God’s Word or Human Words?

The Quest for Truth in Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief and in the Course Community

“How…can we tell the difference between the word of God and mere human words?”[1] How can we distinguish real wisdom of the spirit from “wisdom” that is nothing more than human imagination? This question is central to Elaine Pagels’s book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. This fascinating and engagingly written book tells the story of how the diversity of early Christianity was swept away by the architects of what became the one true Church—the story of how heterodoxy (literally “different opinions,” a variety of different ways of seeing the Christian message) was defeated by orthodoxy (literally “straight thinking,” a single authorized way of seeing the Christian message). Interwoven with this story is Pagels’s personal story, in which her own Christianity moves in the opposite direction: from orthodoxy to heterodoxy.

What intrigued me most about Beyond Belief was the striking similarity between the early Christian community and our current Course community. As I read Pagels’s account, I found it all eerily familiar. Like the early Christians, the Course community is faced with the question of how to discern spiritual truth, and the answers offered now are as varied as they were then. Most Course students regard the Course itself as authoritative, but what that actually means in practice varies a great deal. Some hew to a particular teacher’s interpretation of the Course. Some turn to the various Jesus channels who claim to be getting further messages from the author himself. Some look to other channeled guides who claim to be enlightened. Some use other spiritual books. Some depend on the pronouncements of teachers who claim enlightenment or special inner knowledge of the true meaning of the Course. Some rely exclusively on their own personal experience of the Holy Spirit within. Many use a combination of these various sources.

In this essay, I want to briefly summarize Beyond Belief and then apply what it says about Christianity to the Course community. My goal is to offer an answer to the question of how we Course students can discern truth within our own developing tradition. I encourage you to reflect on your own journey as you read. The question of how we can tell true spiritual wisdom from the tempting deceptions of the ego has been pondered through the ages. The ancients called it “the discernment of spirits.” For Course students and for anyone on a path of awakening, this question is not just academic, but is central to the spiritual life. If awakening to God comes from finding truth, then we must learn how to find truth if we want to awaken to God.

Beyond Belief: from heterodoxy to orthodoxy; from orthodoxy to heterodoxy

Beyond Belief tells two stories. The main story, which takes up the bulk of the book, is the story of Christianity’s journey from heterodoxy to orthodoxy: from the dizzying diversity of its early days to its eventual consolidation into a single unified church with a single official teaching. In particular, Pagels focuses on the conflict between two views of salvation. A prominent view among the heterodox Christians was that salvation lies in discovering one’s own inherent divinity through inner knowing or gnosis. This, however, was wiped out by what became the orthodox view: that salvation lies in believing in the unique divinity of Jesus, along with the other tenets summarized in the fourth-century Nicene Creed.

The second story, referred to only briefly and intermittently yet important to the overall message of the book, is the story of Elaine Pagels’s personal journey. This journey moves in the exact opposite direction from the history she is exploring. It moves from the orthodoxy of the conservative church she attended as a youth to the heterodoxy uncovered in her later research into the “gnostic” gospels, which eventually became a lifesaver for her when she was confronted with a major crisis in her personal life.

The journey of Christianity: from heterodoxy to orthodoxy

The story begins with wild and woolly heterodoxy. Pagels writes that while historians had originally hoped to find a more simple, “pure” early Christianity when they delved into Christian origins, what they found instead was stunningly diverse. Many different teachers toured the various Christian communities, each offering his or her own distinct teaching. While there were a few basic beliefs they agreed upon—above all, reject the pagan gods and turn to the true God revealed by Jesus—their emphasis was not on what to believe, but on seeking God in one’s own experience. To aid this seeking, they shared stories about the life of Jesus. Indeed, there were many gospels to choose from besides the four that are in the Bible today: everything from the Gospel of Mary Magdalene to the Gospel of Truth to the Apocalypse of Peter to the Round Dance of the Cross. There was also a smorgasbord of different rituals, including baptism and communion feasts featuring bread and wine, rituals whose meaning was understood in different ways by different people.

The one thing that seemed to unite early Christianity—and helped it spread even in the face of bitter persecution by the Roman Empire—was the radical practice of agape love. Christians contributed all money voluntarily to a common fund to help the needy, including criminals. They healed people in ways often regarded as miraculous and did it free of charge, unlike the pagan temples, which always charged a fee. They took care of contagious plague victims no one else would touch. They called each other “brother” and “sister,” and sometimes applied these terms to non-Christians as well.

This did not mean, however, that there were no rivalries. Different Christian teachers did dispute with one another, and Pagels highlights one such dispute: that between those who traced their lineage to the apostle Thomas, and those who traced their lineage to the apostle John. Here, Pagels introduces the Gospel of Thomas, a product of the Thomas Christians (though almost certainly not written by Thomas himself). This was a gospel suppressed and finally destroyed by the Church, lost to the world except in fragments, until a copy was discovered among the texts found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945.

In Pagels’s view, the Gospel of Thomas teaches that God’s light is within each one of us—we are all created in His image—and so the way to salvation is to seek and find the light of God within. One of her favorite lines from Thomas is this one: “Jesus said, ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you'” (32).[2] She claims that the Gospel of John was written to refute this view. According to the author of John (almost certainly not the apostle John), God’s light is not in each one of us, but instead resides in Jesus alone—we are not the light of the world, he is—and so the way to salvation is not through seeking the light of God within, but solely through belief in Jesus as the only begotten Son of God.[3] (This distinction between the way of seeking God’s light within and the way of believing in Jesus and the creeds is a central theme of Beyond Belief.)

