[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
Jesus of Nazareth is arguably the most influential man to have ever lived. Through a ministry that may have lasted as little as a year and consisted primarily of preaching in rural villages, he managed to change the world forever. Today, a third of the world’s population claim to be his followers.
In the last twenty-five years, a new pocket of people who claim to follow him has arisen. These people, however, relate to him not so much as the man from Nazareth, but rather as the non-physical author of A Course in Miracles. We students of the Course (at least most of us) believe a remarkable thing: that Jesus made inner contact with a Jewish psychologist named Helen Schucman in New York City in 1965 and dictated to her a 1,200—page book of his teachings.
Given this belief, it is curious that most of us do not show much interest in the historical Jesus. After all, the Course presents itself as being a continuation of the mission he began back then.1 As such, it makes literally hundreds of references to his teachings, and also speaks openly about his life, his miracles, and especially his crucifixion and resurrection. There is even a strong basis for believing that the author of the Course wants his students to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Early in the dictation of the Course, he repeatedly told Helen, his scribe, that she had been forgiven, a statement she apparently found hard to swallow. He then gave her a way to evaluate the truth of it: He said she had every right to examine his credentials, and urged her to do so by reading the Bible.2
I myself have been mesmerized by the Course’s claim that it was written by Jesus. I have always felt, even after leaving the Lutheran church, that there was something supremely important about Jesus. I felt that even if Christianity got a great deal wrong, it was still right in believing that the person of Jesus carries paramount significance for our world. This has led me to search for anything that promises to tell me something about the real person, the figure hidden beneath the cloud of traditional (or contemporary) myths and legends about Jesus Christ.
And this has led me to the door of the Jesus scholars, professional historians who have been on a search for the real, historical Jesus for over two hundred years. I find the work of these scholars to be absolutely fascinating. Their goal is to discover only what the historical evidence tells us about Jesus. It is, of course, extremely difficult to achieve this kind of objectivity, but I find even the attempt illuminating and inspiring.
Jesus scholarship has not produced a unified portrait of Jesus. There are many things that scholars generally agree on, but on this common base a variety of different portraits have arisen. My favorite portrait is the one painted by Marcus Borg, one of the leading contemporary Jesus scholars. He wrote the popular Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,3 along with a number of other books, my favorite being Jesus: A New Vision,4 in which he lays out his complete portrait of Jesus.
There are many things I greatly appreciate about Borg, not the least of which are his clarity and his honest cast of mind. Perhaps what most sets him apart from other scholars is that he sees Jesus through the lens of a different worldview. Most Jesus scholars seem to assume the modern scientific worldview in which matter is the final word, miracles are impossible, and religious experiences do not disclose reality. This, of course, dramatically shapes how one approaches a figure like Jesus. Borg, on the other hand, openly admits that he sees Jesus through the lens of “the primordial tradition” — a term coined by Huston Smith (another favorite of mine), author of the best-selling The World’s Religions5 (formerly The Religions of Man6). The primordial tradition (similar to what Aldous Huxley called the “perennial philosophy”) is said to be the common core of the world’s religious traditions. It is based on the idea that the material realm is only the bottom level of a multi-leveled reality at the top of which lies Spirit, and that this spiritual realm can be directly known through religious experience.
When one views Jesus through this lens, one that I personally believe is far more appropriate than the modern scientific lens, a remarkable thing happens. He comes out looking a great deal less like the Jesus we grew up with in church, and a great deal more like the author of A Course in Miracles. At points, the correspondences seem to me to be nothing short of amazing.
Those correspondences are what I would like to explore in this article. I will attempt to answer the question, “How similar (or different) are these two visions of Jesus, that of Marcus Borg and that of A Course in Miracles?” I’ll follow the outline Borg uses in Jesus: A New Vision, to make sure my biases don’t leave out any major chunks of his picture. At each point along the way, I’ll first present an aspect of Borg’s portrait and then say how that aspect compares or contrasts with the Course’s. I’ll conclude the article with a joint portrait, one that is true from both Borg’s perspective and the Course’s.
You might well ask what purpose this serves. In my mind, it serves several. By learning more about the historical Jesus, I feel I can better understand this person I claim to be following. By learning about the Course’s roots (in the ministry and person of Jesus of Nazareth), I feel that I can more fully understand the Course. By examining the parallels between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the Course, I can more intelligently decide if, in fact, the two figures are really one and the same. And, if they are the same person, then by looking at him from these two separate angles, I can gain a kind of binocular vision, affording me a far clearer view of this ever-beautiful and entrancing figure.
The popular image of Jesus
We are all familiar with the popular image of Jesus. According to this image, he was the only begotten Son of God, sent into the world to die for our sins and thus make possible our reconciliation with God. His message was primarily about himself and his role in salvation. He asked his hearers to believe in him.
Borg reports that “a bedrock conclusion of mainstream New Testament scholarship”7 is that this image is not true. Scholars concluded this because, long ago, they noticed two very different portraits of Jesus in the Gospels themselves. One flows from the Gospel of Mark (and from there into Matthew and Luke). There, Jesus’ message is not about his own exalted identity, but about the Kingdom of God. The other is found in the Gospel of John. There, we meet a Jesus whose message is about himself. He is constantly saying things like, “I am the resurrection and the life,” “I am the bread of life,” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Clearly, both of these portraits can’t be true — either Jesus’ preaching was about himself or it wasn’t. Therefore, scholars had to ask which portrait was more historical. The overwhelming consensus is that it was Mark’s. This meant that, in their assessment, Jesus did not teach that he was the Son of God sent to earth to die for our sins.
In striking agreement with mainstream scholarship, the Course almost completely rejects the popular image of Jesus. It takes pains to emphasize that Jesus is not fundamentally different than the rest of us — is not the unique Son of God. Instead, quite simply, he “was a man [who] remembered God.”8 Also, the Course repeatedly and emphatically rejects the notion that Jesus died for our sins, saying things such as, “I was not ‘punished’ because you were bad.”9 Finally, the message of the author of the Course is not about himself and his exalted role. He does not call for belief in himself as the means of salvation. In fact, he says remarkably little about himself. By my count, less than 4% of the Course’s words can be construed as the author speaking about himself, and most of that is devoted to either trying to clear up traditional misconceptions about himself or offering to help us on the challenging journey of relinquishing our ego.
Jesus as spirit person
At the center of Borg’s portrait of Jesus is that he was a “spirit person,” which is Borg’s term for what has traditionally been called a “holy man.” Borg prefers “spirit person,” which is not confined to one gender, and which emphasizes the central point: experiential contact with the realm of Spirit. A spirit person not only experiences this other realm, he or she becomes a mediator of it, someone through whom the Spirit can flow into this world.
