Should There Be Course Churches?

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]

For many years now I have heard both sides of this debate. One side says that there should not be Course churches, or at the very least that the Course itself should not become a church. This position seems to have come down to us from some of the earliest people associated with the Course. I get the impression—whether it is true or false—that during those misty early years of the Course, everyone just knew that “Course” and “church” should not be put together. The other side says that a church fold is probably the most natural and supportive environment within which to practice the Course. People need support on this path, and a church is an excellent way of providing that support. In our culture, when you want to study and practice a spiritual path, you often gather with others in a church. What could be more natural, then, than gathering in a church to study and practice A Course in Miracles?

I’ve had my own opinion on this matter for many years. For the moment, however, I want to step back and address how such issues should be decided. In my mind, it’s not good enough that the early Course family just “knew” that there should not be Course churches (if in fact they did). It’s also not good enough that churches are a popular and time-honored form in our culture. For myself, I would like to know what the author of the Course himself thought about this matter. After all, he is the author of this path; he gets to call the shots. If what he thought confirms what the early Course family thought, then fine. If it confirms what others have thought, that’s fine, too.

Therefore, I think the place to start in discussing this issue is to step back from the issue itself and look into what the Course itself says. The Course doesn’t directly address the question, “Should there be Course churches?” But it does talk about churches, temples and religion—all topics closely related to the matter at hand. So I spent some time looking into the eight references to “church” or “churches,” the seventeen references to “religion” or “religions,” and the forty-two references to “temple” or “temples.” A remarkably clear and consistent pattern emerges from these various references, one which intuitively rings true for me, and one which I think truly resolves this matter.

True versus false religion

This pattern, I think, is best described by discussing the issue of religion. How does the Course view religion? Students of the Course are accustomed to the notion that spirituality is good but religion is bad. Yet this is actually not the Course’s attitude. “Religion” is a positive word in the Course, yet what the Course means by it is a kind of pure ideal that only rarely fits religion as we know it. The Course’s view of religion as it manifests in this world can perhaps be likened to a house, a house that can have very different things under one roof. Under this roof may be elements of “true religion” (P-2.II.7:1), which the Course usually simply calls “religion,” and which, as I said, the Course sees as an extremely positive thing. And under this same roof may be anti-religious elements, elements of false religion masquerading as true religion.

Let’s look, therefore, on how the Course characterizes true versus false religion. From the Course’s standpoint, the real purpose of religion is to lead us to an inner awakening to God. True religion is there to facilitate the inward journey, to bring us to an experience of truth. The Psychotherapy supplement states plainly: “Religion is experience” (P‑2.II.2:4). Its job is to peel the scales off our eyes, to “remove the seeming obstacles to true awareness” (P‑2.II.2:7). And to do that, it must instill in us not just love of God, but also love of our brother and a willingness to roll up our sleeves and help him. We see this in Jesus’ comment to Helen Schucman at the conclusion of her Mayo Clinic experience: “And this is my true church…helping another; not the edifice you saw before” (Journey Without Distance, p. 50). And we see it in a passage from Psychotherapy which says that religion is “but an aid in helping” someone to “recognize his brother’s need is his own” and “then meet his brother’s need as his and see that they are met as one” (P‑2.II.9:4‑6).

As this passage says, religion is meant to be merely “an aid,” something that assists us in moving along the path to our own awakening. It is all about facilitating that inner change that propels us to the end of the journey.

As we all know, of course, religion as it manifests in the world is not always about this. Twice the Course points out that many religions teach content that actually leads away from God, not toward Him. In the Course’s terminology, they teach “anti-religious concepts” (T‑3.I.1:7). One such concept is that God sent His Son down here to be punished, ironically, “because he was good” (T‑3.I.1:5). Another is that what God has and what you have are totally separate and never the twain shall meet (see W‑pI.76.8:4). To the extent that such anti-religious concepts are the very foundation of a religion, the Course will only grant that it is a “religion,” using quote marks to brand it a so-called religion; in short, an anti-religious religion.

Another major characteristic of false religion is an emphasis on form, based on an underlying belief that you can find salvation merely by participating in the right physical forms. The Psychotherapy supplement has some strong words about this. “Formal religion,” it says, “has no real place in religion” (P‑2.II.2:1). It goes on to call formal religion an oxymoron, suggesting that by their very nature, the words “formal” and “religion” do not belong together. To appreciate the import of this, we need to know what formal religion is. My Merriam-Webster dictionary defines formal as “relating to or involving the outward form…rather than content….characterized by punctilious respect for form….rigidly ceremonious.” It then lists “ceremonial” as a synonym. Given these definitions, I don’t think it’s any mystery what “formal religion” means. It is religion that places great emphasis on adherence to strictly prescribed forms. Formal religion, in fact, is a great deal of what we mean by religion.

In this same vein, the Course strongly criticizes the value we put on beautiful church buildings. In speaking of temples, it reminds us that “Atonement in physical terms is impossible” (T-2.III.1:6); in other words, you can’t reach salvation just by getting close to the right forms. Thinking that you can is more than just misplaced devotion; it actually diverts your attention from the real source of salvation. In fact, says the Course, “The emphasis on beautiful structures is a sign of the fear of Atonement, and an unwillingness to reach the [true, inner] altar itself.” (T‑2.III.1:9). Seeing spiritual power in those beautiful walls is a subtle distraction from doing the real inner work of spirituality—a distraction that we secretly want. We are afraid of coming face-to-face with that holy altar inside of us, and so we pour our energy into the magnificent building on the outside. In essence, we are saying, “I don’t have to do the work of reaching the altar within. I am already building (or paying for, or kneeling before) such a beautiful altar without.”

