Spirituality or Materialism: Crossroads for Humanity
Allison W. Phinney Jr., C.S.B., of Boston, Massachusetts
Member of the Board of Lectureship of The Mother Church,
The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Massachusetts
Spiritual reality, or what Jesus called the kingdom of God, is here now. It has never been more important to humanity to realize it. Allison W. Phinney Jr., C.S.B., a member of The Christian Science Board of Lectureship, spoke on this subject in a lecture given August 28, 1983, for The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston.
This special lecture is one of several called for by The Christian Science Board of Directors. Based on the teachings of Christian Science, it shares spiritual perspective on current public trends.
Mr. Phinney is Clerk of The Mother Church. He is also a teacher of Christian Science.
An abridged text of his lecture follows:
One thing we ought to say by way of introduction is that when we're talking about spiritual things we're talking about what you already know in your heart of hearts. It's these universal spiritual truths that bind us together, make us feel like brothers or family even though we've never met.
Interestingly enough, when some of this pure light or spiritual truth shows up in human experience we all generally recognize it. I saw an illustration of this some years ago at a large meeting I attended. It was a general assembly of the World Council of Churches held in Sweden in the '60s. It was at a time when there seemed to be some genuine stirring of hope for unity of purpose. From all over the world clergymen and religious leaders had flown in to be present at this huge gathering.
But conducting most of the sessions of the general assembly was a rather plain little man from England. He'd been pressed into service by the passing of one of the great and notable figures in the religious world. And this little Englishman was not awfully good at substituting. He missed the nuances of some of the proposals from the floor. Sometimes he had to be reminded of the correct procedure. At first he wasn't taken too seriously. But he persisted in his duties, and it was clear to those who had eyes to see that he was a truly humble and spiritually-minded man. Several times he spoke of prayer and Christian love as being very important to the assembly and its business. He insisted on taking time for prayer. You could see he obviously believed in it as real.
Ever-present divine influence recognized
At the close of the entire session an urbane and eloquent South Indian bishop gave an unusual tribute to the moderator. He said of his power to control the assembly: "At first we were impressed by his authority. He seemed to have the kindly firmness of a parish pastor. Later, he seemed to have the assurance of an archbishop. At the end, we realized he was positively infallible in his authority." What they were all recognizing of course was the significance and power of genuine love and the authority of even a degree of the Christ-spirit.
I hope that by simply sharing from my heart this afternoon you'll find your own heart speaking, and your own basic consciousness of spiritual truths and realities becoming more of a factor in your life. We all have this conscious capacity. But in this age which so presses its materialism and its bland denial of anything but what the senses know, we may have to learn to choose spiritual things, learn to say yes to them, learn to make room for them in our lives.
Christian Scientists - and of course I'm speaking as a Christian Scientist - would call the ever-present divine influence in human consciousness the Christ. They believe Jesus most fully expressed the Christ in human history - so fully that he was called the son of God. But the Christ goes on speaking to people down through the years. It's what shows us that life is something astonishingly different from all that the busy, unenlightened human mind supposes. It tells us of the reality of God, here with us, of His law, and of a divine Love which is the very Principle of the universe.
But this point of view isn't very prevalent or fashionable right now, is it? It doesn't show up on your 6 o'clock newscast or in your morning newspaper. In fact, millions don't even seem to know that the spiritual dimension to our lives is anything to be missed. We fill up our days with business as usual, with worries, with shopping.
This trend isn't something going on on the far side of the world, only under communism. It's happening here. It's the trend of our own society.
There isn't a day that goes by, for example, that some exponent of the natural sciences doesn't argue for the entirely material origin and basis of life, love, and thought.
Toward mental darkness - or new light?
Materialism seems to be trying to push us more and more into a corner - to force us to draw the conclusion that everything is really only the product of matter, at the mercy of matter, beginning and ending with matter.
No wonder there is an uneasiness or emptiness abroad in the land! There's increasing doubt about where we're going, about nuclear war, about genetic manipulation, about how much of a future, if any, mankind has. The great world historian Arnold Toynbee, in the last article he wrote for publication, traced these feelings to something much deeper: "In AD 1975," he wrote, "an increasing number of Westerners are living in a spiritual vacuum. The discomfort and dismay of these present-day heirs of Western civilization goes far toward accounting for the crisis by which the Western world is now being beset" ("Life after death," essay by Arnold Toynbee, published in The Sunday Times, London, October 26,1975).
The question seems to be deepening. Is materialism and its so-called progress the ultimate destiny of mankind? Will religion make any practical difference in how people live - or will it before long be just a kind of museum faith?
Imagine for a moment, even now, trying to prove the reality and substance of your love for a child. Or think of trying to justify your spiritual intuitions about God in a laboratory setting under the cool gaze of a panel of scientific inquisitors. Will anyone dare to suppose there's such a thing as actual spiritual light or the presence of God by the year 2001?