By calling Jesus a spirit person, Borg is saying that Jesus was not a divine being sent to earth, but a human being with unusually close contact with the world of Spirit. We can see this contact by looking at Jesus’ life. He had a vision at his baptism. Soon after, he went into the desert on what “a cultural anthropologist would recognize immediately as a wilderness ordeal or vision quest, characteristic of spirit persons.”10 He spent long hours in solitary prayer, which Borg believes was deep, wordless prayer and which nowadays would be called meditation. He called God Abba, the equivalent of “Papa,” which Borg believes reflects an experiential intimacy that Jesus felt with God. He spoke with an authority that came not from the quoting of Scripture, but “is best understood as flowing out of his spiritual experience.”11 All in all, “his life and mission were marked by an intense experiential relationship to the Spirit.”12
Though using different words, the Course characterizes Jesus in the same way Borg does: as one of us, an equal, who had an unusual degree of experiential contact with God. The author says little about himself directly, making it hard to glean many claims about his purported life as Jesus. However, he does say that as a man he achieved what the Course calls “true perception,” a state of mind in which one perceives everyone and everything as radiant with divine glory13, in which one sees “the face of Christ in all his brothers.”14This, by any standards, is an extraordinarily altered state of consciousness. And this, says the author of the Course, allowed him to ultimately pass into the condition of knowledge, a state of mystical union in which the distinction between subject and object disappears.
Perhaps this explains the remarkable authority with which he speaks in the Course, something that Course students often remark about, and which its scribe, Helen Schucman, did also:
Nor did I understand the calm but impressive authority with which the Voice dictated. It was largely because of the strangely compelling nature of this authority that I refer to the Voice with a capital “V”….The particular combination of certainty, wisdom, gentleness, clarity and patience that characterized the Voice makes that form of reference seem perfectly appropriate.15
In addition to presenting himself as a spirit person (to use Borg’s term), the author is clearly training his students to be spirit persons, using, among other things, techniques of wordless meditation. He seeks to train them to experience and extend miracles, to experience holy instants (instants in which one shifts into a higher state of mind), to hear the Holy Spirit’s Voice, and to have moments of revelation (the Course’s term for mystical union).
Jesus as charismatic healer
Borg says that “on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.”16 The image of Jesus as “wonder-worker” is not only found throughout the earliest sources, it was not even challenged by his opponents. They acknowledged that he demonstrated healing powers; they just challenged where those powers came from. In fact, to his contemporaries those powers were “the most remarkable thing about him.”17 Indeed, “more healing stories are told about him than about anybody else in the Jewish tradition.”18
While most scholars seem to believe that Jesus only healed psychosomatic illnesses through psychological influence, Borg sees Jesus’ healings as a product of genuine spiritual power flowing through him. This appears to mean that Borg sees Jesus’ healings as inexplicable within the modern scientific worldview. His main point, however, is that Jesus as healer was a direct result of Jesus as spirit person. In other words, his contact with the world of Spirit was the source of his ability to heal. “His powers were charismatic, the result of his having become a channel for the power of the other realm.”19
The Jesus of the Course sees being a healer as central to how he lived while on earth and to the path he now teaches. He mentions that, as a man, he healed the sick20 and raised the dead.21 He also hopes to train his followers — via his course — to demonstrate similar abilities. Indeed, the title A Course in Miracles is meant to signify that this is a course whereby the author will teach us to do what he did. Its opening section implies this by saying, “Miracles enable you to heal the sick and raise the dead.”22 One can almost hear the unspoken “just as I did.” Therefore, in the same way that Jesus (according to the Gospels) sent his disciples out to be healers, so the author of the Course wants his students to be the same.
Their healing is meant to flow from their inner connection with the Spirit (just as Borg said was true of Jesus). According to the Course, a magical healer uses hidden powers of the mind to manipulate the physical world, while a true miracle worker allows the Holy Spirit to flow through his mind to others.
The most problematic thing about this aspect of Borg’s portrait is Jesus’ role as exorcist, which Borg regards as historically true. The concept of demon-possession is completely foreign to the Course’s thought system, which claims that no outside power — including other people and worldly events — can truly control our minds. The Course, however, does speak of the human ego in terms that are reminiscent of demon possession — as something diametrically opposed to God, which apparently “possesses” our minds23 and controls our thoughts and actions. It even sees the concept of the devil as nothing more than our own ego, projected outward and seen as a cosmic being.24 Yet, however much the ego may seem to be an independent force within us, provoking us to do bad things against our will, the Course is very clear that it is merely a belief, a veiled product of our own power of choice.25
Could this provide a common ground between Jesus’ exorcisms and the Course? Jesus, as portrayed by the Gospels, was healing people’s minds of demon possession. Significantly, the main focus in the Course is the healing of the mind, not the body. Further, the Course equates the healing of the mind with the relinquishment of ego. One could say, therefore, that the calling of the Course-based healer is to heal people’s minds of “ego-possession,” to relieve them of their own freely chosen inner demons. Perhaps this is how Jesus saw what he was doing in his exorcisms — healing minds that were hopelessly “possessed” by their own “demonic” egos, dispelling “evil” psychological patterns, rather than evil spirits.26 This may be too much of a stretch, but it does strike me as an interesting possibility.
Jesus as teacher of wisdom
Here is where the parallels between Borg’s Jesus and the Course’s Jesus get really interesting. When I first started reading Jesus scholarship, what caught my eye — because of its consonance with the Course — was the scholarly conclusion that Jesus presented himself as a teacher of wisdom, as opposed to the dying and rising God-man. Borg has developed this notion of Jesus as teacher in a way that is even more consonant with the Course. Because of the importance of this category, I will devote more attention to it than the other ones, breaking it up into several smaller sections.
Borg begins by saying that Jesus was not a teacher of correct beliefs (“believe that Jesus died for your sins”) or right morals (“act like this in the world and you will be a good person”). “Rather, he was a teacher of a way or path, specifically a way of transformation.”27 This way overturned conventional wisdom (society’s idea of what is good and right, of the way people ought to live) and stood for a radically different way. We will look at this way shortly.
First, let’s look at the forms of teaching that Jesus used and how he used them. Borg says, “Rather than appealing to sacred text [the Hebrew scriptures] or citing opinions of earlier teachers, he most often appealed to the world of human experience or made observations about nature.”28 In other words, rather than resting his claims on some outside authority, he made a direct appeal to his hearers’ powers of observation, reason, and imagination — to their minds’ innate ability to see.
