California Mystery Worship Three: Matter is Mortal Error

“Matter is mortal error.” I’m seeking to understand this phrase after attending worship at First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Thousand Oaks, CA.

I arrived early, accompanying the friend of a friend who serves as summer vocalist. I had the opportunity to observe the two lay readers, the organist and the vocalist, all female, put final touches on the 10 am service.

I sat in the small, unadorned worship center, which would seat 100 comfortably, and thumbed through the hymnal, noting that two of the songs for the day were not in the hymnal. I saw no other song book available. Although I was eventually greeted by an usher, the only person who spoke with me while I sat there, she did not offer a different hymn book or an order of service

I finally went to the back of the worship area and found a hymnal supplement. I asked about an order of service and was handed  a booklet called “Christian Science Quarterly BIBLE LESSONS” but was given no other information. After quick investigation, I realized that the order of Sunday Services, found on the inside cover, never varies.

I found the responsive reading for that day, along with these instructions: “The Bible and the Christian Science Textbook [i.e., Mary Baker Eddy’s seminal work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, published 1875] are our only preachers.  . . . The canonical writings, together with the word of our textbook, corroborating and explaining the Bible texts in their spiritual import and application to all ages, past, present and future, constitute a sermon un-divorced from truth, uncontaminated and unfettered by human hypotheses, and divinely authorized.”

In plain terms: only words from the Bible (New King James Version) and from Mary Baker Eddy, follower of the late 19th century metaphysical movement and founder of Christian Science, may be used in worship for only they are pure and untainted by human error.

Thus began the most tightly scripted and carefully read worship service I have experienced.

The first hymn was announced, one written by Mary Baker Eddy. The Lay Reader read it in its entirety before some invisible signal (at least to me) told people to stand and sing. The hymn was followed by three or four minutes of absolutely silent prayer, for spoken prayers other than the Lord’s Prayer are not permitted in the Christian Science tradition, as dictated in Eddy’s textbook.

The Lord’s Prayer itself was then prayed, very slowly, phrase by phrase, with Mary Baker Eddy’s spiritual interpretation of each phrase interspersed by the Lay Reader.

This was followed by brief announcements (“Notices”) including an explanation that people 20 and under were being given instruction during this hour, so worship was only for those 21 and over.

After some responsive readings, the “Lesson/Sermon” began. At this point, there were two Lay Readers at the double wide pulpit. The first read somewhere between two and five unrelated Scripture selections, and the other followed with two to five explanatory snippets from Science and Health. This cycle was repeated eight times.

Not a word was mispronounced nor was there a single stumble, as far as I could tell, during the 30 minutes of Lesson/Sermon. There were no personal reflections or explanations of the 25 passages from the Bible other than what was offered from Science and Health.

The congregation, numbering about 35 or 40 adults, sat in unmoving silence during the readings. The only sounds I heard were a couple of muted and quickly silenced coughs.

Following the readings came the offering (“Collection”), and Benediction: “There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all.  Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error. Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal. Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness. Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual.”

After the dismissal, I waited quietly in the aisle for the vocalist to join me. I was ignored by the rest of those in attendance. I did notice that all were well-dressed and looked slender and healthy.

The vocalist and I went outside to admire the lovely landscaping around the building.  At that point, one woman did speak with me and ask if I were new. When I said I was just visiting, she said, “Oh” and turned away from me.

I saw not one single child outside with the adults or anywhere inside the small building.

And so I left, pondering again, “matter is mortal error.” Matter, that which makes up the created world, our bodies, our brains, our ability to touch one another, to garden, paint and sing, is a mortal error, according to Christian Science principles. It makes no sense to me.

NOTE: the above article is scheduled to run in the August 8 Edition Religion section of the Denton Record Chronicle. Below are some additional thoughts about the service and Christian Science in general.

To say that I found the service disturbing would be a great understatement. My biggest issue is the fact that Mary Baker Eddy’s writings are considered on a par with Holy Scripture and that both are seen as essentially untainted or untouched by human intervention.