The dispute between the Thomas Christians and the John Christians was not immediately resolved; some people took one side, some the other. As Christianity grew and Roman persecution increased, some began to see disagreements like this one as a serious problem. One who felt this way was Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. 125-202), a major figure in Pagels’s book. As one who saw the terror of persecution firsthand—his own mentor, Polycarp, was martyred, and his own community almost destroyed—he came to believe that only unity would enable Christianity to survive its enemies. He was not against all variation in doctrine and practice, but did believe that for the sake of unity, and thus survival, there needed to be certain core doctrines on which all Christians agreed. He “hoped that Christians everywhere would come to see themselves as members of a single church they called catholic, which means ‘universal'” (80).

Since Irenaeus saw himself in the lineage of John-Polycarp claimed that John himself was his teacher—the “catholic” church he envisioned was a church unified on the John side of the John-Thomas debate. He believed that the light of God was in Jesus alone, and so he set out to refute the views of the heirs of Thomas, those who sought the light within themselves. He saw these “spiritual Christians” (they are often called “gnostics,” though Pagels avoids that term in this book) as the major threat to the unity he sought.

The main threat to unity he saw in them was that they tended to regard themselves as a spiritual elite, even performing a “second baptism” for special initiates that they called apolutrosis, or “release.” In their view, the mass of ordinary believers were like children on the spiritual path, while they themselves were the mature few who really “got it.” Pagels says that according to Irenaeus, when he questioned followers of the teacher Valentinus, “they either remained silent or said that he was simply wrong, since he had not yet advanced beyond a naïve level of understanding” (159). This separation into “simple” and “more advanced” groups created division within the churches, which Irenaeus considered a threat to their survival.

In addition, the spiritual Christians were always claiming new revelations—even revelations coming from Jesus himself—based on dreams and visions they received through various spiritual practices. Many claimed to receive wisdom from what the Secret Book of John calls the “luminous epinoia” (164)—a term that has no exact equivalent in English, but refers to a kind of spiritual intuition that reveals hints and glimpses of the inexpressible divine. Various spiritual Christian movements arose, such as a popular movement called “the new prophecy,” led by three self-proclaimed “prophets” who claimed to communicate directly with the holy spirit, shared these revelations with others, and taught others how to receive their own revelations. But in Irenaeus’s view, there was no consistency to the “revelations” of these prophets and other teachers like them. None of these teachers agreed with one another; in his words, “each one of them comes up with something new every day” (128). The “luminous epinoia” was little more than their own overactive imaginations. How could there be unity when no one could agree on anything?

Irenaeus’s attitude toward these seekers of gnosis is summed up in his account of a meeting led by a prophet named Marcus, who had drawn followers from Irenaeus’s own congregation. Marcus would encourage some person, often a “foolish woman” (in Irenaeus’s words), to prophesy, and she, then, puffed up with vanity and elated by these words, and enormously excited in soul by expecting that she herself is about to prophesy, her heart beating wildly, reaches the necessary pitch of audacity, and, foolishly as well as brazenly, utters whatever nonsense happens to occur to her, such as one might expect from someone heated up by an empty spirit. (93)

As caustic as this account is, Irenaeus did not believe that all revelations were bad or wrong. Pagels says that “although Irenaeus liked clear boundaries, he was not simply narrow-minded, and he was by no means intolerant of all difference” (133). He believed that people could and did receive genuine guidance from the spirit. But he was concerned about the division into “enlightened” elites and simple believers, and he believed that there needed to be a way to evaluate spiritual guidance, so that genuine revelations could be distinguished from the “nonsense” of human imagination.

This led him directly to the central question of this essay: How can we tell the word of God from mere human words? This question applied not only to revelations like the ones put forth by these various teachers, but also to the plethora of gospels floating around the Christian world. The first step of Irenaeus’s answer was to narrow the field of gospels. He declared that of all the gospels, only four were based on eyewitness accounts of Jesus, and so only these four were valid: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As far as we know, he was the first Christian leader to champion the “fourfold gospel” that has been a pillar of Christian orthodoxy to this day. Of these four, Irenaeus believed that John was the most important. All of the others were to be seen through the lens of John—particularly John’s emphasis on believing in Jesus as the sole light of the world, God’s only begotten Son.

But this by itself was not sufficient to provide the unity Irenaeus was seeking. The problem was that spiritual Christians still interpreted those four gospels—including John, one of their favorites—in myriad, often allegorical and metaphorical ways. For instance, Valentinus claimed that the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is really (in Pagels’s words) “a parable showing how, when God shines into our hearts, he shatters and transforms what he finds there in order to make us fit dwellings for the holy spirit” (119). Such metaphorical interpretations could wander far from the original material; at times, spiritual Christians would interpret scripture in ways that flatly contradicted the literal meaning of the text.

So, Irenaeus needed to add a second step to his answer: Now that he had a set of orthodox writings, he had to develop an orthodox method to interpret those writings. The method he proposed had two aspects. First, he said, the interpreter should adhere to an essentially literal interpretation of scripture: Irenaeus “declares that, wherever possible, one must discern the obvious meaning; and wherever a certain passage seems ambiguous or difficult, one’s understanding should be guided by those passages whose meaning seems clear” (117). A later bishop, Athanasius, called this basic approach dianoia, which Pagels defines as “the capacity to discern the meaning or intention implicit in each text” (177).[4] This stance was disdained by the spiritual Christians, who regarded their own metaphorical interpretations as a higher understanding.