According to Borg, Jesus made masterful use of language. “Jesus’ verbal gifts were remarkable.”29 His teachings primarily took the forms of parables and aphorisms. Aphorisms are short, memorable sayings (e.g., “Can a blind person lead a blind person? Will they not both fall into a pit?”30). Borg calls them “great one-liners.” Parables, of course, are short stories. We are all familiar with these forms of teaching, but what modern scholarship has uncovered is the particular function these forms had in the hands of Jesus:
They are invitational forms of speech. Jesus used them to invite his hearers to see something they might not otherwise see. As evocative forms of speech, they tease the imagination into activity, suggest more than they say, and invite a transformation in perception.31
As part of transforming our perception, Jesus’ teachings often reverse the way we see things now. They contain paradoxical combinations. For example, since mustard is a weed, comparing the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed meant the Kingdom is like a weed. They also contain striking reversals, which overturn our conventional expectations: “the poor are blessed, the first are last and the last first, the humble exalted and the exalted humbled.”32 Such sayings turn upside down our ordinary way of seeing things.
Indeed, Borg says that Jesus’ penchant for reversing and transforming our perception is our single most certain piece of information about him:
Rather strikingly, the most certain thing we know about Jesus according to the current scholarly consensus is that he was a teller of stories and a speaker of great one-liners whose purpose was the transformation of perception. At the center of his message was an invitation to see differently.33
I think it would be difficult for anyone knowledgeable about A Course in Miracles to read the above information and not be taken aback. Most of it reads like a description of the Course.
To begin with, the Jesus of the Course presents himself, not as the sacrificial lamb who died for our sins, but as a teacher of “a way of transformation.” Indeed, the title of his work is a synonym for this phrase. A “course” is a “way” (my thesaurus gives “way” as the very first synonym for “course”), and, in Course terminology, the purpose of “miracles” is to effect inner transformation. Therefore, A Course in Miracles could aptly be retitled, A Way of Transformation.
Further, what it wants to transform is our perception. Its stated goal is “to train your mind in a systematic way to a different perception of everyone and everything in the world.”34 The Course sees its function as similar to the Holy Spirit’s, Whom it calls at one point, “the Great Transformer of perception.”35 Like the Holy Spirit, the Course seeks to lead us along the way (“way” is probably the Course’s favorite word for the path it lays out36) from false perception to true perception. In fact, the purpose of the Course’s miracles is specifically to transform perception: “A miracle inverts perception which was upside down before.”37
The above quote mentions a central characteristic of the Course: reversal. The Course repeatedly says that its purpose is to reverse our current perception, for what we call normal perception is, in fact, upside down. The Course wants to turn it right-side up. The Course says the same thing about thought, since perception, being an interpretation, is the product of thought: “It cannot be too strongly emphasized that this course aims at a complete reversal of thought.”38
One can say, therefore, that the teachings of the Course are simply a long string of reversals of the way we think, the way we perceive. At every point along the way, the Course seeks “to reverse the thinking of the world entirely.”39 One could choose thousands of examples in which the Course overturns “the thinking of the world” (its phrase for conventional wisdom). Here are just a few:
In my defenselessness my safety lies.40
To have, give all to all.41
Here again is the paradox often referred to in the course. To say, “Of myself I can do nothing” is to gain all power.42
As you can see, this habit of reversal results in paradoxical combinations that rattle our brains. Defenselessness makes me safe? Giving everything away results in having? To admit I am powerless is to gain all power?
The entire Course, therefore, is an invitation to see differently. Words are its only instrument, but it makes masterful use of them (reminiscent of Borg’s claim that “Jesus’ verbal gifts were remarkable”). It doesn’t use the same forms of speech that the historical Jesus did. There are no parables in the Course, and while there are hundreds of great one-liners (transpersonal psychologists Roger Walsh and Frances Vaughan devoted a series of books to them43), they are embedded in the longer discourses which are the Course’s characteristic form of teaching. Yet, I don’t think this difference in form poses a problem. The historical Jesus was an oral teacher speaking primarily to first-century peasants. The Jesus of the Course is communicating in writing to modern educated Westerners. In my mind, such a change in setting would naturally result in different forms of teaching. If you really want to transform the perception of your audience, you must reach them where they are at.
Within this difference in form, however, there is a consistency of approach. Just like the historical Jesus, the author of the Course does not rest his claims on any outside authority. He does not cite other teachers. He often quotes the Bible, but not to hitchhike on its venerable authority; rather, he comments on the Bible as if he were standing above it, having the right to correct and reinterpret it at will. Yet, even though he clearly sees himself in a place of ultimate authority (after all, he is claiming to be Jesus), he doesn’t use that authority to coerce the reader into accepting his teachings.44 Instead, like the historical Jesus, he makes a direct appeal to the reader’s ability to see — to see the logic and practicality of his teaching, to sense the truth in it, and to experience its positive results. His appeal is to something inside the reader, not to external authorities.
- Jesus’ Image of Reality
Borg says that Jesus’ teaching “revolved around three great themes: an image of reality that challenged the image created by conventional wisdom; a diagnosis of the human condition [the disease]; and the proclamation of a way of transformation [the cure].”45 I will treat each of these three one at a time, beginning with the first one.
To begin with, in keeping with the primordial tradition, Jesus “saw reality as ultimately Spirit (and not ultimately material), that is, that the ‘final word’ about reality was God.”46 On this, he agreed with his contemporaries, who also saw reality this way. Where he parted company with them was in believing that reality, or God, was “ultimately gracious and compassionate.”47
The image of God as gracious abounds in the Old Testament. Yet conventional wisdom had distorted this into a different image of God: a God of rewards and punishments, Who rewarded the righteous and punished the sinner. Borg says that this is what the conventional wisdom of every age does. He points out that “the notion of reward for following the ‘authorized path’ and of punishment for deviating seems almost to be a ‘cultural universal.'”48 This “cultural universal” naturally sees God in its own image, envisioning God as a judge whose standards must be met or else.
Those standards, in first-century Judaism, revolved around the concept of holiness, understood as separation from the impure. God was holy, meaning God was separate from the impure. To be like God, therefore, to be righteous, meant keeping yourself separate from impure objects, behaviors, and people. If you could manage this, God would reward you. If you would not separate yourself from the impure, God would separate Himself from you!
Jesus’ vision of God was radically different. Rather than holiness, he saw God’s defining quality as compassion. Interestingly, the word Jesus used to speak of compassion is most literally translated as “womb-like” or “wombish.” To Jesus, God is like a womb: nourishing, life-giving, embracing.
We see this compassionate character of God throughout Jesus’ teaching. Think of his statements about how God will take care of us just as He feeds the birds of the air and clothes the grass of the field,49 or how “God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust.”50 Think of the joyous response of the father (a symbol for God) to the return of the prodigal son. Jesus saw a God Who does not make demands and then punish and exclude when those demands aren’t met. He saw a God Who lavishes His generosity on everyone alike, including the sinner. He saw an inclusive God, a God Who doesn’t separate Himself from the impure, but instead embraces all, even the outcasts.
