science into a collection of well-meaning but cold mortal doctrines rather than the spiritual breath of the living Christ.
A while back, some social scientists did an interesting experiment. They gave a room full of preschoolers T-shirts of four different colors. A quarter of them got red T-shirts, a quarter got green T-shirts, and so on. What do you think happened? Before long, the kids started separating into teams. They would help kids with their same T-shirt color and distrust those of another T-shirt color. Evolutionary biologists call this “in-group selection,” and they say it is deeply ingrained in the brain. Tens of thousands of years ago, when our species were hunter-gatherers, this made sense. Grouping together offered safety, support in times of hardship, and efficiency in hunting. Today, society has advanced to the point where this isn’t really necessary. In fact, in our modern interconnected systems of commerce and security, it’s actively harmful. Yet the brain stubbornly remains wired that way, it seems.
But do we really have brains? Mrs. Eddy wrote in Science & Health: “In a world of sin and sensuality hastening to a greater development of power, it is wise earnestly to consider whether it is the human mind or the divine Mind which is influencing one” (Science & Health 82:31-2)
Are we an animal species trying to overcome millennia of neurological hardwiring that would have us use religious doctrine the way preschoolers use T-shirt color? Or are we all the sons and daughters of God – absolutely and irrevocably – and our ministry is to actively witness it, no matter what mortal mind’s provocation?
Speaking of Jesus’ ministry, Mrs. Eddy wrote: “Those who procured the martyrdom of that righteous man would gladly have turned his sacred career into a mutilated doctrinal platform” (Science & Health 37:18-20).
So, what does all this mean for us? How do we work on behalf of Science without turning it into a tribal argument over cold doctrines? How do we help others without falling into the trap of just being good humans? How do we grow church without falling into the trap of seeing church as a material organization to be maintained?
A big part of the answer, I think, goes to something that the world doesn’t think of very often – something that is one of the deepest lies of mortality but is often simply accepted without question. It goes to understanding our relationship to God as both individual and collective.
Within Christian Science circles, it is very natural to say that none of us is separate from God. As idea or the reflection of Spirit, we are at one with God, and though we all have not fully demonstrated this, we accept it. This is our individual relationship with God. But we think and talk less of our collective relationship to God – how none of us is separate from one another. If God is All-in-all, then our relationship with the divine must somehow connect us in a substantial, meaningful way to that All-in-all.
Mrs. Eddy was clear; this connection does not merge us into some vague state of collective being. “Breaking away from the mutations of time and sense, you will neither lose the solid objects and ends of life nor your own identity,” she says in Science & Health (261:24-27). Nor is our relationship to God through anyone else. But the nature of Spirit makes it impossible to separate ourselves from one another. I, as an idea of Mind, am distinct. But I am also an integral part of a divine Whole. There is no scientific way that I can be separated from that Whole. Remember, Paul said Christ has broken down the middle wall of partition between us.
In her article, “The New Birth,” Mrs. Eddy calls us “children of one common Parent, — wherein and whereby Father, Mother, and child are the divine Principle and divine idea, even the divine “Us” — one in good, and good in One” (Miscellaneous Writings 18:17-21)
She goes on: “With this recognition man could never separate himself from good, God; and he would necessarily entertain habitual love for his fellowman. Only by admitting evil as a reality, and entering into a state of evil thoughts, can we in belief separate one man’s interests from those of the whole human family, or thus attempt to separate Life from God. This is the mistake that causes much that must be repented of and overcome” (Miscellaneous Writings 18:22-28)
It strikes me that this point is crucial to an expanding demonstration of Church.
About 10 years ago, a Swedish scientist did an experiment on singers in a choir. What he found was that as the members of the choir began to sing, their heartbeats literally came into alignment. An NPR article titled “When Choirs Sing, Many Hearts Beat As One,” said of the researcher: “What really struck him was that it took almost no time at all for the singers’ heart rates to become synchronized. The readout from the pulse monitors starts as a jumble of jagged lines, but quickly becomes a series of uniform peaks. The heart rates fall into a shared rhythm guided by the song’s tempo.”
