A Leap of Faith

Last month, roughly 7,000 members of the church of Christ, Scientist, flocked to Boston to wander around the huge reflecting pool at the church's worldwide headquarters in the Back Bay and hear upbeat accounts of how Christian Science is more popular than it's been in decades.

Surely a highlight of the church's annual meeting for most Christian Scientists was the sneak preview of the spanking new Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity, on Massachusetts Avenue, named for the church's 19th-century founder. Inside the library, which will open to the public in September, visitors first enter the Hall of Ideas, where historic quotations are projected down from the ceiling, flow from a huge bronze fountain, crawl across the floor, and make their way to two large white scrims on the wall to be read and appreciated.

Upstairs, in the renovated Mapparium, there is a sound and light show illustrating how the world has changed since the inside-out stained-glass globe was first created in 1934. Another room offers a history of the Christian Science Monitor, the newspaper founded in 1908 by Mrs. Eddy, as her followers invariably call her. Guests can create their own newspaper on computer screens or peer into the actual Monitor newsroom.

Next comes the Quest Gallery, where visitors can hear about the spiritual journeys of others (including actor Val Kilmer, who is a Christian Scientist) and read about Eddy's life in detail. Its collection of Eddy memorabilia and copies of many of the 400-odd editions of her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, made the Quest Gallery a favorite of last month's visiting Christian Scientists.

That was appropriate. For in many ways, the Christian Science church is on its own quest, seeking to reposition itself in a way that will sustain this small and largely misunderstood faith through a second century. It is a quest that has so far cost nearly half a billion dollars, seen spectacular failure, and created a schism within the church precisely at a time when it desperately needs healing. Throughout it all, church membership has declined. Where the quest will lead is unclear. The future of a major Boston institution almost certainly hinges on its outcome.

The opening of the Mary Baker Eddy library comes 110 years after Eddy established the religion in Boston, and almost exactly 10 years after the church was forced to shut down its ambitious but wildly unsuccessful ventures into television, including nightly news production. If the library, to which the church has committed at least $50 million, reflects the church's successful financial recovery from that disaster, it may be harder to recover from the psychic damage. These days, for example, people on all sides of the debate seem to be talking about Christian Science less as a religion and more as a business.

“Christian Science has had the misfortune of having its product undercut,” says Martin Marty, emeritus professor of religious history at the University of Chicago's Divinity School, who has studied Christian Science. That product is essentially the promise that if you commit your mind and spirit to God, the Bible, and Eddy's teachings, you will not succumb to illness, injury, anxiety, or a debilitating reliance on material things — and, if you do succumb, that you will be able to heal yourself through prayer.

“Today, the benefits that Christian Science offered are available through market items that require far less of you,” including meditation, yoga, acupuncture, aromatherapy, and rolfing, or deep-tissue massage, to name a few, says Marty. “Its niche market has been invaded by lower-cost things. If I can get [much of what Christian Science promises] in a $16.95 book over a cup of Starbucks coffee and a chat with a friend, what's the reason” to pursue Christian Science as a religious faith?

This fact has not been lost on the church's leadership, which has taken an aggressive “if-you-can't-beat-'em, join-'em” attitude. The church has actively entered the eclectic world of alternative healing, working tirelessly to demonstrate that the connection between spirituality and health, which Eddy is said to have “discovered” 136 years ago, blends nicely with the panoply of mind-body health alternatives now available outside of traditional Western medicine. The best part, church officials point out, is that you don't have to be a Christian Scientist to benefit from it. All you need is a book, in this case Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, first published in 1875 and revised by her dozens of times until her death in 1910.

“All they need is to have a relationship with the book,” says Gary Jones, the church's spokesman and manager of its Committees on Publication. “That's what it's all about, making the book available to mankind.”

Critics within the church itself bristle at such a position, saying it disregards Eddy's straightforward approach in favor of a marketing strategy designed to capitalize on the popularity of New Age holistic healthcare. “It's a wholly dishonest presentation of Christian Science and a misperception of what it is,” says one Christian Scientist who, like many members of the church, asked not to be identified.

When discussing factors leading to the building of the Mary Baker Eddy Library and increased interest in Christian Science, Stephen Danzansky, chief executive officer of the library, points out that in recent surveys, 42 percent of Americans said they use alternative medical treatment in some form. Spiritual healing, he says, is ranked fifth among such alternatives, right after chiropractic and right before megavitamins. “This is a discussion we think Mary Baker Eddy would have loved to have and would have had in her day.”