According to Borg, such images of ultimate reality profoundly affect how we live. If we see reality as judge, then our primary response to life will be the effort to preserve ourselves in the face of threat. “But if we see reality as supportive and nourishing, then another response to life becomes possible: trust.”51
The Course’s teaching falls into the same three great themes: its vision of ultimate reality; its diagnosis of the human condition, or the problem; and its way of salvation, or the answer. This three-fold division, in fact, is so basic to the Course that virtually all Course students are familiar with it, through a number of triads that form the overall structure of its system:
the waking state
the real world
the happy dream
the Holy Spirit
As with the historical Jesus, we’ll first cover the Course’s image of reality.
Here we have both difference and similarity. Whereas the historical Jesus saw spirit, not matter, as the final word on reality, the Jesus of the Course has stretched this contrast to its limits. He sees spirit as the only word on reality. In the Course, the realm of spirit is not simply more real than the physical world — it is the only reality. The physical world is an illusion, a bad dream, a cosmic nightmare.
Borg believes that Jesus’ world-denying teaching was a denial of the principles which dominate human culture, but not a denial of the innate goodness of the natural world, which Borg thinks Jesus believed in.52 The Course, on the other hand, sees essentially the same dark principles at work in both human culture and nature, even though it calls us to be a constructive participant in the world (as Jesus was), rather than withdraw from it.
Thus, in Borg’s eyes, the historical Jesus would disagree with the Course’s assertion that spirit is the only reality. However, on the issue of the character of spirit or God, there is no such disagreement. Borg’s contrast between a judgmental God of rewards and punishments and a loving, gracious, and all-inclusive God is, for the Course, the whole crux of the matter. The Course continually emphasizes a God Who is pure embrace and pure inclusion, a God of lavish generosity. It is utterly impossible, says the Course, that “His Love could harbor just a hint of hate, His gentleness turn sometimes to attack, and His eternal patience sometimes fail.”53 This view of the character of God is, in my view, the bedrock on which the entire Course rests. This, in fact, is why the Course says the world must be an illusion. If this world of suffering and death were real, it says, “God would be cruel.”54
Being so foundational, this view of God is present, explicitly or implicitly, on every page of the Course. I’ll provide just two examples. At one point, the Course speaks of us coming to God, admitting we’ve been mistaken, and asking Him to teach us. Such an act may evoke fear of facing His anger, which the Course alleviates with the following words (which contain an allusion to the parable of the prodigal son):
Would [God] hurt His Son [referring to us]? Or would He rush to answer him, and say, “This is My Son, and all I have is his”? Be certain He will answer thus, for these are His Own Words to you.55
Another passage speaks of our guilt and self-judgment in legal language, calling it the case we have built against ourselves. We fear to appeal our case to God’s “Higher Court,” thinking its judgment against us will be even more severe than our own. Yet the truth is,56 Imagine coming before God, terrified of His judgment on you, only to hear Him say, “You are My Son, and all I have is yours,” or, “My verdict will always be: Thine is the Kingdom” (which is particularly powerful considering that God is saying to us something that we are used to saying to Him). If you really do imagine that, you will probably sense some of the power in this image of God. How wonderful it would be to expect to meet the God of judgment and vengeance, and instead find ourselves embraced by the God of pure Love.
There is a great deal of overt and implied criticism of traditional Christianity in the Course, and almost all of it revolves around the issue of the character of God. The Course’s main objection to traditional Christianity is that, although it portrays a God of love, it also depicts a God Who punishes and excludes, and Who should thus be feared. For example:
If the crucifixion is seen from an upside-down point of view, it does appear as if God permitted and even encouraged one of His Sons to suffer because he was good. This particularly unfortunate interpretation, which arose out of projection, has led many people to be bitterly afraid of God. Such anti-religious concepts enter into many religions. Yet the real Christian should pause and ask, “How could this be?”…Can you believe our Father really thinks this way?57
It seems, then, that the Jesus of the Course criticizes Christianity for the same reason that Jesus of Nazareth took issue with first-century Judaism: because of the emphasis on a God who punishes.
These images of God do make a difference in our lives. The entire Course is built on the notion that our root image of ultimate reality profoundly shapes our response to life (which Borg also says).58 According to the Course, if we believe in a judgmental God, our response to life will be one of fear (Borg mentions self-preservation, which, obviously, is a fear-based stance). If, however, we truly and deeply believe in a God of Love, then our response (just as Borg says) will be one of trust. We will be able to meet “all things, events, encounters and circumstances”59 with trust, knowing that we are safe in the Hands of a loving God. This trust is so central for the Course that it labels it the foundational character trait of the spiritually and psychologically mature.60
- The Disease: The Broad Way
The world’s great sages have generally spoken of two ways, which might be called the diagnosis and the cure. Jesus spoke of the broad way and the narrow way. The broad way — the way he spoke out against — was not the abyss of antisocial evil. Rather, it was the way of conventional wisdom. Strangely enough, what Jesus criticized was the way of decent, model citizens.
Borg says that Jesus took aim at “the four central concerns of conventional wisdom in Jesus’ time…family, wealth, honor, and religion.”61 Family, back then, was the primary social and economic unit, the basis for one’s social identity and financial security. “Yet many of Jesus’ most radical sayings call for a break with the family or familial obligations.”62 Wealth was seen as a blessing from God, a sign that one had lived right.
Yet Jesus criticized wealth as a consuming preoccupation that competed with devotion to God and therefore amounted to idolatry.63 Honor — one’s social status and the regard to which that status entitles one — was a central value in Jesus’ society. “Much behavior was therefore dictated by the desire to acquire, preserve, or display honor. But Jesus ridiculed its pursuit, mocking those who sought the places of honor at a banquet, the best seats in the synagogue, or salutations in the marketplace.”64Religion was the most important of the four. Because religion was so central in that culture, if you lived up to its expectations, your culture would confer on you both security and an honorable identity. “Yet some of the most shocking words in the gospels were directed at religious beliefs and practices.”65
In all of this decent, honorable, culturally-approved behavior, Jesus saw a preoccupation with the self, a self filled with anxiety, fixated on its own concerns, and striving to protect its own well-being. This is especially clear in his parables, which are filled with anxious characters nervously pursuing their own security, and doing so through the avenues offered by their conventional world. Borg concludes:
To use a word which Jesus did not use himself, Jesus saw people as profoundly “selfish”….The primary allegiances cultivated by conventional wisdom [family, wealth, honor, religion] are ultimately pursued for the sake of the self in order that it might find a secure “home” in them.66
Anyone familiar with the Course knows that it, too, lays out two diametrically opposed ways, which we could call the diagnosis and the cure, and which the Course often calls the problem and the answer. Just as with the historical Jesus, the problem is our conventional way of being. In the Course’s vision, the normally decent becomes the pitifully selfish. Conventional giving is revealed as “giving to get.”67 Conventional forgiveness is seen as “forgiveness-to-destroy.”68 Conventional justice is labeled “vengeance.”69 Conventional gratitude, based on being better off than others, is called “thanks because of suffering.”70 The list could go on and on.
