What is A Course in Miracles?

Have you ever had someone ask you this question, only to find yourself tongue-tied? I certainly have. That, in fact, is why I wrote that booklet, An Introduction to “A Course in Miracles,” many years ago. I had a terrible time trying to tell people what it is. It seemed easier to hand them a booklet.

Why is this question so hard to answer? I think I have finally discovered why. When you ask what something is, you expect to be answered with a familiar category. For instance, let’s say you don’t know what Jainism is. So you ask and you are told, “It is a religion.” That helps because religion is a category that you have already built up in your mind. Somewhere in your mind is a file folder labelled “religion,” inside of which are all the characteristics you associate with religion. Now, you simply apply this familiar category to this new and unfamiliar thing called Jainism. You think, “Oh, I see. Jainism is a tradition that probably has a belief in God or some ultimate spiritual principle, most likely has scriptures and forms of worship, perhaps has temples or sanctuaries, maybe some sort of priesthood,” etc.

Herein lies the problem in answering the question, “What is A Course in Miracles?” It is extremely difficult to find a category in which to place it. While writing this article, in fact, I happened upon an interview in which Richard Smoley, former editor of Gnosis magazine, was grappling with this very issue, discussing whether the Course was a form of Vedanta, esoteric Christianity, New Age philosophy, or Gnosticism. The reason this issue is so hard to pin down, I believe, is this: The Course fits no category. There is nothing in the world that is quite like it. Thus, there is no pre-existing mental folder in which we can file it.

Rather than falling into one category, the Course actually falls into several. And, by and large, these categories are ones that simply do not go together in our world. For instance, if you describe A Course in Miracles as an educational course, one would never guess that it also seems to be an inspired scripture. In our world, those two categories never go together. By falling within both categories, the Course has dissolved the boundaries around and between them. This is something it does routinely. The Course partakes of a category but then transcends it, joining it with things considered unlike it, and thus dissolving the boundaries around it.

This says a world about what the Course is and where it came from. I’ll comment on that later. For now, I want to present the nine categories I see as necessary in order to describe the Course. This is my answer to, “What is A Course in Miracles?”

1. A channeled spiritual teaching

This is probably the main category within which people situate the Course. People see it as a collection of spiritual teachings, purportedly from a non-physical being, channeled through a living person. This is the reason for much of the Course’s popularity. People are fascinated by the possibility of wisdom from a higher plane. Yet this same category is also the reason why the Course has been virtually ignored in more respectable quarters. Serious academic interest (by psychologists, philosophers or theologians) in a channeled spiritual teaching is virtually on par with serious academic interest in stories from The National Enquirer.

The Course does fit in this category; it is a channeled spiritual teaching. Though we like to say that it was “scribed” by Helen Schucman, it is just as accurate to say that it was channeled through her. Unfortunately, however, this category doesn’t tell us much about the Course. It doesn’t tell us what the Course says, for instance, what it teaches. Rather than illuminating us in this area, this category can easily mislead us. “Channeled spiritual teaching” almost automatically brings to mind the New Age and figures like Ramtha and Lazaris, yet the Course’s teachings should not be classified as New Age. Though the Course does have overlap with the New Age, it also runs directly counter to many basic New Age themes.

2. A modern educational course

The Course clearly patterns itself after a modern educational course. It calls itself a “course.” It has a Text which is meant to be studied; a Workbook with practical exercises; and a Manual for Teachers, designed for mature students who will in some way teach this course to their own “pupils.” It takes its students through a series of lessons (which, taken as a whole, it calls a curriculum), using various “learning aids” in order to get around their “learning handicaps.” The ultimate goal is for the student to learn a particular body of ideas—a thought system—and teach it to others. Finally, just like any other educational course, the Course came through two professional educators.

A Course in Miracles, however, is not like any other modern educational course, not by any stretch of the imagination. How many educational courses are also channeled spiritual teachings? The Course’s Text is like no textbook in existence, being also (as we will see) a scripture and a work of art. Doing its Workbook lessons means doing spiritual practice, much as one would do in the East. And though teaching it to others will often mean teaching intellectual concepts, it primarily means being a living example of love and forgiveness. The Course therefore criticizes conventional education, saying that it merely teaches “the mind a thousand alien names, and thousands more” (W-pI.184.5:2), names which divide up reality rather than reveal its underlying unity. In contrast, the Course wants to re-educate our mind at the deepest level, reawakening our awareness of the unity of all things. What we “learn” from it is a new lens through which we see the world. This lens, by transforming our perception, also transforms our basic experiential condition. How many educational courses aim to liberate us from the bondage of the human condition?

