Suzanne Buckingham was eaten alive. It began over twenty years ago when a tiny spot appeared on her face. As a Christian Scientist, Suzanne knew that she could heal the spot by understanding her “true” nature as the perfect, spiritual idea of God. She faithfully held to this idea as the spot grew into a lump and finally developed into a huge, cancerous tumor that engulfed her left eye and part of her mouth. The cancer spread throughout her body, eating her from within as well as consuming much of her face. She spent the last months of her life in bed, clinging to her Christian Science faith as a series of practitioners (professional Christian Science healers) “treated” her with Christian Science prayers and told her that nothing was wrong with her.
Variations on Suzanne’s story have played out over and over in Christian Science homes, although usually with less obvious drama since most disease remains hidden within the body. Nevertheless, quiet carnage is a part of the Christian Science culture and has undoubtedly contributed to the mass exodus experienced by the Church over the past fifty years. While Church membership stood at over a quarter million during the 1930’s, estimates suggest that it has fallen to well under 100,000 at the present time.1
Why should Christians be concerned about Christian Science if its membership is in decline? There are two compelling answers to this question. First, the Church of Christ, Scientist is trying very hard not to expire. Under the leadership of Board of Directors Chairman Virginia Harris, the Church has embarked on an aggressive, multi-faceted marketing program designed to mainstream itself and to attract new members. One result of the marketing program is that, in 1999, approximately 200,000 copies of Science and Health (the Christian Science “textbook”) were sold or distributed – a startling increase over the usual 50,000 to 70,000 copies sold per year.2
A second reason not to ignore Christian Science is that tens of thousands of people have been, or are still being, affected by this religion. An alarming number of former members remain emotionally and spiritually wounded, even as people newly attracted to this religion are being shown only its beautiful side and are usually unaware of its dangers. As Christians, it is important to understand Christian Science so we can minister to the wounded. It is also important to understand both the attractions and pitfalls of the religion so we can guide seekers away from Christian Science and toward a healthier, biblical set of beliefs.
What Christian Scientists Believe
Christian Scientists identify closely with two verses from the first chapter of Genesis:
“So God created man in his own image. . . . And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1: 27a, 31a, KJV)
Mary Baker Eddy (the founder of Christian Science) interpreted these verses to mean that man is the perfect, spiritual reflection of God. Matter, sin, disease, and death do not exist. Mrs. Eddy’s “Scientific Statement of Being,” read every week from every Christian Science pulpit, begins with,
“There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter,”
and ends with, “Therefore, man is not material; he is spiritual.”3
A Christian Scientist’s goal is to fully understand both his spiritual nature and the unreality of matter. As he comprehends these “truths,” his experience reflects this understanding in the form of healings and in the overcoming of life’s challenges. Christian Science never really explains where the belief in matter came from or why it seems to exist – it just does (“seemingly”), and it must be challenged at every turn as it constantly tries to convince us that what we feel, hear, taste, see, and touch are real.
Mrs. Eddy presented Christian Science as a scientific system of healing based upon spiritual laws that God had (allegedly) revealed to her. She taught that these laws must be followed – without deviation – if a believer wished to practice Christian Science with consistent success. She taught that Christian Science cannot be mixed with any other doctrine or spiritual healing system, and that it is incompatible with medicine.
To the Christian Scientist, the vast misconception that matter exists is summed up by the term “mortal mind.”4 We live, receive pleasure, and suffer from the illusory laws of mortal mind as long as we believe that they are true. Sooner or later we must all learn that mortal mind is an illusion, but we suffer from its apparent effects until we learn the lesson. Death does not excuse us from learning the lesson, but simply represents a phase through which we pass as we continue to believe in our mortality. We will suffer on the next “plane[s] of existence”5 (i.e., state(s) of consciousness) until we learn that we are sinless, spiritual ideas of God (this is not considered to be reincarnation, since reincarnation involves a physical body and returning to the same plane of existence). We will all be “saved”6 as we gradually leave our material beliefs behind and realize our true spirituality. In Christian Science, our salvation is not from eternal damnation, but from our belief in materiality.
