We Can Be Wrong

Last year I was talking to a fellow Course teacher, and he mentioned how iron-clad my views sound in print. He said that what I write—and I think he was also including writings from other teachers at the Circle—sounds so well-researched and well-argued that there seems to be no room for error or for discussion. In a way, I could understand what he was saying. We do have a great deal of confidence that our views are roughly accurate. The basic shape of our model of the Course, though constantly growing richer and undergoing change on the detail level, has become increasingly confirmed in our minds.

Yet I was also somewhat taken aback to hear what he had to say, for a couple of reasons. First, because we have often been told by people that they appreciate how we qualify our statements and how we admit that we have changed our minds. Second, because we ourselves put a high value on having open-ended views, on learning new things about the Course, on revising old views, and on admitting that we at times have been wrong. Speaking for myself, even though my basic picture of the Course has stayed roughly intact, new themes are constantly being gathered into it—some of them central—and old themes are constantly being clarified and revised. The level of flux is such that, once something I have written is more than six months old, I often wish that I could rewrite it. In addition to revising my understanding of various Course themes, I have changed my interpretation of a long list of Course passages.

For example, I used to believe that all four kinds of practice in the Workbook (morning and evening quiet time, hourly remembrance, frequent reminders and response to temptation) finally came together in Lesson 153, after which they stay together for the rest of the Workbook. For this reason, one year we threw a “Lesson 153 party,” celebrating the fact that we had reached this important point where all of the Workbook’s pistons are firing, so to speak. I must admit that I felt embarrassed when, upon closer inspection, I realized that all four kinds of practice really only came together almost fifty lessons later in Review VI. I got a fair amount of razzing for that one.

I have now gone through three distinct understandings of “Rules for Decision,” the section in Chapter 30 of the Text where we are told to repeat these lines to ourselves:

At least I can decide I do not like what I feel now….
And so I hope I have been wrong….
I want another way to look at this….
Perhaps there is another way to look at this.
What can I lose by asking? (T‑30.I.8:2, 9:2, 11:4, 12:3-4)

At first I thought we are supposed to repeat these lines whenever we were upset about a particular situation. Then I thought we are supposed to repeat them when we find ourselves having a general resistance to asking the Holy Spirit for guidance. Finally, I realized that we are supposed to repeat them when we are unwilling to ask the Holy Spirit about a particular situation, one in which we are attached to a certain course of action and afraid the Holy Spirit will cause us to change our plans.

I have probably made the most about-faces on the subject of special relationships. At first I accepted the conventional wisdom that under the generic heading of special relationships there were two kinds of such relationships: special love and special hate. This was reflected in my 1992 booklet on special relationships, where I had chapters on both special hate and special love. Slowly, however, I realized that all the references to special relationships, when read in context, are really about special love, and that there is only one very brief reference to special hate in the sense in which we normally use the term (as an overtly antagonistic relationship). This meant that there really isn’t this umbrella idea of special relationships under which are two sub-categories: special love and special hate. With the exception of one brief, anomalous reference to special hate, the Course really only talks about one category: special love. Since deciding this, I’ve had two smaller about-faces. First, I became persuaded by one of our teachers that the one reference to special hate is really talking about special love (since, after all, special love is actually hate). Then, after a few years on that position, I did a close study of the passage in question and went back to my earlier position: the passage is talking about special hate in the commonly understood sense. As you can imagine, I’m tired of changing my mind on this one.

The point is: our minds change a lot around here. If you were to attend my classes, for instance, you would hear me talking frequently about new discoveries I have made or old views I have revised. While admitting such things obviously makes me look less than perfect, I see it as a crucial expression of the essential relationship that should exist between the Course and an interpreter. In particular, the interpreter needs to always allow for potential distance between his interpretation of a thing and the thing in itself. This is true when one is interpreting anything, but is especially true in this case, for the Course quite simply towers above our minds. It is a vast, radical, original, exacting, and multileveled teaching. Let me explain what I mean by each one of these terms:

Vast: there are literally thousands of themes circulating around in the Course. It would be impossible for any one person to be familiar with them all.

Radical: all of the Course’s themes contain a reversal of how we commonly see things. As a result, our minds will unconsciously soften their radical edge, taking them off their heights and dragging them down closer to how we normally think.

Original: the Course does echo many ancient ideas, yet it also strikes out in bold new directions. Our minds, with their tendency to interpret the new in light of the old, will easily slant the Course so that it sounds just like the wisdom we have soaked up from so many other sources.

Exacting: the author has a razor-sharp mind; when he speaks, he knows exactly what he means. He is not fuzzy about what he is trying to say. If, in interpreting a particular statement of his, you miss the strike zone by just an inch, then you may be in the ballpark, but you are not right on target.

Multileveled: even if you understand a statement more or less accurately, there are always depths to it that remain hidden from view, depths that only come out when you set that statement next to related statements from elsewhere in the Course.

As an interpreter, my job is to honor the Course as it is. Yet given what it is, I am simply not going to be able to do that perfectly. It is too vast, too radical, too original, too exacting and too multileveled. There is always going to be some distance between my interpretation of it and what it really is. Even if my understanding of a certain passage is more or less accurate, that understanding will not perfectly reproduce what the author had in mind when he dictated that passage. It is just not possible. It is as if I am drawing a sketch of a mountain. I may have got the basic shape of the mountain more or less correct in my sketch, but it will not be perfect, and there will be levels of detail on the mountain—rocks, trees, leaves, animals, insects—that do not show up in my sketch at all. And that is a best-case scenario. There are times when I will draw that pyramid-shaped mountain to look more like a dome.

This is how I see my interpreting of the Course. I do my utmost to draw the mountain accurately. I really do put everything I have into it. But I know that at best my drawing is a rough approximation—it is not the mountain—and so I do a lot of erasing and redrawing along the way. That, in fact, is why I have confidence in my views; I have total faith in my willingness to redraw them in response to the true shape of the mountain.

Because there will always be this distance between my understanding of the Course and the Course itself, it is crucial that I openly admit to the distance. Otherwise, I will lead people to believe that the Course is identical to my partial, imperfect understanding. Now they will think the Course is contained within the small set of themes with which I am familiar; they will have no clue of the thousands of themes that are really there. They will think that when they get my watered down views they are really getting the undiluted Course. They will nod when they hear me making the Course sound like their favorite spiritual wisdom, not realizing that it doesn’t really sound like that at all. They will think that my inaccuracies are the absolute truth, especially if I repeat them often enough. And they will think the Course is no deeper than the wading pool of my understanding, having no idea of the oceanic depths that are really there. In short, they will think that the vast, majestic mountain is nothing more than my clumsy little sketch. And if my whole role is to honor that mountain as it is, then I have failed, haven’t I? How much better would it be for me to tell them, “Look, I’ve tried to draw the mountain as best I can, but my drawing does not even begin to do justice to the stunning and humbling beauty of the real thing.” That is why we at the Circle believe it is so important to admit that we can be, and often are, wrong.


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