A modern Miracle
Or: The ruthless logic of A Course in Miracles
Anton van Harskamp, Bezinningscentrum Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
And seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not … (Jeremiah 45,5)
There is hype in a field where spirituality and mental health become intertwined: A Course in Miracles. An increasing number of people have become fascinated by this book with its curious title. This group does not only include frequent visitors of New Age Centers, but also spiritual Do-It-Yourselfers and those who study 'The Course' with a couple of friends.
We are talking about a book of monstrous size: 1249 pages in India-paper edition, a guidebook for spiritual study. The purpose of the book is to let go of our regular thought-system about ourselves, the world and God. We have to learn how to radically change our way of perception and thinking in order that our life, which is controlled by struggle, deep-seated dread and feelings of guilt, makes room for a life full of love and harmony.
The increasing interest in this piece of writing - or ACIM as experts would say - might be called a modern miracle. This can be illustrated by looking at the origin and the nature of 'The Course’. It also appears from the central message of 'The Course': the uncommon optimistic belief that a perfect life is something that is within our reach. The questions I will address in this essay are the following: what is it that 'The Course' bases this belief on and does it also bring into practice an optimistic attitude to life?
The origin and nature of 'The Course'
Insiders in the world of New Age knew about the existence of the book since 1972, because thousands of copies had been circulating in the United States before its actual publication in 1976. At first no information was available about the source of the text, not within 'The Course' itself, nor within the movement that had come into existence because of it. However, the in crowd knew that the origin of the book lay with a certain Helen Schucman. This fact had been made known in 1984 by a woman named Judith Skutch, one of the driving forces behind the movement 'The Course' had engendered.
Helen Schucman (1923-1981) was Associate Professor in medical psychology at ‘The Columbia Presbyterian Medical Centre’ in New York City. It is a curious fact, at least for outsiders, that although she had written the text, she claims that the content of it was not from her. The book is considered to be the product of ‘channelling’.
Channelling is a relatively well-known practice in the world of New Age. It is the coming through of information from a spiritual source which lies beyond the normal world and human consciousness. So the messages express themselves as verbal revelations. ’Channelling’ takes place in many different ways. The spiritual intermediary can be in ecstasy and actually show signs of being in ecstasy. This usually happens in a group of people who know each other well. It also happens that a medium, sitting in a comfortable chair, passes on the messages of a spiritual entity to hundreds of people at the same time. A famous example of this are the Californian sessions of Jach Pursel. In name of the spiritual being Lazarus, this ex-employee of an insurance-agency would pass on practical pieces of practical wisdom on how to deal with anger, guilt, depression and other emotions. These were sometimes illuminated with examples from quantum physics, something that made the entire show even more spectacular. This would all take place in the congress hall of some fancy five-star hotel, in a usually cheerful mood, before an audience of predominantly white people in their thirties and forties. The audience would be relatively diverse, from stylish upper-middle-class to traditionally hip.
Helen Schucman’s case was less remarkable. Or was it really? The literature sketches the picture of a tormented person. D. Patrick Miller, journalist and dedicated student of 'The Course', author of an informative book about the story behind 'The Course', reports that she suffered from personality dissociation. He apparently meant that mystical and rational tendencies lived side by side in her character. Having grown up in a Jewish-religious environment and with a father who showed interest in esotericism, she developed into a scientific psychologist with a rational-empirical perspective on reality, not only when it came to her profession but also in other matters. Nevertheless, she often had mystical experiences, whereas she considered herself to be an agnostic in religious matters. She said herself that she had to overcome strong inhibitions when writing down the often patently obvious religious texts of 'The Course'.
Typical of her was that although she was fully part of academic life she also suffered greatly because of it. The same can be said about William Thetford (1923-1984), a Professor of Psychology. Although he remained on the background, he played a substantial role in the coming about of 'The Course'. During her entire adult life Schucman had a tensed, 'platonic’ relationship with this man who was formally her Head of Department. Reading 'The Course', one might feel the aversion to the silent but harsh competition of the not unusual habit in academic circles to consider criticism of the greatest significance, as a result of which people ‘profile’ themselves by heavily criticizing other people’s work. Schucman and Thetford suffered because of this and decided that a new era of cooperation with each other and their colleagues was necessary.
