I remember reading a few months ago about a conversation that is supposed to have occurred between a westerner of Christian upbringing and a Taoist priest in which the westerner inquired as to how he might become a better follower of the Tao. The priest’s response to him was to return to his roots and devote himself to the study of Christianity.
While I think everyone should feel free to leave the faith of their childhood and explore others, and that it is right for some to change, there is definitely a great deal to be gained from devoted study of that religious practice as an adult. What we observe and absorb as children from our parents or other relatives, or through lessons in Sunday School, or at church camp surely provide us with a foundation for our faith, but it can never give us the full picture of the theologies and paradigms of our respective religions. What we understand as children is often a distorted shadow of the true substance of religious thought and teaching.
I can say that the process of digging into the religion of my upbringing has been illuminating, clarifying and revelatory.
A friend recently said it this way, “We grow up, and we have to let our understanding of God grow up, too.” I know I would be frustrated and disillusioned with Christian Science if I still thought of it only the way that I did as a child; and I think a lot of people these days are disillusioned by what they were taught and shown as children in their respective faith communities.
I want to share some ideas from my own experience about how to help our understanding of God grow up by assembling the spiritual building blocks we were given as children in to a practical framework for understanding our faith as adults. As usual, I am writing from my own subjective perspective as a student of Christian Science, with examples specific to my faith. I believe that some of these ideas are broadly applicable, but I don’t assert that they are universal to every individual or faith tradition.
I was raised in the Christian Science church. I grew up attending Sunday school every week all the way through my teen years, skipping only for vacations, volleyball tournaments and occasionally homework. I went to church camp for five summers during middle school and high school, and loved it. I even went to a college for Christian Scientists. At 18 when I moved away to school, I would have confidently said that I had a clear understanding of what my religion teaches. I didn’t, though. And at 22, when I graduated from college, I thought I was a great Christian Scientist and that I had a solid grasp on the tenets and theology of my faith. I didn’t, really.
The summer after I graduated, I chose to enroll in a 12-day course on Christian healing commonly known as Primary Class Instruction. That began my process of truly coming to understand the paradigm of my faith. Since then, my experience of studying Christian Science has been reminiscent of the clip above. As a child, I accumulated a bunch of blocks — religions concepts, truths, and clichés — that sometimes fit together, but often didn’t add up to a complete whole. As I’ve taken up a deeper study of the teachings of Christian Science, those pieces have begun to fit and to construct a solid framework of understanding, and three approaches have proven especially helpful. I recommend these to anyone trying take ownership of, or reconnect with the faith of their childhood.
First, I’ve found it essential to turn to the original texts of my faith: The Bible and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. I remember my endless frustration with Sunday School teachers in middle school and high school who would always answer my tough (read: obnoxious, devil’s advocate) questions by telling me to go to my books to find the answer myself. While part of me was just being annoying and trying to stump my teacher, another part just wanted to be told what the answer was to save me the trouble of finding it myself. I talked a lot about Christian Science to a lot of people, in Sunday School, at camp, in college, at church. As a result, for most of my formative experience, I relied almost exclusively on other people’s understanding to develop my framework for the teachings of Christian Science. To be sure, I had access to lots of people who understood a lot about Christian Science, but that doesn’t mean that their understanding was complete, or that I ever was able to completely access it. Reading Science and Health, The Bible, and Mary Baker Eddy’s other writings myself has been incredibly illuminating for me and has been a huge component of the assemblage of those building blocks.
Second, focus on understanding, not belief. Especially if you’re facing periods of doubt and discouragement about your faith and what you’ve been taught, don’t bother trying to force yourself to believe it. Doubt is perfectly alright, and has the potential to strengthen your conviction and understanding as you work through it. It’s been my experience that focusing on understanding opens the doors to belief. If something you learned growing up now seems totally preposterous, that’s OK. But instead of dismissing it, dig in, ask questions. Try to understand the idea, its context, how it fits into the bigger theological or paradigmatic picture. You can’t force belief, but understanding is not only something you can work at without belief, it yields greater results. Besides, who would want to believe something they don’t understand anyway?
Third, review things you memorized as a kid. I think its common in most churches, and it certainly was in my Sunday School, to have kids memorize a lot of things. That’s a fine strategy to help children create a spiritual tool box of ideas they can turn to in their daily lives. I’m all for it. However, at some point you have to revisit those things as an adult and figure out what they actually mean. For me, that meant revisiting the Lord’s Prayer and really carefully contemplating what each verse meant and why Jesus instructed his followers to pray that way. I had to go back over the Ten Commandments and learn the whole story of the Exodus from Egypt to understand where the Israelites were and what they were thinking and struggling with before and after God gave Moses the Commandments. I’ve had to continually revisit the “Scientific Statement of Being” to get a grasp on the radical statement it makes, as well as understanding its place in the context of the chapter “Recapitulation” in which it is found. Finally, I’ve actually had to undo how I learned to say the Sixth Tenet. My family often used it as a grace before holiday meals. It reads, “And we solemnly promise to watch, and pray for that mind to be in us which was also in Christ Jesus; to do unto others as we would have them do unto us; and to be merciful, just and pure.” Having never really read it with any attention to detail, but only learned it through repetition, I always said it with the wrong cadence, omitting the comma in the first clause: “We solemnly promise to watch and pray for that mind to be in us….” It wasn’t until some time in college that I came to understand what “watching” means and that we are supposed to “watch [take a breath], and pray for that mind to be in us….” So, don’t forget to revisit that rote memorization to help straighten out your building blocks.
Finally, it’s super important to sort through all the jargon. Every religion has it, every discipline has it, every community has it. There is nothing wrong with jargon, unless you use it without knowing what it really means — and we’re especially liable to fall into that with jargon that we grew up with. Christian Science has a bad reputation for using a lot of jargon. I get it. But as I’ve studied more, I’ve come to realize that these jargony words weren’t jargon when they were initially written! Mary Baker Eddy chose her words very carefully, and she was choosing them in order to convey very specific ideas. The jargon of Christian Science has only become jargon through generations of students using it together and assuming that everyone else understands what they mean, to the point that the generally accepted meanings of some of these words have even changed from their original meanings. The same is true of the more general jargon of Christianity. This is why it is so important to take ownership of your understanding and to dig in and figure out for yourself what all these words mean. The additional benefit of this undertaking is that once you do have it all sorted out, you will be vastly more adept at explaining your beliefs to other people without using the jargon, because you understand it!
So be patient with your doubt and frustration, and take a bit of time to rebuild. Happy discovering!