3. A public communication from Jesus

Of course, we can never prove that the Course was actually written by Jesus. But this is how it characterizes itself. This is a category in which it places itself. The author of the Course consistently writes from the perspective that he is the individual history knows as Jesus. He refers to his birth, his teachings, his miracles, his Apostles, his experience in the garden of Gethsemane, his crucifixion, his resurrection, and the way that history has viewed him.

I say “public communication” because the material was clearly meant for more than its original scribes. It was intended for a future population of students, whom the author occasionally addresses as a group: “My brothers in salvation, do not fail to hear my voice and listen to my words” (T-31.VIII.8:1); “My brothers, join with me in this today” (W-pII.264.2:1).

Since there are so many channeled books out these days claiming to be authored by Jesus, this category may seem like a repeat of the first category (“channeled spiritual teaching”). Yet my intent in this category is not to set the Course alongside other channeled communications purportedly from Jesus, but to set it alongside Jesus’ teaching ministry 2,000 years ago. Unlike anything else I have seen, the Course, in my opinion, fully deserves to be likened to Jesus’ original teaching ministry.

As I first claimed in 1990 in The Elder Brother, the author of the Course and the historical Jesus (as revealed by modern scholarship) emerge as surprisingly similar figures. The parallels between them, in my view, are very striking. Here is a brief account of them (which leans heavily on scholar Marcus Borg’s account of the historical Jesus): Rather than focusing on themselves and their role, both figures (the historical Jesus and the author of the Course) are primarily teachers, teachers of a path of transformation. Both speak of two opposite ways of being. One is the way of conventional life. This is centered on our anxious, grasping self and its desire to be special, wealthy, “loved,” and safe. The other is God’s way. This way is centered on God, Who is conceived of not as a punisher of sin, but as a Father of lavish generosity and care. Central to God’s way is the notion of forgiveness. Just as God freely forgives our sins, so we must freely forgive the sins of others. This becomes the basis for a new way of being in relationship.

Both teachers bypass religious leaders and cultural power-brokers and make a direct appeal to ordinary people. They seek to reach us in the middle of our absorption in the world’s way and lead us into God’s way. They do this by using our familiar forms (verbal, social, religious), but filling those forms with radically new content. Both are creative masters of words, using words to effect a transformation of perception, to bring us into a new way of seeing. Both routinely take universal human assumptions and turn them completely on their head. Through these means, both seek to effect in us a total inner reversal, beyond what we would have dreamed possible. This inner reversal, as opposed to a new code of behavior, is the goal of the way they teach. Once we experience this reversal, both send us out as teachers and healers, extending this new way to others.

As I said, we can never conclusively verify the Course’s claim to be authored by Jesus of Nazareth. Yet the parallels are so impressive that they elevate that claim into the realm of the possible. They make it deserving of serious consideration. For myself, “a public communication from Jesus” is perhaps the main category through which I view the Course.

4. A psychological system, both theoretical and therapeutic

One of the most visible characteristics of the Course is its psychological nature. It is filled with psychological terms such as: projection, dissociation, delusional system, dreams, hallucination, denial, defenses, insanity, ego, fantasy, guilt, and perception. These are not scattered terms, but are part of a vast, interrelated system of psychology. Whatever else we say about this system, we must admit that it is brilliant. It insightfully explains everyday mental processes such as thought, will, belief, emotion, and perception. Yet it explains them in light of hidden unconscious dynamics, and ultimately in light of our mind’s fundamental nature in God. This psychology, therefore, spans the distance between the mind on earth and the mind in Heaven. It says that our fundamental disease has its roots not in childhood trauma, but in a primordial dissociation from God. We have experienced a psychotic break, it says, not with consensual reality, but with transcendental reality. As a result, we have fallen into a delusional state and are hallucinating a cruel world of separation from God that is not actually there.

This system is not just theoretical; it is also therapeutic. Its aim, as the Course says so many times, is to restore us to sanity. The theory, therefore, exists only to support the Course’s practical program of mind healing. For this purpose, the Course offers hundreds of mental exercises for healing a mind scarred by the past and wracked with guilt. The Course also suggests that its mature students will become mental healers able to work miracles in the minds of their patients.

The Course’s psychological nature should not surprise us. It originated where most psychological theory does—in a university psychology department. Yet that is where it departs from modern psychology as well. For it was not authored by two academic psychologists, but dictated to them by an inner voice. And this inner voice expressed strong criticisms of modern psychology, saying that it is not the study of the mind (the meaning of the word “psychology”) but the study of the ego, that the ego’s illusory nature is actually reinforced by being studied, and that the ego is in fact the teacher of the entire enterprise (see T-14.X.8:4-9).