It was in this mood of "we shouldn’t treat each other this way", that the from childhood mediumistic talented Schucman began to hear ‘a soundless voice’, which urged her to make notes. Encouraged by Thetford she started, however reluctantly, to make notes. This was in 1965, the beginning of a period of well over 7 years in which she, supported by Thetford who typed out all of her notes, produced the theoretical foundation of 'The Course' (669 pages in print), a workbook with 365 lessons, one for each day of the year (488 pages) and a manual for teachers (92 pages). The Voice, also called ‘The Boss’ by Schucman was sometimes aggressive and disturbing, but there was no question of ecstasy. She was able to interrupt the soundless Voice to answer telephone calls and take care of other daily activities. From the writings of many of the most enthusiastic students of 'The Course' appears that they believe that it is exactly this recalcitrance and the fact that she would sometimes object the Voice that supports the authenticity of the text.
The essence of the content of this message is at the same time literally childishly simple and complex. Simple, because 'The Course' appeals to a primeval feeling, a feeling that especially children know very well: this world is not real, we all live in a dream! Complex, because the message tells us that this insane world, full of death and misery is not real, but an illusion, created in our minds. The reason for us constantly creating this so-called reality in our minds is that we consider ourselves to be separated from others and from God; as separate ego’s. According to 'The Course' we can only find true inner peace when we realize that love is the only reality and everything that is ‘not love’ is not real. Only then we are capable of forgiveness and of unconditionally loving everyone we meet, also the ones who (seem to) harm us. However, and this is a very special aspect of the doctrine of 'The Course': we are talking about the evil things we and they have never done! After all: all evil is but an illusion! Apart from that, the miracle mentioned in the title will only happen when we truly change the way we think and perceive the world around us, which will result in us no longer thinking of ourselves as separate human beings, apart from others and from God. This means that we will no longer be controlled by feelings of fear and guilt and that we will indeed be able to radiate love.A cornerstone of the whole system is the notion of separation. According to 'The Course' God created the world in accordance with his own nature. Everything was of a divine nature, or rather, as 'The Course' claims everything IS of a divine nature. People were - are - extensions of God’s inner radiation. But then there is sin, which is in essence a (false) conviction that we have broken away from God. It is the conviction, says Wapnick, that we are a self that is separated from our true self, which is the spirit of Christ. According to Wapnick this is the beginning of all the misery in the world. It creates the illusions of an autonomous material world, of bodies that exist separately from each other in the kosmos, but also of the illusions of how time passes (cf.T.79. 245f) and last but not least the central illusion of death (T.4, 416-419, W.445). But this separation that is our ego, out little ego, is above all riven by guilt.
I will go into the content of the book a little bit further on. Now I will continue with the character of 'The Course'.
Odd, irritating, laughable, or...?
The sixty-four thousand dollar question is of course: who does ‘The Voice’ belong to? Who is this ‘soundless speaker’? This brings us to an aspect of the book that probably many people find not only odd, but irritating or even laughable. While Schucman has always been very unresponsive about this, it is clear that according the book the Voice is Jesus Christ! It has to be said that there is disagreement among experts whether we are talking about the historical figure or the so-called universal spirit of Christ, in other words, everyone’s deepest spiritual identity. Whatever the case may be, Jesus Christ is according to the book undeniably present (cf. M. 59).1 This can be supported by the fact that the Voice mentions Christmas and talks in the first person about the death on the cross. By the way, this death on the cross would be an illusion projected by human beings (T.36, 91v, 95, 284)
Almost as irritating, or in accordance with personal mentality as laughable, may come across the fact that, for example God as source of love and the Holy Spirit are referred to as being male. But it is especially all the seemingly separated concepts, because next to the central concept of forgiveness, the text is teeming with concepts like sins reconciliation, redemption, Holy Spirit, The Kingdom of God, Heaven and sin.
At a cursory reading, one might get the impression of a Separated book. This was not only repellent to atheists, but also to people who had abandoned the dogmatic and church-oriented "Separatedity" and were looking for something else. This group represents a large part within the New Age movement. The linguistic usage is also shocking to "Separateds", since at a slightly less superficial reading of the text one has to come to the conclusion that the message is very much ‘unseparated’. By the way, critics as well as the dedicated students of 'The Course' agree with each other on this matter. To name some of the differences: the world of time, of matter, of separate human bodies has not been created by God. Considering the illusionary reality of evil, 'The Course' even indicates that the essence of the world made - or to use a fashionable word, constructed - by us, human beings, is a world of fear and guilt. As such our world is an attack on the God of love and peace (W. 413, M. 36v.). In that world there is sin in abundance, but au fond it does not exist, since God’s love can never be truly harmed or hurt. Redemption is for that reason purely an awakening, a coming to ourselves of our spirit.
