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TIM O’BRIEN, guest anchor: The Christian Science Church, founded in the nineteenth century, teaches that physical affliction can be healed through spiritual means rather than medical procedures. Membership in the church has declined in recent decades, but some Christian Science practitioners, as they are known, still treat large numbers of people through spiritual healing. Judy Valente reports.
JUDY VALENTE: It’s a no-frills Sunday service, one that hasn’t changed significantly since the Christian Science Church was founded more than a hundred years ago.
FIRST READER: Let us join in silent prayer, and follow that by praying together the Lord’s Prayer, which I will intersperse with its spiritual interpretation as found in the Christian Science textbook: “Our Father which art in heaven…”
SECOND READER AND CONGREGATION: Our father-mother God, all harmonious…
VALENTE: There’s no religious imagery, no clergy, only “readers” in Christian Science churches. Scripture passages and the writings of church founder Mary Baker Eddy have the status of a pastor.
The basic Christian Science teaching hasn’t changed: that human beings made in God’s image are not matter, but spirit. Therefore illness, physical injuries, even mental suffering are not considered real and can be overcome through prayer.
SHIRLEY PAULSON (Christian Science Practitioner): I deal with physical problems and emotional problems and finance problems and marriage problems, and everything I think that hits the human condition comes into this office.
VALENTE: Shirley Paulson is what’s called a Christian Science practitioner — someone who tries to heal the health problems of others without medication or medical procedures. She has a master’s degree in divinity from a seminary and completed special classes within her church.
Ms. PAULSON: Christian Science treatment is really helping the patient to turn away from fear or their belief in the thing that’s troubling them, to have more confidence and more belief and more understanding in what God is doing for them.
LOIS CARLSON (Patient and Practitioner): My skis flipped out underneath me, and I landed full force on my knee, and there was no way that I could get up. It was very painful.
VALENTE: Paulson treats hundreds of patients a year. Most are Christian Scientists like Lois Carlson, a fellow practitioner, although a growing number are from a variety of other faiths.
Ms. PAULSON (in session with Ms. Carlson): I was also thinking about some Bible verses that frequently come to me in support of this kind of prayer. And, for example, I can think of one right now that reminded me of this kind of confidence I have in God’s love for you, in Jeremiah, where God says, “Again I will build you and you shall be rebuilt.”
VALENTE: There’s no laying on of hands. Paulson simply listens to, and prays with, her patients.
Ms. PAULSON: I listen to them, and then at an appropriate time in the conversation I’ll gently guide them away from their sorrow or pain, or whatever is going on, to that place where they can feel close to God.
VALENTE: She says practitioners don’t give advice on whether or not a patient should seek conventional medical care.
Ms. CARLSON (speaking to Ms. Paulson): I wondered, actually, if I needed some surgery, some corrective surgery?
Ms. PAULSON: The decision as to what you’re going to do next has to be your own. There’s no church policy about that, and I’m not gong to give you an opinion about that. One of the things I have learned to love so much about Mary Baker Eddy’s writings and studies of Jesus and his healings is that Jesus would not put up with things that weren’t complete. All the healings that Jesus did were complete, and he never taught managing pain or trying to get along.
VALENTE: But sometimes relying only on spiritual care results in tragedy. This Web site tracks the deaths of children whose parents chose spiritual treatments over medical help. There haven’t been any recent cases in the press of Christian Science children dying from lack of treatment. Christian Scientists say their church doesn’t prohibit them from seeking medical care.
Ms. PAULSON: There isn’t any theology or policy that would make a Christian Scientist feel like their religion is above the life and safety of their child. The child comes first no matter what.
VALENTE: What do you say to someone who has stage four cancer, and they’re not necessarily going to get better?
Ms. PAULSON: Well, I have seen healings from almost death itself rise up and be healed. So I wouldn’t say that there’s any particular point at which you say you’re helpless. I think that this idea of having to die in order to see God is where Christian Science has a different take on the typical orthodox Christian view of this. Death is not the marking point where you see God.
VALENTE: As a young woman in the mid-nineteenth century, Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy suffered from a variety of illnesses. She found inspiration in Bible passages where Jesus cures the sick. In her words, she set about to revive Christianity’s “lost element of healing.” Eddy’s book, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” has sold 10 million copies since it was first published in 1875.
Jane Bailey is a fourth-generation Christian Scientist.
JANE BAILEY: I’ve really learned that prayer and turning to God for help brings answers to every aspect of my life.
VALENTE: Membership in the church has steadily declined since the 1930s. Mrs. Eddy forbade her followers from keeping an official membership tally. The church estimates it has about 400,000 members worldwide, but independent studies put membership at around 100,000. In the US, the number of churches has dwindled from about 1,500 10 years ago to 1,100 today. In the last three years, the church has increased its efforts to keep and attract members. It has begun holding annual youth summits in large American cities, like this one recently in Los Angeles, hoping to interest 20-somethings like Adam Olszeski.
ADAM OLSZESKI: It gives you understanding. It gives you a way to deal with problems that arise. It helps you overcome challenges. It gives you a peaceful way, a positive solution, to what the world has to offer.
VALENTE: Christian Scientists are heavily involved in the current health care debate. The church has lobbyists, like Roger Gates of Illinois, in every state. Their goal is to insure that any plan for universal health care will cover the services of practitioners. Patients currently pay practitioners out of pocket anywhere from $25 to $50 a treatment.
Christian Science practices remain controversial in many circles. But with a growing number of Americans seeking alternative medical treatments, Christian Scientists see the possibility for renewed interest in their teachings.
Ms. PAULSON: I am confident the faith is going to go on, because I see so much evidence of the vitality of this idea of Christian healing, and it’s a natural thing to trust God with all your heart and soul.
VALENTE: That enduring trust in God’s healing power is what has kept alive Mary Baker Eddy’s 100-year-old teachings.
For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWS WEEKLY, I’m Judy Valente in Chicago.