In criticizing our conventional way of being, the Course takes unrelenting aim at the chief features of what we call the good life. Strikingly, the four things we examined above — family, wealth, honor, and religion — all have parallels in major teachings of the Course. Let’s look at those now.
Family, in the first-century, was a set of social relationships from which the self could derive identity and security. The Course has coined a term for such relationships. It calls them special relationships, a term which includes all those friendly relationships from which we seek to gain a positive identity, especially romantic relationships. (One wonders if in our day the romantic has replaced the familial as the most important kind of relationship.) Our culture sees special relationships as life’s greatest prize, yet the Course sees them as “the ego’s chief weapon for keeping you from Heaven.”71 It sees them as filled with hidden hate, as “angry alliances”72 in which we seek to enhance our own identity by subtly taking from our partner.
The historical Jesus’ emphasis on wealth is paralleled in the Course by its teaching on idols, those things in the world, such as money and possessions, which we think will make us happy. The mere act of calling them “idols” tells us a great deal about how the Course views them: as substitutes for God, false gods to which we pray (for happiness), but which cannot hear or answer our prayers, being nothing but mindless pieces of matter.
The historical Jesus’ criticism of honor is mirrored in the Course’s searing treatment of specialness. Honor and specialness, of course, are very close in meaning — they both refer to having a special standing that entitles us to the approval and regard of others. Whereas being special is an unquestioned blessing in our culture, the Course sees it as an attack, for, by definition, it depends on someone else being less special than you are, “so that your specialness can live on his defeat.”73
Finally, the historical Jesus’ criticism of the religion of his day is paralleled in the Course’s criticism of traditional Christianity. The Course shares deep commonalities with Christianity, yet it often speaks of popular Christian understandings of God, Jesus, atonement, sin, guilt, and hell as clear examples of the ego’s thought system.74 At one point the author of the Course calls “formal religion” a product of the ego and an oxymoron75 — implying that religion which emphasizes strictly prescribed forms and ceremony is not real religion at all.
The ego, in the Course’s view, is the culprit lurking behind all of these scenes, in each case trying to get something for itself. The ego is a view of ourselves as separate from everyone and everything else, “alone in all the universe.”76 Along with the sense that “I am me and you are not” comes the corresponding notion that I am important and you are not, and that I am end and you are means. At the heart of the ego, therefore, is the idea of attack, which is the attempt to serve my needs at the expense of yours. Thus, like the historical Jesus, the Course’s Jesus views people (to use Borg’s phrase) as “profoundly ‘selfish.'” And just as Jesus saw anxiety as the essence of our condition, the Course sees fear as the fundamental human mood.
- The Cure: The Narrow Way of Transformation
According to Borg, Jesus used three different images to describe the cure: a new heart, centering in God, and the way of death.
In ancient Jewish psychology, Borg points out, the “heart” did not merely denote the “home” of feelings. It referred to the center of the self, the core from which flowed one’s thought and behavior. Jesus likened it to a fruit tree, saying that a good heart, just like a good tree, would naturally produce good fruit. If, however, you are a bad tree, there is no use in trying to fix things on the level of the fruit — the level of behavior. After all, one can continue to be selfish even while mimicking the right behaviors. The only solution was to become a new kind of tree, to get a new heart. Therefore, all of the focus in Jesus’ teachings was on “where your heart is,” not on merely obeying a behavioral code. We see this focus in sayings such as, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from God,”77 and, “Cleanse the inside, and behold everything is clean.”78
According to Jesus, the character of the heart was determined by where it placed its loyalty. There were two centers that competed for this loyalty: God and the world. This contrast shows up in sayings such as “No one can serve God and mammon [wealth],”79 and, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”80 Borg says that centering one’s heart in God was central to Judaism, but to see the conventional concerns of the day — family, wealth, honor, and religion — as rival centers, competing with being centered in God, was radical. It meant that placing real faith in God (a major theme in Jesus’ teaching) involves withdrawing our faith in those conventional concerns. It meant grounding ourselves in God at the deepest level, so that we look to God for the sense of identity and security which we normally hope that society will provide.
But how does one become this deeply centered in God? Jesus’ answer, according to Borg, was: by following the path of death. He said, “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.”81 This was clearly an internal death, a death of the heart that is centered in the self and in the world. This heart must be surrendered, let go, so that a radical transformation can take place, and a new heart arise, one centered in God. This change is so dramatic that it is like one’s old self dying and being born again as a new self.
Borg emphasizes, though, that this should not be thought of as a new demand made by God. “Rather, [Jesus’] challenge is an invitation to see things as they really are — namely, at the heart of everything is a reality that is in love with us.”82 Thus, even though this way is narrow, it is also the easy way, as we see in this famous saying of Jesus’: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”83
Again the parallels with the Course are striking. In Borg’s picture of Jesus, the central movement is from a self that is selfishly trying to grab security and identity from the world, to a self that lets go and receives security and identity as free gifts from God. This movement is absolutely central to the Course, so central that, rather than choosing examples from all over (there are just too many) I’ve decided to focus on just one: Lesson 50, “I am sustained by the Love of God.” This lesson opens by speaking of our belief that we are sustained by the world:
In this world, you believe you are sustained by everything but God. Your faith is placed in the most trivial and insane symbols; pills, money, “protective” clothing, influence, prestige, being liked, knowing the “right” people, and an endless list of forms of nothingness that you endow with magical powers.84
It then says, pointedly, “All these things are your replacements for the Love of God.”85 A bit later it speaks of the only thing that can truly sustain us:
Only the Love of God will protect you in all circumstances. It will lift you out of every trial, and raise you high above all the perceived dangers of this world into a climate of perfect peace and safety. It will transport you into a state of mind that nothing can threaten, nothing can disturb, and where nothing can intrude upon the eternal calm of the Son of God.86
It then goes on to speak of the very thing that Borg mentions, withdrawing our faith — our trust and reliance — in things of the world and placing it in God:
Put not your faith in illusions. They will fail you. Put all your faith in the Love of God within you; eternal, changeless and forever unfailing.87
A Course in Miracles doesn’t call this finding a new heart, since “heart” is not a term in its system. It prefers to speak of the “mind” and draws no distinction between the mind and the heart.88 So, rather than finding a new heart, the Course speaks of accepting a new thought system. In the Course, our thought system lies buried far below our formal beliefs, and consists of our foundational beliefs about self, others, and reality. Like the “heart” in the teachings of Jesus, it is the source of our thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and behavior. And just as Jesus implied that you cannot change the tree by hanging different fruit on it, so the Course emphasizes that “you cannot change your mind by altering your behavior.”89 The entire focus in the Course is on inward change. Change the cause, teaches the Course, and the effects will change automatically.