In preparation for writing about the experience, I tried reading some of her work, “Science and Health,” which is available online. Obviously, just dipping into a work like that without any real systematic study is in itself problematic, similar to someone just dipping into the Bible without a framework to make sense of that complex collection of writings. So, it just looked like a bundle of unrelated ramblings, and that is an unfair analysis.

Even so, I don’t see how the whole concept of matter being a mortal error holds together in a world where God is acknowledged as creator of matter and where such creation is so clearly pronounced “Good” in the Bible.

But putting that aside, I think about the veneration of Eddy’s writings–and wonder sometimes if those of us in The United Methodist Church may not be somewhat guilty of doing just that with John Wesley’s writings–elevating them to the level of Holy Scripture.  He was a flawed human being, seeking in his time and place to bring reform to the dying tradition of his Anglican world.

And today, we who see the dying tradition of the UMC world are also trying to do the same, in our own flawed human ways.  It is possible that by holding too tightly to John Wesley’s words, rather that the hope behind them, that we are tolling our own death knoll? I think it is clear that Christian Science, with its rigid adherence to Eddy’s words and Eddy’s words only, is dying as a religious movement. Fewer and fewer are going to buy into something like that.

And fewer and fewer are buying into the powerful world of grace that Wesley opened for us, possibly because we are stuck in a flawed system that has shut down grace, rather that freeing it to flow to as many as possible.

 

10 thoughts on “California Mystery Worship Three: Matter is Mortal Error

  1. Hi Christy, you have asked an excellent question, and one that students of Christian Science struggle to understand more each day, and to live with its truth.
    the ultimate unreality of matter is of course a basic proposition of Christian Science. how do we understand this? well read the story of creation in chapter I of Genesis, and you will find no mention of matter. is that which we call ‘matter’ eternal, or temporal? if you accept that matter is temporal, and Spirit eternal, then which do you accept as really substantial, which is substance ?

    in thinking about matter and its reality or otherwise, you might like to look at what physicists are saying about it these days. read about quantum mechanics, and what scientists are discovering about matter every day.
    there is a reputed astro-physicist by the name of Laurance Doyle, who also happens to be a Christian Scientist. if you google him (note the spelling of his first name),, here is a talk by him,titled “the metaphysics of physics”,which I believe will give you a different outlook on matter.
    you said you like to ask questions, and to think, laudable outlooks. so have a look at this video, and then do some more research on quantum physics, and even google ‘what is matter’. here is one statement from the Wikipedia article on matter – “matter does not have a universal definition, nor is it a fundamental concept in physics today” – hmmmm!
    have fun with your research!

    numbers 6:24-26 to you and yours,

    Vern

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  2. I may fail, but I am going to briefly attempt to expand on what abstractions were heard in that church service.

    Hearing the Truth about God is more important than seeing what the physical senses present as the Truth about God. Jesus said that we would “hear about wars and rumors of wars.” He also said “Judge not according to the appearance.” Elsewhere in the Scripture it says “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” All this implies to my perception that the deeper reality is told to us, not seen by us. Gradually, we should start to perceive bits and pieces of the deeper reality underneath the appearances.

    What is being proposed by Christian Science is that what is the overlay of matter is not the underlying reality. Most Christians think in terms of matter as the underlying reality. When they hear about the things they see through matter, they think they are being told the whole story of creation.

    After I heard a physicist speak on his experiments in the quantum realm, I went backstage and met him. I asked him a question that led him to say to me, in a whisper, to the effect, “If this experiment turns out to be consistently true, then in a special context, matter is unreal.”

    If a person is curious on this topic, I would recommend reading one chapter in Mary Baker Eddy’s book, “Science and Health.” It’s chapter 15, “Genesis.” The breakdown of the seven spiritual days of creation in Genesis Chapter 1 is presented as a revelation for the human mind. Then this spiritually intelligent underlying creation is contrasted with the matter creation that starts with Chapter 2 of Genesis. There are two accounts of creation in the Bible. Most Christians see the two accounts as all one creation of matter rather than perceiving the first creation as underlying the material creation that overwhelms us to not see there is more to the story of creation.

