One of those opportunities that I am afforded because of my mission in ecumenism is rich dialogue with people from many diverse backgrounds. Last fall I spoke to the North American Academy on Ecumenists, which met in Chicago. I delivered a paper about evangelical Protestantism and the new opportunities and models for ecumenism that are evolving in our world. This paper will be published in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies in 2014 so I cannot publish it online here.
Before I spoke at the NAAE I was preceded to the podium by a Christian Science practitioner named Shirley Paulson from Evanston, Illinois. Shirley gave a wonderful paper about her own pursuit of the larger church in ecumenism. She shared openly, and quite winsomely, about the work that she does within her own tradition of Christian Science. My reaction, like that of most evangelicals, was to wonder why this work was even being presented, given the story that I had always assumed about Christian Science. But Shirley Paulson did not fit into my box. In fact, she eloquently exploded some of my ideas, though not all.
After Shirley spoke we talked. Then we exchanged emails. The result was a dialogue where we then met once again face-to-face, joined this time by my friend Susan Taylor, a longtime member of the ACT3 board. We had lunch in Wheaton at my favorite restaurant, Genghis Grill. After lunch Shirley wrote a blog for the Christian Science website about our friendship. Shirley is anything but typical of the people that I encounter in my work and yet she is so much like the people that I meet, people who truly long to learn, to listen and to share their lives with me in the love of Christ. Whereas I would have mentally consigned Shirley to a box labeled “cult” some years ago now love required me to listen and learn. What transpired was both unexpected and joyful.
Shirley then wrote a blog about me/us and published it on the Christian Science website.
Here is the opening few lines of her blog:
I’m in the middle of a very rich and meaningful conversation with an evangelical Christian, and I think you’d be interested to know about it as it unfolds.
For those of you who have experienced heart-breaking and difficult conversations with evangelical Christians, this might give you encouragement. If you have not had one of these difficult conversations yourself, you should realize that most evangelicals avoid real conversations with Christian Scientists unless in the attempt to ‘save us’ from the ‘devilish ways’ of our faith tradition.
Like me Shirley has begun to practice the ecumenical precept of “the dialogue of love preceding the dialogue of truth” She adds, “I am convinced that by developing sincere friendships, we are in a better place from which we can deal with the most challenging difficulties between our religious traditions. We learn to respect the way Christ is truly at work in the other, and we trust each other’s sincere commitment to Christ.
After Susan Taylor and I finished lunch with Shirley we talked about inviting her to speak at one of our ACT3 Luncheons on Ecumenism this year. Shirley accepted my invitation and thus she will speak on April 22 on the topic: “A Humble Conversation with a Christian Science Practitioner About Jesus.” You can register for this event at the ACT3 Luncheon series.
I am sure some of you doubt the wisdom of having a dialogue with a Christian Science practitioner. I understand your concerns. I shared all of them before the apologetic of love transformed my life some years ago. I have continually made it as plain as possible that I do not accept many of the teachings of Christian Science but I am also completely willing to listen and dialogue with a Christian Scientist, all in the love of Jesus. If this gives more fuel to the various bloggers and writers who do not care for this mission then so be it. My response is simple – I love you too and I humbly invite you to come and engage in Christ-like conversation with us as we learn and grow. You might be surprised, as I have been again and again, by what God will teach you if you listen with a loving heart and a mind that continually seeks truth while you remain faithful to what you believe and understand.
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I am surprised that no one commented (even respectfully) on this blog. Maybe the “protest” note is muted or no one read it or a lot of you liked this and didn’t say so. I was taught that no right-thinking evangelical would befriend a Christian Scientist as their friend in Christ. I am curious, “Does anyone else dialogue in Christ with a person who is a leader in what you were taught was a cult?” My textbooks said this was a cult.
John, I appreciated this blog post and would just like to mention that I’ve had many friendly interactions with pastors and members of evangelical congregations in my little corner of SW Wisconsin. I’m a Christian Scientist. I’m currently leading the services for our local congregation. I have been a welcomed member of the Ministerial Association in our town, and count three of our Christian ministers among my friends. Thank goodness that we don’t all follow the expectations of those who would throw out the sinner with the sin (like the baby with the bathwater). Please see below.
