A Frontline Position in the Present World Conflict of Ideals

Delivered by George Moffett, September 2002

As I do once a year during Fall Convocation, I’d like to impart a few thoughts on a subject that seems appropriate to our work together as a community of Christian Scientists. And today I’m going to come back to an issue that I risk overdoing sometimes but that I continue to believe remains important – just now, especially.

I’m an inveterate reader of public opinion polls. One that especially caught my attention recently was the latest edition of a long-running annual national survey conducted by UCLA of the attitudes of college students on a wide range of issues. What struck me, in particular, was UCLA’s finding that the interest of college students across the country in the affairs of the nation and of the world has dropped to its lowest level since the survey started nearly 40 years ago – descending to depths apparently unmatched since the 1930s, when the U.S. was in a period of deep isolationism, between World Wars I and II. As you may know, we paid a huge price for that isolationism. The poll said that only 29% of college freshmen reported an interest in “keeping up with political affairs.”1 It said students are focused more on their personal lives and have less and less inclination to look outward.

I guess the reasons for such deep disengagement are not hard to find. For starters, it turns out that students are like actual people: They’re busy all the time. For another thing, there’s a strong feeling on the part of college students, according to UCLA, that there’s not much any of us can do to change society anyway – although the poll does record a heartening increase in the number of college students who, like many of you, are engaged in local community service programs.2

Likewise, your generation has grown up with endless news of scandal and corruption. It’s no wonder students are so cynical about government and political leaders and that they’ve all but ceased to be consumers of news that has any more expansive content than CNN’s “Global Minute.”

I’m sure you’ve figured out where I’m going with this. We have a significant disconnect on our hands. At the very time when this complicated planet of ours needs our thoughtful attention most – at the very time when the need for our engagement, humanly and especially prayerfully, has reached what has to be one of its most urgent levels in human history – at this very moment we’re essentially turning our backs on it and saying, in effect, “Oh, well, I’m busy, they’re all corrupt, and what can I do, anyway?”

Let me tell you a little story about Principia’s founder, Mary Kimball Morgan, that may provide the perfect answer, at least for a college audience of Christian Scientists.

You may or may not know that back in 1940, when democracy was under assault from fascist dictators and after the start of World War II in Europe, Mrs. Morgan carefully weighed whether Principia should close its doors. The school was the great work of her life, and yet she considered closing it down for the most unselfish of reasons.

“This is not a time,” she wrote to the Trustees of the school, “when we can afford to carry on any activity that is not fundamentally essential to the way of life which we believe is worth fighting for. . . .”3

After due consideration, she chose not to close Principia down, of course, and in the end it was for one reason. In thinking about it she concluded that Principia actually was essential to the way of life that was worth fighting for; that the work taking place in Elsah and St. Louis was central to the great struggle of ideologies that was taking place in Europe and Asia and that, within 16 months of her letter to the Trustees, would draw the United States into its vortex, at Pearl Harbor.

“May I, with the deepest earnestness and sincerity, say to you” – this is to the Trustees again – “that I believe Principia’s work – inconspicuous though it may be, and should be – occupies a frontline position in the present world conflict of ideals.”4

This is an amazing statement: That this tiny school, located in a rural Midwestern village, should occupy a place (not just any place but a “frontline” place) in the conflict of ideals (not just local ideals but “world” ideals). There’s a hint here of the profoundly expansive vision Mrs. Morgan had for Principia, and the great relevance it had to the welfare of the world.

Her statement turned me to another – this one in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures – that speaks to much the same point: “ . . . this I do aver,” Mrs. Eddy wrote, “that, as a result of teaching Christian Science, ethics and temperance have received an impulse, health has been restored, and longevity increased.”5

The ethics, temperance, health, and longevity of humanity, all affected by a tiny denomination that almost no one had ever heard of. The statement – like Mrs. Morgan’s about Principia’s frontline place in the world conflict of ideals – is either unbelievably audacious or it’s an accurate, important recognition of the powerful leavening influence of Truth, even when it’s understood by only the tiniest minority, even a tiny minority living in a place like Elsah, Illinois.

I was prompted to go through some of Mrs. Eddy’s biographies recently to see how else the advent of Christian Science was influencing human experience in her day. I was quite amazed at what I found. Mrs. Eddy was extremely sensitive to what needed healing in society and incredibly confident that the Truth, invoked by conscientious Christian Scientists, was healing it.

Here’s one example: imperialism. In 1899, Mrs. Eddy described imperialism as one “great danger threatening our nation.”6 These were her words. They were written at the very height of the race for empire among Europe’s colonial powers and just as the U.S., in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, was embarking on its own, more modest course of empire.