How does one achieve such an inner transformation? The historical Jesus said that the self-centered and world-centered self must be let go of, must die. A Course in Miracles speaks of an equally radical change, saying that the ego — the self we think we are — must be relinquished. The Course carefully avoids calling this a death, however, not wanting to reinforce our fear that this letting go spells just that. In private comments to his scribes, the author of the Course approvingly quoted the gospel idea that “in dying you live” and added, “But be sure you understand what this means.”90 He then explained that this “death” is really the giving up of death.91
This relinquishment, in other words, is actually the doorway to life. As such, (as Borg says about the teachings of Jesus) it should not be seen as a demand, but as an offer, an invitation to accept the gift that is always held out to us. Because it is the gift of freedom and release, the Jesus of the Course, just as did the Jesus of history, calls his way “an easy path,”92 saying it is arranged “in easy steps that lead you gently from one to another, with no strain at all.”93
Jesus as movement founder
This is one of the most interesting aspects of Borg’s portrait. He claims that Jesus was not merely concerned with the individual, but with his people as a whole. Scholars agree that Jesus did not start the Christian church, but what he did found, according to Borg, was “the Jesus movement,” a revitalization movement whose purpose was no less than the transformation of the Jewish social world. The movement was charismatic, meaning, it was grounded in the spiritual experience of its founder. It was itinerant, meaning, it was a community on the move, going wherever Jesus went. And it was marked by joy and celebration. According to Borg, simply being in the presence of Jesus was a joyous experience — an example of the cross-cultural phenomenon of “a ‘presence’ or ‘zone’ around a holy one which is virtually palpable, which can be ‘felt.'”94
At the heart of Jesus’ alternative community was a different vision of what Israel was meant to be. The imitatio dei (imitation of God) which guided first-century Israel was “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”95 Against this notion, Jesus set his own very different imitatio dei: “Be compassionate, even as your Father is compassionate.”96 This meant that, just as God is life-giving and nourishing towards us, covering us with kindness, embracing us whether we are righteous or sinner, so we should be the same toward others.
This imitatio dei made compassion the guiding belief or spirit of the Jesus movement. We can see this in several of its aspects. One was its demographics. “It included women, untouchables, the poor, the maimed, and the marginalized, as well as some people of stature who found his vision attractive.”97
Another aspect is what Borg calls “banqueting with outcasts,” one of the key features of Jesus’ ministry. In the ancient Near East, eating with someone had a significance that we can scarcely imagine. It signified intimacy and acceptance. It had an even greater significance in first-century Judaism, where, according to the ethos of holiness, the nation’s purity depended on refusing to eat with the impure. In fact, for the Pharisees, the ideal Israel was symbolized by the perfectly pure meal, from which everyone and everything that could potentially defile it had been excluded.98
Thus, by sharing meals with outcasts, Jesus was making a revolutionary public statement, one which evoked outcries found all over the gospels. To dine with a holy man meant to be accepted by God. He was thus performing what Jesus scholars have called a “parabolic action,” an enacted parable, which provided a very different symbol for the ideal Israel. This symbol said that Israel was meant to be an inclusive community, in which everyone, including the outcast, was embraced by God, in which everyone was part of the celebration. For a holy man to make this statement “was to challenge and threaten the central ordering principle of the Jewish social world: the division between purity and impurity.”99
Another remarkable feature of the Jesus movement was his association with women. In Jesus’ culture, women were nobodies who had few of the rights of men. They could not be witnesses in court and were not to be taught the Torah. Respectable women did not go out of the house unescorted or unveiled. Yet Jesus included women in his group, traveled with them, and even treated them as his disciples. “In a time when a respectable sage was not even to converse with a woman outside of his family, and when women were viewed as both dangerous and inferior, the practice of Jesus was startling.”100
In summary, Borg says, “Jesus sought to transform his social world by creating an alternative community structured around compassion, with norms that moved in the direction of inclusiveness, acceptance, love, and peace.”101
The social vision of the Course, though not generally recognized, is just as radical as the rest of the Course’s ideas. It is most fully contained in a series of stylized images found scattered throughout the Course, images which depict ideal social situations. I have written about the overall pattern these images communicate in my article “The Social Vision of A Course in Miracles.”102
This vision is founded on what might be called the Course’s imitatio dei, which is expressed in passages such as this prayer:
You only give. You never take away. And You created me to be like You, so…I, too, must give.103
In other words, “You must only give and never take, because God only gives and never takes.” This is not far from the imitatio dei of the historical Jesus: “Be compassionate, even as your Father is compassionate.”104
On this foundation, the Course builds a social vision which is uncannily similar to what Borg describes as the Jesus movement. It is, of course, not designed as a response to first-century Judaism, but rather to the egoic nature of all human society. Yet, even given this much broader context, one can’t help but notice the parallels. What I want to do now is sketch the Course’s social vision in such a way that we can easily see its parallels with the social vision of the historical Jesus:
Human society is a desert, an environment made harsh by the absence of life-sustaining love. It is a place of separation and exclusion, embodying a way that is the opposite of the Love of God.105 In this godforsaken place, however, there occurs a miracle. One person (the Course speaks of one or two, but I will focus on one since that more closely parallels the situation with Jesus) experiences a holy instant and undergoes an inner shift from hate to love. As a result, he becomes an embodiment of an alternative way, God’s way. The Presence of God enters his mind and establishes around him a “zone” (to use Borg’s word), a special place of refuge within the harshness of the world. The Course calls this zone by many names — garden, home, temple, circle, treasure house — but its chief feature is that, within it, the unforgiving rules of the world have been reversed. In this one place, “The desert becomes a garden, green and deep and quiet.”106
Because this oasis embodies the opposite of the world, rather than being a private club enclosed by walls, its doors are always open wide in welcome. Everyone is invited in. No one is regarded as a stranger. For the whole purpose of the oasis is to offer “rest to those who lost their way in the dust,”107 to be “a temple of healing, a place where all the weary ones can come and rest.”108 The “weary ones” are attracted to it, sensing their healing lies there, and come streaming in. But the founder of this place also actively calls to them,109 and even seeks them out and guides them back to his sanctuary.110
One of the key features of the oasis is that it is an earthly dwelling place of God’s Presence. Thus (as with the Jesus movement), entering into it automatically signifies being accepted by God. All those who feel like outcasts from His Love, who feel “left outside to suffer guilt alone,”111 are asked to come in. Indeed, God Himself reaches out to bring them in: “The power of God draws everyone to its safe embrace of love and union.”112
This alternative community (what else shall we call a grouping of people who embody an alternative way?) is a place of joy and celebration. “Joy is its unifying attribute.”113 In fact, in portraying what I am calling the oasis, the Course twice uses an image of which the historical Jesus would approve: the image of a joyous feast.114 Both of these passages depict a celebratory feast, which is put on by “love,” to which everyone is invited, and at which the guests join with one another and dine with Divinity.115
Finally, this oasis is not meant to remain an island. Its ultimate concern is the healing of the world. It is meant to spread out and transform all of society, as we see in this passage:
And under [love’s] beneficence your little garden will expand, and reach out to everyone who thirsts for living water, but has grown too weary to go on alone .So will it grow and stretch across the desert, leaving no lonely little kingdoms locked away from love, and leaving you inside.116
What I find so striking is that this vision from the Course is quite distinctive, yet its specific aspects and its overall structure are mirrored so very closely in the Jesus movement. Once you allow for the fact that the historical Jesus was responding very specifically to first-century Judaism, the two visions can almost be laid right on top of each other (in my joint portrait later on, I’ll do just that).