John, I’m trying to understand your basis for considering Christian Science in any way authentically Christian (if indeed that is what you are doing). Philip Jenkins writes: “Most pernicious, the new sects denied original sin and believed that humanity could progress to a higher spirituality or even perfection unassisted by Christ or grace. If there were no sin, there was no need for redemption and no salvation, so Christ had died in vain. Mrs. Eddy denied the Virgin Birth, the miracles of Christ, the Atonement, and the Resurrection or at least so allegorized these concepts that they seemed to vanish: Jesus’ death was as much an illusion as any other form of sickness or misfortune.” – Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History, p. 60
Ray, I could understand your concern if what you read in the book “Mystics and Messiahs” was correct and accurate but it is not. As a life-long Christian Scientist, the sentence which starts “Mrs. Eddy denied the Virgin Birth, the miracles of Christ, the Atonement, and the Resurrection…” makes me cringe and almost want to cry that anyone might think that about Mary Baker Eddy! The writer must be passing along false info they received from someone else. I could cite a thousand statements (such as “Jesus was the son of a virgin” or “The Son of the Virgin-mother…” or “…we adore Jesus…” or “Our Lord and Master presented himself to his disciples after his resurrection from the grave…” or “Jesus suffered for our sins…” from her book Science and Health) to correct this misperception including some of six important points, or religious tenets, of Christian Science:
1. As adherents of Truth, we take the inspired Word of the Bible as our sufficient guide to eternal Life.
2. We acknowledge and adore one supreme and infinite God. We acknowledge His Son, one Christ; the Holy Ghost or divine Comforter; and man in God’s image and likeness.
5. We acknowledge that the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection served to uplift faith to understand eternal Life, even the allness of Soul, Spirit, and the nothingness of matter.
6. 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.
Ray, I can honestly say I don’t recognize my faith, or the appreciation and need I feel for Jesus, in the textbook you quote. As a Christian Scientist, I recognize that Christ is absolutely necessary for me to come to know and follow God’s will better, and to rise above the temptations of sin. Only God’s grace can bring such wonderful progress as I’ve seen, and hope to continue, in my life.
That Jesus died on the cross, that his birth was to the virgin Mary, that he accomplished all of the miracles recorded in the Bible that are so instructive and inspiring to us I have no doubt. I find all of these facts affirmed in the textbook of Christian Science as it comments on the Bible. This textbook also affirms the centrality of the Bible for every Christian Scientist, emphasizing our common ground with all Christians and the much-needed respect we deserve from each other.
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Ray, I am learning and weighing and asking questions, as I state in the blog. I have found Shirley’s confession to be one that presents Christ as Lord. We have not discussed “deeply” our differences and the historic debates but I have heard her speak on these and read an article in Ecumenical Trends that she authored. She also did graduate work under Dr. George Kalantzis who is now at Wheaton and who happily commended her to me. One reason for the lunch is to put these issues before people for dialogue, which includes the opportunity to question and disagree. As the title says we are doing a “humble conversation” about Jesus.
It may well be, John, that, as is so often the case, Shirley’s views differ from the official teachings of her church. The teachings of virtually every religious movement tend to morph over time, and typically the changes are initiated by members who dare to begin reinterpreting certain long-held teachings. It’ll be interesting to see where this dialogue goes.
Ray, I believe you are partially right and in this instance I am listening as carefully as I know how before I ask direct questions. I am sure Shirley does the same with me but the difference is respect and love in doing this as friends in Christ, not fear or an agenda.
You don’t know a person just because you know some things about their family.
John her words ring true in so many other contexts, so that may be one value of these kinds of conversations. we could fill in the blank with many things: “you should realize that most evangelicals avoid real conversations with ____________ unless in the attempt to ‘save us’ from the ‘devilish ways’ of our faith tradition.”
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John, I used to read books by those in other camps to find faults and errors, and then expose them. Things have changed for me. I am no longer a cult buster. I now read to learn from authors and to get their perspectives.
Most people in “cults” don’t know the official doctrines espoused by their groups. Even, if they do, they don’t necessarily buy into it hook, line and sinker. Rather, they hold to a folk version of their religion that looks much different than the official position. For example, most Mormons do not understand or believe their Jesus is different than the evangelical Jesus. BTW, how many typical evangelicals can tell the difference?
Even official spokespersons of other faiths are willing to dialogue with us if they think we are interested in them as individuals and want to learn about their beliefs.
When God places such persons in our paths, we must not avoid them but reach out to them in love.
I am a Christian Scientist and I too have been apprehensive about these talks because of the hateful and unmerciful way I have been treated by Evangelicals. I assure you I am a devoted follower of Jesus Christ I absoulutely Believe in the Virgin Birth, the Miracles of Christ and and the redemption from sin that only comes through Christ that is what I have learned from my study of the Bible and the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy. Unfortunately there is so much written about her that is just hateful and untrue by mislead and well meaning Christians. Like all Christians I too am a “who soever” I have been apprehensive about other religions because ot the hurtful falsehoods hurled at us. I always find it promising though when I hear Evangelicals preaching the same things I am learning. So lets do have a dialogue we are all one in Christ. If God is Love as the Bible teaches should not we live Love? I look forward to the conversation and I look forward to learning more.
