Sunday, July 15, 2012
Evotour, part seven. The Evolution of Christian Science
On June 9, I had the privilege of participating in a Victorian garden party in Pasadena, dressed as Charles Darwin. It was a fundraiser for Opera a la Carte, the opera company with which my college friend Carol has been working for many years.
Carol has other jobs as well. One of them is to be a singer for a Christian Science church in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, a job she has had for years even though she is not a member of that religious persuasion. I can never get enough of hearing Carol’s beautiful voice, even if it means sitting through a Christian Science service. But, the ever alert naturalist, I listened to and analyzed what the Christian Scientists were saying.
Christian Science began with the visions—most of us say delusions, her followers would say revelations—of Mary Baker Eddy in nineteenth century America. By chance, I also happened to be reading a book about the history and current controversies of the Mormon church, which began about the same time. The United States was a frontier country. America had been founded by breaking with European tradition of loyalty to monarchs and to state-supported churches. Many new religions, led by self-styled prophets, began at this time. They appealed to direct experience, and to divine revelation (indistinguishable from delusion by our mere human brains). They were like weeds growing in a field after a fire. Most of them, like most of the plants of the field, died out. But the legacies of Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy live on. Mormonism has become a major political force, devoted as unswervingly to the political right as it is to God, while Christian Science has not fulfilled Mark Twain’s fear that it would become the religion that conquered American thought and action.
Today, Christian Science is known mainly for its opposition to conventional medical practice. Church services consist mainly of singing and of readings (without sermon comment) from the Bible and from the Mary Baker Eddy scriptures. On a previous visit to this church in 2006, the Eddy reading was something like (in my imperfect memory), “Do you have a carbuncle? Well, you don’t really have a carbuncle. The carbuncle is just an illusion.” Most of us think, how could these people be so delusional? But consider this. At the time that Mary Baker Eddy started Christian Science, conventional medical science was a bunch of snake-oil hokum. Eddy wrote against the scientific idea of a life force—an idea that has been long abandoned. Strange as it may seem, Eddy was appealing to reason and experience. Since its inception, Christian Science has ossified into a belief system that is impervious to new discoveries, and today is a carbuncle afloat on a sea of scientific evidence but which absorbs none of it. The Mormon Church has at least incorporated a little bit of new evidence—it now rejects polygamy and admits black men into its priesthood of believers. But it, too, has largely become an impervious bubble of ignorance. There is simply no archaeological evidence of the great battle between the fair children of God and the swarthy Native American children of evil which even mainstream Mormons continue to commemorate at their Hill Cumorah site.
Still, I left with a little more respect for Christian Science. At its inception, it was perhaps a viable alternative view, even testable by scientific hypotheses. Mary Baker Eddy was even open to the insights of Charles Darwin. But that was a long time ago.
In the photo, Mary Baker Eddy watches over the place where Christian scientists educate their children.