Is Hierarchy Really Such a Bad Thing?

It is common in our culture, especially in the counterculture, to say that hierarchy is bad, so we should aim to create human communities with no hierarchy at all. Given the unfortunate human propensity for creating “domination systems” in which small groups of elites ruthlessly oppress everyone else, this sentiment is certainly understandable. There are lots of unhealthy hierarchies in the world that need to be reformed. But is all hierarchy inherently bad? And is it even possible to have a community with no hierarchy of any kind? Richard Conniff writes in the New York Times that in his opinion, the answer to both questions is no. Though this may come as a surprise to many students of A Course in Miracles, I believe the Course would agree.

Conniff’s article, entitled “Egalitarian Tall Tales,” makes the point that while people assert that hierarchy is bad and claim to have eliminated it—for instance, in the corporate culture of some modern companies—on closer inspection hierarchy is alive and well in even the most “egalitarian” communities. Drawing from his personal experience, he says, “In every human organization to which I have ever belonged, I’ve always known precisely where I stood in the hierarchy.” I must say, my experience is similar. Even in situations where we believe no hierarchy exists, what’s really happening is that the hierarchy is unconscious: It’s so firmly embedded in our minds that we conform to it without being aware of it.

The story of primatologist Terry Maple illustrates this. When he got his first tenured academic position, he naively assumed that tenured faculty would be beyond the primitive “hierarchy” thing. But when he sat down in a third-row seat at his first faculty meeting (the seats were not assigned), he noticed another faculty member impatiently glaring at him. When he asked what was the matter, the faculty member said, “You’re sitting in my seat.” He moved over one seat, only to be told, “Now you’re sitting in Professor Smith’s seat.” As a primatologist, Maple was trained to observe primate behavior, so he took notes on the seating arrangement at subsequent meetings. He discovered that even though there were no assigned seats, there was in fact a “rigid seating order,” with relative power increasing the closer one sat to the chairman. This seating order was maintained even when the meetings moved to another room.

Conniff’s punch line is that hierarchies are inevitable, but this is not an inherently bad thing because some hierarchies are actually beneficial. Openly acknowledging legitimate leadership can reduce infighting, establish order, and enable the group to accomplish its goals more effectively. Therefore, since hierarchy is inevitable and can be beneficial, rather than trying to eliminate hierarchies, our goal should be to eliminate unhealthy hierarchies and replace them with healthy ones.

In my view, A Course in Miracles agrees that hierarchy of some sort is inevitable, and that some hierarchies are good. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that every individual relationship is hierarchical—there are certainly peer relationships, like the one Helen and Bill had.) The Course has its own version of “legitimate leadership.” Indeed, there is hierarchy even in Heaven. True, everything in Heaven is one, but paradoxically the Course’s Heaven also has distinctions between beings, and these distinct beings are hierarchically related. The hierarchy of Heaven is what the Course calls “the Levels of the Trinity” (T-3.IV.1:7): God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

God the Father is clearly supreme, the “First Cause” (T-14.IV.2:1), “the First in the Holy Trinity Itself.…the Prime Creator, because He created His co-creators” (T-7.I.7:5-6). Below God is Christ (the Son or the Sonship), our true Self. The Son is an extension of the Father and shares His attributes, but there is a major difference between them: The Father is Cause, and the Son is Effect; the Son did not create the Father or himself. Because God is our Cause, the Course tells us that it is appropriate to experience “awe” in His Presence (see T-1.II.3:3 and T-1.VII.5:3). And it is precisely the denial of the fact that God is our Cause that brought about the separation: Our authority problem with God led to the belief that we created ourselves (see T-3.VI.8:2) and God (see T-11.In.2). This insane belief led to God’s creation of the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit “came into being with the separation as a protection” (T-5.I.5:2) for the Son, He is clearly below the Son in the hierarchy of Heaven.

A second hierarchy evident in the Course is what I’ll call the post-separation hierarchy of teachers. On top of this hierarchy is the ultimate Teacher, the Holy Spirit. He is the One who established the entire worldwide curriculum of the Atonement, “giving us the answer to the separation and bringing the plan of the Atonement to us, establishing our particular part in it and showing us exactly what it is” (C-6.2:1). Next in line is Jesus, “the manifestation of the Holy Spirit” (C-6.1:1), a teacher who once was asleep like us but who fully awakened, and whom the Holy Spirit established “as the leader in carrying out His plan since he was the first to complete his own part perfectly” (C-6.2:2). For those of us who are students of A Course in Miracles, Jesus plays another significant role in this hierarchy: He is the author and primary teacher of our spiritual path.