Christian Scientists call themselves Christians, but their beliefs deviate from biblical Christianity on nearly every central doctrine. To the Christian Scientist, Jesus Christ is a “duality”7 consisting of Jesus “the human man”8 and Christ the “divine idea.”9 Heaven and hell are states of mind rather than real places.10 The Holy Spirit is Christian Science and not a member of the Godhead.11 Jesus’ “seeming”12 death on the cross was not intended to pay for our sins, but to prove the unreality of sin, disease, and death. The Bible is full of mistakes. Jesus’ words were recorded by “dull disciples…in a decaying language,”13 and must be spiritually interpreted through Christian Science.
Christian Science offers some real enticements – a “spiritually scientific”14 method for healing, victory over life’s circumstances, and guaranteed salvation. All one has to do to receive these blessings is to study Mrs. Eddy’s writings and obey them to the letter. She is “the chosen messenger of God”15 and her writings are infallible. Just obey her teaching and learn to think as she thought, and you will be victorious.
Achieving Eddy’s Utopian promises is not as easy as it sounds. Aside from its spiritual perils, Christian Science subjects its adherents to a host of emotional and physical dangers. From an emotional standpoint, Christian Scientists face a disparity between what their physical senses tell them and what they “know” to be true. Consciously or unconsciously, they go through life denying the reality of their bodies and reinterpreting both their emotions and circumstances to fit this false view of life. This mental juggling act can be especially harmful to children, who have an instinctive need for their hurts and feelings to be validated. Many of them suffer emotional neglect as their parents lovingly tell them that their pain is not real.
The physical dangers of Christian Science are obvious. Since they are taught that learning about their bodies is spiritually harmful, Christian Scientists are ill equipped to understand the symptoms of illness. They often suffer needlessly from treatable diseases and neglect life-threatening conditions that could be cured if treated in their early stages.
Do Christian Scientists recognize the trap in which they live? Most of them do not. Convinced that their religion represents God’s perfect and complete Truth, they assume that anything that disagrees with Christian Science must be incorrect. Failed healings, skepticism over Christian Science doctrine, and claims that Christian Science contradicts the Bible – these are all blamed on a poor understanding of Christian Science and not on any fault with the religion itself. Christian Science is always right, even if you don’t quite understand it and even if people are dying around you.
Mainstreaming the Church
The Christian Science Church is finding new ways to promote itself in light of our society’s current interest in self-awareness, spirituality, mind/body connections, alternative medicine, and women’s issues. The Church’s weekly magazine has been redesigned to include quotes from unlikely figures like New Age proponent Oprah Winfrey.16 Church representatives are also turning up at medical conferences and other astonishing places. Consider a few activities that the Church has recently sponsored or in which it has participated:
• In December of 1999, Virginia Harris spoke at a symposium entitled “Spirituality and Healing in Medicine” sponsored by Harvard Medical School and the Mind/Body Medical Institute, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston. At the symposium, Harris discussed “The Future of Medicine – and the Medicine of the Future.”17
• The Church recently participated in at least two conferences regarding child-abuse prevention. Maryland churches co-sponsored and provided two moderators for a conference entitled, “Faith Community Response to Child Abuse.” At a California conference, Church representative Brian Talcott sat on a panel discussing the subject, “Building Bridges with Religious Communities in Child Abuse Prevention, Intervention, and Treatment.”18
• The Church recently announced plans to build the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity. Scheduled to open in 2002, the library will house over 500,000 unpublished documents and artifacts related to Mrs. Eddy.19 According to the Church Directors, the library’s purpose is “to further the universal quest for spirituality and the science of being – and their effect on health and human progress.”20 (It will also allow the Church to secure another 45 years of copyright protection for the writings under new U.S. copyright laws that take effect at the end of 2002.) The library will be located at the Church headquarters in Boston and will be modeled after presidential libraries, with exhibits and meeting facilities for academic and public discussion of subjects like “women’s issues, spirituality, religion and wellness.” The Church has gathered an impressive group of advisors for the project, including Dr. Ann Braude, Director of Women’s Studies in Religion Program, Harvard Divinity School; Dr. Herbert A. Benson, Associate Professor, Harvard Medical School and Founder and Director of the Mind/Body Institute; and Dr. David Hufford, Director, The Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine, Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine.21 As part of the $50 million project, a satellite library is planned for Seneca Falls, New York – site of the first Woman’s Rights Convention.