Civilizations apparently rise and fall on the basis of their spirit, their purposes, their ideals. Where are we headed? For centuries of mental darkness or for new light? It may be we're at a crossroads in these closing years of this 20th century.
One road follows out the evaluation of man as an ingeniously mechanical, chemical, and biological creature. The other road leads to fresh clues about the truly spiritual nature of man and to a greatly expanded feeling of hope and new possibility for mankind.
When we realize this, when we see what's at stake, we may begin to view our times in a far different way. When we wake up to what's really going on, we see there's a great choice to be made - a choice to make individually and together - that will make a fundamental difference to the future of mankind.
You could say there's a war on for the spiritual future of mankind. But it's not going to be some kind of easy external crusade. It begins with the inner choice of every individual. And it calls for - and it deserves - more courage, honesty, discipline, and total devotion than any other war or cause you could possibly imagine.
The spiritual road that brought us to this crossroads time of course began long ago. Christ Jesus said, "I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness" (John 12:46). As "The New English Bible" has it: "When a man believes in me, he believes in him who sent me rather than in me; . . . I have come into the world as light, so that no one who has faith in me should remain in darkness" ("The New English Bible," John 12:44).
What if we took those words of Jesus not as a religious dogma we might either want to believe or not believe but as a factual observation? What if, instead of thinking of Jesus' statement as a point of doctrine or creed, we realized Jesus said it because it seemed to him plainly to be the case, to be true? In other words, what if Jesus were saying to the world: "What I am showing you about God is of such magnitude, such importance to living, that men and women would be dwelling in ignorance and darkness without it. They wouldn't understand how life works and what it's all about."
Wasn't Jesus, in his unique humility and love and spirituality, seeing something so compelling about God's kingdom being right here and now that he knew this would constitute light for the whole world! He realized it made such a difference that his life was literally the light for mankind, a light humanity simply couldn't live without.
In the mid-19th century a religious thinker named Mary Baker Eddy saw these issues coming into sharp focus. This was at a time when the dark trend toward materialism seemed to be gaining momentum. Skepticism, doubt, and the power of the natural sciences were growing. But she saw something else developing in human consciousness. She saw what she believed was the dawn of a spiritual era for humanity. On the very first page of her book "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" she wrote: "Truth, independent of doctrines and time-honored systems, knocks at the portal of humanity. Contentment with the past and the cold conventionality of materialism are crumbling away. Ignorance of God is no longer the stepping-stone to faith."
God's allness seen as present reality
But none of this was said as personal assertion. For her it didn't begin with reasoning out a theological theory. It came directly out of concrete spiritual experience so profound and life-changing she felt it was as though she had seen deep into another universe. It left her with no doubt at all that God was in the future of mankind, as well as the past and present. In fact, she decisively called pure Christianity Science - the great Science of being. In other words, she came to see the spiritual truths and experiences of original Christianity as actually scientific - demonstration of an underlying reality very different from what the physical senses habitually reported.
This materialism we're all so familiar with isn't the reality of being, she said. But God, Spirit, divine Love, is the reality - not just a poetic, religious truth or a reality to be realized only in the afterlife, but scientific reality now. In fact, she spoke of the discovery of God's allness.
At first she could hardly find the words to express what she was seeing. She reached out for a more exact vocabulary to say it. She called Spirit, God, substance or reality. She called matter unreality; the physical senses, error.
She called God Mind. It was evident to her that the human mentality, which she called mortal mind, wasn't so much a real entity as it was a limited point of view. All of mortal mind's so-called thinking is simply what proceeds from an ingrained sense impression of living in matter. But having true Mind, God, begins to give a different consciousness of what's possible and natural.
Here's how she explained it in one of the books she wrote later: "It became evident that the divine Mind alone must answer, and be found as the Life, or Principle, of all being;
and that one must acquaint himself with God, if he would be at peace. . . . I had learned that thought must be spiritualized, in order to apprehend Spirit. It must become honest, unselfish, and pure, in order to have the least understanding of God in divine Science. The first must become last. Our reliance upon material things must be transferred to a perception of and dependence on spiritual things" ("Retrospection and Introspection," p. 28).
Like most 19th-century New Englanders, she was well acquainted with the harsh side of life. She herself was ill a great deal. The brother to whom she was closest died at age 31. Her husband died of yellow fever. They hadn't been married very long, and she was left without support for her child. So it wasn't either from a sheltered, privileged experience or some sort of mystic rapture that she was talking about the allness of God.
At one point she was badly injured in a fall in Lynn, Massachusetts. It was reported in the local paper that she was in a critical condition. In this extremity she reached out for the Bible. She could barely see the words, but an account of one of Jesus' healings filled her with inspiration, with light, with the sudden, utter undoubted reality of all those spiritual things we've been talking about. The suffering stopped, strength returned, and she was healed and able to get up.
