If not on this rock, where?

August 2nd, 2014

Participating in the Fellowship of Former Christian Scientists with new friends from 8 states in St. Louis this weekend (for which, kudos to FFCS director Katherine Beim-Esche), I shared with them this imagined conversation among three individuals who once followed Mrs. Eddy but are no longer doing so.

Timothy: I’m interested to meet another couple who decided, like my wife and me, Christian Science was not for them after having both been raised in it and having had it in their families for generations. What brought you to that point?

Priscilla: The healing promises of Christian Science were just not fulfilled in my experience and in our children’s experience. And the church was not the loving place you’d expect from all their talk of “God is Love.” So much denial, impersonality, and pretense; so little genuine warmth or acceptance or simple caring.

Aquila: For me, it was a matter of theology, history, and evidence. I concluded Science and Health was just not true to the Bible, especially in terms of who Jesus was. How could Mrs. Eddy throw over what the Christian church had been for over 1800 years? How could I live by her metaphysical statements that “man is not material” (Scientific Statement of Being) or “sin and evil are unreal” (the Tenets) when real life proved otherwise?

Timothy: As former Christian Scientists, where have you landed spiritually now?

Aquila: Nowhere in particular, I’m afraid. We’ve gone to church occasionally, here and there. But they’re all so different from what we’re used to, and really so different from each other. Amid all their disagreements, who’s to say what’s true? I’ve almost decided, why bother?

The Setting: Sipping my tall bold at a Starbucks the other day in suburban St. Louis near Principia, my alma mater from first grade all the way through college, I happened to hear a wiry, gray-haired man about my age mention Christian Science to his two companions at the next table. Eavesdropping isn’t polite, but these days with our mobile devices it has become invisible and exact. I hit the record button and turned back to my newspaper as if paying no attention. This is a transcript of what they said. In the readiness to speak truth and to receive it, all three, I felt, honored well their namesakes in the Book of Acts.

Priscilla: We still believe in God, of course. We pray and rely on Him. We want to live good lives as He would have us live, and I think we do.

Timothy: What exactly is God to you, though, if He is no longer Mrs. Eddy’s seven synonyms? And what’s it mean to live as He would have us live? How can we know that?

Priscilla: Oh, straight from the Bible, wouldn’t you say, AQ? Don’t misunderstand, Tim. It’s still very important to us. The Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, some of the Psalms, the love chapter in Corinthians, the fruits of the Spirit that Paul writes about.

Aquila: I love where Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is within you.” We live by that. And actually the synonyms still define God pretty well for me. Principle, for example. And divine Mind, the all-knowing. Life, Truth, Love – we didn’t leave those when we left the CS church.

Timothy: Aquila, let me go back to what you said about Science and Health misrepresenting the biblical Jesus. How was that?

Aquila: Jesus’ disciples and all the New Testament writers believed him to be God in the flesh. They expected his second coming. They worshiped him in the Eucharist of bread and wine. Mrs. Eddy denies all of that and yet claims to be the final revelation of Christianity. The contradictions became so troubling to me, I just walked away from all of it.

Timothy: I wrestled with those same contradictions, but the conclusion I reached was to stop following Mrs. Eddy and follow Jesus. Put Science and Health aside and believe the Bible.

Priscilla: When you’ve been taught for so long to approach religion scientifically and not from blind faith – studied and worked at it so hard – and the whole scientific thing sort of collapses, that childlike attitude of “follow Jesus, believe the Bible” is hard to recover. My CS teacher called it old theology. I respected her so much. I still do.

Aquila: As I said, Tim, evidence is important to me. Facts and logic. Simply deciding to believe something seems arbitrary, almost superstitious.

Timothy: I respect that. We have to be tough-minded. There are a lot of myths and superstitions out there. But when you think about it, we all believe a lot of things axiomatically or by inference, rather than by direct proof. Physicists admit they can’t explain gravity. Yet we all take it for granted, because it literally is granted. It’s just there. I take God at His word because no better alternative has ever been presented. What keeps you from doing that? Can you put your finger on it?

Aquila: No offense, but it’s just too simplistic for me. I couldn’t respect myself. Sorry.

Priscilla: I guess I’m the same. Old theology, formulas, pat answers. The blood of the Lamb, believe and be saved – the world has moved beyond all that. We’re educated people. It’s the 21st century.

