Isn’t Christian Science an Oxymoron?

This is a question I come across a lot, from new students of Christian Science and total strangers to it. The dominant narrative in popular discourse today is of irreconcilable differences in perspective, method and understanding between religion and science. So how is it that Christian Science stands there in the middle with one foot in both worlds?

There are a few ways to approach this question and I’ll address the three that resonate most and make the most logical sense for me.

First, like good scientists, let’s define our terms. For the purpose of this piece, I’m broadly defining ‘Christianity’ as the practice of attempting to follow the teaching and example of Jesus the Christ, as described in the Gospels. And ‘Christian’ is the adjective describing a person or set of beliefs and actions that align with that aim to follow Jesus.

In the vernacular, ‘science’ has come to be used as if it refers exclusively to the physical sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, etc…), unless otherwise denoted, as in reference to social science.  However, if you look up the word ‘science’ in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, you’ll find that any reference to natural or physical phenomena does not appear until definition 3b. All the definitions before that explain science as a systematized body of knowledge that can be learned or studied and that is derived through the scientific method. That is the definition I’m going to go with today.

A basic point of clarification: The phrase “Christian science” is sometimes used to refer to creationism or intelligent design (as in a christian science curriculum), and aims to use physical and social science (archeology, physics, psychology, whatever) to validate a literalist interpretation of the Bible or to prove the existence of God. What I’m talking about here is NOT that!  What I am talking about is the Christian Science, explained by Mary Baker Eddy, and studied by members of the Church of Christ, Scientist (among others) that is not in the business of trying to reconcile religion with physical science.

Christianity as scientific

Let’s start with the first part of that definition, “a systematized body of knowledge that can be learned or studied.” We’ve identified two branches of science already — physical science and social science — and I propose adding christian science to the list. Christian Science presents Christian practice as a systematized body of knowledge that can be learned and studied because it is based on the operation of divine law. Divine law governs the spiritual universe, and Jesus demonstrated that, through an understanding of the principle and operation of that law, man can triumph over sin, sickness, death and the grave. We, too, can study and learn this systematized body of knowledge, laid out in the Bible and elaborated upon in the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, and then put it into practice to achieve the same results that we saw from the Master. In fact, he told us that we could and should do that! “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do;” John 14:12.

Proof and Demonstration

Though the definition of ‘science’ doesn’t include anything about proof and demonstration, implicit in the concept of something being scientific and that it is provable and replicable. This is one of the primary critiques by skeptics of faith. Faith is commonly thought of as putting your confidence in God without knowing what the outcome will be. Contrarily, Christian Science doesn’t depend on faith in its operation any more than a physicist has to have “faith” in Newton’s laws of motion to be assured that his theory is accurate. The place where faith comes in, for me, is having enough faith in the principle to continue even if the experiment doesn’t seem to come out right. When we get a math problem wrong, we don’t blame math. Instead we study more and try again because we know that in the end, math works, and it is based on principles that are true whether we understand and apply them correctly or not.

One of the things I love about Christian Science is that it demands that its students apply and prove what they are learning. Mary Baker Eddy explains in the first chapter of her textbook for Christian healing, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, that “The highest prayer is not one of faith merely; it is demonstration.” (SH 16:2-4). We are to demonstrate what we are gaining in understanding of the principle and operation of divine law. Science demands proof, not merely profession.

The scientific discovery of Christian Science

The second part of our definition of ‘science’ states that it is derived from the scientific method. Christian Science presents healing “as a systematized body of knowledge that can be learned and studied” — because it is based on the operation of divine law — “that was discovered through the scientific method.” I argue that Mary Baker Eddy’s process of discovering Christian Science, the science of Christian practice, was on par with that of other scientists and their discoveries in the late 19th century. As I’ve learned about Mary Baker Eddy, the more I see that the healing system that she lays out in Science & Health, and that is based on the Bible and the works and teachings of Jesus Christ, came about through a scientific process.

Scientific Method: observation, hypothesis, experimentation, conclusion

Eddy was raised in the Congregational Church in New Hampshire and knew the Bible extremely well.  Despite not attending school as a child due to her precarious health, she was also quite well educated, having been taught by her older brother who became a lawyer and state legislator. As an adult, she began experimenting first with homeopathy, and then moved on to hypnotism and mind-cure as she searched for a solution to her chronic ill health. Through those efforts to improve her own health, as well as work treating others, especially with homeopathy, she observed patients improving significantly with highly attenuated doses of the remedial agent. Her experiments with those methods led her to develop a hypothesis that disease had its foundations in mental, rather than physical causes. That hypothesis she paired with her conviction in the omniscience and omnipotence of God to arrive at the notion that these mentally-derived maladies could be cast out through an understanding of God and man’s relationship to his Maker. She then began testing her hypotheses and healing people who came to her for help exclusively through prayer (no laying on of hands, no hypnotism, no massaging, no drugs). It wasn’t until she had developed a robust healing ministry that she finally decided to write her conclusions — the healing system she came to call Christian Science — in a book, which was actually the suggestion of a doctor whose patient she had healed after he had given up!

Her scientific process may not look exactly like those of other experimenters in the physical sciences in the 19th century, yet she does follow the steps of the scientific method. It’s wise to remember that Christian Science is not in the business of describing physical phenomena, and looking for material causes and effects can only go so far in describing and applying divine law.

Students of Christian Science often think of and talk about Christian Science as a revelation that came to Mary Baker Eddy, and it’s true that she does describe herself as a “scribe under orders” in the writing of the textbook Science and Health (Miscellaneous Writings, 311). But taking the above chronology into account, it is clear to me that this discovery is very different than the revelations of the Ten Commandments to Moses, or the Qur’an to the Prophet Mohammed, for example. The text of Science and Health may have been revealed to her, but those conclusions didn’t come out of the blue, and she observed, hypothesized, and tested before sharing them with others. Eddy explains in a letter cited in the biography Rolling Away the Stone, that she was not a prophet but that the knowledge of this science fell on her as light through a window falls on the person standing closest to the window. She also writes again and again about the preparation that led her to the discovery of Christian Science: “The author’s medical researches and experiments had prepared her thought for the metaphysics of Christian Science.” (SH 152:21-23).

An article I read a few months ago from PBS about medical discoveries quoted bacteriologist, Louis Pastuer saying, “chance favors only the prepared mind… Serendipity is often one of the most important components of a scientific discovery.” And so, its is the combination of preparedness and revelation (called chance by some) that opens the way to scientific discoveries.

(I apologize for not providing specific citations for the above historical information. I’m drawing primarily from Eddy’s autobiography Retrospection and Introspection; the Wikipedia page on ‘Christian Science’; my own knowledge from several biographies including A World More Bright, Christian Healer, and Rolling Away the Stone; information in her published works including Miscellaneous Writings and Science & Health; and information available on the website of the Mary Baker Eddy Library.)

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