For all my years as a doctor, I have encouraged people to realize that the spiritual dimension of our lives affects our health as much as the physical limitations of our bodies and the ever-present fear of disease and aging.
I was, therefore, fascinated when I attended a retirement party for Dr. Owen Tabor, Sr., and he and his wife of 52 years, Margaret, openly discussed their religious beliefs and practices. He is a Presbyterian and she is a Christian Scientist. Most people know little of the practice of Christian Science. Many Christians are quick to label Christian Science beliefs as heresy and inflict harm in the assertion. As a child, Margaret often was told, “Your parents are going to hell for not letting you go to the doctor.”
That point is not exactly accurate.
Christian Science was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in the nineteenth century and first described in her 1875 book, Science and Health. Throughout her life, Mrs. Eddy had a series of physical ailments. In order to make sense of her experiences, she developed a belief system whereby the spiritual world is the only reality and the material world is an illusion. This means that sickness and death are illusions caused by mistaken beliefs. Rather than conventional medicine, in Christian Science the best treatment for those who are sick is a special form of prayer intended to correct their mistaken beliefs.
In Mrs. Eddy’s defense, she lived at a time when a great deal of the practice of medicine had no scientific basis and quackery thrived. Avoiding purgatives, bleeding and potions actually was smart medicine.
While the denial of physical existence does not fit my own personal belief system, Dr. Tabor has found the ability to be at peace in practicing orthopedic surgery for 50 years while being married for even longer to an active practitioner of Christian Science. When they first met, he was thinking of going to medical school. They were already falling in love before they discussed each other’s religious beliefs.
“I thought she was an Episcopalian,” he told me. “She looked like an Episcopalian.”
In Margaret’s words, “He wasn’t thinking of asking me to change because he wouldn’t change anything about me.” She went on to say, “No two people are ever in the same place in their relationship to God. You have to do what you have to do to serve God.”
When the Tabors had children, they sent them to Christian Science Sunday school until they were 12. Then the children decided on their own what they would do. The two girls became Christian Scientists, while one boy became a Presbyterian and the other an Episcopalian. Margaret believes it was because of her encouragement that their eldest son, Owen, Jr., also became an orthopedic surgeon. She told him to follow his heart, which he did. His father didn’t know his plan for another two years.
Christian Science does not reject all medical care. Setting bones and obstetrical care are both allowed. There is nothing written that says you cannot take medicine, but the belief system discourages dependence on any drugs. Margaret’s faith was seriously challenged when she found a lump in her breast and chose not to have a surgeon remove it. Owen admitted, “It scared me.” Margaret remembers, “Owen loved me enough to let me be who I am.”
Eventually the mass disappeared.
In preparing to write this article, I read far more about Christian Science than I have in years. I confess I find its basic tenets difficult to accept. Mrs. Eddy and I would disagree on the relationship between body and spirit and the reality of disease.
Yet, what I embrace about Christian Science is the understanding that there are serious limitations in the modern day pills and potions we try to sell to people. The recently published report of research showing that multivitamins have little benefit is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition, Mrs. Eddy’s teachings point to a spiritual dimension to life that must be nurtured for improved health. On this point, I could not agree more.
This post first appeared in The Commercial Appeal on Jan. 6, 2014.