• In the fall of 1999, Larry King interviewed Virginia Harris on his prime time television show, Larry King Live. King is sympathetic to Christian Science; what resulted was an hour-long commercial for the religion that presented its Utopian side while blatantly misrepresenting its drawbacks. (For example, when King asked about children who have died under Christian Science care, Harris responded, “the few cases that have been publicized are the only ones.” Having talked with some former Christian Scientists who lost siblings in this religion, I know that Harris’ statement was either patently false or hopelessly naïve.)
The activities listed above suggest that the Christian Science Church is trying to project a new image by portraying itself as actively involved in the important issues of our day – women’s issues, child-abuse prevention, alternative healthcare, and spirituality, to name a few. But, with the exception of women’s issues, this new image is deceptive. As stated on the Church’s official web site,
“The fundamental teachings and practice of Christian Science do not change, nor will they change.”22
This means that, no matter how much the Church identifies itself with the alternative healthcare movement, its basic tenants will always prevent mixing Christian Science with any form of alternative healthcare. And even as the Church speaks out against child abuse, its basic doctrines still result in emotional and physical neglect as parents tell their children that their hurts and pains are not real.
Along with its new image, the Church is avoiding the appearance of having “policies” (most notably a written policy on mixing Christian Science and medicine). This is a profound deception, since the very foundations of Christian Science preclude this combination. Mrs. Eddy’s writings repeatedly warn against trying to combine medicine with Christian Science, as does the Church’s official web site:
Question on web site: “Why not mix Christian Science with medical treatment?”
Answer: “Christian Science treatment and medical treatment proceed from opposite standpoints…To try to heal from opposite systems may be unfair to the patient and could be counterproductive to healing.” (http://www.tfccs.com 2-5-01)
While the answer attempts to appear non-dogmatic with its use of words like “may” and “could,” the Church’s policy of not mixing Christian Science with medicine is clearly revealed by the question itself and is consistent with how the Church has operated throughout its history.
Two examples illustrate how the Christian Science Church is attempting veil its policy regarding medicine. The first example involves Virginia Harris’ interview on Larry King Live.
To King’s question, “Why couldn’t you have prayer and aspirins?”
Harris replies, “Well, people can do whatever they want to.”
To his later question, “…why not prayer and the antibiotic?”
She responds, “…people do that, Larry. People are free to do whatever they want to.”23
What Harris neglects to say is that, if a person chooses the aspirin or the antibiotic, they are not free to use Christian Science treatment at the same time. If they are under the care of a Christian Science practitioner and choose to take the medicine, the practitioner is supposed to drop their case. What Harris should have said is, “You can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t mix Christian Science with medical treatment.”
The second example involves an editorial statement that originally appeared in the December 1999 issue of The Christian Science Journal. In the article “The Standpoint of Christian Science Treatment,” the editors wrote,
“It has not proved helpful to combine Christian Science treatment with material methods of cure.” (This statement is entirely consistent with historical Church practice).
Then, in an unprecedented move, the editors recalled the December Christian Science Journal and reissued it with the comment,
“[The editors] regret that the original December issue of The Christian Science Journal included a statement that might have been taken by readers as policy…This was not intended as a policy statement to govern an individual’s practice of Christian Science.”24
(The Church avoids written policies, presumably because several of its members have been taken to court when children died under the care of Christian Science practitioners.)25
The editors then presented a “correction” saying that no one needs to feel guilty for receiving “temporary [medical] help.” The correction emphasizes that The Christian Science Journal includes testimonies of healing regarding people who turned to Christian Science after initially using medicine (which they later abandoned in favor of Christian Science treatment) – and felt no guilt.
