A Discourse by Jesus on Course Interpretation
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
In the previous issue of A Better Way, I published an article entitled “Interpretation and the Future of the Course.” My point was that how we approach the interpreting of the Course is absolutely foundational for our entire relationship with it. I then tried to ascertain how Jesus would have us approach the interpretive act and finally envisioned what the future of the Course might be like if we followed his approach.
This topic of interpretation is so crucial that I want to keep it alive, rather than moving on from it. A few days ago I hit upon a way to do that. Greg and I were doing our daily recording for Workbook Lesson 196, and I realized that the second and third paragraphs of that lesson are actually a discourse on Course interpretation. Indeed, they are perhaps the single most important statement we have of how Jesus sees the whole matter. Here is how that discussion begins:
Perhaps at first you will not understand how mercy, limitless and with all things held in its sure protection, can be found in the idea we practice for today. It may, in fact, appear to be a sign that punishment can never be escaped because the ego, under what it sees as threat, is quick to cite the truth to save its lies. (2:1-2)
The “idea we practice for today” (2:1) is the lesson title: “It can be but myself I crucify.” The purpose of this idea is to overturn how we view our attacks. When we attack someone, we see our attack as being like a raiding party that leaves us, goes out and plunders the other guy’s village, and then returns with the booty, leaving us both unharmed and richer. But the truth is that our attacks only end up hurting us. By making us feel guilty and deserving of punishment, they give permission to the “murderer…within” (11:1) to perpetually crucify us in every way it can.
According to Jesus, this idea actually contains “mercy” which he describes as “limitless” (2:1). How so? Because, as he later explains, if you can only crucify yourself, then “you did not hurt the world, and need not fear its vengeance and pursuit” (9:2). That should be a massive relief in itself. Further, if you did not hurt the world, then you need not fear God punishing you for it. “Nor need you hide in terror from the deadly fear of God” (9:3). So this idea should really feel like a kind of blanket absolution. It should feel like mercy. Perhaps its most merciful aspect is that it enables us to stop crucifying ourselves. It enables us to at last be merciful toward ourselves.
Yet Jesus is clearly concerned that “perhaps at first” (2:1) we won’t see this mercy. He is concerned that we will take the idea as “a sign that punishment can never be escaped” (2:2). What does he mean by that? He means that when we hear “When you attack others you really just punish yourself,” we assume, “Well, I can’t stop myself from attacking others, I guess I will just keep punishing myself.” It’s like telling an addict that his using is only hurting himself. All he hears is, “Since I know I can’t stop using, I guess that means I am doomed to hurt myself forever.”
Actually, I suspect that this is exactly our gut reaction to this lesson. When you first read, “It can be but myself I crucify,” do you have a positive reaction, a bright feeling inside? Or does it feel dark, maybe even a bit foreboding and hopeless? If the latter, isn’t that because somewhere inside a voice is saying, “You’ll never stop crucifying yourself”?
Why are we seeing the lesson in this dark way? According to our passage, it is because the ego sees the lesson “as threat” (2:2). The ego is all about attack. Yet this lesson has the power to pull the plug on our attacks. Would anyone throw a punch if he knew that punch would miss the other guy and just boomerang back into his own face? So the ego is deeply threatened by the idea that “It can be but myself I crucify.” As it faces the idea, it senses its supports being pulled out from beneath it.
So what does the ego do? It twists the idea around, transforming threat into salvation. It cites the truth to save its lies. As Jesus said earlier in the Text, “Not only does the ego cite Scripture for its purpose, but it even interprets Scripture as a witness for itself” (T-5.VI.4:4). Therefore, the ego is quite happy to quote “It can be but myself I crucify,” as long as it can tell you what it means, as long as it can tell you that, as a hopeless attack addict, you are doomed to crucify yourself forever.
The situation is very straightforward. Now the question is, What is Jesus going to say about it?
Yet must it fail to understand the truth it uses thus. But you can learn to see these foolish applications, and deny the meaning they appear to have.
Thus do you also teach your mind that you are not an ego. For the ways in which the ego would distort the truth will not deceive you longer. You will not believe you are a body to be crucified. And you will see within today’s idea the light of resurrection, looking past all thoughts of crucifixion and of death, to thoughts of liberation and of life. (W-pI.196.2:3-3:4)
The first thing Jesus says is that the ego, by twisting the idea around the way it has, has also failed to understand it. It is not seeing the idea as Jesus meant it. It is misinterpreting it.
Then he goes on, “But you can learn to see these foolish applications, and deny the meaning they appear to have.” This is such an important line. By speaking of “foolish applications” (plural), Jesus is broadening the whole issue beyond this particular foolish application and telling us how to deal with all of them. He is saying, “Learn how to spot the ego’s misinterpretations of the Course and then deny them, reject them.” This single line could revolutionize the way that we approach Course interpretation.