That concerning some differences in doctrine. Also when it comes to religious behaviour the differences with the separated religion are immense. Praying, for example, is in 'The Course' only a meditative concentration, a practitioning for forgiving oneself and others, and not an expression of a personal relationship with God. According to the book, liturgy has no meaning whatsoever for living in truth. The same goes for institutions (churches). To put it briefly, we encounter a substantial number of non-separated beliefs in what seems to be separated terminology. It is conceivable that this is by first introduction to the book a source of irritation. According to the above-mentioned D. Patrick Miller, many of the most dedicated students of 'The Course' at first had great difficulties with the ‘separated’ language.
There are yet other characteristics, and that is putting it mildly, which may cause astonishment. Part of the book, and especially the second part of the workbook, is written in Shakespearean blank verse, in the so-called iambic pentameter, in which every line consists of five iambs, an unstressed syllable followed by an stressed syllable: the result of Schucman’s great passion for Shakespeare and her desire for profound, poetic language. Possibly this is also the reason that the Dutch scholar on religion, Wouter Hanegraaff observed that if there is one text in the world of New Age that may be called a sacred scripture then it is 'The Course'. There is no other text for which the believers have so much respect and veneration.
For non-believers this veneration is incomprehensible, especially when we compare the book to the 'real' bible. In this new-religious bible we find no stories about people of flesh and blood, nothing about prophets who are great and faint-hearted at the same time, no stories about kings who were heroes and evil at the same time, no image of a God who at times seems to be almost human but remains a mystery all the same. We find no Psalms that lament, beg, cry out; there are no horrifying apocalyptic visions. On the contrary, the main text is a sequence of apparently timeless insights and pieces of wisdom. Of course always spoken by a superior 'I' or 'We', a pluralis divinitatis that addresses the 'you' in a constantly mild and paternal tone: ‘You believed that...’, ‘Your perceptions are distorted because...’, ‘Whatever lies you may believe..’ etc, directly followed by corrections, often in seemingly profound ‘one-liners’, such as ‘Darkness is lack of light as sin is lack of love.’ (T.11); ‘You can accept insanity because you made it, but you cannot accept love because you did not.’ (T.243).
It is exactly this almost endless variation on some universally meant insights about life that, as might be expected, brings readers of the book, in any case this reader, in a mood in which bewilderment and boredom take turns. In the long run, however, boredom prevails. This feeling however is ‘punished’ by 'The Course': 'good’ students will start to see things differently. They will see that boredom will no longer exist, which is the result of the insight that even ‘a slight twinge of annoyance’ is nothing but ‘a veil drawn over intense fury.’ (W.32)
This type of argumentation is typical. Emotionally charged moods as boredom, doubt and anger simply cannot have their origin in the reality surrounding the individual. They are solely the product of the individual’s own thinking and certainly not of a book as 'The Course'. This ‘thinking’ is, so says the ideology, nothing more than an attack of the ego on reality (T. 31v., W32 vv.). Something that may cause irritation is not the observation that behind that boredom may hide anger; everyone with a bit of common sense understands that. No, the point is that this argumentation has been revealed by a creature that is, according to the book, of a divine nature. It is also a statement about the essence of reality, on the level of religious ontology. This excludes refutation a priori; even the making of slight distinctions is impossible. It is this guarding against so-called negative feelings and criticism, that makes this book, one would imagine, indigestible to many people.
Meanwhile another important question demands to be answered: Why pay attention to a book that comes across as astonishing if not irritating or laughable? Why waste our energy on a movement of students that people with ‘common sense’ regard a movement of other-worldly people? Apparently, the Humanities do also not regard this as worthy of attention and energy. Apart from a single religion sociologist or a scholar in the field of religious studies, the established academic world does not engage in studies of 'The Course', nor in the movement around it. It is even more the case in the world of the church and theology. There have been some attacks from American fundamentalist circles, in particular from the on the internet active opponents of sects, e.g. the ‘Separated Ministry Report’. And there is a apologetic treatment of 'The Course' by the American evangelical philosopher of religion, John P. Newport. Other than that, the church and theology, while feigning indifference, are ignoring the book.
However, that does not seem to be a sensible thing to do. This phenomenon I have been talking about is not per definition socially and/or culturally insignificant. There are signs that in the near future, 'The Course' will attract not thousands but millions of people. I will try to illustrate this point by providing some facts.
The book has sold over a million copies of the original English text. The publication, initially taken care of by the ‘Foundation for Inner Peace’ founded by a couple of friends of Schucman, has been taken over by the reputable publishing company Viking Penquin, a branch of Penguin books! What’s more, the book has been translated into Spanish, German, Portugese and Hebrew, while still other languages are in process (among others a Dutch one, which will be published by Ankh-Hermes in November 1999). What is striking is that the book is not only available in bookshops that specialize in esoteric subjects, but is also prominently available in the ‘regular’ bookshops. There is also a number of books available that either comment or build on 'The Course'. There is, for example, an extremely detailed concordance of the book, written by one of the most eminent experts on the subject, the psychologist Ken Wapnick. In Dutch there are at least four (translated) books available that were either written as a comment on or as a result of the book.
