What are the goals and benefits of dialogue among Christian churches? Is there a scriptural basis for different faiths coming together in unity? Does Christian Science have a place at the table? In this lively interview, Michael Kinnamon, former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, and Shirley Paulson, Head of Ecumenical Affairs for the Church of Christ, Scientist, tackle these and other pertinent questions. Hosted by TMC Youth’s Chet Manchester, the interview is adapted from a live chat, “Christianity Beyond Borders,” originally broadcast on time4thinkers.com.
Chet: When I was sitting around the table with Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon and some others last spring from the National Council of Churches, I felt truly like I was talking with and meeting a brother, someone I had so much in common with.
Michael, tell us a little bit about your journey—your passion, your interest in this subject.
Michael: I have to tell you that I think of Shirley also as a sister, and the wonderful relationship that we’ve been able to have since she’s participated in various meetings of the National Council of Churches has broadened my sense of what it means to be a Christian, to be in Christ. And that’s the experience I’ve had over my life—this conviction that it’s really inconceivable to me that a single community has cornered all the truth about God and God’s will for our lives. So to be exposed to those who see that truth from other angles I’ve found to be enormously enriching.
I suppose my first serious encounter with all this was actually interfaith. I went to Israel for my junior year of college at Tel Aviv University, and was probably the only person who identified as a Christian out of about 200 students, which actually made me very popular! I was invited by lots of Jewish families for holidays and special events, and then lived with a Jewish family in downtown Tel Aviv. All of this was deeply enriching to me. In fact, I would say that in some sense, I came to a mature Christian faith in the midst of that Jewish context. So again—inconceivable that I would think only in terms of what my community had to offer.
So that was the overwhelming, pivotal experience for me. Since then, I’ve been deeply involved in intra-Christian activity.
Chet: Thank you, Michael. And Shirley, what about you? You’ve certainly been involved with Christian Science for, I guess, most of your life.
Shirley: Yes, all my life.
Chet: But then you felt the need to get beyond a wall that you felt was there between Christian Science and other Christian denominations.
Shirley: Yes. I didn’t have quite the global experience that Michael did. Mine all happened within my own house, in that my family hosted exchange students. So we had a little interfaith world right in our own home. We learned to love them as family members, but we also learned about their faiths in a way that we weren’t needing to convert them or make them think like us. We just needed to understand each other.
Some years later, I became interested in joining my local clergy association after I had become a Christian Science practitioner. When I began to go to meetings and I would start to explain something about myself or ask questions, there was this horribly unpleasant silence in the room. So I would go home and pray about it, and come back to another meeting hoping to be more loving and to do whatever I needed to do to join the conversation better. I would find a little moment to speak up again, and another silence would ensue.
This went on for months.
And the big thing that happened was that one Thanksgiving Eve, my daughter came home for vacation from Harvard Divinity School, and she went to our local clergy association’s Thanksgiving Eve service. And if she wasn’t the one chit-chatting away with all these clergy! I was watching her, thinking, “How is she doing that?” And it dawned on me that she had learned their language, and I didn’t know it.
So I trotted myself over to my local seminary, and asked if I could take a course. And that’s when I began to learn how enormous this conversation is, and how utterly enriching it is.
I took another course, and another course, until I finished my degree. And it just deepened my affection for my own religious experience as well as my desire to get deeper into the conversation. And then I met Michael, and everything changed [laughter].
Chet: Talk a little bit about that, Shirley.
Shirley: Well, I feel like what Michael has taught me is that by appreciating my own gifts, I’m better able to explain what they are, but also find myself ready and willing and able to receive the gifts of others without feeling threatened or like I’m going to be tainted by somebody else’s thoughts. Michael just sort of showed me the way to be in greater dialogue.
Michael: Well, this is mutual. I have a question, though. I’m interested because it seems to me that Christian Science is everywhere a minority, unlike, say, Catholics in Italy or Lutherans in Scandinavia. And when that’s the case, it could either make you insular, or recognize your need of others.
Shirley: Yes. I’ve thought about that quite a bit, Michael, because, frankly, growing up as a Christian Scientist, I sort of thought that everybody was a Christian Scientist, and I was surprised to find out that, in fact, I was a tiny minority. So then I started asking questions like, “Who am I in the world of others? Who am I in the conversation?” I really asked that question myself, “Why did we become so isolated? How did that happen, and why?”
There are a number of things I’ve thought of, and I don’t know if I have any definitive answer. But some of it may have to do with the fact that Mary Baker Eddy herself was so under attack, especially near the end of her life and her career. And I think Christian Scientists became oftentimes afraid of speaking up because they were just attacked so often. That’s one thing I think that’s happened.
This is why this conversation is so valuable—to think about “Why should we be in dialogue with others, and what’s the benefit?”
Michael: This might be a good time to say a word about this term ecumenical. Would that be useful?