Over the next few years she gave up everything else to follow out what she had glimpsed. She began to see that Jesus' healings came about not because he was a man-god, so to speak, but because he was acting according to divine law. There was a divine Principle behind his healing works. That Principle, Mrs. Eddy began to understand, was God Himself. "God will heal the sick through man," she later wrote, "whenever man is governed by God" (Science and Health, p. 495). Jesus had said it so simply, but the point had been missed: "I cast out devils by the Spirit of God" (Matt. 12:28).
Mrs. Eddy realized it was therefore, terribly important to separate Christian healing from any form of willpower or trying to use the power of the human mind to influence the body. The Mind healing she was talking about was with a capital "M" - the healing that flowed from having God as one's only Mind. It meant obeying the first commandment in the deepest recesses of one's being - having no other gods or even mentality apart from the infinite Mind or divine Spirit that creates and supplies man's individuality and identity.
Mrs. Eddy learned that she could heal others this way, not in some dramatic charismatic manner but in a quiet, natural, Christian response to need. For example, she healed her young niece who was dying of enteritis, which had been diagnosed by three doctors. She healed a neighbor's child of a clubfoot. She then took small classes and was able to teach others to heal. There were healings of erysipelas, dropsy, tuberculosis, and many other conditions.
She explained her discovery, Christian Science, in the book "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures." And she founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1879. In the century since, it has grown to be a worldwide Christian denomination.
The healing aspect of Christian Science has continued in the same quiet way. Through the prayer of a Christian Science practitioner one of our children was born safely in a home delivery. The doctor, who was willing to work with Christian Scientists in having children at home, was a big-hearted, humane man. He was at the time chief of the obstetrical service at University Hospital in Boston.
But after labor had gone on for quite a while he sank down in a chair with his hands over his eyes, wearied and in despair. He kindly suggested I call the Christian Science practitioner, since it was too late to get to the hospital and the birth was obstructed. He felt he had done all he could. But as I came back to the foot of the stairs from talking on the phone with the practitioner for three or four minutes, I heard the crying of the child who had just been born!
Grasping the law that underlies healing
We've also seen healings in the family of longstanding heart problems, internal rupture and hemorrhaging, kidney stones, and extremely severe attacks of croup, among others. So healing of this kind has been a normal occurrence.
But of course Christian Science isn't some form of alternative health care. A Christian Scientist's interest - and my only reason for sharing such experiences with you - is in the way these experiences open one's eyes to a present spiritual reality. It's possible to see that the ordinary material sense of things which seems so solid isn't the reality after all. There's a different, more basic law and reality underlying human experience - and this is God's law of goodness and eternal order. Healing on this basis - whether it's healing of physical illness or job problems or some form of sin or community antagonisms - makes more apparent the very real presence of God's kingdom.
So the essential purpose of Christian Science is the restoration of Christ Jesus' Christianity. This includes healing as a natural part of Christian life, but its most basic aim is to truly have God as God. Not God when there's time for Him or when there’s a need, but God before anything else. Not God as distant and unable or unwilling to help, but God-with-us. Not God as a part of our existence, to be fitted in, but God as a whole, our very Life and Principle. It requires prayer for growth in grace, and living up to the words of one's prayer. It does demand considerable spiritualization of thought and the healing of sin - in other words, the new birth that Jesus said would be necessary.
Sometimes when one prays, at first the things of the spirit of God can seem to be foolishness and quite distant from the immediate human need. Perhaps divine Spirit seems to be only a blank, whereas at other times there has been a strong sense of God's governing and His care. This is the crossroads we talked about. We come to the crossroads ourselves, in our own individual experience.
We find, though, at such times that as we honestly listen and we reach out toward God, good, with our whole heart and being, we can go forward. In fact, the sense of a crossroads disappears. The threatening view of materialism and its claim to be all yields and subsides. The naturalness of spiritual things and their concrete reality becomes more apparent, and we find we can walk in it.
A young man, a Christian Scientist, faced a crossroads of this kind. He had been beset by various problems from the beginning of his college career. Each step of progress seemed to be met by a wall of resistance. Finally, one December the situation seemed to culminate in a sudden severe illness. A throat condition rapidly became alarming. He could hardly speak over the phone, he was so ill. Before long he was too weak to come to the phone and couldn't get out of bed.
A Christian Science practitioner was asked to pray, and both parents of course prayed as well. Because of the need, the mother set out for the long drive to the college. It was late at night and bad weather. The father wasn't able to accompany her because of commitments the next day. Both parents chose to seek more of God's omnipresence rather than fear and concern. But about 3 a.m. the father received a call from the mother. There seemed to be no relief from the pain. The boy insisted, however, on holding to spiritual reality, choosing this Spirit and Love he'd known since childhood.