Then he goes on to say something equally remarkable: “Thus do you also teach your mind that you are not an ego. For the ways in which the ego would distort the truth will not deceive you longer.” The logic here is that if the ego says, “The lesson means this,” and you say, “No, I reject that meaning,” then you can’t be the ego. If you overrule the ego, how can you be the ego? So here you have given yourself definitive proof that you are not the ego.
Isn’t that the whole point of the Course—to demonstrate to ourselves that we are not egos? To awaken beyond our misidentification with the ego to our true Identity as God’s Son? Who would have thought that one way that we do that is to catch our ego misinterpreting the Course and then refuse to let it? Who would have thought that resisting the temptation to misinterpret is a genuine path of liberation from the ego?
As it closes, the paragraph says that by resisting this temptation, we not only prove to ourselves that we are not an ego, but we also see in today’s idea the mercy that is really there. We see “the light of resurrection,” rather than the long shadow of crucifixion. So much flows from that single decision to pull our mind back from the ego’s misinterpretation.
I want to say a couple of things about this remarkable passage in Lesson 196. First, it is extremely close in content to my previous article’s distillation of how Jesus sees the act of interpreting the Course. That distillation consisted of four points:
- The Course is not meant to be “open to more than one interpretation.” Jesus has a particular meaning that he is trying to convey.
- He is trying to express that meaning in the clearest way he can, making “every effort to use words which are almost impossible to distort.”
- The lack of clarity, then, doesn’t come from him, but from us. We are prone to “twisting” his words, “interpreting against” them, almost willfully misinterpreting what he says.
- To correct for this, we must be willing to “be very careful in interpreting.” We must resist the temptation to “read this hastily or wrongly,” and instead read and “re-read very carefully.”
Notice just how similar this is to the discourse in Lesson 196. There, Jesus clearly has a particular meaning he is trying to convey (point #1). But something in us is twisting his words, almost willfully misinterpreting them (point #3). Therefore, we need to consciously correct for that. We need to actively resist that temptation to misinterpret (point #4).
In composing those four points, I was not at all drawing on the discussion in Lesson 196. I had actually forgotten it was there and only happened upon it within the last week. The fact that it so closely mirrors my previous four points says to me that there is something to those points, that they really do capture something at the heart of how Jesus sees the interpretive act.
Second, I believe that this discussion in Lesson 196 is broadly applicable in today’s Course community. What I see in the Course community is a widespread tendency to bend the Course towards what I have called miracles boomeritis. And boomeritis is just a contemporary form of narcissism. And narcissism, of course, is the ego; it’s the very essence of the ego. In short, I feel like there is this constant gravity in us that wants to pull the Course down to the place where it affirms, excuses, empowers, and even spiritualizes our ego. This is more or less the same situation that Jesus addresses in Lesson 196.
Along with this tendency to interpret the Course as supporting our narcissism, there is such a strong value placed on freedom of interpretation. However we want to interpret it, however we feel guided to interpret it, whatever works for us, because it doesn’t really matter anyway, and there obviously isn’t one “right” interpretation, and even if there were, how could we ever know what it was? If you spend time with Course students, you hear these things so many times that they become part of the landscape.
So there is this one-two punch here: Interpret it in a way that supports narcissism/interpret it however you want. I’m not saying that everyone does that, not by a long shot. But twenty-seven years among Course students has taught me that this one-two punch is widespread indeed.
What Jesus says in Lesson 196 could not be more different, could it? His whole message there is that we have to spot and resist that one-two punch. We want to give our narcissistic tendencies free rein to interpret however they want. He wants us to swim the opposite way. The very process we want to unleash and empower, he wants us to rein in and correct.
Imagine that every time we opened the book, our mind was filled with what Jesus says in Lesson 196. We thought, “There is some particular thing that Jesus is trying to get across to me here. That thing is pure liberation if I understand it aright. Yet my ego will certainly be threatened by it, and as a result will try to twist it around to mean something that supports itself. It’s my job to learn how to catch the ego doing this, so I can reject its misinterpretation. Then I can see Jesus’ idea truly; then I can see the liberation it contains for me. Not only that, but then I have proved to myself that I am not an ego.”
Imagine an entire Course community swimming in this direction, actively trying to rein in our tendencies to interpret however we want, in order to get back to what Jesus actually meant. How might things be different than they are today? Imagine you yourself swimming in this direction. Imagine that not only the way you intellectually interpreted, but even the way you emotionally colored the teaching was as faithful as possible to what Jesus conveyed. How might you be different than you are today?