Chet: And that related word that took me a while to learn, ecumenism. Yes, we definitely need a little education there.
Michael: The term itself comes from a Greek word oikomene, which means the whole of the earth, or the whole inhabited earth. It gradually came to mean the whole faith that the whole church confessed.
Shirley: And Michael, when you say “the whole church,” Christian Scientists often ask, “What do you mean by ‘the church’?”
Michael: In the early centuries, of course, the church was a little bit more unified than we’ve experienced it. But even then, not really. That would be the church in different places—in Alexandria, in Antioch, in Jerusalem, in Rome—what was confessed by Christians in all of those places, and then also down through the ages. We say that “Christ is the same, yesterday, and today, and forever.” So we refer to the “faith of the apostles,” or the “apostolic tradition”—that ought to be the same for our ancestors and also for us, and into the future. And then also around the world. So ecumenical refers to that wholeness of faith in the church everywhere.
But in the 11th century there was a great split between the Orthodox churches of Constantinople, now Istanbul, and all around the Mediterranean, and the Western churches, or the Roman Catholic Church. And then of course, in the 16th century you have the Protestant Reformation, which split the church further in the West. And then the Protestants, splitting from the Roman Catholic Church, of course, divided into lots of fragments. So we have Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, and Methodists, and so on. But in fact, when I talk about “the church,” I mean all of those together: Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox. That’s not interfaith dialogue. That’s intrafaith, or “within the faith dialogue.” Because they are all confessing the same basic faith. But they do so in different traditions and often with doctrines that they’ve found to be divisive.
And so in the 20th century, a movement grew up to try to reverse that, and to bring together churches which over the previous centuries had tended to be dividing and growing away from one another. Ecumenism is what’s practiced by this ecumenical movement. It’s the effort to realize our unity in Christ.
Shirley: The date you mentioned is important, because Mary Baker Eddy passed on in 1910. And that’s about the beginning of the ecumenical movement. Is that right?
Michael: That’s exactly right. Her death coincided with the great Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910, which is symbolically taken as the beginning of this ecumenical movement. What happened there was that Christians from the mission fields realized that they were competing for the same souls.
So they came together in 1910 to try to overcome these divisions, and out of that came the movement we call the ecumenical movement. A major event in that was in 1948 when the World Council of Churches was formed that brought together various streams of this activity, including spiritual ecumenism—prayer for unity. At the heart of it has to be that prayer that God will indeed enable us to live as the one body of Christ.
I would stress, though, that all of this isn’t really a new movement. It’s very much grounded in Scripture.
Chet: That was my next question, Michael. What’s the biblical basis for this?
Michael: Think, for example, of Ephesians, chapter two, which speaks about that dividing wall of hostility between Gentiles and Jews that has been torn down, and they’ve been made one new body in Christ. And then chapter four of Ephesians talks about “maintaining the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace, because there is one body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.” It’s not that there should be, but that there is, because of what God has done in Christ. John 17 is often taken as the center of this movement, where Christ prays that his followers may all be one just as he is one with God, whom he calls Father.
Shirley: The point I just want to bring out here is that Mary Baker Eddy herself thought of herself as a Christian her whole life. She didn’t become something other than a Christian when she founded a denomination that she called Christian Science. And she said that she never left the church. So I think that it’s helpful for us to conceive of this idea of church, the whole church—that we aren’t something else, and that you all, everybody else, is some other kind of church.
Michael: I think that some of our colleagues, some of your colleagues in the Christian Science Church with whom I’ve been privileged to meet, do trust that I regard you and all of them as sisters and brothers in Christ, and that the Christian Science Church is indeed a part of the one universal Church of Jesus Christ. I believe that very much on the basis of the conversations that I’ve had with you, and my own readings of Mary Baker Eddy, and conversations with others.
Chet: Let’s talk a little bit about the dialogue, because that’s one of the first questions we’ve gotten tonight: “I’ve heard about the discussions between the Christian Science Church and the National Council of Churches—can you tell us a little bit more about that?”
Shirley: I remember the first time I met Michael. We were at a conference on Christian unity, and our mutual friend Maryl Walters introduced us. We got into dialogue about whether healing belonged in the Christian Church, and soon he asked if we (the Christian Science Church) might be able to come and just listen to what’s going on at the National Council of Churches. Is that the way you remember it, Michael?
Michael: Yes. Personal relationships make all the difference—getting to know the other as a believer. I invited Shirley to come to the
Governing Board meetings of the National Council, where she experienced the life of the churches together—there are 37 national denominations that make up the National Council, all the way from Greek Orthodox to Quakers, and African American churches, and mainline churches, and some of the recent immigrant churches.
Shirley: I saw the interaction among other just completely different denominations with each other—different, but still loving each other. And I thought, “There’s a way to be in this conversation.”