5. An inspired scripture, in the lineage of the Bible

We are all familiar with the concept of an inspired scripture. It is a book revealed by divine inspiration through a specially chosen human messenger (or messengers). This book is seen as communicating the divine Will, and so it takes on exalted authority for its followers, becoming the basis for their ongoing spiritual lives.

For a book to become an inspired scripture, then, it needs two things: a story of its otherworldly origin, and people adopting it as the authoritative basis of their spiritual lives. A Course in Miracles clearly has both.

I believe that not only is the Course a kind of scripture, it also seems to see itself as a new Bible. It obviously sees itself in the line or lineage of the Bible. As Allen Watson pointed out in Seeing the Bible Differently, the Course frequently refers to the Bible (containing over 800 allusions to biblical passages), uses terms and symbols from the biblical tradition (about three dozen by my count), and has the same major figure (Jesus). Like the Bible, the Course tells the story of our collective journey, from our beginning in harmony with God, to our fall or separation from Him, to the process of redemption under the Holy Spirit’s plan, to the end of the world and reunion with God. And, just as the Bible has traditionally been regarded as coming from the Holy Spirit, so the Course regards itself as inspired by the Holy Spirit (this is alluded to in Workbook reviews III-VI).

Yet the Course clearly assigns itself a higher authority than the Bible. It gives itself the authority to correct biblical passages, the authority to say what certain verses “really” mean (a meaning often totally outside what the biblical writers intended), and, most important of all, the authority to found a new spiritual path or way. In short, the Course sees itself as a new Bible, which is in the lineage of the Bible but which has an authority surpassing that of the Bible.

6. A path of enlightenment

Though the Course is rooted in the Western religious tradition, it also partakes of deep patterns in Eastern spirituality. The religions of the East have been filtering into our culture for over a century now, and so most of us are familiar with at least some of their basic themes.

In the West, the classic pattern for the birth of a religious tradition is that God has spoken through a chosen messenger. In the East, the classic pattern is quite different. That pattern, as far as I can see, is this: A man has pierced through the veil of maya, seen beyond the illusory appearances of the world, shaken off the sleep of humanity, and has awakened to what is real. Such a man has been liberated from the human condition. Now he can teach the way out to others. Followers come to him and he teaches them his way, his path of enlightenment. This way consists of both teaching and practice. The teachings re-educate the follower’s worldview, telling him that the causes of his suffering lie in his personal ego, and that release from suffering lies in realizing his true nature. The practice consists of disciplined mind training, especially in the art of meditation, which will allow him to detach himself from the world of the senses and identify with who he really is. The teaching and practice are designed to liberate the aspirant from illusion and usher him into enlightenment—the same state that his teacher attained.

There is no question that the Course follows this pattern. Every one of the sentences in the above description could be applied to it. How strange, then, that its author, who so resembles an enlightened master of the East, also claims to be Jesus Christ, the personal savior of the West.

7. A philosophical system of ideas

Philosophy is a notoriously difficult thing to define. Before deciding that I was called to a career teaching the Course, I planned to have a career as a philosopher, and I still can’t come up with a good definition of what philosophy is. So I have borrowed this one from the Encyclopedia Britannica: “the rational, methodical, and systematic consideration of those topics that are of greatest concern to man.” Philosophy uses a reflective, meditative process of logic, reasoning and speculation (as opposed to a scientific process based on empirical evidence) to seek answers to the great questions: What is ultimately real (the branch of philosophy known as metaphysics)? What are our true responsibilities in relation to our fellow humans (the branch of ethics)? What is knowledge, and how can we know something (the branch of epistemology)? How can we live a wise and good life?

Defined in this way, the Course certainly is a philosophical system. It uses abundant logical argument to support a vast system of ideas. This system gives answers to life’s deepest questions, including answers in the traditional philosophical areas of metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology. It rests on a view of what is ultimately real (metaphysics), saying that only formless, unified spirit is real, and that time, space, form, and change are illusions. It speaks at length about our responsibility to others (ethics), which is to see past their outward appearance as sinners, to extend forgiveness to them, and to recognize our oneness with them. It teaches that we only truly know something (epistemology) when we have united with it so fully as to erase the distinction between self and other. Knowledge, therefore, is not obtainable in the realm of perception, the realm of subject and object.

