An Introduction and Response to the Responses to
“Could the Course Community Actually Be United?”
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
In the last issue of A Better Way (#113), I wrote an article entitled “Could the Course Community Actually Be United?” and invited responses. I was very pleased to receive a virtual avalanche, possibly more than we’ve ever received for any newsletter article. There are many newsletters to which we don’t receive a single word in response. So to suddenly receive ten thousand words was really nice.
Clearly, the article touched a nerve. I felt this was visible not just in the volume, but also in the pattern of the responses. Right after the newsletter came out, I got a raft of mail saying that differences are irrelevant, or inevitable, or even positive; that it’s important that we all do the Course in our own individual way. This overall response came so quickly that I wondered if people felt a need to just get it off their chest.
Then, when you normally expect interest in a newsletter issue to die down, more positive responses started coming in. People expressed a longing for the kind of unity I spoke of and a desire to be part of the kind of project I suggested, “in which we collectively seek to understand what the Course teaches.”
That fact that so many people on both sides really wanted to be heard on this suggests to me that this is a major unhealed issue in the Course community. If the response to this article is any indication, the community as a whole is deeply ambivalent about its lack of unity.
In this article, I’d like to respond to those responses that said the Course community either couldn’t or shouldn’t be united. On the idea that it couldn’t be united, readers pointed out that “there has never been a community on earth that was completely unified,” and that “no other spiritual document of any major or minor spiritual path or tradition” has been “singularly understood.”
This really struck me as odd, because the centerpiece of my article was the example of the Pathwork community, in which there is “remarkable consistency and compatibility among the teachers and teachings of Pathwork,” as one of its leaders put it. The community is not completely unified, of course, but it has the particular kind of unity that I was calling for: unity of interpretation.
Without that living example, I felt the article was probably not worth writing, as I pictured people saying we could never achieve that kind of unity. What seemed odd to me was that even with the example, people still said this, as if the example wasn’t even on the page. In fact, out of all the responses I received, only one of them even mentioned the Pathwork. I had hoped the Pathwork example would cause people’s imaginations to fire, yet I’m left with the impression that it didn’t even cause neurons to fire.
An even deeper challenge to my thesis were those responses that denied that a united community was a desirable goal. The general idea here seemed to be that it’s important that we each approach the Course in our individual way. It’s up to the individual to understand the Course, and it’s up to the individual to apply it. Those who do this will realize that differences don’t matter, and will get in touch with a unity that transcends form. To seek a common interpretation of the Course’s words—which, after all, are just “symbols of symbols”—“smacks of dogma,” and is “just an intellectual argument based on our perception of separation, specialness and conflict.” And to seek a joining on the earthly level is “to form a special relationship.” It is only human to want such a joining, but it is not something the Course itself encourages in any way.
If true, this obviously completely undermines my entire point. But is it true? To try to answer that question, I’d like to attempt an experiment in exactly the process I was suggesting. My suggestion was that to resolve differences of interpretation, we turn to the Course itself and have a group conversation about what the evidence from the Course indicates. So let’s have that conversation. Should the Course community be united? I’ll offer the evidence I see in the Course and invite you to dialogue with me about it. Three points emerge for me out of that evidence:
1. Jesus wants us to interpret his words accurately, to receive what he meant by them
Despite how widespread the idea is that we should each interpret the Course in our own individual way, I cannot find any place in the Course that actually advocates this. If I knew of such places, I would mention them here, but I don’t.
On the other hand, I know of many indications that Jesus wants us to interpret the Course his way, to take away the particular meaning he was trying to convey. I’ll arrange those indications into four points.
First, Jesus says that he has spoken to us very clearly in the Course: “I have made every effort to use words that are almost impossible to distort” (T-3.I.3:11); “This is a very practical course, and one that means exactly what it says” (T-8.IX.8:1); “This course is perfectly clear” (T-11.VI.3:1).