The final two elements in this hierarchy are the human teacher and pupil. Though Course students like to say that everyone is teacher and pupil to each other, the Manual for Teachers clearly portrays the teacher and pupil as distinct roles, the former being a more advanced individual who acts as a mentor to the latter, who is less advanced. Of course, the teacher and pupil are perfectly equal as beings. The Course is clear that we are even equal with Jesus in this respect; we are all aspects of the Christ, the second entity in the hierarchy of Heaven. Where teacher and pupil differ is simply in current level of spiritual advancement. The principle at work here is illustrated in personal guidance Jesus gave to Bill about a class he had assigned Bill to teach:

It is not true that the difference between pupil and teacher is lasting. They meet in order to abolish the difference. At the beginning, since we are still in time, they come together on the basis of inequality of ability and experience. The aim of the teacher is to give them more of what is temporarily his. This process has all of the miracle conditions we referred to at the beginning. The teacher (or miracle worker) gives more to those who have less, bringing them closer to equality with him, at the same time gaining for himself.

What’s happening in a teacher-pupil relationship, then, is this: Though the teacher and pupil are equal members of the Sonship, they are currently unequal in ability and experience. The teacher has more, the pupil less. But this inequality is only temporary, and the whole purpose of the teacher-pupil interaction is for the teacher to teach the pupil everything she knows, and therefore “abolish the difference.” Through this interaction, miracles will happen. As a result, the teacher gains, and the pupil is brought closer to equality in ability and experience with the teacher. Eventually, the day will come when the teacher and pupil will be fully equal in ability and experience. In fact, we will eventually be equal to the Holy Spirit Himself in our knowledge, once we learn everything He has to teach us: “Like any good teacher, the Holy Spirit knows more than you do now, but He teaches only to make you equal with Him” (T-6.V.1:1).

We’ve seen two related hierarchies described here, both of which are regarded by the Course as good. Why are they good? There is a basic difference between these hierarchies and the unhealthy hierarchies we rightly want to eliminate. Unhealthy hierarchies are all about ones above selfishly taking from the ones below, and the ones below surrendering their power to the ones above. But both Course hierarchies described here are all about the ones above selflessly giving to the ones below, and the ones below being empowered by this giving.

In the eternal Heavenly hierarchy, God lovingly gives us nearly everything He has to lift us into a state of near equality with Him. He gives us Himself, His very Being, and all the holy attributes that come with that. He even gives us the gift of fatherhood: the ability to create “new” creations, just as He created us. And even the few things He withholds from us are not withheld so He can egotistically remain king of the mountain, but out of love. He withholds the ability to create Him in order to ensure that the Kingdom can increase, which enables us to be co-creators with Him (see T-7.I.2). He withholds the ability to create ourselves in order to prevent us from destroying our perfection and exiling ourselves forever from His Love. “For God is merciful, and did not let His Son abandon Him” (T-31.IV.11:4). So, even when He doesn’t give us something, He has only our best interests in mind.

In the temporary teaching hierarchy (ideally), the teacher lovingly gives absolutely everything he has to ultimately lift the pupil into a state of total equality with him. If you think about it, this process of a mentor giving his or her teaching to a pupil is essential to any sort of learning. In the field of spirituality, the master-disciple relationship, in which the master extends his or her wisdom, experience, example, and very enlightenment to the pupil, is the primary engine of spiritual advancement in the world. Indeed, the Course calls the Holy Spirit’s plan of salvation “the plan of the teachers” (M-1.2:10), and says that without such teachers “there would be no hope of salvation” (M-In.5:1, Urtext version). And in any endeavor, accepting the fact that some people know more than us and are thus qualified to teach us just makes sense. In the field of brain surgery, where lives are at stake, a brand new medical student wouldn’t say to the best brain surgeon in the world, “Don’t tell me how to do brain surgery—I’ll do it my way, thank you very much.” In the field of spirituality, where salvation is at stake, why would the situation be any different?

This leads me to a punch line that echoes Conniff’s: Since the hierarchy of Heaven is eternal and good, it’s futile and foolhardy to try to eliminate that. The attempt to do so was what got us into our current mess. And since the post-separation hierarchy of teachers is inevitable and is designed by the Holy Spirit to be good, our goal should not be to eliminate this hierarchy (except in the sense of working toward ultimately abolishing the difference between teacher and pupil), but instead to replace unhealthy versions of it with healthy ones. Obviously, how to do this is no simple matter; it is a thorny issue that would require far more space to cover than I have here. Sadly, as long as human beings have egos, the temptation to establish oppressive and abusive hierarchies will always exist. But rather than responding to this temptation by futily trying to pretend we have no hierarchy, which will only drive unhealthy hierarchies underground where they are more difficult to deal with, I think the way out is to strive for healthy hierarchies: holy teacher-pupil relationships that will restore us to the wondrous awe of being in the Presence of our Creator in Heaven.

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
If you enjoyed this article, you might like this one!
To learn more about our community of A Course in Miracles students, visit Course Companions.