I love what Al Street just said. And, in my experience, the actual beliefs of many evangelicals resemble an Americanized Christian folk religion more than the apostolic faith. We desperately need dialogue with the Great Tradition as well, lest we lead others astray by our evangelism and discipleship.
I am a Christian Science Practitioner, and am grateful to see this post. I’d like to express my strong gratitude for the Evangelical churches in general. While it’s true that Christian Science is often misunderstood and wrongly categorized as a cult, it’s also true that our Evangelical brethren are nearly constantly badgered in the press and spoken of publicly in unflattering and, I believe, misrepresenting ways. I dearly appreciate and support the stand they have taken to adhere to the teachings of the inspired Word of God – the Bible. I grew up in a mainline Christian church, and am profoundly grateful for what I learned there. As I see it, Christian Science is not a sideways step from what I knew growing up, but rather is the fulfillment of the very prophecies honored and celebrated there. Mary Baker Eddy’s life and teachings are so often publicly misrepresented, it’s a marvel that anybody (including me) could ever get to Science and Health to see for themselves, but that’s what Providence is! Thanks to you being willing to reconsider some of those common perceptions.
Many of the teachings of the Bible appear paradoxical or even contradictory at first glance, such as “my cross is easy and my burden is light”, or “the damsel is not dead but sleepeth”. But the healing work and the resurrection of Jesus resolve the apparent contradictions, illustrating the meaning of his words. In healing a paralyzed man, Jesus addressed the crowd’s objections to his teachings and authority, “Whether is easier to say, thy sins be forgiven thee or to say arise and walk?” and then he healed the man. Christian Science explains the healing work of Jesus, completely consistent in Principle from beginning to end of the Bible, and so unwraps those paradoxes – hence the appearance at first glance that Christian Science is contradictory. But, following the instruction of Christ Jesus, it also provides its proof in an overabundance of healing.
The Bible is clear in warning about false teachers, and it’s also common sense to be alert to the very dangerous situations presented by religious groups often referred to as cults. Those are healthy questions to be asking, and fearlessly, but by those very questions I have become convinced that the Christian Science textbook is as watertight as Noah’s ark. We are perfectly safe and right to go looking for a hole in that boat – and can be happily unsurprised to find ourselves healed in the process.
Thanks again for your daily, constant witness that the Bible, the Word of God, is trustworthy.
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I am glad to see this post, John. My aunt is Christian Science to some degree and I have read materials when I have visited her. I could see someone being involved in that church being very interesting to talk to and learn from and share with. She seems like a good person to be dialoguing with. I look forward to hearing how the event with her goes.
Thank you, John. As a Christian Scientist myself, I am deeply moved by your comments – your humility, your love. Bravo.
Thank you for posting your response to meeting Shirley Paulson, the Christian Science Practitioner. You summarize the value of such dialogues rather nicely in this sentence: “We learn to respect the way Christ is truly at work in the other, and we trust each other’s sincere commitment to Christ.” Shirley is a special person who has been “called” to a special mission…not so much by her church affiliation, as by the spirit of the Word. If you will continue to show her through your humble and open dialogue, the “angel” in ev.angel.ical, I am certain she will do her best to help you see the “Christ” in Christ.ian Science. May the light from that experience be shed on all whose lives you both will touch.
Dear John, I too am deeply moved by the great love, humility and sense of brother/sisterhood in Christ that you and Shirley have clearly shared in your conversations. Thank you so much!
As a Christian Scientist myself, I would just like to share some thoughts regarding a couple of other comments on this blog:
“It may well be, John, that, as is so often the case, Shirley’s views differ from the official teachings of her church.” (Ray Prigodich)
“Most people in “cults” don’t know the official doctrines espoused by their groups. Even, if they do, they don’t necessarily buy into it hook, line and sinker. Rather, they hold to a folk version of their religion that looks much different than the official position.” (Al Streett)
It should be noted that Shirley Paulson is Head of Ecumenical Affairs at The First Church of Christ, Scientist – the global headquarters of the Christian Science Church. There is no way she would be employed in such a position if she either didn’t know, or didn’t agree with, the official doctrines and teachings of the church.
It’s also worth being aware that ALL the official teachings and theological statements of Christian Science are publicly available, to church members and non-members alike, and always have been. There are no hidden teachings or secrets available only to a select few. Anyone with an interest in Christian Science can easily access and read all that this denomination teaches and espouses.
If anything, as I understand it, the Christian Science Church is not “changing” its teachings (as Ray’s comment suggested), but bringing out the pure Christianity of those teachings – which has been there all along – and learning how to better articulate it in today’s world, and especially in humble and respectful dialogue with friends in Christ.
Thank you again, John, and God bless!