Unlike the historical Jesus, the Course itself cannot directly found an alternative community such as we have sketched above. As we saw, this community is organized around a living embodiment of God’s way, and the Course is only a book. But the Course can do the next best thing: It can ask its students to manifest this vision. And that is exactly what it does. In my description above, I have spoken of an unnamed “founder” of the oasis whose inner realization makes it all possible. But that is not how the Course speaks. It always calls “you” — its student — to be that founder.
Jesus as prophet
This is the final aspect of Borg’s portrait. He believes that Jesus was very much like the classical prophets of Israel. They were spirit-filled mouthpieces for God, whose job was not to predict the distant future, but rather to alter their people’s current disastrous course. They indicted their people’s present condition, especially the oppression of the weak by the ruling classes. They warned that if this did not change, God’s judgment would befall them in the form of military conquest. And then they called their people to change their ways, so that this catastrophe could be averted.
Borg says that Jesus followed this same pattern. He indicted his people and their leaders for the politics of holiness, and for the system of domination that oppressed peasants, women, and the “impure.” Further, “Like the prophets before him, he warned that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed by military conquest unless the culture radically changed its direction.”117 In Borg’s view, then, Jesus was not foretelling the fiery end of history, but rather an event within history — the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome (which actually occurred forty years later, in 70 A.D.).
Unlike the other aspects of Borg’s portrait, there really is no parallel for this in the Course (except for those elements that are also found in the aspect of “movement founder”). The Course does indict our world’s current condition as an expression of the ego, and it does call individuals to be agents of change within the world. Its eye never leaves the ultimate goal of the world’s salvation. But the Course still does not fit well with Borg’s “Jesus as prophet” category. For instance, it does not speak to a particular people (one would think that it would be quite natural for Jesus, were he to return, to speak directly to the Christian church, or perhaps the nation of Israel). In fact, it does not speak to collectives at all, only to individuals — those individuals who are reading the book. It does not criticize particular social conditions, but rather the egoic mind-set behind all social ills. It does not address the leaders of our world and call them to change, but, again, aims this call only at its own readers. And it does not warn of impending historical catastrophes (and in this day and age there are many options to choose from). It is impossible to picture the author of the Course saying, for example, “If you people don’t change your ways, you are facing the collapse of the ecosystem.”
In short, rather than speaking to specific conditions, events, individuals, and collectives outside of the reader, the Course always speaks directly to the reader. It speaks of the thought system behind all suffering and urges its readers to renounce that thought system within themselves. It promises that, if they will do so, they will not only free themselves but will help liberate the world as well. In quotes such as this we can see the Course’s deep concern for the salvation of the world: “God’s Voice…asks of everyone one question only: ‘Are you ready yet to help Me save the world?'”118 Yet the Course serves this goal in one way only: by trying to turn its students into agents of a different way of being in the world.
After so many parallels, what do we make of this clear discrepancy? Why such a difference? I see four possible explanations (which apply to any differences we may encounter between these two portraits). First, perhaps Borg is wrong; perhaps the historical Jesus was not a prophet in this sense. Second, maybe the discrepancy comes from the difference in the situation of the two Jesuses. The historical Jesus was a living participant in a culture, while the Jesus of the Course is not. Were the author of the Course to appear as a human being in, say, present-day Israel, is it possible that he would assume something like the classical role of the prophet? I find it somewhat hard to visualize, but I really cannot say. The third possibility is that maybe Jesus has changed since his life in first-century Palestine: Whereas back then he did speak as a prophet, he has since moved beyond the prophet mode. Fourth, perhaps the author of the Course is not the historical Jesus returned to us; maybe he is an aspect of Helen Schucman’s unconscious mind or is some non-physical entity other than Jesus.
All four of these, I think, are within the realm of the possible and deserve open-minded consideration. I don’t know which of them is the answer — it may even be a combination of two or more of them — but I personally lean toward the first two. I don’t see Jesus changing to the degree the third one suggests, and I myself believe (in contrast to the fourth one) that he did write the Course.
Crucifixion and Resurrection
Borg does not believe that Jesus went to Jerusalem in order to die for the sins of the world, although he does think Jesus may well have known that going there would most likely result in his death. But knowing that he might die in Jerusalem is different than having gone there for that purpose. Borg, therefore, doesn’t see some preordained theological purpose in Jesus’ crucifixion. He sees it as what happened to those who tried to introduce change into the social order of that day. Ultimately, says Borg, “The conflict between [Jesus] and his opponents was between two ways of being….One way organizes life around the security of the self and its world….The other way of being organizes life around God.”119 Borg also points out that the manner in which Jesus died was “an incarnation of the way which he taught.”120 He taught us to take up our cross and walk the way of dying to self, and that is how he ended his own life.
