The Paradox and Promise of Christian Science

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: New Religions. Read other perspectives here.

The Church of Christ, Scientist, established in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy, represents an eclectic blend of features of U.S. spirituality and religiosity. As an organized religious movement in the U.S., it appears to be continuing its respectable decline as its largely older membership fails to be replaced by equivalent numbers of children and converts. Nevertheless, some of its patterns of thought and behavior — by no means exclusive to Christian Science as a group — continue to enjoy a widespread appeal, though generally outside the movement itself or outside the United States.

William James identified Christian Science, with its advocacy of mental healing and its monistic insistence that all is spirit, as a clear instance of healthy-mindedness, whereas Catherine Albanese, in her magisterial A Republic of Mind and Spirit (2006), highlights the ways in which Eddy retained a logic characteristic of her Calvinist background. Given such an amalgam of elements from the typically liberal, anti-authoritarian, or anti-organizational metaphysical tradition, more characteristically expressed in New Thought, for example, as well as from the evangelical tradition, perhaps it is no surprise that the religion enjoyed growth and success for much of the last century.

Likewise, though the denial of material reality and rejection of conventional medicine has marked the religion as a fringe group for most people in the U.S., The Christian Science Monitor is a widely respected, prize-winning news source known for its coolheaded journalism, and Principia College has an established record of excellence in supporting student achievements in solar technology, athletics, and continuing graduate study. The unflappable equanimity of an idealist posture seems uniquely suited to evenhanded journalism that happily refrains from the sensationalism that converts news into entertainment. Christian Science, then, is as fascinatingly paradoxical as its name sounds to some ears.

Christian Science continues to face a variety of challenges. As mentioned above, its membership is elderly, and conversion rates in the United States are low. The increasing effectiveness of medical treatment and, as some might say, the increasing materialism of the age, have challenged the faith. Moreover, since Christian Science is so closely linked to its journalistic and publishing efforts, the decline of print journalism and the challenge of adapting to the new media environment have been hard on the Church. In 2009, The Christian Science Monitor shifted its print form from being a daily to a weekly periodical and transitioned primarily to an online platform. Church properties and staff positions have exceeded demand for some time, and so Christian Science, still quite wealthy, has in the past decades been engaged in a process of consolidation and reorganization of resources.

The United States has shown more willingness than most other modern nations to support Christian Science parents' rights not to give unwanted medical treatment to their children; however, this in turn has led to public and organized backlash. For example, the non-profit Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD) continues to lobby for the removal of religious exemptions for refusal of medical care for children or neglect of children. Christian Science, however, shows no signs of wavering on the subject of medicine.

Some members have vocally contested and criticized the leadership's decision in 1991 to publish Bliss Knapp's The Destiny of the Mother Church, which interprets the faith in an apocalyptic mode and identifies Mary Baker Eddy as the celestial Woman of the New Testament Book of Revelation. These critics also challenge the leadership's costly attempts to broadcast in new media.

Vaccination of children has been a recurring issue of late in the United States, and many have turned to alternative medicine for a variety of reasons. This together with the abiding popularity, even among some conservative Christians, of the doctrine that positive thinking will bring prosperity and health — as well as the concern that a science that excludes the spiritual is barren and blind — suggest that Christian Science has the potential for its vision to be compelling to a wider audience in the U.S. It remains to be seen whether the leadership's efforts to adapt to the contemporary cultural configuration and media environment will be successful in preserving what is most distinctive and worthwhile in Christian Science and its projects, although maybe it will be the vitality of the growing movement outside the United States that will disrupt the faith's comparative inertia in its land of origin.