Second, Irenaeus said, the interpreter should “hold unmoving in [his] heart the canon of truth received in baptism” (129). What was this “canon of truth” received in baptism? It was a set of beliefs, rooted in the Gospel of John and what Irenaeus regarded as apostolic tradition, that amounted to a kind of proto-creed. According to Irenaeus, it consists of faith in one God, Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and the seas…and in one Christ Jesus, the son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation, and in the holy spirit…and the birth from a virgin, and the suffering, and the resurrection from the dead, and the heavenly ascension in flesh…of our beloved Jesus Christ. (129)

I’m sure you can see where this is heading. In the next century and a half, as many converts joined Christian churches despite persecution, more and more bishops adopted Irenaeus’s model and rejected those who deviated from it. Finally, when the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, he called the Council of Nicea in the year 325 to create the unified church Irenaeus had dreamed of. The bishops who gathered at Nicea affirmed the fourfold gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; selected the rest of the books of today’s New Testament; and formulated the Nicene Creed based on Irenaeus’s “canon of truth.”

And the rest, as they say, was history. Nonorthodox groups were ordered to stop meeting. Their churches had their property confiscated and given to the orthodox churches. All the noncanonical gospels and other scriptures were destroyed, including the Gospel of Thomas. Orthodoxy now had the answer to the question of how to discern truth. Truth was found through 1) the fourfold gospel and the other books of the New Testament, 2) interpreted in an essentially literal manner through the lens of the Nicene Creed (and the creeds that followed), by 3) the orthodox bishops who were the leaders of the official, imperially sanctioned church. The heterodox seekers after the inner light were vanquished; the orthodox believers in Jesus the one true Light reigned triumphant.[5]

The journey of Elaine Pagels: from orthodoxy to heterodoxy

Elaine Pagels began her personal spiritual journey immersed in the orthodoxy built by Irenaeus and the bishops of Nicea. When she was fourteen, Pagels joined an evangelical Christian church. Her membership in the church felt nourishing at first, because she felt assured that she belonged to the true faith, God’s true family. But eventually, she became dismayed at the exclusivism of this church. Things came to a head when a friend of hers was killed in an auto accident and her friends in the church told her that because he was Jewish, he was condemned to hell. She disagreed, but found no openness to alternative views. She left that church.

In college, Pagels learned Greek and studied the New Testament. Reading the gospels in the original Greek was a revelation; it was as if she were reading them for the first time. She also grew to love the pagan Greek authors, appreciating their alternative religious perspective. After college she studied dance, but was still irresistibly drawn to Christianity, which she found “so compelling and at the same time so frustrating” (31). Unable to escape the pull of Christianity, she eventually entered the Harvard doctoral program, hoping to find the “real Christianity” through studying the earliest Christian texts.

Here, she encountered the Nag Hammadi “gnostic” gospels for the first time, and this too was a revelation. She was amazed at the diversity they revealed in the early Christian tradition and deeply attracted to the Gospel of Thomas teaching that salvation comes from seeking and finding what is within you. She loved these alternative voices so much that they became the focus of her academic career. She published a preliminary examination of them, The Gnostic Gospels, in 1979. Her search for a simple “real Christianity” had failed, but what she found instead was even more fascinating: a diverse, complex movement with no single voice of orthodoxy.

Her fascination with Christianity did not lead her to return to church, at least not for a while. But eventually, when her two-and-a-half-year-old son was diagnosed with a terminal disease, her need for comfort in the face of grief drew her to a church in New York City. Her experience there helped to clarify in her mind both what she loved about the Christian tradition and what she did not love. What she loved in this church was the fellowship, the ritual, and the comfort she found in sharing grief and hope with others on the spiritual journey. What she did not love about the Christian tradition was its emphasis on adhering to an official set of beliefs, and its tendency to say that adhering to these beliefs is the only way to God. Reciting the creeds meant little to her. Sharing fellowship with other spiritual seekers at this church meant the world to her.

Pagels concludes that while she no longer believes everything taught in the traditional Christian creeds, she still feels something powerful and compelling in the Christian tradition, because “besides belief, Christianity involves practice—and paths toward transformation” (143). She does acknowledge that the standards orthodoxy gives us for evaluating truth claims can help mitigate our human capacity for self-deception: “we can, to an extent, thank the church for this” (184). But in the end, she says that orthodoxy’s tendency to encourage unquestioning acceptance of religious authority is a harmful barrier to spiritual progress. “Most of us, sooner or later, find that, at critical points in our lives, we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists” (184-185). In her study of the diverse voices of early Christianity and in her personal experiences at her new church, she has found kindred spirits who have followed and are following Jesus’ injunction to “seek and you shall find.”