While the editors’ “correction” is attempting to reinforce the Church’s “people-are-free-to-do-whatever-they-want” façade, it does nothing to help the sincere Christian Scientist. The “facts” remain: Medical care is inferior to Christian Science; relying on medical care is spiritually damaging; you must choose between your religion and medicine as they are at odds with each other; if you are under the care of a practitioner, you will lose that support if you consult a doctor. Ironically, three pages after its “correction,” the December 1999 Journal carried an article that states,
“to try to mix spiritual and material means has the effect of weakening trust in the all-power and all-presence of God.”26
The Church’s “do as you wish” façade appears to be attracting new followers. I am in contact with several people who are intrigued by the Utopian promises offered by Christian Science, but who think they can combine them with their current religious beliefs and/or with medicine. They are accustomed to the “pick-and-choose” attitudes of our day and apparently have not seen or comprehended such statements by Mrs. Eddy’s as,
“If the student goes away to practice [Christian Science] only in part, dividing his interests between God and mammon and substituting his own views for Truth, he will inevitably reap the error he sows. Whoever would demonstrate the healing of Christian Science must abide strictly by its rules, heed every statement, and advance from the rudiments laid down.”27
Suzanne Buckingham “could” have sought medical treatment. But as a mature and dedicated believer, could she really choose the medical option? She was sure that Christian Science could heal her if only she understood it well enough. She believed that her practitioner could help her achieve the required level of understanding. She knew that going to a doctor would damage her spiritual life and deprive her of any Christian Science care. And she had been taught to deny the physical evidence in front of her and to emotionally minimize her physical situation. No, Suzanne could not go to a doctor; she was trapped in an emotional and spiritual box that prevented her from considering any care other than Christian Science treatment.
What did the Christian Science Church do to help Suzanne? Essentially…nothing. In August of 2000, Suzanne’s daughter, Bryn Calderon, wrote a letter to Church officials at the Boston headquarters and in her home state of California.28 The letter described Suzanne’s condition and referred to the “horrendous situation”29 in which the illness had placed her family. Bryn told the Church that, if her mother died, she would aggressively publicize the death and its link to Christian Science. To prevent Bryn’s action, all the Church officials had to do was to have Suzanne’s practitioner convince her to see a doctor.
The Church’s response was predictable. Suzanne’s practitioner simply told her,
“We just want you to know that you’re free to do whatever you think is best.”30
And with that, the issue was apparently over in the eyes of the Church. The practitioner (who is also a Christian Science “Teacher,” placing him among the religion’s most elite class of healers) continued to “treat” Suzanne until, at his urging, she switched to a practitioner closer to her home (the Teacher lives over an hour from her house – an irrelevant point since, as in Suzanne’s case, practitioners usually treat their patients over the phone). Suzanne’s new practitioner then took up the project, speaking with her up to fifty times per month, in one-to-two minute segments, as Suzanne repeatedly sought relief and healing. With each conversation, the practitioner told Suzanne that she was the spiritual idea of God and that nothing was wrong with her. Suzanne died in April 2001, eight months after her daughter’s letter to Church officials and still under the “care” of her practitioner.
Responsible healthcare providers recommend alternative treatment when their own efforts are unsuccessful. But Suzanne’s situation suggests that Christian Science does not allow its practitioners to be responsible healthcare providers, even when the Church’s reputation is at stake. Advising Suzanne to go to a doctor was something that her practitioners and her church were not willing to do.
Christian Scientists seem like happy, healthy, spiritually minded people. They are actively offering their religion to a world that is searching for answers. As seekers inquire about this beautiful sounding religion, let us be ready to guide them away from a path that will lead them into spiritual, physical, and emotional danger.
Sharing your faith with Christian Scientists
When discussing Christianity with Christian Scientists, remember the following:
Devout Christian Scientists have a deep love for God, Jesus, and the Bible (as they understand them). Address them with sensitivity and respect, and with an appreciation for their devotion.
Christian Scientists often sound quite knowledgeable about the Bible. Remember that much of their Bible knowledge consists of partial verses taken out of context and assigned new, “spiritualized” meanings. Ask them to define their terms when they quote the Bible. (“What do you mean by the word ‘atonement’?”) When they quote verses out of context, challenge them to look at those verses along with the verses before and after them.