Note that the Course is not against church buildings, just “the emphasis on beautiful” ones. Indeed, it tells us that a church or temple can become the temple of the Holy Spirit if at its heart is a true devotion to God’s purpose. “Its true holiness lies at the inner altar around which the structure is built” (T‑2.III.1:8; see also T‑6.I.8:4). This implies that any structure can be made holy, no matter how plain. Even a therapist’s office “becomes a temple” (P‑2.VII.8:4) when it is the setting for a holy encounter between patient and therapist.

Seeing the church building as made holy by the holy purpose within it, however, is only an interim step. “The next step…is to realize that a temple is not a structure at all” (T‑2.III.1:7). If a temple is not a structure, what is it? Again and again the Course tells us that the real temple of the Holy Spirit is a holy relationship, a joining between minds in a holy purpose. This theme crops up repeatedly:

The Holy Spirit’s temple is not a body, but a relationship. (T‑20.VI.5:1)

Your relationship is now a temple of healing; a place where all the weary ones can come and rest. (T‑19.III.11:3)

Relationships are still the temple of the Holy Spirit, and they will be made perfect in time and restored to eternity. (P‑2.II.1:5)

Relationships are…always His potential temple. (P‑3.III.6:3‑4)

The third passage above comes from a section that makes this point particularly strongly. It is the section that tells us that formal religion is not religion at all. What, then, according to this section, is true religion? The above passage says that “relationships are…the temple of the Holy Spirit,” but the section goes on to discuss a particular one it has in mind: the relationship between a spiritual teacher and his pupil. That is this section’s idea of the true temple of the Holy Spirit, the house of true religion. In this view, then, just two people, meeting without a formal sanctuary, can constitute a truer temple than a magnificent cathedral filled with a thousand believers.

Now that we have explored true versus false religion, let’s take what we have learned and try to answer a further question: What defines a church as practicing true religion and what defines it as practicing false religion? A church practices true religion when it sees its whole purpose as merely helping its members along the path to the inner awakening to God. At the heart of this church, then, is a genuine devotion to the goal of God. This devotion is the real altar around which the church is built. It is what turns the church building into an actual temple of the Holy Spirit. And yet the building is a temple only in an indirect or derivative sense. The real temple is the joining of the members in the goal of God. The real temple of the Holy Spirit is their collective holy relationship.

When does a church practice false religion? When it teaches anti-religious content, concepts that lead away from God, because they depict Him as threatening and make one want to run the other way. And when its emphasis is on form, on the beautiful building, on ritual and ceremony; when its overt or covert message is: “Take part in these holy forms and you will be saved.” Both the anti-religious content and the emphasis on salvation through form get in the way of the inner awakening which is the whole goal of true religion.

Should there be Course churches?

The above discussion, I believe, automatically answers our question. Should there be Course churches? The answer is both “yes” and “no.”

No, there should not be Course churches that teach anti-religious content, concepts that lead away from God by depicting Him as threatening or unloving. No, there should not be Course churches that put their emphasis on form, on edifices and ceremony; that implicitly send the message, “If you just belong to this church, come to this service, sit within these walls, and engage in these activities, you will find salvation.”

Yes, there should be Course churches that see their whole purpose as helping their members along the path of awakening the Course sets forth. At the heart of these churches should be a genuine devotion to the goal of the Course. That devotion should be the glue that knits the members together. That devotion should be the real altar around which the church is built, for that is what turns the church into a true temple of the Holy Spirit. It does this in two ways. First, it turns the church’s meeting place into a temple. Second, it turns the relationships between its members into a holy temple. This group holy relationship, in fact, is the real temple of the Holy Spirit. It is the invisible house in which the Presence of Holiness can dwell on earth.

One nice effect of this picture, I think, is to take the focus off the form of church. The position that there should be no Course churches implies, it seems to me, that church is an unholy form, at least when coupled with the Course. Yet, of course, there are no unholy forms, just as there are no holy ones. Thinking there are is an emphasis on form—one of the marks of false religion. Instead, the emphasis needs to be on the content. What is the church really about? What does it really facilitate in those who attend?

And while we are emphasizing content rather than form, shouldn’t we define “church” in terms of content? In this sense, to be a church, something need not have the outer trappings of sanctuary, Sunday services and pastor or priest. Any group of believers getting together to practice their religion or spiritual path is a church. Indeed, one of the definitions for “church” in my dictionary is “a body or organization of religious believers.” Under that definition, a Course study group is a church, a Course teaching center is a church. Even a teacher-pupil relationship between a Course mentor and his student is a church. Thus, if you attend a study group or go to a Course center or meet privately with a Course mentor, you are already attending a Course church. The question then becomes not “Should there be Course churches?”—as if they are somehow fundamentally different than study groups or centers—but, “What kind of church is this?” Is it practicing true religion or false religion? Is it helping people walk the path of the Course or is it somehow diverting them?