Timothy: Look, you said God and the Bible are important to you, right?

Both: Right.

Timothy: Well, then we come to the hard part. I think you need to honestly ask yourselves, how important are they? Am I taking them on my terms, picking and choosing, or am I willing to really submit to them on their terms? That’s a scary word, isn’t it? “Submit!”

Priscilla: Scary to me, yes, and a little demeaning. It goes against the grain for a modern woman.

Timothy: I said this part is hard. Pushing ahead when something is scary and demeaning, what does that take, AQ?

Aquila: Obviously courage on one hand, and on the other hand, a degree of humility. But not so fast, Tim. You’re setting it up as though someone who does otherwise is a lesser person. That feels manipulative.

Timothy: Please don’t take it that way. I’m just trying to show you there’s more than one way of seeing it. AQ said he couldn’t respect himself for submitting to God’s word, as some of us have. But maybe I couldn’t respect myself if I didn’t.

Priscilla: I suppose it would be easier to have one authority for everything, one source for the answer to all questions. Not have to think things out for yourself and have big areas of uncertainty. Recite the creed and that’s that.

Timothy: Easier or harder? A minute ago my way was distasteful to you, scary. As far as creeds are concerned, they’re not some kind of mumbo jumbo. A creed is just a clear, specific summation of what you hold to be true. Everybody has one, but with most people they’re unconscious, implicit. I’d rather have mine explicit and on the table.

Aquila: Fair enough. I’m with you there.

Timothy: As you probably recall, rejection of creeds is taught by Mrs. Eddy in her textbook and mentioned in her hymns. It’s placed at the front of her Church Manual, where she speaks of forming “a church without creeds.” So it was a group of people joining together to serve God but not binding themselves to a definitive statement of who God is and how He relates to us. How was that supposed to work? No wonder the CS church has drifted and declined. In the terms of Jesus’ parable, it’s a sand-built house.

Priscilla: Really sad. So many good, faithful people. Such earnest good intentions. Noble institutions like Principia and Adventure Unlimited. A hundred years in my own family. But you’re right, Tim. It’s built on sand.

Timothy: How about the two of you, now that Science is a closed chapter? What are you building on?

Priscilla: I don’t see that we really have to. We’re just going along, doing the best we can. Being there for our kids, working at our careers, contributing in our community. That’s enough, wouldn’t you say, AQ? Sometimes more than enough, as busy as we are, as hectic as things get. But at least without that heavy, restrictive pressure to conform and measure up that we felt in Christian Science.

Aquila: Yes, hon, it’s a relief to be out from under that. But I can see Tim’s point. Everybody has to have a core of conviction, a fundamental sense of what’s real, what’s important. How the world works. The jumbled wishful made-up picture that CS gives was part of what we walked away from, after all. What do we have now in its place?

Timothy: Thank you both for being patient and hanging with me in this discussion. I think we’re getting somewhere. Come back to that image of the two houses, one built on sand, unsafe to live in, the other built on rock. Jesus said the rock was his own teachings and example – actually his own person, himself. Remember that?

Aquila: Sure, we learned it in Sunday School when I was six. Mrs. Line. I can still see her face.

Timothy: AQ, you mentioned all the disagreement among Christian churches and denominations, causing you to throw up your hands. I get that. But after leaving Science, doing a lot of study and searching, looking around, I found there is more agreement than disagreement among them. For instance, the Apostles’ Creed. It’s a few simple points about what’s true and real, that all of Jesus’ followers have accepted for over a thousand years, and still do. There are only a dozen short lines, a hundred words. You can say them in less than a minute. For a thoughtful person like either of you, probably the hardest ones to say are the first two, “I believe.”

Priscilla: You mean because we won’t just do it by rote? It has to be from the whole heart?

Aquila: And the whole mind.

Timothy: Yes, nothing less is good enough. Not for ourselves, and actually not for God either. When we say, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” He doesn’t want it to come from parrots or puppets. He wants that intelligent submission I was talking about, clear-thinking persons with their eyes wide open, looking up to Him of their own free will. There doesn’t have to be utter certainty. How can there be? We’re human. So maybe we’re really saying I believe that I believe, or I’m trying to believe, or I want to believe. But we’re taking that plunge.

Priscilla: Like the man who said to Jesus, “I believe. Help thou mine unbelief.”