I was recently at a Christian Science event in England. More than 400 people were there, and when we all squeezed into a small meeting hall to sing hymns, it was glorious. You all know how it feels when our hymns fill a space entirely, when our singing feels like it is shaking buildings blocks away. And as we sang, the thought occurred to me: I might not like each individual voice here. In fact, some of them might be downright painful to my ear. But together, it was quite literally a religious experience.
This Swedish researcher told of how, when he was young, every day his teacher started the class with a hymn. “Wasn’t that a good idea,” he said, “to get the class to think, ‘We are one, and we are going to work together today.’”
But is this naïve? Is it a good exercise for preschoolers but not wise in managing the affairs of a church? Can we responsibly sing with people whose tone seems so out of tune with our own?
Have you ever noticed in reading the Gospels that Jesus didn’t follow people around, making sure they stayed healed? He didn’t follow the adulterous woman home or (as far as we know) check back in on her after a month. He just said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
At least once we do see Jesus interacting with someone after they were healed. Seemingly by accident, he came across the man he had healed by the pool of Bethesda. His words don’t suggest he thought that person was staying on the straight and narrow. But he didn’t spend a lot of time trying to re-heal him. “Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee,” he said (John 5:14).
On one level, that’s kind of weird. Why did he heal these people if he wasn’t overly concerned about what they did afterward? As we talked about earlier, he did the same thing with the multitudes he fed. He fed them, and then he just kind of let them go. Why?
To me, the Gospels clearly show that, at every moment, Jesus’ primary task was only to refuse to allow in any thought that was contrary to God. That sounds pretty basic, like something you’d hear in a third-grade Sunday School class. But consider it for a moment. Jesus didn’t go out to fix people. Instead, moment by moment, he defended with absolute and unwavering conviction, the spiritual fact that God is All-in-all – that there was no other presence or power in the universe. No matter what the situation, he refused to leave this standard. The conviction of this mental state made his life a window to Heaven, opening views of present spiritual reality.
“The kingdom of heaven is the reign of divine Science: it is a mental state,” Mrs. Eddy said in a sermon at Hawthorne Hall in Boston (Miscellaneous Writings 174:23-24).
This state of mind answers some of our toughest questions about Church, I believe. The job of church is not to fix other people, just as the job of treatment is not to fix matter. Jesus prayed to defend his thought against the incursion of error. The result was his own salvation, the healing of others, and the spread of Christianity. In God, the individual and collective join harmoniously.
See how Mrs. Eddy explains this in the admonition titled “What Our Leader Says”: “Beloved Christian Scientists, keep your minds so filled with Truth and Love, that sin, disease, and death cannot enter them. It is plain that nothing can be added to the mind already full. There is no door through which evil can enter, and no space for evil to fill in a mind filled with goodness. Good thoughts are an impervious armor; clad therewith you are completely shielded from the attacks of error of every sort. And not only yourselves are safe, but all whom your thoughts rest upon are thereby benefited… Goodness involuntarily resists evil… The right thinker abides under the shadow of the Almighty. His thoughts can only reflect peace, good will towards men, health, and holiness” (Miscellany 210:1–17).
To spread Christian Science and to revitalize our church, we don’t need to change anything at all outside our own consciousness. When we see the Kingdom of Heaven as that Reading Room librarian did, we do everything in our power to defend this church, and we do everything in our power to overcome suffering and injustice. When we bring healing and peace into our lives, that equips us to spontaneously spread it to everyone in our sphere of influence.
For our church to thrive, we must understand that this work is individual and collective. What does the collective expression of God look like? Not a material organization, but rather the demonstration of the fellowship of man as the sons and daughters of God. That demonstration is what Church is. And it is how we – practically and confidently – defeat the claim that the success of our Cause is dependent upon any mortal conditions.