Second, he frames us as prone to misinterpret the Course, due to our resistance to his teaching. After saying that “this course is perfectly clear,” he adds, “If you do not see it clearly, it is because you are interpreting against it” (T-11.VI.3:2). After stating he’s made every effort to use hard-to-distort words, he says, “but it is always possible to twist symbols around if you wish” (T-3.I.3:11). He warns of us misinterpreting Lesson 196 (“It can be but myself I crucify”), “because the ego, under what it sees as threat, is quick to cite the truth to save its lies” (W-pI.196.2:2). Clearly, he sees us as frequently misinterpreting his words to further our ego’s agendas and thwart his. There is an interesting vignette in Helen’s early notes where Jesus claims that Bill has done this exact thing and then adds, “But this sort of thing happens all the time.”
Third, he urges us to resist the temptation to distort his meaning, by instead reading and interpreting very carefully. With one of the miracle principles, he told Helen and Bill, “Be very careful in interpreting this.” In the last section of the Manual for Teachers, he says the same thing about one of his ideas there: “Do not read this hastily or wrongly” (M-29.7:3). In regard to an early section (that did not make it into the FIP Course), he urged careful rereading as a way to guard against misinterpretation: “The section on psychic energy should be re-read very carefully, because it is particularly likely to be misinterpreted until this section is complete.”
Fourth, if we can actively resist our ego’s attempts to distort his words, we will not only come away with accurate understanding, we will actually teach ourselves that we are not an ego. After warning that the ego may try to cite Lesson 196 “to save its lies,” Jesus says the following:
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. (W-pI.196.2:3-3:2)
This passage says it all. Our ego will try to “distort the truth” of his teaching, thus failing to understand that teaching—i.e., reading it wrongly. But we can learn to spot the ego doing this and “deny the meaning” it seeks to inject into the Course. And by doing this, by actively overruling the ego, we teach ourselves that we are not an ego. That’s quite a plug for accurate interpretation of the Course!
All in all, I don’t see Jesus encouraging us to interpret the Course our own way. Rather, I see him urging us to resist the ways we would individually distort the Course, so that we can interpret it his way. If you see indications in the Course that tend in a different direction, please let me know and we’ll talk about them.
2. He wants us to join with each other
Is it me, or have Course students become rather suspicious of the whole idea of joining? The sense I get from many students is that joining with others grants reality and power to the external world, so that we become at the mercy of other people. Instead, we should join with them inside our own minds, rather than seeking a mutual joining, a joining between them and us, for that would be a special relationship.
It’s remarkable how difficult it is to find this perspective in the Course. What the Course actually says is unambiguously pro-joining. True, it speaks negatively about special relationships, the ego’s alliances, and the union of bodies. But its criticism of all these things is that they are not real joining. They are separation dressed up as joining. For example: “The union of bodies thus becomes the way in which they would keep minds apart” (T-15.VII.11:6), and “An unholy relationship is no relationship. It is a state of isolation, which seems to be what it is not” (T-20.VI.8:3-4).
In place of this pseudo-joining, the Course, as you might expect, advocates real joining. What is real joining? It is joining with another in a common goal or common purpose, so that both people hold that same goal or purpose. “Only a purpose unifies, and those who share a purpose have a mind as one” (T-23.IV.7:4). Even though sharing a purpose usually results in bodily cooperation, it is fundamentally a matter of the mind: “When two minds join as one and share one idea equally, the first link in the awareness of the Sonship as One has been made” (T-16.II.4:3).
We have a number of concrete images of this joining in the Course. The Text (Chapters 17-23) talks at length about Helen and Bill joining in the common purpose of living out “a better way,” saying to them, “You are joined in purpose” (T-17.V.14:7). The Manual talks about a teacher and pupil “who join together for learning purposes” (M-2.5:3). The Psychotherapy supplement speaks of “a union of purpose between patient and therapist” (P-2.II.5:4). The Song of Prayer speaks of people who come together to pray—“those who join in prayer” (S-1.IV.2:4).
