If one can believe the statisticians-a practice that is sometimes suspect, but probably appropriate in this instance-then it is an American truism to say that slightly more than nine out of every ten of us look at religion through the lens of personal faith. The faiths and variations on faith which we represent and employ may be as diverse and even idiosyncratic as the proverbial sands of the sea, but they are nonetheless personally held, personally claimed, personally practiced systems of belief. It is, of course, the believing and the self-identification as believers, and not just our credos themselves, that are the lens. From time to time, however, some of us either receive the opportunity, or are required by circumstance, to look at religion from a more removed perspective. My own is such a case.
I am paid to observe religion objectively, as a very fluid and very potent phenomenon in American culture and, therefore, as one which is very important to the interests and health of the book industry that serves the culture. One of the first principles of religion-watching as a profession, and certainly of the more limited profession of religion-book-watching, is that one discovers early on that every major trend or sea change in either of them is always foreshadowed by a precursor. Once one has arrived at that rather beguiling realization, then forever after, identifying the precursors of active and dynamic trends becomes a kind of intellectual sport, a quasi-professional and pleasing preoccupation which delights as well as informs. This essay arises from my own adventures with one such precursor.
The problem with precursors, whether they be books or religion movements or religious leaders or all three at once, is that there can be no full, public appreciation of their predictive role until the change or growth they foreshadowed actually occurs and becomes publicly visible. Obviously, this does not mean that the particular book or leader or movement cannot be, or was not, fully appreciated within its own time. It just simply means that its place as a herald of future trends cannot be perceived until well after those trends have indeed occurred. Certainly this is the case, at least within the history of religion book publishing in this country, with Mary Baker Eddy and the publishing history of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures as a religion book.
Mrs. Eddy's first prophetic accomplishment was to realize that a religious upheaval was coming and, after that, to perceive the role books would play in the coming wave of religious change. In all fairness, the upheaval we must assume Mrs. Eddy probably saw was the growth of Christian Science and of metaphysical healing. What we must assume she probably did not foresee is what America actually got in the last half of the twentieth century. When religious upheaval finally did come, it engaged and reshuffled all things religious, including our principal concerns related to the nature of the material world and of the relationship of body and mind to health and spirit, and of environment and conduct to all of them.
Most students of American religion would probably agree that our current foment in religion has its roots in, at the very least, some three dozen separate and distinctly modern cultural, political, sociological, technological, and scientific changes, the chronicling of which lies well beyond the scope of any brief essay. Suffice it to say, then, that since 1965 this country has undergone, at a pervasive, popular, and democratized level, a reconsideration and/or restructuring of every belief system, ecclesial structure, and canonical verity with which it entered the twentieth century.