Though deeply philosophical, the Course strongly takes issue with the usual enterprise of philosophy. It sees intellectual feats as devices for puffing up the ego (C-In.3:6-7). It sees in philosophy’s endless arguments, controversies, and intricate definitions a subtle defense against the truth, since this process never actually arrives at the truth it professes to seek (see W-pI.66.3). The Course is simply not interested in intellectual pursuit for its own sake. It is interested only in those truths that can bring us to an experience of the truth. In describing itself, it therefore says quite openly, “This is not a course in philosophical speculation” (C-In.1:1).

8. A literary work of art

The Course’s teaching is expressed in a strange form for an intellectual system. Rather than being composed of dry, technical terms, its system is composed of characters (God, the ego, the Holy Spirit, you) interacting with each other and moving through places (Heaven, the world, the borderland, the gate of Heaven) and events (the separation, the Second Coming, the Last Judgment, the final step). This intellectual system, then, also has some of the appearance of an epic story.

This clues us into yet another category in which to place the Course. As Greg Mackie has argued elsewhere (see his article Appreciating the Masterpiece, Part 1 on this website), the Course is a great work of art. I cannot say it better than he did in the following paragraph:

Rather than linear, the Course, as Ken Wapnick has pointed out, is written symphonically: It introduces themes, develops them, lays them aside, and then brings them together, exploring their connections much like a symphony. Rather than simple sentence structure, the Course is written poetically: Large portions are written in iambic pentameter, and even those parts not written in this poetic meter have a poetic quality, even occasionally using alliteration and rhyme. Rather than straightforward language, the Course often resorts to the literary language of simile, metaphor, symbol, personification, imagery, and allusion. And rather than carefully defining its terms, the Course, like much literature and poetry, uses terms that are more suggestive than definitive. Terms are rarely strictly defined, but instead have flexible meanings that depend upon the context of the words around them. All of these techniques enhance depth; they reveal deeper layers of meaning and beauty, free words from the limitations of strict definition, and open them up to deeper connotations and connections.

Greg goes on to point out that the Course uses the techniques of art because it shares the aims of art. Like art, it aims to move us emotionally and to usher us into a new way of seeing. For it sees moving our minds into a new perception as the very essence of salvation.

9. A manual for how to heal others, heal relationships, and save the world

This final category is an amalgam of a few familiar categories. There are books out, for instance, on how to be a spiritual healer or on how to help others. There are courses on healing one’s relationships. I am stepping back from these specific categories to create a more general category, which I might rephrase in this way: a manual for how to have something healing, saving, or uniting pass from oneself to others.

The Course is so deeply relational. Never have I seen a spiritual path (especially one which sees the world as an illusion and which aims for mystical union beyond this world) place so much emphasis on human relationship. In its view, perhaps the central issue of our life is the quality of what passes from ourselves to others. On this issue depends our release from pain and awakening to God.

The Course is therefore constantly schooling us in how to extend light to our brothers. Its central teaching, forgiveness, is not just a remedy for our own minds, though it is that. Our forgiveness also heals others. It absolves them of what they think they did to us, which was the secret cause of their pain. It can even heal their bodies, for, according to the Course, sickness is the outward manifestation of buried guilt. Forgiveness also heals relationships, opening the way to true joining. It reconciles people, for the walls that separate us are built of the bricks of resentment. Forgiveness can even save the world, for what keeps our world in misery but the hatred of centuries traded back and forth?

The Course’s goals, then, go far beyond the individual Course student. But that individual student is the agent of these larger goals. The purpose of the Course is thus to transform its students into miracle workers, saviors of the world, whose forgiveness is so healing that it changes all who come into contact with it. In fact, the title, A Course in Miracles, primarily means “a course in learning how to extend miracles to others.” The word “miracle” in the Course primarily refers to an interpersonal event, a healing that extends from my mind to yours. A Course in Miracles, therefore, really is a course in how to heal others, heal relationships, and save the world.

This should really come as no surprise, for this was the immediate need the Course came to fulfill. It came as an answer to two people who were seeking “a better way” of relating to others, a way that would heal their conflict-ridden relationships, a way that would allow people to simply get along.

Contemplating the categories

To do justice to the question of what the Course is, I think we need at least these nine categories. What is A Course in Miracles? It is:

  1. A channeled spiritual teaching
  2. A modern educational course
  3. A public communication from Jesus
  4. A psychological system, both theoretical and therapeutic
  5. An inspired scripture, in the lineage of the Bible
  6. A path of enlightenment
  7. A philosophical system of ideas
  8. A literary work of art
  9. A manual for how to heal others, heal relationships, and save the world

In contemplating these nine categories I feel as if I have finally described what the Course is. I have tried to describe the Course hundreds of times and always felt frustrated. This description is by far the most complete and the most satisfying.