The Course, then, is talking about really joining with another person, a joining that is fundamentally between minds, but will naturally result in physical cooperation. After all, this joining is all about seeking a goal together, and how do we seek a goal together while operating completely separately and independently? This quote from the Workbook should put an end to any idea that the Course is not talking about actual, physical cooperation between individuals:
Salvation must reverse the mad belief in separate thoughts and separate bodies, which lead separate lives and go their separate ways. One function shared by separate minds unites them in one purpose, for each one of them is equally essential to them all. (W-pI.100.1:2-3)
As I said, I see the Course as profoundly pro-joining. It speaks openly and repeatedly, in abstract ideas illustrated by concrete examples, of people sharing a common purpose and thus operating together—co-operating. If any of you see something different in the Course, please show me your evidence, show me the actual passages, and let’s discuss it.
3. He wants us all to join in one interpretation of his words
This final point is perhaps a surprise, but it is also follows quite naturally from the first two points. If Jesus wants us to interpret the Course in the way he meant it, and if he wants us to join our minds together, then it is quite natural to think that he wants us to join in his interpretation of the Course. Can you picture him saying, “I really want you to join with each other, and I really want you to hold my interpretation of the Course, but I do not want you to join in my interpretation of the Course”?
Is there any overt support for the idea of uniting in one interpretation of the Course? Actually, there is. A passage in Chapter 6 in the Text begins by saying that being vigilant against your mind’s sickness is the way to heal it, after which your mind naturally teaches healing. It then goes on:
This establishes you as a teacher who teaches like me. Vigilance was required of me as much as of you, and those who choose to teach the same thing must be in agreement about what they believe. (T-6.V(C).9:8-9)
Notice that last line: “those who choose to teach the same thing must be in agreement about what they believe.” Rather than trying to say something bold and original here, I think Jesus is just referencing a truism. Of course those who teach the same thing must agree about what they believe. Imagine that you have a history class taught by two teachers, and one teaches you about the Holocaust and the other denies there was a Holocaust. What a confusing class that would be!
This kind of situation seems to be a real concern of Jesus, as he mentions the same basic scenario a chapter later. He speaks of a curriculum that “is planned by two teachers, each believing in diametrically opposed ideas.” The result is that “each one merely interferes with the other” (T-8.I.5:5-6). Based on this, we can only imagine what he thinks of the current Course scene!
In the above passage, of course, Jesus uses this general idea—that teachers teaching the same thing must agree—to make a more specific point, that we as teachers need to agree with him, our head teacher: “This establishes you as a teacher who teaches like me.” If we combine this specific point with the general idea, we get a striking picture: He wants those who teach A Course in Miracles to be in agreement with each other because they are all in agreement with him.
Is it possible that that’s what Jesus really wants? It would be nice to have more direct evidence. Is there anywhere that Jesus speaks specifically about how he sees the Course community? Actually there is, in guidance Helen received after the Course was complete. There, he does talk about the Course as a movement in the world, though what he says bears no resemblance to what exists now.
I am speaking of guidance Helen received on the last day of 1975. In this guidance, Jesus speaks of the Course growing “from infancy into a helper of the world”—becoming, in other words, a major contributor to the healing of the world. Then he outlines how he sees it reaching that point:
It will grow slowly, because nothing can be permitted to go wrong. It must develop without error, and with nothing to mar its perfect purity. It is the Word of God, to be kept holy forever.
This time there will be no failure, no loss of truth, no misunderstanding and no misinterpretation. I will direct its growth as it reaches from the paper on which it was written into the hearts for which it was intended.
Here we have a long list of things that must not “be permitted” to happen. But as far as I can tell, the entire list is mainly referring to one thing: misinterpretation. Some of the items are unmistakably about that, and the rest naturally suggest that or lend themselves to that reading. Let me start from near the end and show you what I mean.
