Embracing curiosity...ecumenically (and beyond!)

Recently I had the opportunity to attend the National Workshop on Christian Unity, an annual ecumenical conference. I had first heard about the conference from a retired Lutheran pastor who has become a dear friend and heads a local ecumenical group in which I participate. The monthly meetings of this group have been deeply enriching for me and have led to meaningful connections for which I am so grateful.


When I contacted a fellow Christian Scientist who is very knowledgeable about and involved in ecumenical work, I learned that a group of Christian Scientists planned to attend the conference. There were nine of us there, certainly the highest number yet in the several years since she was the first Christian Scientist known to attend the conference.


There were of course many highlights to this experience, and I could discuss them in detail, but I wanted to share one thing that particularly stood out to me and shifted my thought in an important way.


I’ve found myself in many contexts with Christians of other denominations over the years, from the various gospel choirs I’ve sung with to my seminary experience to participating as a representative of my church in a local interfaith group when I was First Reader. In these situations I often downplayed the fact that I was a Christian Scientist, though I knew people were generally aware of it. Since I didn’t express a great desire or perhaps even openness to talk about my Christian Science background, there weren’t a lot of questions directed at me. My desire was often to be “undercover”, learning as much as I could about my fellow Christians and their denominations but not having to answer tough questions about Christian Science.


As one whose work is now entirely focused on Christian Science healing, these discussions have become unavoidable for me. I admit that sometimes there have been awkward exchanges, but more often they have been inspiring, as was the case with many conversations at the recent ecumenical conference.


One particular conversation felt especially exhilarating. I was seated at lunch next to a friendly, articulate Bishop of the United Methodist Church. While I have many friends and associates who are pastors of churches, I am not close to anyone who has attained the title of Bishop. So, I was genuinely eager to learn what his work entailed. It wasn’t that I thought learning about a Bishop’s duties would bring me some great insight that could change my life. But I really was curious to know about various aspects of his work. How many local pastors was he in charge of? How did they get assigned to various churches? How did he make sure they were all supported vocationally? What was the average stay at a church for pastors in his area? These were things I wanted to know.


After I peppered him with questions he seemed to enjoy answering, he began to sprinkle me with his curiosities about the work and life of a Christian Science practitioner. His interest was genuine, and I was happy to share my experience with him. After the meal, a few officials from the national office for his denomination came over to the table, and he introduced me to them, enthusiastically saying, “I have so enjoyed talking with Laura!” The sentiment was mutual.


I found myself asking what had made this exchange feel so successful where at times such conversations have felt awkward in the past. And I realized one fact was that we were both simply curious. The Bishop was not trying to find out if Christian Science could heal him, and I wasn’t considering whether I should become a Methodist. I didn’t feel the pressure of trying to convert him, nor did I feel a concern that his response to my experience would be antagonistic. It was a low pressure exchange.


I think sometimes we are taught that curiosity is a bad thing. That it isn’t deep enough to warrant a full response and that it could even potentially be dangerous. I realized I may have at times been hesitant to enter into a dialogue with someone unless I perceive that the individual is earnestly seeking a deeper understanding of the teachings of Christian Science. Perhaps a simple desire to know what we are about doesn't seem reverent enough in the face of the misunderstanding that has often been unpleasantly perpetuated about our denomination. But curiosity is honest. And, it can lead to a deeper sense of seeking.


In the context of Mary Baker Eddy’s writings, the word “curiosity” is used almost exclusively in letters and quotes from people who had been healed by Christian Science and later joined the church (such as in the chapter Fruitage in Science and Health). In an article from the Boston Herald after the dedication of the Extension of The Mother Church in 1906, published in The First Church of Christ, Scientist and Miscellany, the reporter writes: “As all the services were precisely the same in every respect, nobody attended more than one, so that there were well over thirty thousand people who witnessed the opening. Not only did these include Scientists from all over the world, and nearly all the local Scientists, but many hundreds of other faiths, drawn to the church from curiosity, and from sympathy, too” (30:3).


In many of these cases, that genuine curiosity, even if accompanied by some skepticism at first, gradually led these future church members to discover that Christian Science is what they had longed for all their lives. Indeed, that may not always be the result of our exchanges with a curious individual who is asking us about Christian Science! Nor should we feel like it needs to be. But there is no reason for us to be scared of or put off by those who are curious about our faith and its practice.


While we may feel protective due to some negative experiences we or our fellow Christian Scientists have had (and we should prayerfully protect ourselves when these feelings arise in these contexts), this concern does not need to hinder us from honestly sharing with those who are honestly interested. They may not ever desire to read Science and Health or end up attending a service at one of our churches. But at the very least they will have heard firsthand from a Christian Scientist about the experience of practicing our faith, and that is the best way for them to learn authentically what Christian Science is.


One of the lessons I took from this conference was to embrace those who are curious and welcome their questions, even if the questions are startlingly bold or if they don't seem like they are as deeply interested in Christian Science as I might wish. As we freely discuss our church experiences with our curious sisters and brothers, also eager to learn about the practice of their faith, we may find that we are mutually drawn together not only by that curiosity but by a sympathy that grows from a shared respect and admiration. We cannot know where that will lead, but healing in some form (whether of individuals or of all too commonly held public misunderstanding) seems like a very real potential result. So, let’s welcome genuine curiosity.