One of Mrs. Eddy’s biographers, Robert Peel, writes that Mrs. Eddy felt deeply enough about the issue of imperialism that she cited the speeches of leading anti-imperialists – politicians and commentators – in early editions of the Christian Science Sentinel. And as she wrote, the first stirrings of a reaction against colonialism were becoming evident. Within 20 years, President Woodrow Wilson would speak eloquently of the right of self-determination for all nations. Forty years after that, Monitor writer Joseph Harsch would describe the anti-colonial impulse as the most powerful political emotion of the post-World War II era. Not political, military, or economic power but “justice, mercy, and peace . . . shall rule all nations,” Mrs. Eddy wrote.7 That was a statement of Truth that had power to untangle the snarls of human affairs and lift the motives and aspirations of men and women everywhere.

Here’s another example. Mrs. Eddy was acutely aware of the dangers posed by concentrations of economic power in the unregulated trusts and monopolies of her time. She wrote of the “insufficient freedom of honest competition,” and specifically condemned wealth gained at the expense of others.8 She read and underlined portions of an address given by President Theodore Roosevelt calling for broader federal authority to regulate corporations dealing with interstate commerce. And not by accident, I’m inclined to believe, did this reform impulse burgeon into the Progressive movement of Mrs. Eddy’s day that helped equalize economic opportunity and mitigate the extreme abuses of corporate power.

The list goes on. She condemned industrial slavery as one of the “most imminent dangers confronting the coming century.”9 And more humane conditions obtained. She gave an impulse to human rights and women’s rights with her denunciation of the practice of “the robbing of people of life and liberty under the warrant of the Scriptures.”10 She cut to the very core of racism with this extraordinary observation: “No inherent qualities of race exist. Banish the lie from your mind or it will harm you. . . . It is all a ‘liar from the beginning and Truth abides not in it.’ ”11 This truth had to be a powerful influence in human thought, counteracting the influence of the racial theories that enslaved so many millions around the world.

I obviously can’t give you empirical proof that the societal ills that Mrs. Eddy addressed were mitigated because of the advent of Christian Science. But the fact is that she believed they were; that Christian Science was “leavening the whole lump of human thought.”12 I think this tells us something really significant about how important Christian Scientists are – or to be more exact, how important the Truth invoked by Christian Scientists is – to human salvation. All of which brings me back to Mrs. Morgan and Principia.

In the end, after debating whether to close her school, she made the clear decision to press on. And the reason she did tells us everything we need to know about the centrality of our work to the world. She concluded that Principia’s continuation had to be assured – in her words – “in response to the demands of this present critical period in our history.”13 This is a remarkable statement. It was her recognition that the world needed Principia – that the world needed Principia – that solidified her determination to keep Principia going through the most difficult period of the 20th century. Not because it was just a nice, attractive school giving a good education. But because of the power of the Christ-idea, which had nothing to do either with the numbers enrolled in her school or with its geographical location.

As for the numbers, we fret sometimes that we operate in the context of a momentarily shrinking movement. But look at it this way: The Christian Science movement probably had more raw, primitive, transforming, healing power when it was young than when it swelled into a comparatively large movement. Look at all that Mrs. Eddy claimed resulted from the advent of Christian Science, which is to say, when the movement was still small. It’s not really the numbers that matter, in the movement or at Principia. It’s the earnestness and commitment of those who are privileged enough to have access to its teachings.

As for geography, think of Christ Jesus. He could have operated out of Rome or Jerusalem, cities of great worldly eminence and stature, seats of real political and ecclesiastical power. But, no, he chose the tiny fishing village of Capernaum, which was probably no larger in his day than Elsah is in ours. By the world’s standard, Capernaum was a remote backwater. But it was from Capernaum that Christ Jesus virtually transformed human history. You see, geography wasn’t the issue. The issue was the power of the Christ-thought – the very Christ-thought that gives Principia its preeminent, if inconspicuous, place right on the frontlines of the present world conflict of ideals. Not because of anything inherent in the human institution of Principia, to be sure, but because of what Principia was doing, and is doing, to help its students understand how to meet the demands of what former Monitor editor Erwin Canham once called “spiritual citizenship.”

Principia – or to be more precise, the work of Principians – is crucially important. Maybe it’s because she understood that, that Mrs. Eddy, who never actually met Mrs. Morgan, was willing to take what would appear to have been the enormous risk of putting her stamp of approval on Principia. Through a member of her household, Mrs. Eddy communicated to Mrs. Morgan that “I heartily approve of [Principia] . . . that I not only approve, but endorse it; and that she has my blessing.”14 Humanly, Mrs. Eddy had no way of knowing, really, that Principia wouldn’t turn out to be a fly-by-night operation. Done wrong, the work of the school could have significantly injured her movement. So why did she endorse it? I can only guess that her spiritual insight was such that she discerned that the idea of Principia and the clarity of its founder were accurate, durable, and reliable expressions of Principle. And because she understood how crucial the graduates of a school like Principia could be – and all other Christian Scientists, as well, of course – not only as workers in service to the movement but as healers of a world sorely in need of what Christian metaphysicians could bring to it.