In the United States a real movement has come into being because of 'The Course', including a large number of study groups, publishing companies and periodicals. Within the movement two groups of people can be discerned, namely the ‘moderates’, who focus on the more easily obtainable psychological effects of 'The Course', and the ‘strictly orthodox believers’, who want to adhere to the underlying doctrine. Significant for a full-grown religious movement is the fact that there are formal churches, where the insights of 'The Course' are being preached, this in spite of the anti-church sentiments of the book. Several communities have even come into being because of 'The Course'. However, these are considered sectarian by the majority of the students.
Apart from that there are over a thousand of study groups outside the United States. And last but not least, the internet offers a surprisingly wide range of forums and sites. Perhaps the book will not ever be as popular as James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, because of the fairly high level of complexity, but it is likely that the book will gain in popularity, which will presumably last longer than James Redfield’s bestseller.
Besides all these quantitative facts, there is something else to be considered, something that may seem very curious but is certainly not insignificant. In the book we seem to find a variant of the classic rival of "Separatedity" of the first three centuries A.D.: Gnosticism. In particular there seems to be a connection with the so-called school of Valentinianism, the strongly speculative variant of Gnosticism, named after the philosopher Valentine, who, himself of Egyptian descent, worked in Rome in the middle of the 2nd. century A.D.
Relying on the classical work of Hans Jonas about Gnosticism, we may view this variant as an intellectual school, in which the problem of good and evil are being treated as strictly monistic. Characteristic for this kind of Gnosticism is among other things that good and evil are being explained in terms of knowledge and ignorance, in evocative language also in terms of light and darkness. We can only grasp this when we realize that Gnostic knowledge is not information that is about reality outside oneself. Rather, knowledge from a Gnostic viewpoint is pre-eminently a participating knowledge. This type of knowledge denotes a situation in which the subject with all of his or her abilities is united with the known object. This is a situation that is difficult to express in our language, characterized as it is by on the one hand a schematic representation of separate speaking, thinking and feeling individuals and on the other hand objects like natural things and people. This way we are inclined to view Gnostic knowledge as mystical ecstasy. Be that as it may, knowledge in Valentinian Gnosticism is in any case not only the business of the knowing subject, but also of the known object. Viewed from the deepest religious-metaphysical level, in other words from the divine from which everything originates, this means that knowledge and ignorance are ontological positions of the highest order. They say something, to put it differently, about reality as such.
It is possible for Valentinian monism to express itself in more than one way. One of these ways is based on the terrifying thought, that from the perspective of the divine, from the source from which everything originates, evil and darkness form the necessary way by which the divine comes to himself in a cosmic process of redemption. Although this thought - namely that all evil originates from the divine self - cannot be discovered in the statements 'The Course' makes about reality as such, it is indeed clearly present on a psychological level. This is because everyone has to go through ignorance to come to redemption. Psychologically, this is according to 'The Course' a passage through the realistic illusions of fear, anger and guilt in order to arrive at true humanity. I will return to this a bit further on.
Another way in which Valentinian monism expresses itself is in the description of reality as such. This we do encounter in 'The Course’. It is the surprisingly simple and far-reaching thought that evil, including guilt, sin and suffering form a veil, a veil of illusions that can be taken away by knowledge.2 Right at the preface, we read that the reality of subjects, as well as objects, in essence knows only one area, that of knowledge (X). Other than in our usual way of thinking and perception, 'The Course' sketches knowledge as a situation in which there is a direct and total union with the essence of the known objects, without interference of the senses, reason or interpretation (cf.T 40 ff.,74).3This is also the case in Gnosticism.
We also encounter ignorance, in Valentianism the total opposite of knowledge, time and time again in 'The Course', described as ‘perception’ or our thought system. These words do not only point to a subjective, intellectual activity, but more importantly to the reality outside every individual, reality as we experience it in ordinary life. The crucial lesson that might be hard to understand for outsiders is: we do experience our lives as ‘real’, but we have to learn that ‘Everything you see is the result of your own thoughts.’ (W26) An essential concept is projection. Our projection, that is our inclination to place what is inside us outside, is the creating principle of all we perceive: ‘Projection makes perception’, it says in the preface: ‘We look inside first, decide the kind of world we want to see and then project the world outside, making it truth as we see it ‘(XI). Because this world, created in our own minds, is so vulnerable, we are constantly attacking and defending ourselves and inevitably we feel constantly guilty about the fact that this illusionary project turns out to be a major disappointment over and over again. And so the central message of 'The Course' is, in countless variants, that we should see through this mechanism and that we should remember who we are in essence. We have to get rid of the by aggression and guilt characterized mental condition and realize that we are children of love. This is how we encounter in 'The Course' a variant of the old Gnosticism.