What, then, is Pagels’s answer to the question of how to discern truth? One of the frustrating things about Beyond Belief for me is that she never gives a clear, direct answer. But based on the clues sprinkled throughout the book, it seems that for her, truth is revealed above all through personal experience. Two aspects of personal experience seem important. The first is the experience of inner wisdom or gnosis. Clearly, Pagels holds a high regard for inner experiences like those reported by the early spiritual Christians. Commenting on the Gospel of Thomas passage that says bringing forth what is within you will save you, she says that “with a shock of recognition, I realized that this perspective seemed to me self-evidently true” (32). She also says that what spiritual Christians seek “is often not a ‘different system of doctrines’ so much as insights and intimations of the divine that validate themselves in experience—what we might call hints and glimpses offered by the luminous epinoia” (183). There is a sense in Pagels’s writing that experiences of the inner light are to some degree self-validating. The experience of gnosis is its own confirmation.

Yet there is another aspect of personal experience that is clearly important to Pagels: the effect such inner experiences have on one’s life. This is evident in her high regard for the agape love practiced by the early Christians. At times, she seems to suggest a “by their fruits you shall know them” approach: a life of compassion and service to others, like the early Christians practiced, is an indicator that one is on the right track. Moreover, her personal story suggests that her experiences of “hints and glimpses offered by the luminous epinoia” through her return to a nurturing church had a profound impact on her life, getting her through her personal crisis. So, putting these two aspects together, my sense of Pagels’s position is that while no method gives us anything approaching certainty, truth is best discerned through experiences of inner knowing that produce positive fruits in one’s life. Thus, for Pagels, the orthodox insistence on external standards for evaluating spiritual truth claims is of limited use at best and harmful at worst. The heterodox seeking after the inner light is where truth is really found.

The Course community: heterodoxy versus orthodoxy revisited

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, in reading Beyond Belief, I was struck by the similarity between the early Christian community and our current Course community. The issues those early Christians wrestled with—including the issue of how to tell God’s word from human words, how to discern truth—are much the same issues we face today.

Like early Christianity, the early days of the Course were characterized by wild and woolly heterodoxy, a heterodoxy that is dominant to this day. The Course community, too, has many diverse voices. We too have our “enlightened” elites asserting that their messages come straight from the Holy Spirit. There are people claiming new revelations, including new revelations from Jesus, on a regular basis. There are other “scriptures” regarded by some as equally authoritative or even more authoritative than the Course, especially the writings that are said to come from Jesus. These different revelations often (in my opinion) contradict the Course and each other, but their adherents do not seem to see this as a problem. There are people who interpret the Course metaphorically, even when that interpretation contradicts the literal meaning. These interpreters tend to regard the more literal interpreters as less sophisticated and less spiritually advanced. Above all, there is a prevalent view that individual inner experiences—a modern version of the quest for the “luminous epinoia“—are the gold standard of truth. External validation of truth claims is not a prominent value in this community.

Yet there is an “orthodox” element in this community as well. In a general sense, a kind of orthodoxy arises whenever Course students submit to a particular teacher’s views without question, reflection, or evaluating those views by the standard of the Course itself. Yet there is one locus of orthodoxy that deserves special mention: Ken Wapnick and the Foundation for A Course in Miracles.

I know I’m wading into controversial waters here, but in my opinion, Wapnick and FACIM do represent orthodoxy in the Course community, in at least two ways. First, Wapnick and his views have an aura of authority around them because of his role in the Course’s early history and his current role as head of the teaching arm of the official publishers of the Course. He is perceived as the heir to Helen Schucman’s legacy, and many of his interpretations of the Course are now part of Course community lore, even for those who have never read any of his works. In short, his views have become a kind of orthodoxy (whether consciously acknowledged or not) among Course students.

Second, Wapnick and FACIM have tended to be dismissive toward those with views that contradict this orthodoxy.[6] Wapnick himself has steadfastly refused to dialogue with people who have other perspectives. He doesn’t engage with other Course interpreters, and even denies that he himself is a Course interpreter; he claims that he just knows what the Course says.[7] And the copyright suits of recent years have been seen by many as attempts on the part of the official, “orthodox” disseminator of the Course to suppress heterodox views. Certainly, no one can claim that FACIM did what the orthodoxy Christians did; no one was killed, and no one was forbidden to teach and practice the Course in his or her own way. Yet there does seem to be a parallel, in that FACIM’s actions did make it difficult for those with alternative interpretations to publish and disseminate their views. Rightly or wrongly, a number of people in the Course community have equated FACIM with the Catholic Church and Ken Wapnick with the Pope. Whatever the truth of the matter, the perception is there.

Prescription for the Course community: combine the strengths of orthodoxy and heterodoxy

What method should Course students use to discern spiritual truth? In my opinion, neither orthodoxy nor heterodoxy has the complete answer. To express my view in the terms that are central to Beyond Belief: I think there is a place for both believing in ideas about God that come from sources outside your mind (especially from the Course itself) and seeking God through personal experience of the inner light (certainly a major theme of the Course itself). Indeed, I think the Course sees belief and experience as two parts of a developmental progression. You start out with a surface belief in the Course’s ideas that is little more than an untested theory. Then, through walking the Course’s path, that initial surface belief is ultimately confirmed and transformed into true conviction by personal experience.[8]

Though alternative spiritual seekers may be loathe to admit it, there is something appealing in the simplicity of accepting a single view, as many Christians have discovered since the days orthodoxy triumphed. Orthodoxy does have its strengths: its insistence on external, communal ways to evaluate truth claims, and its appreciation for the value of the community coming to some sort of agreement or unity. Yet all of us, especially those scarred by their personal experience of traditional religion, are familiar with the big weakness of orthodoxy: its tendency to take a “my way or the highway” approach, insisting it is right and suppressing the dissenting voices that might force a re-examination of things.