When Mrs. Morgan wrestled with the issue of whether to close Principia down, the “present world conflict of ideals” was the ideological struggle between tyranny and liberty. Today, the present world conflict of ideals is still the struggle between tyranny and liberty, only this time it’s the tyranny of escalating conflicts around the world, the great deprivation that besets so many members of the human family, environmental degradation, and maybe at the core of all these problems, the spiritually deadening influence of a materialistic and morally confused culture. And what power is capable of bringing liberty? Only this: the very power we are in business – all of us – to love more and understand better.

The only thing that could ever keep us from playing our designated role – the only thing that could ever keep us from capitalizing on our advantageous “frontline position in the present world conflict of ideals” – would be our failure to recognize that this is exactly where we are, that this is exactly the privileged position we occupy. If I’m reading Mrs. Morgan correctly, this tiny institution, to the extent that it operates in service to the Cause of Christian Science, can make a deep imprint on world thought. Let me say that differently. It’s not Principia that has this power. It’s the Christ that Principians – not to mention all other Christian Scientists – can demonstrate in full measure.

As our great Principia architect, Bernard Maybeck, put it once, many years ago: “The young people growing up in the environment of the Principia College will get that refinement which will save the pieces when the world seems to go to smash.” 15

Well, the world sometimes does seem to be on the verge of “going to smash.” Terrorism, the continuing threat of nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, the intractable Middle East crisis, massive lapses in corporate ethics, the AIDS pandemic – you know the problems as well as I do.

So how do we keep the world from going to smash?

Well, here’s how Erwin Canham put it once: “The salvation of the human race at this stirring moment in history may be said to depend on two factors: a knowledge of the problems to be solved and an awareness of the Truth which will solve these problems.”16

The “knowledge of the problems” part is where my remarks started 17 minutes ago. If we’re tuned out, if we turn our backs on the world around us, if we disengage from the world because of apathy or cynicism and in a kind of moral self-righteousness because so much of it seems imperfect and corrupt, then we have excluded ourselves from one of our main obligations and opportunities in life.

You may know the story of the famous lecturer and journalist – not a Christian Scientist – who came to visit Mrs. Eddy when she was living in Concord, New Hampshire, and left dumbfounded by how much she knew about the world. At one point in the conversation, Mrs. Eddy asked for more information on a certain matter related to China, then proceeded to take over the topic for a full hour and to discuss it – Chinese history, politics, and court intrigues – in such detail and with such nuance that the man was astonished.20 It’s amazing: This simple woman, whose own geographical horizons barely extended beyond New England but who mentally embraced a world that she believed, with all her heart, was crying out to her for help. The point being that she knew she couldn’t pray about the world effectively unless she understood the world.

She was so convinced on this point that, in her 88th year, she founded her own newspaper. “When I established The Christian Science Monitor,” she told her household, “I took the greatest step forward since I gave Science and Health to the world.”18 As one of her biographers, Robert Peel, elaborates, it was the Monitor that was “the final link between [Mrs. Eddy’s] church and the whole, great, various, unredeemed world, with its splendor, its wretchedness, its ideal potential.”19 The whole point of the paper – and one reason Principia makes each issue available to you free of charge in the Concourse – is to bring redemption to the world because the paper forces Christian Scientists to focus on their world, not to pass by on the other side.

“The Monitor unopened,” Canham wrote once, “is the symbol of self-centeredness and apathy.”20

Let me just interject here that reading a daily newspaper shouldn’t seem daunting to you. You don’t have to read every word to stay on top of events. Here are my four suggestions for being an efficient Monitor reader:

First, see what’s on the front page. Editors are paid to size up the world each day for us and to make judgments about which stories are the most important of the day. To be on top of the day’s breaking news, read at least the first few paragraphs of the three or four page-one stories.

Second, peruse the rest of the paper. Read the headlines and sometimes read at least the first paragraph or two to get the gist.

Third, look at the editorials on the editorial page and at least one of the “op-ed,” or opinion pieces, on the opposite page. That’s where the word “op-ed” comes from, by the way. Get a sense of the judgments the editors and other experts bring to the news. You may agree or disagree with them but expose yourself to the arguments on important issues.

And, finally, read one story each day – in its entirety – on a subject you know nothing about: an article about an election in an African country or the state of the American economy or the tensions between India and Pakistan. If you do this every day this year, your sense of the world, and your knowledge of the world, will be vastly expanded by next June. What’s more – and better – you’ll begin to get a sense of how the individual parts of the human story fit together.

And you can do all this in just a few minutes each day.