Another thing arises in me as I contemplate these categories: a feeling of enthrallment, of wonder. How can one thing fit all nine of these categories? How on earth could one book be all these things? Our minds are always captivated when something breaks out of old molds and breaks new ground. It is the sign of genius. It is the definition of true creativity. Yet how could one thing break this many molds? To get a sense for just how many have been broken, take one of the categories and label it Category A, then scan down the rest of the list. As you look at each item in turn ask yourself, “How often does Category A go with this other category?” For example, let’s do that with the second category, “a modern educational course”:

  1. How often are modern educational courses also channeled spiritual teachings? To my knowledge, never.
  2. How often are modern educational courses also public communications from Jesus? To my knowledge, never.
  3. How often do modern educational courses communicate psychological systems? Sometimes.
  4. How often are modern educational courses also inspired scriptures? To my knowledge, never.
  5. How often is a modern educational course also a path of enlightenment from an awakened master? To my knowledge, never.
  6. How often do modern educational courses communicate philosophical systems? Sometimes.
  7. How often are modern educational courses also literary works of art? To my knowledge, never.
  8. How often are modern educational courses also manuals in how to heal others, heal relationships, and save the world? To my knowledge, never.

With just this one category, then, the Course has broken six molds. When you see that you get similar results with the other eight categories, your mind will probably begin to feel some of the wonder that I am feeling. You may find yourself asking my question: “How on earth can this be?”

For us, the categories we inherit from our culture begin as useful file folders, allowing us to classify what we see and enabling us to understand new things. Yet they represent an inherent trap. We accept them unreflectively and begin to function within them, rarely questioning the furniture inside them or the boundaries around them. Eventually, those boundaries become the walls of our prison. It never occurs to us that we can leave these little cells.

The author of the Course has approached our categories in an entirely different way. He has willingly stepped inside many of them. He has patterned his Course after an educational course; he has placed his book in the lineage of the Bible; he has conceived a philosophical system; he has designed a psychological system; etc. This may lead one at first to assume that he naturally approves of these categories.

Yet this assumption is soon dispelled. He may use the pattern of an educational course, but he has deep criticisms of education as we know it. He may pattern his book after the Bible and use biblical terms, but he offers sweeping corrections for biblical passages, biblical concepts, and the entire biblical tradition. He may have conceived a philosophical system, but he makes withering statements about the normal methods, goals, and results of philosophy. He may have designed his own system of psychology, but he claims that the entire enterprise of psychology is controlled by our core psychological disease: the ego.

In other words, every time he steps into one of our categories, he redesigns it. He throws out the old furniture and, most importantly, knocks out the walls. As a result, its little cell becomes connected to other cells that had seemed forever cordoned off. An educational course becomes a path of spiritual enlightenment. An inspired scripture becomes a work of systematic philosophy. A psychological system becomes an artistic masterpiece. Nine little cells become one large, airy room.

How can this be? My only explanation is that the Course came from a mind much larger than our own, a mind that transcends all our separate little categories, a mind that does not partition life into the little fenced-off parcels that we have. Instead, this mind sees a grander vista, filled with connections, with streams that flow right through all our property lines. In short, this mind seems to be exactly what the Course implies about the mind of its author: a mind without limits.

Yet, even though the author’s mind transcends our categories, he is fully willing to work within them in order to reach us. They are not his categories. He does not live inside them and obey their fences. But he knows what I said at the beginning of this article, that familiar categories are useful tools for reaching the human mind. And so, even though these are not his categories, he uses them as a way to reach our minds.

And when he uses them, he is a master at them. Even though he does not think highly of human culture, he is a master at using its forms. From what I can see, everything he tries his hand at is masterful. His logic is impeccable. His artistry is breathtaking. His psychological observations hit home. His practical instruction works. Everything he touches carries the mark of his mastery.

As I contemplate all this, I naturally think of God. This is how I imagine God would be if He were to express Himself in our world (which, according to the Course, He does through the Holy Spirit and Jesus). His Mind, in Its boundlessness, must transcend the little mental boxes we have built up through human culture. He could never fit into our tiny compartments. Yet He would gladly use our boxes, our cultural forms, if by doing so He could reach us in a way that we could understand. Being God, He would of course be a master at using these forms. Yet as their master He would creatively redesign them to suit His purposes. And He would do all this simply because He wanted to reach us, to “kiss us through the dark,” as a poet once said. In my opinion, A Course in Miracles is an instance of Him doing just that.


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