There is also something appealing about joining Pagels on the journey back to the freedom of heterodoxy. Many alternative spiritual seekers have done just that. Heterodoxy, too, has its strengths: its respect for personal experience as one valid means of discerning truth, and its openness to exploring diverse views. Certainly, there is tremendous value in experiences of inner knowing that produce positive fruits in one’s life. I’m especially attracted to the idea that a life of compassion and service to others is evidence that one is moving in the direction of truth; as Karen Armstrong says, the ultimate litmus test of any spiritual path is the fruit of practical compassion.[9] Yet heterodoxy also has its weaknesses: above all, its tendency to take a relativistic “there’s my truth and there’s your truth” approach, denying the validity of anything outside one’s own subjective personal experience to evaluate truth claims.

Therefore, I think the answer to our question should be one that maximizes the strengths of both orthodoxy and heterodoxy while minimizing their weaknesses. With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a method to help Course students discern spiritual truth. Based on Pagels’s book, I see three elements that make up the orthodox Christian answer to this question: 1) an authoritative scripture, 2) an agreed-upon method of interpreting the scripture, and 3) a community of interpreters. While problems can arise with all three, I think the elements themselves are basically sound. The biggest mistake of orthodox Christians was using these elements in a rigidly authoritarian way that killed (sometimes literally) the voices of dissent and innovation. In my opinion, then, the most effective way to discern spiritual truth for Course students is to use Course versions of these three elements, but use them in a nonauthoritarian way. This enables us to avoid both the authoritarian tendencies of orthodoxy and the relativistic tendencies of heterodoxy by giving us the best of both worlds: orthodoxy’s external measures of truth and respect for agreement, and heterodoxy’s experiential measures of truth and respect for diverse views.

Here, then, are Course versions of the three elements:

1. An authoritative scripture: A Course in Miracles

This is the most important element. The Course is what defines our spiritual path. It gives us both the teaching that promises to bring us to God and the practical instructions for how to apply that teaching. If one believes that the Course is his path, that it really was written by Jesus, and that Jesus is fully awake, then logically the Course needs to be the ultimate authority. The Course itself says this about its author: “But Jesus is for you the bearer of Christ’s single message of the Love of God. You need no other” (C-5.6:4-5). If we need no other bearer of Christ’s message than Jesus, then clearly his Course is meant to be the standard by which everything else is evaluated

Yet, as I will emphasize in all three points, assent to this is strictly voluntary. There need not and should not be any authoritarian structure mandating belief in the Course as the inerrant Word of God. (In this sense, the ultimate command authority—the authority to decide what one believes—should always rest with the individual student.) There will always be students whose path is not the Course, as well as students who don’t believe the Course was written by Jesus and aren’t sure the author is fully awake. For them the Course need not be the ultimate standard.

Even those who regard the Course as authoritative needn’t accept it without any question at all; we all question it at times, sometimes vehemently, and the author of the Course himself has no problem with that.[10] He does not demand unquestioning obedience; on the contrary, he says, “Freedom cannot be learned by tyranny of any kind, and the perfect equality of all God’s Sons cannot be recognized through the dominion of one mind over another” (T-8.IV.6:7). And accepting the Course as our authority doesn’t mean that we must categorically dismiss other scriptures, such as the products of Jesus channels. These can be evaluated on a case by case basis, using the Course as our guide for determining what to embrace and what to set aside. While I haven’t yet found a Jesus-channel work that I think measures up to the Course’s standard, I can regard each new one that comes along with an open mind.

2. An agreed-upon method of interpreting the Course

If we want to come to any sort of agreement about what the Course says—and I think such agreement is valuable, as long as it is freely given, not coerced—we need to have some common method of interpretation. If one person carefully studies the Course’s words and another consults his guardian angel, the two really have no point of contact on which to build a dialogue. The interpretive method must be based on external standards that can be agreed upon (so the guardian angel is out). It needs to effectively capture what the Course says as completely as possible, leaving no loose ends and providing what we need to effectively walk the path. At the Circle, we’ve developed an effective method rooted in the Course’s own contention that it is “very simple, very clear and totally unambiguous” (W-pI.39.1:2), “a very practical course…that means exactly what it says” (T-8.IX.8:1). This method, which sees the Course as much more literal than metaphorical, is much like Athanasius’s dianoia, in that its goal is to discern the meaning or intention that the Course’s author placed in the text.

But, as with the first point, assent to such an interpretive method is strictly voluntary. This is not about dictating some sort of interpretive fundamentalism. There will always be those who disagree with whatever method is adopted by a majority, and that is their right. And even if an interpretive method is shown to be effective and gains wide acceptance, it needn’t be engraved in stone. It can and should be open to revision and refinement—our interpretive method at the Circle is evolving all the time.

Finally, a good interpretive method would value both external, objectively verifiable elements—especially the words of the Course itself—and insights gained through inner wisdom and personal experience. Both dianoia and epinoia have their proper place. The Course places a major emphasis, of course, on receiving guidance from the Holy Spirit, and also has its own version of the “by their fruits you shall know them” approach. It says, “If you do it, you will see that it works. Its results are more convincing than its words” (T-9.V.9:2-3). Experiences of inner knowing that produce positive fruits in one’s life—especially the fruit of practical compassion—are certainly important indicators of truth in the Course’s view.

