Christian Science and Pantheism
During my surfing hours the other day I came across what to me is a little known organisation called Christian Science which was founded by Mary Baker Eddy towards the end of the 19th century. She wrote an article called Christian Science and Pantheism which was aimed at damning pantheism and promoting Christian Science.
What is Christian Science? Well it has a sufficient following to warrant an entry in Webster’s. I am not fond of definitions from dictionaries. The definition of a word is always dependent on the context of the sentence in which it is used, and it is this context and usage which leads to the definition in a dictionary. Too many people run to the dictionary for the definition as if it is somehow the dictionary compilers who have invented the words and thus is how any word must be used. Dictionary definitions change as the usage of a word changes, not the other way round. To understand the meaning of a word we need to know how it was intended to be used by the speaker or writer of that word. However, in this article, I shall use the Webster’s definition because it is the first entry on the Christian Science webpage. In this case the context is perfect.
Christian Science is ”a religion and a system of healing founded by Mary Baker Eddy c. 1866, based on an interpretation of the Scriptures asserting that disease, sin, and death may be overcome by understanding and applying the divine principles of Christian teachings.”
Now clearly, even on Mary Bakers own terms her religious beliefs have proved to be a failure. I may be wrong. Maybe Mary Baker is alive and well and has managed to overcome death by the application of Christian teaching. However, I am sure that I would be aware of her continued existence if it were the case that she is still alive. Having not heard to the contrary I can only assume that her teachings proved false.
The second point of interest in the quote concerning the Webster definition is the one which references “interpretation.” Mary’s beliefs were based on an “interpretation” of the scriptures. This admission is particularly fascinating to me because I am forever complaining about biblical literalists. They are the real problem in the theism atheism debate. The literalists are clearly a bunch of fruitcakes so eating them for breakfast or with afternoon tea never interferes with my hunger to consume more serious philosophical debate. Yet literalists are often held to be hardcore believers, the true upholders of scripture and the real defenders of faith. But someone like Mary, who “interprets” the scripture to suit her own beliefs is still accepted as “one of us.” She may be frowned upon a little by the staunch literalist, but she is accepted into the fold of the Christian church because she uses the scripture as the source of her beliefs.
Now I ask, what would have been Mary’s fate and standing in the community if she had promoted the same doctrine and belief system, yet proclaimed that her beliefs were based on something other than the bible. What if she had said that she had come to realise, from rational reflection that the universe was a self healing entity; if only we could learn how to harness the universal energy that is all around us? If she had promoted the same beliefs based on universal consciousness she would have faced life living as a heretic. If she had expressed those beliefs, and further added that she thought that scripture was a nonsense she would have been run out of town and maybe even lynched.
The point that I am getting to is that the belief system that you profess is not the arbiter of your goodness or badness according to the religious. Rather it is what you identify as the ultimate source of your professed belief. Try it. The next time you find yourself in conversation with a member of the devout, give them a long, made up fictional account of your “beliefs” and then identify your interpretation of scripture as your source for that belief. You will probably be invited for tea and may even end up being offered the daughters hand in marriage. On another occasion that you find yourself among the devout, tell the exact same story again, but at the end merely mention that your beliefs have come to you through the heart or through rational enquiry and that you reject all that is written in scripture as false. The response will be very different. The source of your belief system is far more important than the belief itself.
Now as you may have noticed I tend to favour a pantheist account of existence. This article is not the place to go too deeply into the nature of pantheism but there are a few points which are relevant to this piece. First of all, much of scripture can be interpreted in a pantheist way. It is very easy; pantheism can be substituted for all that is written in the bible claiming to be a reflection of theism. I do not think that this is a coincidence. Pantheism is older than theism. I would make the claim that much of what we know as scripture was written about a pantheist god. It was only later; with the advent of Christianity that the god of theism was invoked and then used as a tool of oppression. A pantheist god is benign and harmless. It is only the god of theism that can punish for all eternity and who can strike you down at any moment. The pantheist god has no such power. If you were a political power, charged with the task of rewriting and reinterpreting scripture, which god would you use to help maintain public discipline and hence your own power?
The bible has been written in many different styles and literary genres. The symbolic, legendary, confessional, mythic, poetic, devotional and the historic are all examples of biblical genre. None of it was ever intended to be taken literally and none of it was ever written as a scientific document. Yet all of it can be expressed as a pantheist doctrine. Science and pantheism make very good bedfellows. Pantheism can be developed quite readily from an ‘interpretation’ of scripture. Einstein was forever invoking the pantheist god; there are very good reasons to do so.
The overthrow of theism will not come about by opposing theists head on. The reduction of theism to the history of ideas will come about by replacing it with something that is compatible with peoples need for spiritual sustenance. Pantheism fills that need, both from a rational and scientific perspective and by an appeal to an interpretation of scripture.