Timothy: Exactly. So here we are up on the high dive. Want to plunge, AQ? How about it? Do you believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth?

Aquila: I guess I do, yes. It’s hard to spit out, but the alternative, the denial or disbelief of Him, is much worse. Even the cowardice of saying I don’t know is worse.

Priscilla: I believe too.

Aquila: So have we just plunged?

Timothy: That’s for you to answer, friends, not me.

Priscilla: It feels like we have.

Timothy: Before we look at the next few lines, let me point out a couple of things that make the creed different from the sort of propositions and assertions we grew up on as Christian Scientists. One, it uses words of plain meaning, not the abstract, rarefied terminology that Mrs. Eddy uses. “Maker of heaven and earth” is pretty straightforward, right? Nothing about mortal mind or divine ideas or anything like that. Accept it or reject it. Common sense suffices. Second, unlike the CS picture of things in a sort of diagram, a static layout of “the way it is,” the creed moves like a sort of story – things that have happened, and that will happen, and the persons involved in those happenings.

Aquila: That’s logical enough. Anyone’s life is a story. So is any given day, for that matter. So is the Bible itself.

Timothy: Also you’ll notice that the persons in the creed, beginning with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, are part of its common-sense realism. Again, words of plain meaning. The way that CS impersonalized everything and everybody, ourselves included, had come to seem so fake to me. Whereas this is something you can take hold of and hang onto, even if the theological depth of it takes longer to fathom. I sure haven’t fathomed it yet. But it’s a rock to build on.

Priscilla: Interesting, yes. That was part of my CS exit too. By introspection and just by looking in the mirror, it’s obvious I’m a human person. And married to one. But, God as a person? That’s not obvious. On the other hand, the complexity and interest and even beauty that we see in human persons, if God didn’t possess that in even higher degree, if He were just an impersonal principle, He would be to that extent less than we are – which is totally upside down. But back to the creed, Tim. How does the next part go?

Timothy: All right, now listen to how the storyline picks up, the interplay of the persons. Not forces, persons. “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” It goes on, but let’s pause there. That’s already a lot to take in. Billions of people around the world bend the knee and subscribe to this. A few hundred thousand of Mrs. Eddy’s followers do not.

Aquila: It doesn’t actually say Jesus was God, or is God, does it? I always thought that was explicit in the Apostles’ Creed. That’s something I really stumble on.

Timothy: You were taught to. We all were. But it’s certainly implicit when the creed says “only begotten Son.” As humans, when we have a son, he’s human. Not fish or fowl. Not conceptual, either. Not just an idea. So when God has a Son, capital S, it’s no different. It’s the original of all sonship, in fact. Jesus came first, before we or any son of ours was ever thought of, before there was time. Christian Science talks about sonship, of course, but as I said, it dances around the plain meaning of who and what Jesus the Son had to be if he was begotten of God the Father. He had to be God as well, God the Son.

Priscilla: Why does that matter so much, Tim?

Timothy: I could flip the question around and ask you, why do Mrs. Eddy and those who buy into her view of things resist it so much? Maybe because of its implications for how big and sovereign God would have to be, if the creed is right, and in consequence how small and utterly dependent we’d have to be. We want a manageable God who fits into our logic, our box. It gives us a sense of mastery and control to be able to say God couldn’t become flesh and be born of Mary and live and die as Jesus. Nor could Jesus be fully God and fully man at the same time. “He just couldn’t,” we say. “I reject that.” Notice how big the “I” is in that statement. How small God is. It’s grotesque. One day all this dawned on me, and I was horrified at the arrogance. Who did I think I was?

Aquila: It’s unpleasant to think I’ve indulged that kind of arrogance. You’re getting to me, Tim. But obviously the creed doesn’t stop there. The resurrection still has to occur. Tell us the rest.

Timothy: Okay, we paused where Jesus was in the tomb, right? So it continues this way: “He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

Priscilla: Stop again, please. Let me see if I’m following this. It’s saying heaven and hell are real places, not just a state of mind. It speaks of Jesus in the present tense, sitting at God’s right hand. Even now at this moment. It has him coming back, and when he comes, judging everyone, me included. Do I have that right, and if so, what’s to be the judgment upon me? That has an uncomfortable note of finality.