I find that external and internal methods of insight work well together. A careful analysis of a Course passage using our study techniques can spark an inner experience in me, and then this inner experience can, in turn, further illumine the passage. Yet in the end, for one who has accepted the Course as the ultimate authority, the final arbiter has to be the words of the Course. When our inner experience (or life experience) seems to shed light on some teaching in the Course, we need to make sure that this insight harmonizes with the Course’s words, instead of conflicting with them.

3. A community of Course interpreters

In a broad sense, the community of interpreters includes every Course student. But I think there’s also an important place for a community of Course “experts” or scholars: a group of people who have delved into the Course deeply and have developed effective methods of interpreting it, who can share what they have learned with each other and with other students. The Course itself does not say anything about this, but the Manual for Teachers does speak of experienced Course students serving as teachers to less-experienced pupils, and having a group of experienced interpreters is simply a logical extension of that. Let’s face it—the Course is such a sophisticated and intellectually challenging work that expert help is truly needed. A community of Course scholars discussing the Course together can be an invaluable resource for Course students. Careful study of the Course by this community can lead to a helpful consensus on many points of teaching and practice.

But once again, both agreement among scholars and Course students’ assent to the scholars’ views is strictly voluntary. This need not and should not become some sort of ecclesiastical body that enforces its views like the Nicene bishops did. It would be a community that offers its conclusions to students for their benefit, rather than one that enforces its conclusions on them for their submission. Each Course student can interpret the Course on her own—our version of Martin Luther’s “priesthood of all believers”—and if she disagrees with the scholars, so be it. Moreover, whatever consensus the community of interpreters reaches need not become rigid dogma. As in any healthy scholarly community, any consensus is open to question as the conversation continues. There will always be those who don’t share in the consensus, and voices of dissent should be respected and appreciated.

Finally, as with the second point, inner insight and personal experience should certainly be a valid and valuable aspect of the interpretive process. Ideally, the experts in this community of interpreters should be practicing Course students whose inner journeys can illumine the Course in ways that intellectual interpretation alone could not.

Using these elements to evaluate a truth claim: an example

Let’s imagine sometime in the future when all three of the elements I’m proposing are firmly in place. Let’s say that in this future, a Course student has a deeply moving experience in which she gets the inner sense that we should really love the ego because it is a wounded child that needs healing. In our current Course community, if this view is shared in a group, it can draw both “orthodox” and “heterodox” responses. The defenders of orthodoxy may emphatically reject it, without supplying reasoned evidence for why they reject it. They might simply repeat a stock line from the teacher they follow. The ones inclined toward heterodoxy are more likely to say something like “What a marvelous insight!”—even if it totally contradicts the “marvelous insight” of ten minutes ago. Their view tends to be a version of the famous bumper sticker about biblical inerrancy: “I had an experience. I believe it. That settles it.”

But let’s say that in this hypothetical future, the student herself uses the three elements to try to discern the truth of what she received. She accepts the Course as her authoritative scripture, so she opens up the book and searches for references to her idea or to anything that might refute it. When she finds pertinent passages, she applies a method of interpretation to them that is in harmony with the Course’s own instructions for how to read it, one commonly used by good Course teachers and shown to be highly effective. For additional help, she consults Course scholars she respects to see what they have to say on the subject.

As a result of all this, she concludes that at least based on these three elements, the view her inner sense gave her is not in line with the Course. Both her own study and the consensus of the experts point to a different view: The ego is not a wounded child, but is instead the ultimate wounder, a “murderer…within you” (W-pI.196.11:1). It is not innocent, but is instead “the evil self I made” (W-pII.330.2:2). Most important, the ego is not a real being that can be loved, but instead “nothing more than a part of your belief about yourself” (T-4.VI.1:6). As such, it is nothing at all, and so should be neither loved nor hated, but simply let go.

Now, throughout this process, no authoritarian voice has forced her to accept this view. She has voluntarily chosen the Course as her scripture, the interpretive method she uses, and the teachers she respects. She is participating in a process of free and open inquiry, and she can re-evaluate anything at any time. And taking these more external measures seriously doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t also take her personal experience seriously. Perhaps the experience is so utterly compelling that it forces her to question everything, even the authority of the Course itself. Or perhaps she decides that the external evidence is more compelling, which forces her to question what she heard in the experience.

Even if she ends up concluding that the “insight” she got in the experience is just plain wrong in light of what the Course actually teaches, she can still take the experience seriously. The fact that it moved her so deeply suggests that she may have come into contact with the Holy Spirit in some way. Perhaps the ultimate source of her guidance was real, but she simply misheard it. Perhaps it was really saying that the mind that believes in the ego needs to be loved because it feels wounded: “The pain in this mind is so apparent, when it is uncovered, that its need of healing cannot be denied” (T-13.III.6:5).

Let’s say that this is what she concludes: The teaching that she seemed to receive doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but there was something of real value in the experience. She concludes this on the basis of a careful, discerning examination of both external means of evaluating truth claims and the compelling nature of her inner experience. Now, even after all this examination, she still may be wrong—no method is absolutely certain, and she may rethink this teaching and experience in the future as she learns and grows. But isn’t this process more likely to get us closer to the truth than either accepting some teacher’s view without question or relying on personal experience alone?