Chet: We’ve got a new question here, and Michael, you could shed some light on this, for sure. Shirley, you no doubt have been studying this as well. This is a Christian Science student who says, “One of my professors asked me if Christian Science is Trinitarian. And that seemed to be a very important question in terms of determining whether a particular denomination would be considered Christian. How could I respond to that question properly?”
And as you get into this, I just want to ask for a perspective on what is it that has kept other Christian churches from really accepting Christian Science as Christian? What has kept us out of the Christian circle in the minds of other Christian churches?
Michael: The National Council of Churches does have a Trinitarian basis statement; that is, we confess in our basis statement that God is known to humanity in three persons, in three different ways. We usually speak of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to show the interrelationship of God, and that God is experienced to us as Creator, also as Redeemer, as Sustainer. This isn’t explicit in Scripture, but it is implicit in Scripture, and it speaks about the different ways in which the one God is known and experienced by Christians and also about God’s own nature—that God is in God’s own self, as Augustine put it, a society of love, reciprocal persons in one Godhead. So that at the very heart of reality is this kind of diversity in unity.
Shirley: As you say, Michael, this is a very large question and an important one. We do think of ourselves as “trinitarian” and not “unitarian” in the sense that there’s a relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And it’s what you talked about—the society, the relationship, is all important to us, because without a Son, there’s no Father, and without the Holy Spirit, there’s no action, there’s no Christ-movement. And so the relationship of these three in one is essential to the theology of Christian Science also.
I think that there has been probably more of a specific statement that in order to think this way, you have to say that Jesus is God, or God is Jesus, and this is not what we would say. We would say that that relationship is the issue, and we don’t deny in any way the divinity and the humanity that we find in Jesus. So we think of ourselves as “trinitarian,” but in a different way. I feel that the way we’ve had these discussions has opened the door for us to be able to express this in a unique way.
Michael: We’ve not asked that question directly, but in dialogue with others I think they’ve felt that you are “trinitarian” and have accepted that.
I think there are lots of reasons why there’s been suspicion about Christian Science in this culture over the years. Some of it, to be honest, is that you’re often confused with others.
Shirley: For example, Scientology.
Michael: Yes. There’s also perhaps just a basic prejudice at work here. People don’t really know what Christian Science practitioners and others believe, and so they read into it things that may not be there. And I do think you have been isolated, and it will help to let others know about Christian Science, because obviously that helps to breed prejudice as well, when a group remains isolated.
But it’s also because you aren’t the same as others that I’ve found myself learning a good deal. I think, for example, that other churches need to emphasize healing more if they’re to be grounded scripturally, and that we have a lot to learn from you about it. But I suspect that the big issue for many, as we’ve talked about, Shirley, has to do with the perception of reality with God as Spirit and God as All-in-all; and therefore the questions about what it means to affirm material reality, and if healing comes from having one’s mind right with that Spirit so that you perceive the illusion of evil and illness and sin—then that’s a very different understanding from what other Christians have of the work of atonement, for example.
Chet: Could you just speak a little in terms of what has touched you about your contact with Christian Scientists on this whole subject of healing?
Michael: Well, of course, part of what moves me is that the people I have met—Shirley, and you, and so many others—really give witness to a depth of Christian faith and spiritual life that I find very infectious. You see in the persons who practice it the proof of the tradition itself.
With regard to healing, I think that many of the traditions have written that off in ways that don’t do justice to the biblical record. We do speak of healing in the ecumenical movement. But by that they tend to mean the healing, for instance, of societies in the aftermath of awful violence. So they’re thinking in those kinds of corporate terms. Indeed, it’s the work of God, but it’s not necessarily what’s meant by healing in the work of Christian Science practitioners, for instance.
So I would like for us to learn more about healing of the individual, as well as society. Having said that, I think that Christian Science might also benefit from the ecumenical dialogue about what’s meant by other churches in terms of the healing of social conflict and the way in which the Church is engaged in doing that also, following God’s lead.
Chet: We have another question here from a student asking how problematic it is that Christian Science does not view Jesus as God in the traditional sense? How do you help get over this seemingly major difference between Christian Science and other mainstream Christian churches?
Shirley: The thing that has helped me the most in my learning to navigate this question is to think far more deeply than I used to about how we see the divinity in Jesus and in what he was doing. One of the reasons that we emphasize his humanity is that making him God tends to pull away from our understanding that he can be our example. He can actually show us that we have that capacity to follow him, to obey him, to find that authority to heal, to cure, even. And that’s important for us in order to feel like we’re being his disciples and doing what he said to do—to go out and preach the gospel and to heal the sick.
So I think that the more we think about both the humanity and the divinity, which other Christians profess also, it helps us understand our practice better. That’s why I think that the trinitarian concept is so important to us. It requires practice. It requires putting it into action.