Now, let’s face it, the Monitor is not light reading. It makes serious demands on readers. And what the Monitor requires – what the world requires – is the one thing the whole society, reflecting the feelings of the college students polled by UCLA, seems most reluctant to give. It’s readers who care enough for the world, who love the world enough, who have enough Christ-like compassion for its people that they’re willing to step up to the responsibility to understand the world and the forces and trends that move it and shape it.

That’s the first requirement of spiritual citizenship in Canham’s list of two: “a knowledge of the problems to be solved.” The second on his list is even more important: “an awareness of the Truth which will solve these problems.”

This is not the time or place to talk about how to pray for the world. But the advantage of being in a community of Christian Scientists is that we’re surrounded by friends, professors, Sunday School teachers – experienced Christian Scientists – who can help us figure this out. It’s one of the most important skills the Principia experience should be imparting. And maybe it comes down to the observation of one of the early workers in the movement, that only through Christian Science can we change the human heart. We really need to think about what that means.

Not thinking about what it means is a luxury that we really can’t afford any more. The world’s circumstances are too precarious. The way they evolve from here will affect each one of you very directly. Whether we step up to the responsibility Mrs. Eddy has assigned to us, to – in her words – “hold crime in check,”21 or whether we don’t, will have great bearing on the future. Remember Mrs. Morgan: Principia – meaning Principians, meaning you and me, not to mention all other Christian Scientists – “occupy a frontline position in the present world conflict of ideals.” Not a back seat but a frontline position.

All those good and bright college students across the country who told UCLA that they have more important things to do than to stay engaged with the world have made an important decision. I guess the difference at Principia is that we hold a different view, raise a different standard, define a different expectation, because, as Christian Scientists, we must be engaged. It is not a heavy burden. It’s what we should want to do, this job of helping humanity, with all our hearts.

Let’s let Mrs. Morgan have the last word. She told the students of her day that it was they – as practicing Christian Scientists – who were capable of “freeing the world from the shackles of poverty, disease, sin, [and] war.”22 This is from a letter she wrote. Please note that it wasn’t a letter to the faculty or to the Trustees or to practitioners or to teachers of Christian Science. It’s a letter she wrote to students! It’s extraordinary. And it attests to the fact that she had full confidence that they – that you – actually do have the capacity to free the world from poverty, disease, sin, and war. And so you do.

I know your lives now are centered on your studies, your sports, your social lives, and all the rest. That’s precisely as it should be. But this is just a gentle reminder that the real work of our lives goes way beyond ourselves, all the way to knowing, loving, and healing mankind. What a terrific task. And what enormous expectations Mrs. Morgan had for us! We need to be clear. This won’t happen just by calling ourselves Christian Scientists. It will only happen if we understand and utilize the mental means by which we destroy the very foundations of human hatred.

The effectual, fervent prayers of the righteous men and women sitting in this auditorium will avail much, to paraphrase a familiar Bible passage. These prayers, your prayers, will enrich the human affections. And that will end war. It will quell the impulse to terrorism. It will protect and sustain the environment. It will comfort those laboring under the burden of human want. It actually will.

It seems like an important point to remember as we begin our new year together. I know it’s a year that will bring great growth, great joy, and deep spiritual satisfaction. It’s wonderful to have you back.

 

 

1 Alexander W. Astin, et. al., The American Freshman: Thirty Year Trends (Los Angeles: University of California, 1997) 28. See also: Rene Sanchez, “College Freshmen Interest in Civics Keeps Falling,” The Washington Post 8 Jan. 1996: A5.

2 The American Freshman: Thirty Year Trends 28.

3 Mary Kimball Morgan, Education at The Principia (St. Louis: The Principia, 1965) 150:1-4.

4 Education at The Principia 151:15-18.

5 Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1971) 348:26-32.

6 Mary Baker Eddy, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany (Boston: Trustees under the Will of Mary Baker G. Eddy, 1941) 129:3-5.

7 Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Science versus Pantheism (Boston: Trustees under the Will of Mary Baker G. Eddy, 1926) 14:11-14.

8 The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany 266:3.

9 The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany 266:3.

10 The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany 266:3.

11 Robert Peel, Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Authority (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,

1977) 117.

12 The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany 114:28-29.

13 Education at The Principia 151:10.

14 Edwin S. Leonard Jr., As the Sowing: The First Fifty Years of The Principia (St. Louis: The Principia, 1948) 57.

15 Erwin D. Canham, “The Tools for Spiritual Citizenship,” The Christian Science Journal Vol. 83, No. 10, 508.

16 Erwin D. Canham, Commitment to Freedom: The Story of The Christian Science Monitor (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1958) 10-11.

17 Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Authority 311.

18 Letter to Frederic Morgan, March 28, 1934

19 Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Authority 312.

20 “The Tools for Spiritual Citizenship,” 509.

21 Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures 96:31-2.

22 Education at The Principia 167:24.