Oprah and Marianne
But does this new manifestation of Gnosticism make 'The Course' meaningful? This is an aspect of the book that makes it even more curious, because we can be fairly certain that Helen Schucman did not know the first thing about Gnosticism . But meaningful? Are we not dealing here with an aspect of the book that is so abstract and so speculative that it is only interesting to a handful of scholars?
The answer is: no. We may have to agree with those theologians, who think that the alternative for not only Separatedity, but also for secular humanism, is not atheism or plain materialism, but Gnosticism that has repeatedly surfaced over the centuries. According to this view, Gnosticism is the only real rival of Separatedity (and of so-called secular humanism). This certainly applies to our time, according to for example the theologian J.B. Metz, who claims that the incurable religious animal 'man', substitutes the separated ‘Gotteskrise’ and the uncertainties it has brought along for a new ‘Gottesförmigkeit’. In other words: by belief in powers and realities, which have a divine yet immanent character.
Such a point of view is supported by a remarkable phenomenon. Not so long ago we were able to see - literally 'see', because it was on television -, that the ideology of 'The Course', converted into psychological advice is least of all the business of a small scholarly or intellectual elite. On the contrary, the central ideas of 'The Course' turn out to work very well for masses of people who psychologically and existentially wrestle with the unsatisfactory and disturbing aspects of modern life, and who doesn’t? This is about Marianne Williamson, author of ‘A Return to Love’, mega-star in the area of spirituality and the new way of thinking. ‘A Return to Love’ is a practical psychological handbook entirely based on the principles of 'The Course'. In 1992, it was on top of the non-fiction bestsellers-list of the United States for no less than seventeen weeks. Williamson herself appeared in that year twice on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the first time even a whole hour. And Oprah loved it! She told the viewers that she had purchased a thousand copies of the book to give to friends and staff members (and after the hamburger case everybody knows what kind of effect her opinion about something can have). Meanwhile the book has been translated into many languages, among others into Dutch by the publishing company ‘De zaak’.
The book describes situations and problems that are recognizable to many people. In many ways Willamson’s own life is exemplary for a specific sort of Western problem area. Being young, attractive and academically educated, she went through an almost classic development. She joined the student protests, had a series of relationships, jobs and houses, but never had to face any financial difficulties. She was always in the circumstances in which she didn’t have to worry about shortages or disease, let alone about poverty. However, she became more and more insecure and perturbed and she gradually became aware of an existential boredom within herself. She tried to calm this restlessness with overeating, drugs and more relationships, but nothing seemed to work. And that while everything really had to be o.k.! But that wasn’t all. She began to be disgusted by herself, but after a while this disgust swung, as it were, to the world: according to her something was fundamentally wrong with a world in which people have to suffer and die. That is when the way of thinking of 'The Course' came into the picture, because she began to discover that the problem lay really within herself and by that in the inner world of her own generation.
4 Our generation, she expresses aptly, is scared to death. The argumentation is: once we were perfect, we lived in a world full of magic, which we have forgotten. We have been suppressing our inner self with our so-called common sense, which presupposes violence, because it creates a world in which everyone fights anyone to survive. For all our fears, for ourselves, for others and even for death and meaninglessness there is really only one solution: we have to learn to recognize that there is only one true, real and universal power. Until we realize this, so when we only have faith in goodness and in love, only then can we return to our potential of love; the only truly existing potential. This suggests that we can and have to change ourselves, our way of thinking and perception. Only then can we change ourselves and the world around us. From these basic principles she then shows how in practical situations, especially in the field of relationships, we can get rid of nightmares and the hallucinations we create ourselves, in order to live a truly meaningful life.
These opinions are typical for some kind of talk shows - Oprah Winfrey kept repeating it: We have forgotten who we are - that have a Gnostic, or if you want, a new-religious background. It is most of all the at first sight total condemnation of 'the' world and the message that everything can get better by changing your attitude. No, the Gnosticism of 'The Course' is not out of our reach, it does not remain in the abstract theories of scholars. We can literally see and hear it every day. This is exactly what makes 'The Course' meaningful. Reason enough to look, by way of conclusion, at the possible effect of the basic idea of the ideology of 'The Course'.
A paradox that the reading of 'The Course' may render is the following. The outburst of optimism, of the assurance that we, by a reversal of our way of thinking and perception, can make the quantum-leap to perfection, may leave us with an ‘uncanny’ feeling. This might have something to do with what we call the doctrine of creation.
