If church feels empty

A Christian Science perspective: What can satisfy the heart's yearning for real comfort and compassion?

A few years ago I attended a civil wedding ceremony that included readings from works by Khalil Gibran and some passages by “another poet.” That other “poet” turned out to be St. Paul, and the readings were his famous verses on the power of love from his first letter to the Corinthians. My 16-year-old cousin remarked to me that she’d never heard those words before; they were really nice, but she had no idea where they were from. 

Last fall the Pew Research Center released a study, “ ‘Nones’ on the Rise,” showing that a third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation. “Young people today are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders; they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been as far back as we can tell,” says Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew.

A National Public Radio report, “Losing our religion,” described the political and social dimensions of this trend. Harvard professor Robert Putnam remarked: “It begins to jump at around 1990. These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics...”

I’m pretty sure that my cousin’s lack of exposure to the Bible wasn’t because of the culture wars. Her parents stopped going to the churches they’d sometimes attended as children, and she didn’t have a resource for becoming familiar with the Bible. NPR’s interviews with “unchurched” people revealed that the decline in involvement with organized religion has much to do with either feeling ethically and practically at odds with church doctrine, or finding that the doctrines of scholastic theology don’t come close to meeting human need when tragedy strikes. Atheism is often born of disgust with the idea of a God that sends or condones fatal illness, violence, or accidental death. Such a God, as Christopher Hitchens put it, “is not great.”

Yet our yearning for real comfort and a solid basis to live from and turn to persists. In the wake of shootings and other global tragedies, those with and without religious affiliation are pleading for compassion and progress that will move us out of darkness into a better way of living. Nothing temporary or merely material can satisfy this need.

The inability of traditional religious systems to satisfy our deepest desire for Truth and Love is no proof of God’s insufficiency or nonexistence. Even the best-intentioned human stratagems and designs are undermined by time and change.

But when these things fall away, something real remains. Call it Spirit, because it is always available to us through spiritual sense – a sense of life based not on appearances or expectations but on our built-in connection to divine good.

Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, went through a faith-challenging experience that led her to a higher, deeper understanding of God. She wrote in the Christian Science textbook: “The author became a member of the orthodox Congregational Church in early years. Later she learned that her own prayers failed to heal her as did the prayers of her devout parents and the church; but when the spiritual sense of the creed was discerned in the Science of Christianity, this spiritual sense was a present help. It was the living, palpitating presence of Christ, Truth, which healed the sick” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 351).

There is a Science of Christianity – a provable principle and repeatable demonstration of Jesus’ words and healing works. I believe Jesus was speaking for all time when he said (interpreted by Eugene Peterson in “The Message”), “Believe me: I am in my Father and my Father is in me. If you can’t believe that, believe what you see – these works. The person who trusts me will not only do what I’m doing but even greater things, because I, on my way to the Father, am giving you the same work to do that I’ve been doing. You can count on it” (John 14:11, 12).

And it is in doing that work – the day-by-day, moment-by-moment work of spiritualizing thought, turning to God in prayer, expressing spiritual good in our thoughts and actions – that we find the church we long for. In order to be of real current and lasting value, church must start from our individual demonstrations of divine Truth. The spiritual, functioning definition of Church is, “The structure of Truth and Love; whatever rests upon and proceeds from divine Principle.

“The Church is that institution, which affords proof of its utility and is found elevating the race, rousing the dormant understanding from material beliefs to the apprehension of spiritual ideas and the demonstration of divine Science, thereby casting out devils, or error, and healing the sick” (Science and Health, p. 583). That Church is always ready to inspire, comfort, and guide us, whoever or wherever we are.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

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The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

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