Timothy: It does, and that’s why the creed itself matters. What we believe matters. Committing ourselves to Jesus puts us within his embrace as the Savior before we ever have to face his tribunal as the Judge. It gets us forgiven, made new by the indwelling of his own Spirit, and adopted into his family of sanctified ones, or saints. All of which in fact paraphrases the closing lines of the creed that I’ll come to now. First, though, tell me how you’re doing. I hope I haven’t lost you, buried you with too much too fast.

Aquila: I think I’m tracking you pretty well. The initial “I believe” is what has to hold up through each clause of the story and each claim about who Jesus was and is. If I can set aside my doubt and sophistication – actually amounting to arrogance, as you pointed out – enough to accept this person called God the Son and Jesus the man, both one and the same, all the rest of it isn’t that hard to accept either. Of course the whole thing for me at this point is still just a thought experiment, totally provisional. But I’m not ruling it out as I would have yesterday. Honey?

Priscilla: That’s about where I am too, at this point, Tim. I have to admit it stirs me. It pulls on me. I’m really touched that you’d be so patient with both of us about this. You have your convictions, and you hold them passionately, I can tell. But you aren’t pushing them on us.

Timothy: There was a time when I was exactly where both of you are. It’s so sad when someone who has given up on Christian Science then gives up on God and Jesus and the Bible as well. It doesn’t need to be, but it happens so often. What’s left for them to build on then? Sand. Shifting, slippery, squishy, seductive, unstable, treacherous sand. If I can help you see a better way, the better way, I want to.

Priscilla: You paraphrased the ending, but give us the exact words.

Timothy: The closing lines come back and repeat our affirmation of belief, actually twice: “I believe in the Holy Ghost. I believe in the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.”

Aquila: Communion of saints? Catholic church? Help me out.

Timothy: That’s “catholic” with a small C. It just means one universal church, permanent, enduring, and undivided – in God’s sight, anyway, and in our aspiration, our faith, even though it’s terribly divided in the here and now – and often sadly unholy. The communion of saints is a related idea. To me it means that everyone who ever has made or ever will make this affirmation of belief is bonded together in the family of God – the saved and sanctified ones, the saints – across all space and time. I find that a beautiful picture, don’t you? It grounds me in a way Mrs. Eddy’s metaphysics never did.

Priscilla: Beautiful, yes. It does have a lot of appeal. And as for grounding, something just made me think of that line in one of Mrs. Eddy’s hymns: “Thus Truth engrounds me on the rock, upon Life’s shore.”

Aquila: “’Gainst which the winds and waves can shock, oh, nevermore.” Some rock, as far as Pris and I were concerned. Some shore. Real life eventually washed us back out to sea.

Timothy: I’d have to say that’s because it was never more than a sandbar in the first place. Mrs. Eddy and the Christian Scientists are a strange case. They talk so reverently about Jesus, yet they’re afraid of him and the claims he made about himself. Their Jesus isn’t the divine man of the creed, God’s only begotten Son, our Lord, who is alive now at the Father’s right hand and who is coming back in judgment. She says he’s simply “the highest human concept.” You said it: not much of a rock to stand the storms. CS just seems to want to play with words that sound nice but don’t connect to anything. That hymn Pris quoted, for example, is called “Christ My Refuge.” It talks about kissing the cross and wanting to be “nearer Thee, where Thine own children are.” But at the end of the day, so what? Everything is metaphysicalized to the vanishing point. Jesus the King of Kings, the Lion and the Lamb, crucified and risen, reigning now and returning soon, is nowhere to be found.

Aquila: So we built on a supposed rock that was no rock, all three of us and so many others who bought into the Mary Baker Eddy dream. But just because one rock was false, it doesn’t mean there is no true rock.

Priscilla: I think we made that assumption after leaving CS just because we had been so burned. We were so turned off.

Aquila: And maybe kind of giddy, just to be out from under all the guilt and denial and double-talk. The freedom was heady. But that’s worn off. Now we both feel kind of adrift, honestly.

Timothy: Jesus didn’t say building on sand is impossible. He said it’s unreliable, insecure, unsatisfying. It doesn’t last. Eventually comes disillusionment, then distress, then disaster. He invites us, and frankly, he warns us, to build on him – on his own person, his promises, his saving sacrifice and victory on our behalf. So thanks for the talk. Think about it. Think hard. Where do you want to build? As I asked you before, if not on this rock, where?

The author can be reached at andrewsjk@aol.com

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