A cornerstone of the whole system is the notion of separation. According to 'The Course' God created the world in accordance with his own nature. Everything was of a divine nature, or rather, as 'The Course' claims everything IS of a divine nature. People were - are - extensions of God’s inner radiation. But then there is sin, which is in essence a (false) conviction that we have broken away from God. It is the conviction, says Wapnick, that we are a self that is separated from our true self, which is the spirit of Christ. According to Wapnick this is the beginning of all the misery in the world. It creates the illusions of an autonomous material world, of bodies that exist separately from each other in the kosmos, but also of the illusions of how time passes (cf.T.79. 245f) and last but not least the central illusion of death (T.4, 416-419, W.445). But this separation that is our ego, out little ego, is above all riven by guilt. Guilt, or this feeling of guilt, according to 'The Course', summarizes our earthly existence, the foundation of all our feelings that we are really suffering from loneliness and from the fact that we are separated from other people, the world and from God. But these sort of feelings are so strong and so typical for our normal ego, that it in secret desires guilt, and is inevitably even attracted by it (T.319,M.77). According to 'The Course' this is the reason why we are so terribly frightened (T.84). And because we do not realize that we have created this existential fear ourselves, we project it on the world outside us, and consequently we tend to view others as threatening creatures. This leads to a horrible never-ending game of attack, defence, counterattack and a constantly growing feeling of guilt. 'The Course' provides an almost endless row of variations on this line of thought. Wapnick, the master-exegetist of 'The Course’ also does this and to a high degree of sophistication. What is disturbing about this kind of argumentation is the extremely unequivocally negative approach to the ‘ordinary’ world. To get a sense of the atmosphere of 'The Course' a substantial quote follows:
...this world is a symbol of punishment, and all the laws that seem to govern are the laws of death. Children are born into it through pain and in pain. Their growth is attended by suffering, and they learn of sorrow and separation and death. Their minds seem to be trapped in their brain, and its powers to decline if their bodies are hurt, They seem to love, yet they desert and are deserted... And their bodies wither and gasp and are laid in the ground, and are no more. Not one of them has but thought that God is cruel.
If this were the real world, God would be cruel. For no Father could subject his children to this as the price of salvation and be loving...Only the world of guilt could demand this, for only the guilt of it could conceive of it. (T.236)
We have to keep in mind two things. First of all, the therapeutic ‘healing’ for which 'The Course' wants to be an aid, desires in effect that the students are completely aware of all the misery of 'the' world, and even that they constantly meditate on this fact. It is not only the establishment of everyday reasoning that there are many poor, hungry and sick people; 'The Course' tries to show us that suffering is the essence of existence. The beginning of the path to wisdom, claims the above-mentioned D. Patrick Miller, is the vision of dreariness given to us by the non-enlightened world, and he adds that it is the same in Buddhism. But the fact that 'The Course‘ keeps harping on about the same thing makes the reader - in any case this reader - realize that there is an obsession of the author of 'The Course' to be discovered; an obsession with all the misery and suffering that this world supposedly consists of.5 The certainty that this world is characterized by sin and evil is so great that there is no room left for faith in the meaningfulness of ‘ordinary’ life. There is only the spiritual desire to break away from this world, reverse our way of thinking and perception and build up another world.
Secondly, we can, however implicitly, read in the quoted passage that the Story of Creation is totally different from the separated one. It might be useful to give a moment’s thought to the fact that 'The Course' seems to argue more rigorously than Separatedity does. Driven and moved by the suffering in the world, 'The Course' says that this world cannot be created by a God, who is love and peace. And for the seemingly effective presence of suffering, 'The Course' has a reading as well as an explanation that suffering resulting from evil does not really exist, but that this illusion is the product of our minds. Separatedity has a less rigorous, less logical view on this. On the one hand it says that there is a good reason for our worldly existence, an existence that is definitely not of a divine, but of a natural and finite nature, an existence we can enjoy and have faith in. We may have trust in the meaningfulness of the ordinary aspects of our lives. On the other hand, says for example the Dutch theologian H.M. Kuitert, the world as created by God also knows evil, bitterness and horror without an equal. The creation is good, says the separated, but at the same time it is impossible to say this about everything that exists. Some theologians call this ‘ the bitter mystery of a good creation’. Is this logical? No, definitely not. But it does correspond to the more human experience of the mystery and the ambivalences that belong to life.