Reflections on the three elements

A number of thoughts come to my mind as I consider the three elements we’ve discussed. Reflecting on the first element, I know that accepting the words of the Course as an authority over one’s own experience is problematic for many people. For me, that decision is rooted in certain assumptions. One is that truth is not easily accessible in this world, an assumption that is certainly in line with the Course.[11] Given the fact that we are deeply entrenched in ego and we “have learning handicaps in a very literal sense” (T-12.V.5:1), even our best experiential glimpses into truth, valuable as they are, are likely to be obscured somewhat by the fog of the ego. Paired with this assumption is a companion assumption about the nature of the Course: that something very rare and remarkable happened through Helen Schucman. I believe that, for whatever reason, Helen was able to hear the voice of Jesus with unusual clarity, and therefore what she wrote probably surpasses the clarity we will find through our own connection with truth. While of course these assumptions can never be proven, in my mind the evidence of human insanity coupled with the sheer brilliance and beauty of the Course makes them at least plausible, something a reasonable person can accept.

In addition, I think using the Course as an authoritative scripture is a lot easier than using something like the Bible, as Christians through the ages have tried to do. The Bible consists of many books written over many years by many different authors with many different perspectives.[12] There is no systematic path in the Bible. Because of this, it has never been a simple matter for Christians to ground their own spiritual journey in the Bible. Even given the common ground established by orthodoxy, the Bible can be read many different ways, which is one big reason there are so many Christian denominations. But with the Course, we have a single book written in a short period of time by a single author with a single perspective. It offers us a systematic path that provides everything we need along the way. Because of this, those who ground their spiritual journey in the Course don’t have to work nearly as hard to find a clear and consistent path.

Reflecting on the second element, though the topic of how to interpret the Course isn’t discussed much in Course circles, the importance of finding the right interpretive method can hardly be overstated. This became clear to me as I was writing my portion of One Course, Two Visions, a book that compares the views of the Circle with those of Ken Wapnick. The central difference between the two views is interpretive method: Wapnick sees the Course as mostly metaphor, while the Circle sees it as mostly literal. These two stances lead to profoundly different ways of seeing virtually everything the Course says. For instance, Wapnick doesn’t take the Course’s statements about the Holy Spirit literally, so in his view the Holy Spirit is actually an illusion that doesn’t do anything and doesn’t really hear our requests for help in any way. The Circle takes the Course’s statements about the Holy Spirit quite literally, so in its view the Holy Spirit is in fact a real, eternal Being created by God, Who actively guides all of our thoughts, words, and actions if we ask for His help. Clearly, which view we choose will have a dramatic impact on how we relate to the Holy Spirit in our daily lives. And since these different views arise directly out of different interpretive methods, our choice of method is not just an academic matter. It has a huge practical effect on how we walk the Course’s path.

Reflecting on the third element, I’m sure some may be concerned that a community of Course experts would diminish the power of individual students to draw their own conclusions. Yet I believe that a healthy community of this sort would have the exact opposite effect. Our impression at the Circle is that Course students are much more influenced by prominent Course teachers than they realize. We have observed that perhaps most of the ways students see the Course are picked up, often unconsciously, from other interpreters instead of directly from the Course itself. Having a community of interpreters in constant dialogue with each other could help students become more conscious of which interpreters are influencing their views. Students could listen to experts responding to each other and measure these expert opinions against the Course itself. This would put students in a better position to make up their own minds, rather than being unconsciously swayed by the authority of a particular expert. So, paradoxically, a good community of interpreters can place more power in the hands of students, by giving them a more informed basis to decide for themselves what they believe the Course says.

Finally, I think we need all three elements if the Course is to guide us the way it clearly intends to. The first element is necessary because if we don’t accept the Course as authoritative, we won’t follow it. The second and third elements are necessary because if we don’t have a sound way of interpreting the Course and a community of expert interpreters to help us in this daunting task, we won’t know how to follow it. Without these three elements, we’ll end up with something similar to the early days of Christian heterodoxy: so many conflicting voices claiming to be authoritative that the voice of the Course is effectively drowned out. With these three elements, we can reap the benefits of letting the Course be a truly effective authority, one that can guide us through the fog of our egos to the clear light of God.

The ego-transcending middle way

Human beings seem to have a tendency to bounce between extremes. They’ll try to solve the problems of one extreme by running to the other, which is unfortunately just as problematic. Something like this has happened, I believe, with the extremes of heterodoxy and orthodoxy. Christian bishops like Irenaeus saw problems with extreme heterodoxy, problems I believe were truly there and needed to be addressed. Unfortunately, the bishops’ solution was extreme orthodoxy, which brought about its own set of problems. Now, thoughtful people like Elaine Pagels who see clearly the problems of orthodoxy are calling for a return to heterodoxy. Unfortunately, while this helps us escape the problems of orthodoxy, it just reintroduces the problems of heterodoxy. Neither extreme is the whole answer.

Though the specific problems of each extreme are different, I think they do have one thing in common: both extremes tend to reinforce the ego. In extreme orthodoxy, we just believe whatever the external authority figure tells us, which is ego in the form of rigid conformity. In extreme heterodoxy, our only authority is ourselves, which is ego in the form of narcissism. But the method I’m proposing is a middle way that avoids both brands of egoism. Having external and communal ways of discerning truth helps us avoid the pitfalls of narcissism; honoring personal experience and diverse views helps us avoid the pitfalls of rigid conformity. Thus, while of course no method in itself can free us from ego, I think this method is a useful tool that can help us in our quest to transcend the ego.