At that point the father found he was required more fully than ever before to understand that man literally does belong to God and in fact has always been the child or expressing of God, not the mortal being who seems to be at the mercy of a material universe. He prayed to see more clearly the meaning of the Lord's Prayer that God is "our Father" and to know the great reality of divine Love. The Christian Science practitioner continued to pray throughout the night.
Soon an unmistakable sense of divine Love came and brought tangible peace. The father learned the next morning that at about the same time, the boy had said he would go to sleep and had been able to, even though at that point there was no apparent change in the difficult symptoms. And from then on recovery was very rapid. The young man came home the next day, but he was essentially well by the end of the trip home. And to the considerable surprise of friends on campus who had seen the situation, he went back in just a day or two to take his exams successfully. It was much more than a physical healing. What had seemed a threatening crossroads was actually a turning point in acknowledging the realness of God and finding out more of His governing of man.
We have been talking this afternoon about two different trends - one an obvious trend toward materialism and darkness, the other, indications of the dawn of a spiritual era for humanity. Every person on earth today has a stake in the outcome of this issue. It's an issue that underlies everything else - from man's inhumanity to man to the threat of nuclear war. It is not something we can leave to someone else. Can you conceive of what it would mean if the light of the world - that which has illumined human consciousness with some conviction of the reality of goodness, love, spiritual meaning - were really to be obscured so that it was entirely lost to human consciousness for a while? It would make the sun going out seem minor by comparison! It would chill the spirit of humanity. An arctic winter of the heart would darken and descend!
On the other hand, can you conceive of what it would mean for mankind to come into its own, so to speak, to realize even in a degree that the true nature of man is spiritual because God, Spirit, divine Love, is the very Principle of all infinity?
What would it be like? Well, we have some glimpse of what it would be like from the Gospels, from the words of those who were with Christ Jesus. First of all, there was physical healing and healing of sin. And there was quiet joy. There must have been a wonderful, overflowing joy at that morning meal with Jesus, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, after the resurrection.
Those with Jesus had seen enough to convince them forever that the evils of human life, and even death itself, were not the final word or power over men. Even though they occasionally failed and struggled to hold the vision consistently, they knew that life simply wasn't what the physical senses insisted it was. Jesus had explained that the "kingdom of God is come unto you" (Matt. 12:28), is "within you" (Luke 17:21). And this truth was literally freeing them, opening the horizons of thought to a larger view of life than anything they had ever dreamed.
Now something of this freeing, releasing experience comes into the life of anyone touched by the Christ. It becomes very apparent that something bigger than all of us is going on. One is jarred out of the conventional, lets go somewhat of a personal sense of living for divine impelling and bearing up.
But if all this is within, in the heart of man, why isn't it more obvious, more apparent? My experience has been that it becomes more obvious as we choose to seek it, consistently want it, value it, and willingly live by it. Maybe you recall Mrs. Eddy's comments in regard to her discovery: "The first must become last" ("Retrospection and Introspection," p. 28). What are we really putting first? Television, business, the house, sports, friends, sensuality? Which comes first - ordinary materialism or the pure desire for spirituality, closeness to our God who is supremely good?
It may be helpful to look again at that Book of books, the Bible, to remind ourselves of how others once found it natural to live. All too often it seems we view the Bible through the smog of the present-day mental atmosphere. We think of it vaguely as primitive, pre-scientific. But the Bible is actually a record of the spiritual experience of some pretty rational, sagacious people - people who simply found God much more real to them than all the vivid material circumstances of forced marches, exile, shipwreck, prison, government oppression, sickness . . . and death.
Those voices in the Bible come down through the centuries sounding very much like our own. In Psalms, for example: "Cause me to hear thy lovingkindness in the morning; for in thee do I trust: cause me to know the way wherein I should walk; . . . teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God: thy spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness" (Ps. 143:8-10).
What came first for the writer of those psalms? We can see it was Spirit, God. The Bible is in part a compilation of people's concrete experience of spiritual reality. It isn't the superstition of primitive men and women but of articulate, thoughtful people well acquainted with the hardness of human life. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say in this instance that the primitive is the present-day materialism which doesn't seem to be able to comprehend anything that it can't see, touch, or measure.
Hasn't the time come to stand against this primitive, aggressive darkness and to say yes to the spiritual nature of man - not only for ourselves but for the sake of a spiritual future for humanity? Isn't this the time?
Like the people of the Bible, we too can find we belong to God, that we are the children of light. What a remarkable difference it makes in how things look and how we live!
Mary Baker Eddy once framed the question this way: "Between the centripetal and centrifugal mental forces of material and spiritual gravitations, we go into or we go out of materialism or sin, and choose our course and its results. Which, then, shall be our choice, - the sinful, material, and perishable, or the spiritual, joy-giving, and eternal?" ("Miscellaneous Writings," p. 19).