Most Christian Scientists hold Mary Baker Eddy in very high esteem. They have been taught to dismiss negative information about her as lies and ignorance. Avoid joking about her or making accusations that you cannot clearly support. If you don’t appreciate wisecracks about Jesus, don’t make them about Mary Baker Eddy.
Suggestions for discussing Christianity with Christian Scientists:
Ask sincere, respectful questions designed to help the Christian Scientist evaluate his or her beliefs and loyalties. For example:
* Ask the question, “Which book do you hold in higher esteem – Science and Health, or the Bible?” The answer will probably be, “both books” or “the Bible.”
Then say, “Mrs. Eddy wrote that the Bible contains ‘manifest mistakes in the ancient versions . . . thirty thousand different readings in the Old Testament, and . . . three hundred thousand in the New [Testament] . . .’31 She also stated that the disciples were ‘dull.’32 On the other hand, she states that her own writings – including Science and Health and even the Manual (the By-Laws of The Mother Church) – are ‘[God]-inspired’33 and infallible. How, then, can you esteem the Bible as much as you do Mrs. Eddy’s writings?”
* Christian Scientists are taught that Mrs. Eddy discovered Christian Science after being healed from a serious fall on the ice in February of 1866. She was expected to die, but rose from her bed on the third day, healed and free.34 Ask, “If she was really healed, then why did she try to sue the city for damages? Court records show that, during the summer of 1866 (several months after the accident), she requested money from the city on the grounds that she was ‘still suffering.’” (In a Church-authorized biography, Richard Nenneman records a portion of Mrs. Eddy’s petition to the mayor of Lynn as preserved in the court records of Essex County, Massachusetts. Mrs. Eddy’s petition states,
“Having suffered much, and still suffering from the effects of that fall, she earnestly petitions your Honor for the recompense of justice in a pecuniary point, so far as that may atone for her injuries and loss.”35 )
* People who become disenchanted with Christian Science are sometimes reluctant to leave their religion because it still has many good points (“its people have such a positive attitude and are so friendly…”). Point out that the good parts of Christian Science are also in biblical Christianity. Find out what virtues they don’t want to leave, and give them examples of how these “good things” can also be found in a Christian church.
* Christian Science is supposedly validated by its healings. Believers will undoubtedly tell you about a healing they or a loved one have experienced and may point to over 50,000 “authenticated”36 healings published in Christian Science literature. Several responses may be helpful:
– Agree with them that God does heal, but point out that healings occur even in non-Christian Science churches – including those that do not emphasize “faith healing.” Healings do not prove that one religion is the truth because healings occur in many religions.
– Point out that the apostle Paul did not consider healing to be a sign of his spirituality. “Three times” he asked God to heal his “thorn in the flesh,” (2 Cor.12:8-9), and he then was content to trust God’s sovereignty when God denied his request. Paul also suggested that Timothy “use a little wine” (1 Tim. 5:23) for medicinal purposes. If insufficient “spiritual understanding”37 had caused Timothy’s ailment, Paul would have encouraged him to pray more about the situation instead of prescribing some wine.
– Don’t be intimidated by the “more than 50,000 authenticated testimonies of healing.”38 When compared to estimated membership numbers, this figure represents roughly one documented healing per ten Christian Scientists per lifetime!
* Listen to what the Christian Scientist has to say, but be ready to give calm, clearly stated challenges to biblical errors. Nothing is quite as disarming as a calm, assured, response.
Linda Kramer spent thirty years in Christian Science before leaving for doctrinal reasons and then fighting a long battle for emotional freedom. She now ministers to the spiritual and emotional needs of others touched by this religion both through private correspondence and through her work with Christian Way, an evangelical outreach to Christian Scientists. Dr. Kramer authored the book, The Religion That Kills, which uses Christian Science writings and secular mind control criteria to examine how Christian Science attracts, controls, and harms its followers. Dr. Kramer is a wife, mother, and an adjunct professor of chemistry.
Note: With minor changes, this paper was originally published in the Spring 2001 Journal of Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc., Box 455, Lombard, IL 60148-0455.