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  3. Very interesting observations. I think you may be partly correct in your assessment of the United Methodist veneration of John Wesley’s writings. However it was Wesley, himself, who told those who would call themselves “Methodists” to use his writings–The Standard Sermons of John Wesley and his Notes on the New Testament as well as the Articles of Religion and General Rules–to guide Methodist theology and teaching. Personally his writings have been very helpful in seeking to reason with those Christians who hold a very high idea that God has predestined every step of each person’s life. This thought and teaching has been held very high in the rural areas in which I have served to the extent that grace has become anything but God’s freely given love in Jesus Christ.

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    1. Thanks for those words, Ben. I don’t want to leave Wesley’s theology behind–it is utterly transformational. I’m just afraid the structures, set in place by Wesley (and many times modified) that we use to deliver the theology of grace have become so unwieldy that it has now become impossible for the Spirit to move through them into broken and lost humanity.

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      1. That is exactly why I believe that you are partly correct. The United Methodist Church has become a massive bureaucracy that indeed quenches the movement of the Holy Spirit and leaves us being ineffective in reaching those most in need of healing, saving, life-giving GRACE,

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  4. Oh, dear Thoughful Pastor!

    My husband Jim grew up as a Christian Scientist and as a young bride i tried hard to make sense of all of it. His mother was one of the Readers (in his home church in Wichita, KS) early in our marriage, and it was a big leadership role for her. That position included being like an officer on church boards as well.

    I have only attended a few services b/c when we visited Wichita I would go to my home (Congregational) church with my parents. While we were living in Houston (where we met as college graduates with our first jobs) he was active in a Young Adults group with a CS church. We married and could not find a church that worked for both of us together. Four years after getting married, we moved to Dallas and I was pregnant with our first child. He had a job, I didn’t, so I got to choose our church. I chose Central Congregational on Royal near the Tollway. People thought we were both members, but he never was. We had a corporate move to southern California, so I quit all my volunteer positions at that church. Then after much ‘prayerful consideration’ we stayed. That made me free again to choose a new church. Unfortunately, it was before websites, so I made lots of calls and we visited. I wanted to find a larger church for my family. I finally chose LLUMC. We have returned to the denomination of our heritage – his parents and mine grew up as Methodists. I cannot imagine it any other way now – except I could be a Congregationalist again.

    But Christian Science? ooh. Those services are painful to me, too! Meaningful to them, tho’. But I must tell you that the Christian Scientists that I know are among the most calm, balanced and faithful people I know. I was blessed with a nice mother-in-law that didn’t make trouble about the issue or demand too much. But goodness – she has no understanding of medical issues (even tho’ she did not convert to CS until she was married with a couple of kids, but before Jim was born. Jim and I joined Lovers Lane in 1990 and he was baptized then.

    Part of the lack of welcoming is probably due to you being in California. We forget how ingrained “southern hospitality’ is to us. My daughter Julie visited a church this Easter in San Francisco and was stunned that no one really welcomed her – imagine! Even on Easter – wouldn’t you be sure to welcome a couple of 20-something young ladies you hadn’t ever seen before?? She said it wasn’t that crowded. (Of course her mother was thrilled that she made the effort to go – without my urging!)

    I am going to share your new post with Jim and will be interested in his response. I am also eager to share it with Jim’s sister who alternates taking his mom to church – one week to a CS church in Carthage, Missouri and the next week to a very small Methodist church. I’ll let you know.

    Thank you for sharing!

    Wendy

    Wendy Campbell WJP Marketing wendy@wjpmarketing.com 214-803-9584

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    1. Wendy, that is just simply fascinating–I did not know about this family history–thank you for sharing it. Perhaps the sense that this material, corporeal world has no real existence drives an inner peace. I just can’t bring it into my brain–or reconcile it with my theology. So appreciate your taking the time to write this story out and especially your observations on hospitality. My sense was, “They surely don’t ever want to see me again!”

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