This can be illustrated by the vision on man. To 'The Course' ‘man’ is an ego, characterized by guilt, fear and sin and that is all the result of our own mental vision, namely that we are literally unique, separate human beings. Characteristic of Separatedity is that every human being is at the same time a holy creature and morally fallen; in the language of the Reformation: and justified, and sinner: simul iustus et peccator. This is an impossible thought in 'The Course'. It is also not logical, it says that every human being is a mystery and that we can leave the unsolvable unsolved in the end. However, it does express some of the realistic ambivalences we sometimes experience. These ambivalences occur for example when we take a closer look at the life of a horrible criminal and we, shockingly enough, also discover a human side to him. Or the other way around: when we discover dubious aspects of our own character or of the people we are close to or of other seemingly friendly, civilised people. These kind of ambivalences are not recognized by 'The Course'. And this is exactly what makes the book so ‘uncanny’, because it is constantly trying to prove that suffering and evil are but illusions. It is so vigorously fighting something that is really not even there, that you cannot but conclude that behind all the optimism an obsession with this suffering lurks.
The logic of 'The Course' does not only render the book ‘uncanny’, it also makes it merciless. How can this be? Is the message of 'The Course', compared to Separatedity, not uncommonly optimistic and humanitarian? After all, everybody can make the quantum-leap to a life full of peace, love and harmony (T. 75 en passim). The possibility of happiness lays within ourselves. And this is on first sight totally different from Separatedity, which says that perfection is not possible and that the true realization of what an individual is, does not come from outside, literally not in this time, but it has to be granted to us. It is a belief, it has to be said, that may result in a suppressing ideology - something that the history of Separatedity shows in abundance. However - and this has to be said as well - it is also a belief which may result in the consoling thought that we do not have to give meaning to everything in life and that there are - in simple words - things that we cannot and do not have to make sense of.
It is indeed the case that the message of 'The Course' appears to be optimistic and humanitarian. But if you take a closer look you may come to the conclusion that the road to happiness is superhumanly heavy. According to 'The Course' we are all separate ego's and we should first deal with our own guilt and fear, something which will only arouse even more guilt and fear (T.53). Wapnick says that we have to go through - an of course ostensibly - horrible oppression (cf. T. 394, W.375v.). Nobody can escape, according to Wapnick, an increase of feelings of guilt and fear, when he or she decides to throw in one’s lot with 'The Course'.
You may think that this is rewarded handsomely in the end! However, it is questionable if this end can humanly be reached. The same Wapnick also stresses that he has trouble believing the students who claim that they have gone through 'The Course' without much difficulty. He says - some call him the ‘pope’ of the movement - that 'The Course' is nothing less than a rarely completed, lifelong task. The book is extremely demanding, which is in essence also logical. We have to remind ourselves that 'The Course' says things two things at the same time. On the one hand the book repeats over and over again that all experiences of suffering and and misery, within and outside us, are the result of suffering that we subject ourselves to. That is de facto an exceptionally heavy accusation to each of us. On the other hand, however, 'The Course' does tell us that each and every one of us has the capacity to see through the suffering and get rid of it. It is exactly this combination that imposes us with a truly frightening responsibility. Imagine: every time we fail on the road to happiness, and of course we will fail a number of times, we will have to blame ourselves and only ourselves. And this is what we may call merciless.
What idea do we now have of 'The Course'? This: what we encounter in 'The Course' and the movement around it, is an old religious ideology that is at the same time new. The impetus to the ideology is sincere and authentic. The followers are deeply touched by the evil and suffering in the world.
However, this sensitivity has become so strong that it brings them to the conviction that everything is suffering. Then they risk resembling those people, as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described them in his prison-letters, namely people who first bring man to despair, so that he believes his luck to be his bad luck, his health as sickness and his courage to face life as despair. The most remarkable aspect of 'The Course' is the paradoxical effort to teach us how to view the apparently omnipresent evil and suffering as non-existent. This may be called the totalitarian desire (on a spiritual level) to deny the ambivalences of life, to deny the possibility that it might not always be possible to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil. 'The Course' claims that Truth exists and that it is in principle possible for human beings to know Truth. To quote from the preface to the book: Truth is ‘unalterable, eternal and unambiguous.’ So the religious ideology of 'The Course' is one that is far removed from Separatedity. When it comes to the ‘last things' and evil, Separatedity accepts the fact that it is of the utmost importance to realize that life will remain a mystery and that some things cannot be rationally solved.
Many students of 'The Course' consider themselves people who have bidden farewell to or have abandoned the burden and pressure of a church-oriented Separatedity. But what has replaced this? A religious ideology that in the form of an extremely optimistic view on man, places an incomparable greater burden and pressure on the individual. It is the burden of creating life ourselves. Paradoxically by letting go of our own ego, but nevertheless with our own strength and potential. The pressure results from the realization that we have to blame ourselves for every second that we have not reached complete happiness. This all renders 'The Course' in my opinion ‘uncanny’ and merciless. So: what should we think about this development to a ‘new-old ideology’? These words come to mind: bewildering and sad.
