The Committee on Publications of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, has recently offered us a commentary on Dr. Julius Silberger, Jr. ‘s article on Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the religion, which appeared in our December 1980 issue:
“One thing on which Mrs. Eddy’s admirers and critics agree is that she was a ‘remarkable’ woman. The fact that she founded a major American religious movement in an age and at an age when she might have been expected, in her own ironic words, to be a little old lady in a lace cap, justifies at least that much of a generalization.
“But remarkable people are more often than not complex. And when their lives are as long as Mrs. Eddy’s was (she lived from 1821 to 1910) they often change in remarkable ways, becoming virtually several different people in the course of their evolving experience. This makes it all the more necessary to avoid winding the threads of such a life onto the single spool of one’s own interests and assumptions.
“As a practicing psychiatrist, Dr. Silberger naturally tries to account for Mrs. Eddy’s life and motivation in terms of psychological factors of professional interest to him. Such a sketch expectably conveys the impression of a woman driven by personal and emotional needs against the background of nineteenth-century American social conditions. But it is important to remember that these conditions included strong religious influences—especially in rural New England where the Puritan spirit was still very much alive during Mrs. Eddy’s youth. The evidence bearing on her religious motivation is both plentiful and essential.
“One need not be a believer in her teaching or even in Christianity itself to see that realism in biography does not, cannot, exclude the religious dimension of human life. That was the attitude of the facile iconoclasm in biographical writing which flourished a half-century or more ago (the period, incidentally, when there first appeared the ‘debunking’ accounts of Mrs. Eddy’s life upon which later psychobiographers have drawn). But an interdisciplinary approach generally opts for some understanding of the fuller dimensions of the subject.
“With an insight into the human spirit born of his own experience as a survivor of Auschwitz, psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl has written, ‘… humanity has demonstrated ad nauseam in recent years that it has instincts, drives. Today it appears more important to remind man that he has a spirit, that he is a spiritual being.’ Frankl is not speaking of preoccupation with religion in the conventional sense but of that profound concern with the meaning of life which is an irreducible part of the human spirit.
“Mrs. Eddy’s wrestlings with this question simply cannot be excluded from any meaningful account of her life and struggles. The problem of evil presented itself to her in girlhood in terms of the stark Calvinist doctrine of predestination, against which she rebelled with all the force of her youthful nature. It confronted her anew in the form of the loss and desolation that overshadowed her middle years. And through the whole first half of her life it pressed itself upon her intermittently in the physical sufferings and nervous debility to which she was so often subject. Decades of adversity forced her to consider the question in a way that far transcended the limits of her personal experience and broke radically with the conventional theology of the day.
“No less a psychologist than Gordon Allport has warned against the ‘error of the psychoanalytic theory of religion’ which locates ‘religious belief exclusively in the defensive functions of the ego. Mrs. Eddy’s real achievement was not to have made a personal ‘success’ of a life that for the first forty-five years brimmed over with disappointments. Rather, it was to have found in the Bible a transforming insight into the meaning of life that enabled her to develop a practical theology which grappled with the age-long problem of evil.
“Long before Auschwitz, acutely troubled souls had been asking, ‘Can God really be good—can there even be a God at all—when emptiness, agony, and human brutality are so often the human lot?’ The answer that Mrs. Eddy found in the life of Jesus Christ was that evil of every sort was no part of God’s creative will, no part of the true spiritual order of His universe, and that this truth understood could begin at once to lift the burden of evil from experience.
“However, she insisted that such an understanding could be incorporated into living only through radical Christian discipleship; it was, she held, a far cry from the exercise of will power, blind faith, or a manipulative mental technique. To the end of her days she counted herself (as she figuratively put it) a ‘willing disciple at the heavenly gate, waiting for the Mind of Christ.’ Her writings refer frankly to the intense struggles she went through in carrying out what she felt to be her mission, and nowhere did she claim to be humanly perfect or the equal of Jesus. Certainly it’s untrue to say that she expected not to die, whatever some of her overzealous followers may have hoped for.
“No more than the life of a Jonathan Edwards, a Mother Mary Seton, or a Martin Luther King, Jr., can Mrs. Eddy’s life be separated from the religious purpose that dominated it. Indeed, it is only by transcending their own purely personal concerns and involving themselves passionately with man’s quest for meaning that any such figures attain the status which history—sometimes reluctantly—grants them.”