When I was 15, a friend and I decided to invent our own religion. We felt that the churches we were raised in were not meeting our needs. What we came up with looked like a cross between the Declaration of Independence and a social contract. It didn’t go anywhere.
A couple of years later, listening to Graham Nash’s song “Cathedral” being played over and over down the hall in my college dorm, I began to wonder if organized religion was over. “Open up the gates of the church and let me out of here! Too many people have died in the name of Christ for anyone to hear the call.” I wasn’t moved to join in that condemnation, but by the end of college I had stopped going to church. And when I felt the need some years later to find some real answers to my questions about the purpose of life, I didn’t go looking in a religious institution.
Forty years ago, when my friend and I tried to fix church, it hadn’t occurred to me that organized religion might become a thing of the past. Today that thought has become familiar. In studies showing the drop in church attendance, and in articles like the one in these pages about "reimagining a life of ethics" or the one in The New York Times, “Mourning in a Digital Age,” the theme is repeated. Facebook, it is suggested, is the new church.
People keep trying to connect. There are even atheist churches springing up. One, the Church of Jesus Christ, Atheist, describes itself as “Developing a Christianity Compatibility Layer for Atheists, Freethinkers, Agnostics and Humanists.”
It seems that people still yearn for fellowship, whatever their beliefs. Virtually all-embracing as Facebook appears, there is still a human need to come together in real time to share life’s deeper experiences.
My own life has come full circle. A crisis in my health forced me to confront what, if anything, I understood about who I was. As the answer came, I found myself back at the spiritual truths I’d heard in Sunday School. Years of searching had made them firsthand revelations. It was humbling, but the spiritually immature young woman who had been so critical of Scripture and the Christian Science textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” was long gone, and the logic of events had left me joyfully grateful for the healing that affirmed my intuitions of divine Love.
Reading Science and Health again, as if for the first time, I found Mary Baker Eddy’s indictment of perfunctory churchgoing, superstitious prayer, and unthinking belief as pointed as anything Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens ever wrote. The difference was that Mrs. Eddy, responding with rigorous logic to her own experiences, did not throw out spiritual sense and the idea of divine Principle because of the failures of human religious institutions. “The time for thinkers,” she wrote on the first page of Science and Health, “has come.” Logic and experience demand that we acknowledge not only what hasn’t worked, but that we recognize and respond to the good written in our hearts, which makes meaning of life.
To quote Bob Dylan, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Whatever we count as authority – as most real – is God to us. It is right to honestly work that out. As St. Paul put it, “[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). No human organization can think it through for you. And when you do finally get down to what is at the heart of life, Jesus’ teaching will ring true: “[T]he kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).
As my own encounter with the spiritual bedrock of life showed me, it would be wrong to toss away the record of spiritual sense because it had been misused or misinterpreted. The Truth, universal and for all time, has been with us all along. There is no need to reinvent it. The words of the Psalmist, written a millennium before Jesus, accurately describe humanity’s position: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me” (139:7-10).
Church, understood in this light, is not a human organization or set of beliefs. It is the natural expression of our inescapable oneness as God’s children, the offspring of Spirit. It is possible that we may be ready to move forward in this new-old understanding of where we come from and where we are going.
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