The Horrible God Within?

It is a basic teaching of A Course in Miracles that we can contact God within us. It depicts us as part of God, and tells us that God’s Voice, the Holy Spirit, “is in you in a literal sense” (T-5.II.3:7). However, I recently read a blog by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat that presents a starkly different view. As far as Douthat is concerned, turning to the “God within” is a downright horrible idea, because such a “God” is nothing more than the ego dressed in royal robes. As a Course student, I certainly don’t agree with such an extreme view, but I have to admit that what we call the God within certainly can be our own self-centered wishes in disguise. What can we do to be more confident that we’re really hearing the Voice for God?

The context of Douthat’s blog comments is a recent GQ interview of Rielle Hunter, the woman who had an affair (and a child) with politician John Edwards. Douthat’s take on the interview is that it reveals “the Edwards mistress’s religion of the self,” a classic case of New Age narcissism. He quotes commentator Hannah Roslin, who says that Hunter’s outlook reminds her of “the acolytes of Marianne Williamson,” proponents of “New Age/Buddhism lite” who worship “something like a supreme inner deity residing in all of us whose dictates can never be ignored.”

Douthat then goes for the kill by citing a withering passage from the English writer G.K. Chesterton (a convert to Roman Catholicism):

Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within.

Ouch! Yet though this passage stings, I can see what Chesterton was getting at. I think it’s true that much of what we call “guidance” from the God within is, to a greater or lesser extent, tainted by our own egos. This is especially prevalent in a spiritual culture soaked in what transpersonal philosopher Ken Wilber calls “Boomeritis,” a tendency to make one’s own self the measure of all things. I see what sure look like examples of this all the time. The Course itself speaks of how the ego is “quick to cite the truth to save its lies” (W-pI.196.2:2). And in personal guidance to Helen and Bill, Jesus said bluntly, “Do not assume that you are right because an answer seems to come from Him.” We shouldn’t just accept anything that seems to come from “within” uncritically. Careful discernment is required.

Yet in my mind, Douthat and Chesterton go too far. To me, their scathing dismissal of the “God within” and the “Inner Light” is essentially throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The fact that the ego has a disturbing tendency to get in the way when we ask for inner guidance doesn’t mean that the whole enterprise of asking for inner guidance is for the birds. Indeed, the Course tells us that “You must accept guidance from within” (T-8.IV.4:6, italics mine). In Jesus’ personal guidance to Helen and Bill about not assuming you are right because an answer seems to come from God, the solution to the problem of faulty guidance isn’t to stop asking the God within, but to still the mind enough to hear His answer clearly: “Be sure you ask, and then be still and let Him speak.” Find the baby hiding in that dirty bathwater.

Of course, Douthat and Chesterton, both of whom are Catholics, wouldn’t accept the Course as authoritative on this or any other point. But I could just as easily appeal to their own tradition. The Bible is full of examples of people who heard the Voice for God within them, and the Bible itself is regarded as an inner revelation from God to those who wrote it. The Catholic tradition is based on that revelation and, according to its adherents, on further revelations from God to Church authorities, especially popes. Then there is the great history of Catholic mysticism, in which believers who were not only regarded as orthodox but in some cases as saints received powerful messages from the God within. But one doesn’t have to be a saint to hear messages from God; Catholicism teaches that God can guide ordinary people as well by speaking within their hearts. I’m sure that Douthat and Chesterton, in their prayer lives, must have received inner illumination of this nature at various points in their lives. It’s hard to imagine Chesterton’s conversion happening without it.

I’m assuming that Douthat and Chesterton would probably agree with everything I said in that last paragraph, but with a major qualifier: We shouldn’t rely on inner guidance alone. It seems that what Chesterton is really getting at, suggested by his tongue-in-cheek advice to worship cats and crocodiles, is that there also has to be something outside of our own minds to appeal to if we are really to understand God truly. For him as a Catholic, that “something” was the authority of the Catholic Church itself, which teaches that any purported guidance should be measured against the Church’s own teachings.

While I don’t accept the Church’s authority at all, I think there’s actually a great deal of merit in this basic concept that we shouldn’t rely on inner guidance alone. Without appeal to something outside of our own inner echo chamber, I think it is all too likely that we will dress up our own egoic inclinations as God’s guidance. Therefore, as a Course student, I affirm a Course version of this idea: I think that if the Course is our path and we accept it as our authority, then we should measure what we purportedly receive from the God within by the standard of the Course’s own teachings.

I hope this is not a controversial idea. To me, it just makes sense that if, for instance, you receive guidance that says “Take your anger out on Jones,” you would look at that and say something like, “Since the Course says ‘Anger is never justified’ (T-30.VI.1:1), I don’t think this ‘guidance’ really came from the Holy Spirit.” Of course, most situations in which we have to appraise guidance aren’t quite as obvious as that, but the same principle still applies. If we accept the Course as true, anything out of accord with its teachings should at the very least be called into serious question. (As an aside, this measurement against the standard of the Course itself is the main reason I’ve never seen a purported channeling of the Course’s author that looks like it really came from him.)

Moreover, the Course actually gives us much more than a set of teachings against which to measure our guidance. It also gives us all sorts of instruction in how to hear the Voice for God with greater clarity. The Workbook, especially, trains us in the practice of hearing God’s Voice, giving us countless specific exercises to hone our skills. And sprinkled throughout the Course are various measures by which to evaluate our guidance. There is the “test of truth” in Chapter 14 of the Text: “If you are wholly free of fear of any kind, and if all those who meet or even think of you share in your perfect peace, then you can be sure that you have learned God’s lesson, and not your own” (T-14.XI.5:2). There are the various tests in Workbook Lesson 133 for evaluating what is really valuable (which can help us evaluate our guidance): anything that isn’t eternal is valueless, anything you take from someone else is valueless, anything you feel guilty about is at least partially tainted by ego, etc. Standards like these can help us discern the accuracy of what we hear from the God within.

A question that naturally arises out of my contention that we ought to measure what we hear against the Course itself is this: How do we know the Course itself is true? On what do we base our decision to make the Course our authority? This is a whole topic unto itself. Of course, there’s no way to be absolutely certain that the Course is a legitimate authority. But my own opinion is that ideally, the choice of whether to accept it as our authority should not be based only on inner guidance either. Of course, inner guidance is always going to be a big factor in accepting the Course. But I think that external factors should be part of the evaluation as well.

What kind of external factors? Speaking for myself, I find a number of factors external to my own mind that buttress my inner sense that the Course is truly from God: Helen and Bill’s amazing story, striking parallels between the Course and the historical Jesus revealed by modern scholarship, and the sheer brilliance of the Course’s writing on both a form and content level, which convinces me that it came from beyond the human. None of these factors will ever be absolutely conclusive evidence, but the combination of these external factors with my inner guidance increases my trust in that inner guidance, which increases my trust in the Course itself.

In conclusion, I can certainly understand Douthat’s and Chesterton’s concerns about the God within. It’s true that relying on inner guidance alone can be problematic. It is all to easy for the ego to deceive us into following the “religion of the self.” But let’s not throw that baby out. There’s nothing horrible about the God within. On the contrary, if we let the Course teach us how to hear the Voice for God and measure everything we hear against the Course’s own profound measuring stick, we will be following the religion of our true Self. We will discover our true Identity as Sons of God, and find our way home to our Father Who is within, without, and everywhere.

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