Obviously, “misunderstanding” and “misinterpretation” here refer to mistaken interpretations of the Course. That’s not in question. It’s also safe to say that “loss of truth” is about that, too. The truth expressed by the Course is lost when that truth is misunderstood. To talk about “the Word of God” being “kept holy” is also almost certainly the same idea. That frames the Course as a scripture whose purity must be honored, rather than tainted with unholy ideas about it. That is clearly the same exact same idea as “with nothing to mar its perfect purity”—what mars its purity being impure understandings of it. And finally, that must be what he means by “without error”—“error” must refer to errors in how the Course is understood. What the passage means, then, is something like this (I have put my words in boldface):
The Course will grow slowly, because nothing can be permitted to go wrong. It must develop without error in how it is understood, and with no misinterpretations to mar its perfect purity. It is the Word of God, to be kept holy forever, untainted by unholy understandings.
This time there will be no failure, no loss of truth (rather, its truths will be found), no misunderstanding and no misinterpretation. I will direct its growth as it reaches, straight and undistorted, from the paper on which it was written into the hearts for which it was intended.
The final result of carefully examining this passage can be something of a shock. In this one place at least, Jesus’ whole concept of how the Course should grow in the world revolves around one priority: “no misinterpretation.” That is why it should grow slowly, so that in a wild gallop out to the masses it does not become seriously misrepresented and misunderstood. As it reaches from mere words on paper into living, beating hearts, it must not get lost in translation. There must be a pure beam of undisturbed light that shines directly from the paper into the hearts. For “this time” it must be different. We all know what happened last time, the last time he came to teach us. The teaching got immediately distorted, until it became hopelessly misunderstood. But this time, he wants things to go differently. “This time there will be no…misunderstanding and no misinterpretation.”
As I write this, I myself am kind of shocked. The Course community implied by the above passage is so radically different than what exists today that even I find it a bit jarring. I have grown accustomed to the way things are, and so I’ve been framing it as a mere distant ideal for us all to join in Jesus’ interpretation of the Course. But what I hear him saying is, “No, that is the central priority around which I have built my whole plan for the Course’s growth in the world. Above all else, it must develop without error.”
Perhaps I’ve read the passage incorrectly. Yet I really think I have been fair to each part and to the whole sweep of it. Another option: Perhaps Helen was hearing incorrectly when she received this. This, of course, is always an option, but what strikes me is that this guidance sounds very much like the Course passages we looked at earlier. When it comes to Course interpretation, Jesus wants us to be in agreement with him. And if he wants that on an individual level, why wouldn’t he want that on a collective level?
All of which leaves me with one question: How could we have gone so far off track? How could we have formed a Course community that looks nothing like what he envisioned? How could we have made “this time” look so much like last time? The one morsel of comfort I see is what he says right after the part I quoted:
Be comforted by this: It will be impossible to make any mistakes in its [the Course’s] connection which will endure. I am watching over it with all the care I have for all my brothers in salvation. I understand what it can do for them, and I will make sure that it does it, and does it perfectly.
I am comforted by this. If I believe the first part, that above all else the Course must “develop without error,” then I must also believe the next part, that Jesus is watching over it, and that it really is “impossible to make any mistakes in its connection which will endure.” That is something I can hang onto, and will.
Should the Course Community be united? Here are the conclusions I have come to based on an examination of what the Course says:
- Jesus wants us to interpret his words not in our individual way, but specifically the way he meant them.
- He wants us to unite with each other.
- He wants us to unite in his interpretation of his words.
I have concluded, in other words, that he does indeed want a united Course community, more so than I realized.
As I have said, I’d like to have a dialogue about this. Please give me your reasons from the Course for differing with what I’ve said, or agreeing with it, or being on the fence about it. What evidence do you see in the Course? Many will naturally see this as a call to engage in a fight. But we can instead undertake it in the spirit of these words from Jesus to Helen and Bill (from what is now T-7.II): “Whenever anyone can listen fairly to both sides of any issue, he will make the right decision.” Indeed, Jesus speaks in exalted terms about searching for truth together:
Yet when two or more join together in searching for truth, the ego can no longer defend its lack of content. The fact of union tells them it is not true. (T-14.X.9:6-7)
Joining together in the search for truth is an ego-transcending pursuit, a holy act. What can we lose by doing something holy together?