How can we tell the difference between the word of God and mere human words? We have to be humble enough to realize that this side of Heaven, there are no absolutely certain answers to the question of how to discern truth. But I believe that the approach I’m advocating gives us our best shot, because it offers the best of both worlds—the best of both orthodoxy and heterodoxy. This is the approach, I believe, that will allow us to find the truth that will set us free.


[1] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Vintage, 2003), p. 92. Subsequent references to this work will be given as page numbers in parentheses at the end of each citation.

[2] The quote is from Thomas 70.

[3] As an aside, clearly the view that we are all Sons of God and that salvation comes from seeking and finding the light within is much more in line with the Course than the view that salvation comes from believing in a uniquely divine Jesus (though there is other material in Thomas that doesn’t remind me of the Course at all).

[4] It should be mentioned that as the orthodox Christian tradition developed, metaphorical scripture interpretation did become a major part of it. However, this was rooted in the principle that the metaphorical interpretation should never contradict the literal interpretation; rather, the metaphorical interpretation should simply augment the literal by revealing deeper meanings. It should also be noted that the literalism discussed here is not the extreme literalism of modern Protestant fundamentalism. Protestant fundamentalism is not a return to an ancient tradition, but a relatively recent reaction against the modern world.

[5] This brief account may give the impression that once orthodoxy was in place, all dissent was vanquished for good. This, of course, was not the case, as the history of Christianity shows us. There were plenty of disputes in the centuries that followed, leading to all the diverse Christian denominations we see today. The point here is simply that the Council of Nicea did spell the effective end of the heterodoxy that had been rampant before, and the beginning of the orthodoxy that has been the prevailing current ever since.

[6] This dismissiveness is especially apparent in Few Choose to Listen, the second volume of Wapnick’s two-part work entitled The Message of ‘A Course in Miracles’ (Roscoe, NY: Foundation for A Course in Miracles, 1997). Few Choose to Listen is filled with harsh language directed at interpretations other than Wapnick’s own. For example: “Differences in interpretation of A Course in Miracles thus become the rallying cry of those hellbent on proving the reality of their perceived separation from God and from certain members of the Sonship” (218). According to this view, differences in interpretation are not the result of interpreters having an honest disagreement about what the Course says; rather, they are the result of those interpreters being “hellbent” on preserving their egos.

[7] See especially Ian Patrick’s interview of Wapnick (Miracle Worker: Magazine of the UK Miracle Network, Issue 27, March/April 1999). There, Wapnick says, “I do not feel that the Course has interpretations.” He also states that “What I say it says, is what it says,” and finally makes this startling claim: “I say: ‘This is what it [the Course] says.’ I think I would be dishonest if I kept saying: ‘This is what I think it says,’ but I really know it.”

[8] One example of this progression is this passage about the miracle. Notice how it starts out with taking the miracle on faith—believing in it without experience, simply because the Course tells you it is real—and ends up with that belief leading to an experience that demonstrates the reality of the miracle and the world it rests on:

The miracle is taken first on faith, because to ask for it implies the mind has been made ready to conceive of what it cannot see and does not understand. Yet faith will bring its witnesses to show that what it rested on is really there. And thus the miracle will justify your faith in it, and show it rested on a world more real than what you saw before; a world redeemed from what you thought was there. (W-pII.13.4:1-3)

[9] Of course, a life of compassion and service to others is not inherently a characteristic of heterodoxy; certainly there were heterodox Christians who were self-centered charlatans, and through the ages there have been orthodox Christians who were (and are) paragons of compassion. And while I think compassion is strong evidence that one is doing something right, it doesn’t tell us a lot about the truth of particular spiritual ideas. Mother Teresa’s exemplary life convinces me that she was in touch with something real and true, but it doesn’t convince me at all that the very conservative Catholic doctrine she professed is true.

[10] For example, at one point Jesus says, “You may complain that this course is not sufficiently specific for you to understand and use. Yet perhaps you have not done what it specifically advocates” (T-11.VIII.5:1-2). Notice how Jesus responds to our complaining about the Course here. He does challenge the complaint, but he does so gently and without taking issue with the fact that we are complaining; he doesn’t say, “Stop your complaining and just accept what I tell you without question!”

[11] See, for instance, M-12.3:3, which says: “Only very few can hear God’s Voice at all, and even they cannot communicate His messages directly through the Spirit which gave them.”

[12] The gospels themselves were written by authors with quite different perspectives (as we see in Pagels’s discussion of John and Thomas), which leads me to an observation. While I don’t agree with the conclusions the creators of orthodoxy drew about the central message of Jesus—”Believe I am the only begotten Son of God and you’ll be saved”—I find it difficult to be too hard on them. They sincerely wanted to base their church on the real message of Jesus, but I think that by Irenaeus’s time, the real message of Jesus was already pretty much lost. Modern Jesus scholars claim that the gospels, including the alternative gospels Pagels discusses, are full of material that is more a reflection of the authors’ own views than an accurate account of the teachings of Jesus. So, the creators of orthodoxy probably had little chance of correctly discerning Jesus’ real message.

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
Spanish translation ¿Cómo Discernimos entre la Palabra de Dios y Meras Palabras Humanas?
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