1. Rodney Stark, “The Rise and Fall of Christian Science,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 13(2) (1998): 189-214. Although membership figures are confidential, their continuing downward trend can be assumed from the declining number of churches and practitioners listed monthly in The Christian Science Journal.
2. “Christian Scientists Expand Presence In Cyberspace,” The Christian Science Monitor electronic edition http://www.csmonitor.com (6 June 2000).
3. Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston, MA: Published by the Trustees under the Will of Mary Baker G. Eddy, 1934), 468:8-15. Throughout this bibliography, this work will be cited as “S&H.”
4. Ibid., 591:25-592:10.
5. Ibid., 77:9-11.
10.Ibid., 587:25-588:4, 266:20-21.
11.Ibid., 55:27-29. This reference is best understood by noting that the Bible refers to the Holy Spirit as the comforter (John 14:16-17) and that Christian Science uses the terms Christian Science and Divine Science interchangeably (S&H 127:9-12).
13.Mary Baker Eddy, Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896 (Boston, MA: Published by the Trustees under the Will of Mary Baker G. Eddy, 1924), 100:1-6
14.Mary Baker Eddy, S&H, 138:9-11. For a concise statement of this spiritual “science,” see the “scientific statement of being” (S&H 468:8-15).
15.Richard A. Nenneman, Persistent Pilgrim: The Life of Mary Baker Eddy (NH: Nebbadoon Press, 1997), 152-3.
16.For example, see The Christian Science Sentinel (20 November 2000), 4.
17.Report on talk given by Virginia S. Harris, C.S.B., “The Future of Medicine – and the Medicine of the Future,” The Christian Science Sentinel (March 2000).
18.“Faith Community Response to Child Abuse” Conference, Columbia, MD, 12 October 2000. “San Diego Conference on Responding to Child Maltreatment,” San Diego, CA, 22-26 January 2001.
19Michael Paulson, “A Mary Baker Eddy Showcase,” The Boston Globe, Metro Region Section (6 June 2000).
20. Press release by The Christian Science Board of Directors, PRNewswire, Yahoo! (6 June 2000).
22. Partial answer to the question, “Is your religion changing with the times?” on the official web site of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, http://www.tfccs.com (5 February 2001).
23. Virginia Harris interview on CNN’s Larry King Live (30 September 1999).
24. The Christian Science Board of Directors, “Compassion and Healing in the Twenty-First Century,” The Christian Science Journal (December 1999), 16.
25. See web site for CHILD, Inc. (Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty, Inc.), http://www.childrenshealthcare.org
26. Jean Stark Hebenstreit, “The Uniqueness of Christian Science Healing,” The Christian Science Journal (December 1999), 19-21.
27. Mary Baker Eddy, S&H, 426:9-15.
28. The letter was sent to Gary A. Jones, Manager of the Committees on Publication for the Christian Science Church and to Robert Coe Gilbert, Committees on Publication for Southern California.
30. Linda Kramer private conversation with Bryn.
31. Mary Baker Eddy, S&H, 139:16-19.
32. Mary Baker Eddy, Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896 (Boston, MA: Published by the Trustees under the Will of Mary Baker G. Eddy, 1924),100:1-6.
33. Quote of Mary Baker Eddy in John Lathrop, “Reflections of Mary Baker Eddy,” We Knew Mary Baker Eddy, 1st series, (Boston, MA: The Christian Science Publishing Society, 1943) 22.
34. Yvonne Cache von Fettweis and Robert Townsend Warneck, Mary Baker Eddy: Christian Healer (Boston, MA: The Christian Science Publishing Society, 1998) xiii, 33-35.
35.Richard A. Nenneman, Persistent Pilgrim: The Life of Mary Baker Eddy (NH: Nebbadoon Press, 1997), 88.
36. Answer to “What is your record of success with Christian Science healing?” in Questions and Answers section of “The official home page of The Church of Christ, Scientist,” http://www.tfccs.com (15 May 2001).
37. Mary Baker Eddy, S&H, 14:25-30, 442:19-22.
38.Op. cit. (endnote 35).