After a lifetime of poor health and personal tragedies, as well as long periods of experimentation with homeopathy and charismatic healing, 44-year-old Mary Baker Eddy was seriously injured in a fall in 1866. Bedridden, and with little hope of recovery, Eddy asked for her Bible, prayed, and was purportedly healed. There's a longer version of the story that involves relapses, but the end result was what she called her “discovery,” which she lays out in her book, that people can heal themselves through prayer, a belief in God, and “the true sense of spirit.” Eddy went on to live to 89 and build a small but influential church based on her teachings. She was one of the most prominent religious leaders — and most prominent women — of her day.

Not everyone loved Eddy. Mark Twain wrote a book that was critical of her and her religion. Joseph Pulitzer's New York World newspaper orchestrated an unsuccessful lawsuit trying to prove that she was mentally incompetent. She was widely vilified in the press, accounting, in large part, for why she founded her own newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor.

Still, her church grew. At one point it grew so fast that Eddy decided to stop reporting the number of members, saying it would distort her mission. A 1936 U.S. Census report put membership at 269,000. By most accounts, these numbers remained high through World War II, when the church says Christian Scientists distinguished themselves with their healing talents in combat. But by the 1960s, membership was in steep decline.

Some of the reasons for this decline are general. Almost all organized Christian denominations saw their memberships fall between the 1960s and 1990s. And many, including Christian Science, have seen their memberships age, with younger conscripts hard to find.

Other challenges were more specific to the faith. Medicine, a still-barbaric science during most of Eddy's life, made great strides. Also, Christian Science can be a demanding religion. There is daily prayer, and many serious members forgo alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and medicines as simple as aspirin, though the church says that free choice on all of these matters is a fundamental concept of the faith. The narrow line being walked by church leaders was pricelessly illustrated in a 1999 interview between CNN's Larry King and Virginia Harris, chairman of the church's board of directors (who declined to be interviewed for this story over a period of two months, citing time constraints). King addressed the issue of taking aspirin.

King: Why couldn't you have prayer and aspirins?

Harris: Well, people can do whatever they want to do.

King: I mean, why didn't she [Eddy] go both ways?

Harris: Well, I think in those days, as you remember, you know, medicine was not what medicine is today. . . . Prayer was the first resort. . . .

Later, King asked again: “Why not as simple a thing as an aspirin for a headache?”

Harris: Right, right, right. Well, it works for lots of people.

King: You wouldn't take one?

Harris: I wouldn't need to take one. I have headaches.

King: What do you do when you have a headache?

Harris: I pray. You know, it can go away in a minute.

The Census no longer asks about religion on its standard form, and the church still refuses to disclose its membership. Knowledgeable church sources, however, say membership today is no more than 60,000 worldwide, less than a quarter of what it was in the United States alone in 1936. More telling is the decline in the number of churches and full-time practitioners, those church members who make their living healing through prayer. In 1950, there were about 3,000 branch churches and societies in the United States. Today there are about 1,400, and an estimated one-third of the branch churches have fewer than 15 members. The number of practitioners has plummeted from roughly 8,300 in 1960 to about 1,700 today.

Church leaders express a surprising lack of concern over these statistics. It is an intriguing characteristic of Christian Scientists, one that takes years to appreciate, that they rarely express worry or anxiety. This may explain why Gary Jones is almost sanguine when this issue is raised.

“I don't think a decrease in the number of church members or Christian Science practitioners jeopardizes the future of the church,” he says. “I think the church is and can be a vital resource to the world. As the church proves its value, one would think the numbers would increase.” Jones contends that it is not the goal of the new library, or any other ongoing effort, to increase church membership.

Professor Marty has a hard time seeing how the membership decline will be reversed. “I have not seen anything yet that will turn it around,” he says. “I'm not saying it will die, but it will be very hard to turn it around.”

The church was dealt the first of several serious blows in the 1980s, when a string of child deaths occurred after Christian Science parents failed to seek conventional medical treatment for their sick children, causing rafts of bad publicity and nine separate prosecutions.

Around the same time, some in the leadership — fearing that the church would decline into irrelevance in the absence of bold action — created a cable television channel, a nightly news show with former NBC journalist John Hart, and new radio and publishing ventures. The effort was ill-conceived and incredibly expensive. It ended in 1992 after $325 million was spent, including money borrowed from the church's pension and endowment funds. Hart blasted church leaders for interfering with news decisions. The press lambasted the church for its folly.

“It was too much, too soon,” says Keith Nealy, a Christian Science practitioner in Alameda, California. Worst of all, the Christian Science Monitor, the church's greatest public asset, saw its influence diminish significantly. Circulation, which was 170,000 in 1988, is down to only 70,000 today.