Michael: Let me say what I think is at stake in this also. How do we know anything about God? Christians have said that we have some confidence that we can say God is like this when we point to Jesus. If Jesus is not God in that sense, how do we know what God is like?
This has been a really major question for other Christians in this whole discussion, so that’s the sort of thing that I would like to ask in dialogue with Christian Science neighbors. Not to hold it up to say others have it right and you have it wrong, but rather to ask those questions of how can we identify with the human Jesus in a way that really leads us also to imitate his behavior, but then at the same time to say how do we know what God is like?
Chet: Here’s a question: “I’m a Christian Scientist, and went to a state college in the Bible Belt. I faced some pretty rough prejudice against my faith. Any thoughts on forgiveness? I’m still working on it.”
Shirley: Could I say something about that? I’ve experienced that, too, although I did not go to a school in the South or in the Bible Belt, but I’ve certainly encountered conversations like this. I have to say that I find it easy to forgive others when I know how much I have needed to be forgiven myself. I know that I carried around a pretty arrogant thought about my religion, about my faith, about my growing up the way I did and all that. And so I’ve had to learn to be more humble, more open, more willing to hear from others and learn from others.
Chet: That’s beautiful, Shirley.
Michael: That is beautiful. I have to say also, Chet, that I’ve experienced this with Shirley. We were at a conference that was National Council sponsored just two weeks ago in Chicago. It was on ecclesiology, on the nature of the Church. And there were some at the table there who wouldn’t question whether Shirley was a Christian, but they would question whether or not the Christian Science Church was Church in the way that they were wanting to define it.
So at the end, I invited her to speak about this. And she responded by saying, “I know that there are some of you who may not think I belong at the table, but I’m sure glad all of you are at the table. I’ve learned deeply from your presence.”
And just in saying that, all of this other prejudice, I think, faded away. It was really an astonishing thing, because there wasn’t guile in it. This wasn’t strategy; this was from the heart. And
everyone there could feel it.
Shirley: I really did feel that way. I was so blessed by their sincere questions, their desire to understand Church, asking hard questions and humbly listening together. And I am always benefited by hearing others who pray and listen like that. So I was quite sincere about it. I wanted them to know that I was there loving them if they wanted to welcome that.
Michael: Well, I just found that it was such a testimony that others were, I think, moved by it as well, and hopefully moved away from many of their own prejudices. And I hear that for the person who asked that question of us. I’m terribly sorry for the hurt that you have suffered, and to others I’m sure who are participating in this program who’ve suffered. And for that I feel a need to also ask for forgiveness, because I’ve participated in ways of building up a church that hasn’t been sensitive. So all of us stand in need of forgiveness, and once we recognize that, it becomes a way of living.
Chet: Michael, what you just said had the same effect as Shirley’s comment had. Our own community hearing your words and your love and compassion—thank you so much.
This question says, “Michael mentioned that small congregations can be in danger of growing inward. That sounds as unhealthy as it would be for a person to try to live in isolation. Can you tell us how a church can look outward without losing its focus or identity?”
Michael: It’s such a great question, because that’s always the fear. I would say that what Scripture enjoins on us is to recognize that to be a Christian is to be one for whom the joys and the concerns of the other become our joys and concerns. So that in some sense when our identity becomes turned inward, it becomes less scriptural. We are those who are in Christ, and therefore participate with all those others who are also in Christ. That’s our identity.
Chet: That’s good. In her small work Pulpit and Press, Mary Baker Eddy I think summarizes the spirit of what we’ve been feeling in this discussion tonight: “To perpetuate a cold distance between our denomination and other sects, and close the door on church or individuals—however much this is done to us—is not Christian Science.” She adds: “Our unity with churches of other denominations must rest on the spirit of Christ calling us together. It cannot come from any other source” (p. 21).
I have felt that spirit of Christ calling us together in this discussion tonight, and certainly in the work that you all have been doing with such devotion—the larger dialogue between the Christian Science Church and the National Council of Churches that you’ve been nurturing. So I thank you both for being here tonight.
Michael: You’re welcome, Chet. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to participate in this dialogue over the last three or so years. But for this evening’s conversation, I guess I would also leave us with the thought that while Christian unity is of great importance, in some sense, it also is for a greater end. I think we’re called to be a sign of what God intends for the whole world. And so the way we live with one another ought to point toward God’s will for peacemaking throughout the world and all creation.
Shirley: And I think that leads us right back to the two great commandments Jesus gave us: that we are to love God with all our heart and soul and being, and to love our neighbor. And I think, Michael, that’s what you’re helping us to think about in a context of coming together as Christians—that our real goal is to follow those words of our Master.
Chet: I know that the intent of our discussion tonight was to really gain a deeper appreciation for one another. What a wonderful and inspiring discussion, and I know it will go right on.
To hear the full chat go to time4thinkers.com/t4t-events/christianity-beyond-borders.