Response to Cambridge VARSITY student newspaper article

Varsity has the honour of being the oldest student-run newspaper at Cambridge, a prestigious university with 31 colleges and over 100 academic departments, a population of nearly 20,000 students, and almost 10,000 academic and administrative staff.

The October 20 edition of Varsity featured an article by the newspaper’s science editor, entitled ‘The death of Cambridge’s anti-medicine cult’. The piece described the Christian Science church in Cambridge and elsewhere, but was incorrect in many of it’s assertions and assumptions. The following letter was written by Robin Harragin Hussey, the UK district manager of the Christian Science Committee on Publication, and sent to the editors of Varsity, in an effort to correct the impositions made against the Christian Science church and its membership.

What is the reason for the hope in me? This paraphrase from 1 Peter in the Bible is a keynote question for those who are religious like myself. I am a Christian Scientist, and I was deeply challenged by Jon Wall’s article projecting the “death” of my church (October 20). The grim picture given raised some pertinent questions that Christian Scientists themselves, like many other Christians today, have wrestled with.

Yet many of us have found reason not just for hope but for deep conviction about the future of Christianity even in this high tech, brave new – and in some ways increasingly dystopian – world of the 21st century.

Writing in a church publication – Christian Science Sentinel, May 16, 1988 “For the sake of family, for the sake of humanity” – some three decades ago, a Christian Scientist, Allison W Phinney, described the spiritual situation of humanity in terms that might have resonated, if not with a Huxley, then perhaps with an Orwell or a Havel, despite their trenchant criticisms of religion and vastly different starting points:

“Is society ready to take the long, decisive step into a night of secularism by throwing its weight wholly on the side of materialism over against any hope of practical Christianity?

“Before such a step is conclusively taken, it needs to be understood thoroughly where this may well be leading…. It is, after all, the concept of man as having spiritual individuality that undergirds strong convictions of the rights of the individual.”

For Christian Scientists, the practical Christianity referred to includes the New Testament practice or ministry of healing through prayer. Countercultural as this is in 2016, it isn’t quite the benighted, reactionary practice portrayed in the article. My own healing of malaria when I was a young woman in Kenya didn’t feel that way. (The condition was diagnosed by a doctor.) My family and I have experienced many significant healings over the years – enough to know that spiritual healing, conscientiously practiced, involves infinitely more than the invoking of supernatural miracles from a deity who for reasons unknown picks and chooses a select few on whom to dispense favors.

Certainly, Christian Scientists understand the objections to the evidence for spiritual healing raised in the article, e.g., the possibility of “false positives,” placebo effects, and the impracticality of double-blind experimental studies. It’s true – real prayer isn’t experimental, at least not in any deep or meaningful sense. Even so, the many thousands of significant healings in Christian Scientists’ experience over the years can’t all be so readily explained away.

As a church publication put it several years ago, considering the nature and extent of the medical evidence in many instances behind these cases of healing: “At the very least, [this evidence] provides substantial objective ground for taking the phenomenon of spiritual healing seriously – even, as one commentator on medical ethics has written, ‘those with reflexive skepticism on the subject.’” (“An Empirical Analysis of Medical Evidence in Christian Science Testimonies of Healing, 1969-1988”).

For Christian Scientists, the most difficult questions relating to this healing practice are moral and ethical: What about when healing does not come? We aren’t, at least most of us, blindly trying to adhere to a religious dogma. Genuine Christian healing just can’t be practiced in that spirit. We respect physicians even though we don’t in general turn to medical help. We obey the law. Like others, we’ve also made mistakes, and struggle with grief and search our souls and question our decisions.

The Varsity article mentioned cases from the 1980s when children died and Christian Scientist parents were brought to court. But even these tragedies did not necessarily fit with stereotypical assumptions. As a physician at Stanford University Medical School wrote at the time: “I have reviewed the records of the first case and also had an opportunity to meet at length with the mother of the child. I am no legal expert but the medical facts surrounding the first case have convinced me that to hold the parents responsible for the death of the child would be a gross miscarriage of justice.”

The doctor went on to say that “the present trend of prosecuting Christian Scientists in medically dubious cases” would pose “a threat to medicine” if “every physician who commits an error in judgment were brought to trial” (Eugene D. Robin, M.D. in The Press Enterprise, Riverside, California, June 3, 1988). The denomination in the United States as here recognizes that parents in all faiths have a responsibility to make decisions that are careful and wise.

In many ways, Christianity is at odds with its surroundings in 21st-century Britain. Sparse congregations and Sunday schools challenge churches in many traditions today. But what is it that is actually dying? Dogmatic thinking, pious lip service, wearisome dissimulation, shallow answers to deep questions – yes, this kind of religion is unlikely to survive. As Kwame Anthony Appiah so eloquently explained in his first BBC Reith lecture this year, religion is always changing in relation to the age. Christians today no less than in earlier times of religious decline have to face up to our shortcomings, our own hypocrisies, and discover what about our faith is genuine.

By doing this we might find our way to the true strength and meaning of Christianity, where it touches on the issues of infinity and sheds light on meaning and purpose, where it engenders hope, supports the good and – yes – brings healing. It is this Christian foundation which is strong and enduring and is the reason for the hope within. So instead of responding with religious despair we “are being called now,” in the words of the Christian Scientist quoted above, “to dig deeper and to learn more of this vast revolutionary truth, because it is the knowledge of God’s limitless good that can help humanity so greatly at this hour.”

Categories: Correctives, Perspectives