The whole mess caused a schism in the church that continues today. After pulling the plug on its new media ventures, the church retreated to lick its wounds and refill its coffers. (It has rebuilt its funds on hand to $292 million.) And Virginia Harris, who was not part of the forays into broadcasting, was named to chair the board of directors.

Harris and the new board decided that the church needed to refocus on its core, which was Science and Health. A trade edition of the book was published and made available through bookstores, not just through Christian Science reading rooms. The result has been a surge in sales, in excess of 200,000 a year in recent years, according to the church. The effort has evolved into one of marketing Eddy and her teachings to a world eager for new ideas about healthcare.

The WholeLife Expo in Dallas, like many alternative health fairs, was a mishmash of exhibitors peddling products and services that ranged from the serious to the silly. There were tables for those selling aura technology, Icelandic skin treatment, numerology software, and healing symbols engraved in stone. The Christian Science Reading Room set up its display on spiritual healing at table 535.

The reading room was also a presenter at the exposition, offering a talk called “Nurturing Your Spirituality,” which was scheduled right after a presentation entitled “Latest and Greatest Holistic Anti-Aging Methods.”

Church practitioners who attend the New Age fairs make no apologies for this strategy. They acknowledge that they've been attending fairs for years and think it's a great way to spread the word of Mary Baker Eddy. “This is a system of healing,” says Giulia Plum, a former psychotherapist who became a Christian Scientist in 1989 and a full-time practitioner later. “We have to be in the middle of it. People who go to these fairs are looking for healing.”

This is the idea that most rankles critics from inside the church: that people are encouraged to buy and read Science and Health without a true understanding of the religious tenets behind it. Says one critic: “They've chosen to lie about the product so that what's being put forth as Christian Science is so watered down, so secularized, so mixed with things that are trendy, that it's not our religion anymore.”

Jones and others from the church refute this. “Christian Science is in the book,” he says. “The book is not going to be changed. So Christian Science is there for all time.” Library chief Danzansky says, “I haven't the slightest bit of fear about losing Christian Science. As long as this book remains, the standard for the practice of Christian Science remains unshakable.”

But critics balk, saying Christian Science is a faith, not a fad. Eddy “hated sailing under false colors,” says one former employee. “That's why it's the Christian Science Monitor, even though the businesspeople around her said to leave the Christian Science out of it. She felt we needed to say what we were, straightforward and up front, not misrepresent it. That's what is really scratching on the chalkboard right now for us.”

Jones and others will have none of this. They say recent efforts have made the low-profile church more visible in the world of serious inquiry into alternative healthcare, and note that the church has even been asked to participate in health conferences sponsored by Harvard Medical School.

Jones, Danzansky, and others inside the church's administrative offices are upbeat, almost relentlessly cheerful, about the future. They see only positive results from their work and from the church's new direction. But there are nagging questions that remain unresolved. One is whether the church will survive this century in a form that is more than just a religious curiosity.

Marty isn't sure it can avoid that fate. “I think they have all of the liabilities and none of the assets” of other religious denominations, he says. “Christian Science is distinctive, but is it as alluring as it once was?”

California member Keith Nealy says the value of Christian Science healing will determine the church's fate. “If Christian Science is a bunch of hooey, let it die,” says Nealy. “If it has something to offer, it will survive.”

The biggest challenge now comes from within. Some of those members who insist on pointing out their disagreements with church policy have been making their case in mailings to the rest of the membership. It's evidently having an effect. In April, the Christian Science Journal published an editorial blasting this as an “effort to subvert Mary Baker Eddy's explicit design for the governance of her church.”

Yet this small but tenacious group of critics is finding sympathetic ears among fellow members — though most are afraid to speak publicly, claiming they fear retribution.

Jones seems baffled by this. “I think more than ever before there is an allowance for all kinds of views,” he says.

Still, several critics would not speak for attribution. “Between you and me,” one practitioner on the West Coast says, “Christian Science is my life. If I lost that, it would be devastating. It is a possible danger if I become a spokesman that others perceive as oppositional.”

Jones denies that contrary opinions are stifled. “We've seen a lot of allowance for robust discussion,” he argues. I question his use of the words “a lot,” based on my own coverage of the church for nearly 15 years. He thinks about it and says, “Well, there has been robust discussion.”

A few moments later, the interview ends, and the tape recorder is turned off. Jones is quiet for a moment. Then he says: “I might take back robust.”