1) References to the texts of 'The Course' will be rendered by a letter, followed by page number(s): T refers to ‘The Text’, W. refers to ‘Workbook for Students’, and M. refers to ‘Manual for teachers’.
2) This may lead to the following profound question: Why is it that we, human beings, have created a world which may in fact be an illusion, but is an illusion - 'The Course' emphasizes this time and again - that hurts tremendously and is purely negative? 'The Course' does not offer an answer to this question. Only once, in an often quoted passage does 'The Course' mention that 'Into eternity, where all is one, there crept a tiny, mad idea at whicht the Son of God remembered not to laugh (T.586). Because of that instance of forgetting, the illusion of this world came into being, in essence a world of evil. Strictly speaking this image could mean that this world’s foundation does indeed incorporate God. However, this is not in agreement with the ideology. In fact, the refusal of 'The Course' to answer the question of what it is that forms the foundation of the ideology, is logical and consistent, to the point that it is horrifying. An answer to the question may after all mean that it is possible for people to attain knowledge about the origin of the world and evil. But in the ideology this would only augment evil. This way we have to consider the passage of the laughter of the Son of God as didactic encouragement. Many times it is repeated that our original state is one of love, peace and laughter and that we should learn to laugh about it, about our ego and about all the illusions of which we suffer. Everyone that has ever had anything to do with New Age must have noticed how special the role of laughter is in these circles. It calls into mind the ‘enlightened’ , the ‘pneumatic’ who benignly smiling, look down from the heights of their wisdom on the ignorant, those who are attached to the material world.
3) This is the state which 'The Course' says she wants to lead the student to. Naturally the book does not really offer this knowledge, as it is also tied to language and material manifestation (T. 396).
4) By the way,Williamson does not say anything about the real ‘heavy’ beliefs of 'The Course'. She does not mention Jesus Christ as ‘The Voice’ for instance, too controversial perhaps.
5) The American scholar Catherine L. Albanese has the same sort conjecture when it comes to New Age in general. However, she approaches it from a different angle. She talks about a sort of ‘conspiracy of optimism’, an optimism that expresses itself in 'The Course' in the belief that all suffering is au fond an illusion. This is constantly repeated and with such ardour that one may suspect a hidden preoccupation with guilt, a symbol of all negative feelings, beliefs and observations: ‘Original sin lurks at the borders of the new fields and lands. Guilt, obligation... peek through the new spiritual wool and flax in the fields.’
C.L. Albanese, 'Fisher Kings and Public Spaces', in: The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, May 1993, 131-143.
E. Babbie, 'Channels to Elsewhere', in: Th. Robbins/D. Anthony ed., In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America (Second Edition), New Brunswick (USA)/London: Transaction Publishers 1991, 255-268.
A Course in Miracles: Combined Volume, New York/London etc.: Penguin-Viking/Foundation for Inner Peace 1996.
W.J. Hanegraaff, 'Channelling-literatuur: Een vergelijking tussen de boodschappen van Seth, Armerus, Ramala en "A Course in Miracles"', in: Religieuze bewegingen in Nederland 22 (1991) 9-44.
Id., New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, Utrecht: Diss. Utrecht University 1995.
H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, Boston: Beacon Press 1963.
H.M. Kuitert, Het algemeen betwijfeld christelijk geloof, Baarn: Ten Have 1992.
J.P. Newport, The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview: Conflict and Dialogue, Grand Rapids (USA)/Cambridge (U.K.): Eerdmans 1998.
D.P. Miller. The Complete Story of the Course, Berkeley: Fearless Books 1997.
K. Wapnick, A Talk Given on A Course in Miracles, Roscoe: Foundation for A Course in Miracles 1989.
Id., Absence from Felicity: The Story of Helen Schucman and Her Scribing of A Course in Miracles, Roscoe: Foundation for A Course in Miracles 1991.
Id. ed., Concordance of A Course in Miracles: A Complete Index, Mill Valley: Foundation for Inner Peace 1995.
A.S. Weiss, 'A New Religious Movement and Spiritual Healing Psychology Bases on A Course in Miracles', in: A. Greil/Th. Robbins ed., Religion and the Social Order (Volume 4: Between Sacred and Secular: Research and Theory on Quasi-Religion) Greenwich (USA)/London: Jai Press 1994, 197-215.
M. Williamson, A Return to Love, New York: Harper Collins 1993.
The English pages of the Bezinningscentrum (including other articles by Anton van Harskamp): English site