As for the resurrection, Borg remains uncertain (and sounds skeptical) that there was an empty tomb, that something out of the ordinary happened to Jesus’ body. He hastens to add that this issue is beside the point. Resurrection is the entry into a higher mode of being, and this does not require a corpse coming back to life. The truth of the resurrection, he says, lies in the fact that “Jesus’ followers continued to experience him as a living reality, and in a new way, namely as having the qualities of God. Now he could be known anywhere…now he was the presence which abided with them.”121 Borg is fond of quoting this line from fellow scholar John Dominic Crossan: “Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens.” This means that the specific story of the two disciples encountering the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus didn’t actually happen, but that the experiential encounter of the living Jesus by his followers continues to happen, from the first Easter until this very day.
The Course has unique perspectives on the crucifixion and resurrection, yet there are some points of contact with Borg’s view. The Course agrees with Borg that Jesus’ death was the product of the clash between two ways of being — Jesus’ way and the conventional way: “The crucifixion was the result of clearly opposed thought systems.”122 It also agrees with Borg that Jesus’ death was an embodiment of the path he taught. However, the Course takes that insight and develops it further. It says that Jesus intended the crucifixion to be a demonstration of his teachings; that was the whole point of it, that was why he entered into it. This demonstration lay not so much in the physical act of taking up his cross and dying (as Borg seems to suggest), but in the way Jesus responded to the events surrounding his death, the way of being he displayed in the midst of those events. During the most extreme temptation to respond with spite and rage and self-defense, he demonstrated that one could still respond in the way that he had taught: with forgiveness and defenselessness. The Course thus sees the crucifixion as a “parabolic action,” an enacted parable of Jesus’ teachings. Borg too believes that Jesus was given to performing dramatic public actions that were, in reality, enacted parables of his teachings (we saw a key example above in Jesus’ banqueting with outcasts). That Jesus made a habit of such acts adds plausibility to the idea that the crucifixion was simply another one, only, in this case, more public and more dramatic.
The Course also agrees with Borg that resurrection is really about entering a higher state of being, not about raising a dead body. The Course teaches that resurrection is the reawakening of the mind to unlimited life.123 In this unlimited state, Jesus became available to anyone, anywhere. The Course explains this remarkable phenomenon with very simple logic: “Who transcends the body has transcended limitation.”124 The Course, in fact, sees tremendous significance in Jesus’ ability to continue to communicate with his followers. It says, “The Prince of Peace was born to re-establish the condition of love by teaching that communication remains unbroken even if the body is destroyed, provided that you see not the body as the necessary means of communication.”125 According to this passage, the post-Easter experiences his followers had of him were the fulfillment of the purpose for which Jesus was born. He was born to show that the loving bond that innately exists between minds cannot be severed by anything, even the destruction of the body. Love, in short, cannot be destroyed.
Even though, in its view, the body is not the point, the Course does see Jesus’ resurrection as having a bodily component. In private guidance given to his scribe, the author of the Course clearly affirmed that there was an empty tomb. Interestingly, his emphasis in this guidance was not on the reappearance of the body, but on the disappearance. The body’s disappearance, he said, was the result of his full realization that his mind could not be entombed in a body, cut off from the oneness that is its natural state. “And that is what ‘rolling the stone away’ means. The body disappears and no longer hides what lies beyond.”126 Here is an interpretation of the empty tomb that places the resurrection of the mind front and center, and sees the body’s disappearance as a natural accompaniment of that.
I do not find a parallel in Borg’s teaching, however, for what I see as the primary meaning that the Course gives the resurrection (though he does not explicitly reject this meaning, either):
The resurrection demonstrated that nothing can destroy truth. Good can withstand any form of evil, as light abolishes forms of darkness….It is the final demonstration that all the other lessons I taught are true.127
This view, though perhaps not similar to Borg’s, is remarkably similar to what Huston Smith says about the effect of the resurrection on the minds of Jesus’ disciples:
[The] claim [of the disciples’ faith in the resurrection] extended ultimately to the status of goodness in the universe, contending that it was all-powerful. If Golgotha’s cross had been the end, the goodness Jesus embodied would have been beautiful, but how significant? A fragile blossom afloat on a torrential stream, soon to be dashed — how relevant is goodness if it has no purchase on reality, no power at its disposal? The resurrection completely reversed the cosmic status in which goodness had been left by the crucifixion. Instead of being pitiful it was victorious, triumphant over everything, even the end of all ends, death itself.128
A joint portrait of Jesus
We have seen a great many parallels, as well as some differences. First, the differences:
- The historical Jesus’ exorcisms are problematic for the Course.
- Borg believes that Jesus saw the world as a real expression of the goodness of God; the Course sees the world as an illusory manifestation of the ego.
- Borg’s view of Jesus as prophet has no significant parallel in the Course.
- The Course sees the crucifixion as something Jesus intended as an important part of his mission; Borg does not.
- The author of the Course sees the resurrection as involving an empty tomb; Borg is skeptical.
In order to get a sense of the parallels, I have created a portrait of Jesus which consists only of the agreements between Borg’s view and the Course’s. Everything in the following description, in other words, is meant to be equally true from both standpoints. For this purpose, it contains little Course terminology, but I believe the ideas are faithful to the Course. One hurdle I had to get over was the fact that one Jesus (the historical) is naturally spoken about in the past tense and the other (the Course’s) in the present tense. In trying to capture both Jesuses at once, I have used the present tense, except when speaking explicitly about past events.
Jesus is not the only-begotten Son of God sent to earth to die for our sins. His message does not call us to believe in him and his exalted role. Rather, he says remarkably little about himself, preferring to focus instead on God. He is not fundamentally different from us. He is one of us who, as a man, simply had an unusual degree of experiential contact with God. Out of this contact flowed his whole ministry. This is the source of his miraculous ability to heal others — both the sickness in their body and the darkness in their mind. And this is the source of his teachings and the remarkable authority with which he communicates them.
He is a teacher, but not of correct beliefs or right morals. Rather, he teaches a way of transformation. This way is a radical alternative to conventional wisdom, to the thinking of the world. As a result, his teachings continually turn upside down our usual way of seeing things. They are filled with paradox and reversal. They seek to transform our perception, to draw us into a new way of perceiving the world.
Despite this radical goal, Jesus’ teachings are an invitation, not a coercion. They do not rest their appeal on outside authorities, such as the authority of scripture or even the authority of Jesus himself. Rather, they appeal to our own innate ability to see. Jesus is counting on something inside us that will recognize the truth, even though that truth flies in the face of everything we have been taught and have lived by.
His teachings can be grouped into three great themes: an image of ultimate reality, a diagnosis of the human condition, and a presentation of the way of liberation.
In Jesus’ view, reality is ultimately spirit, not matter. At the summit of reality is God. God is not a judge who punishes the sinner and excludes the unholy. Rather, He is a God of pure grace and generosity. He showers His blessing on the just and unjust alike. He embraces all, casting no one out of the pale of His love. The question of God’s character is crucial for Jesus. He takes issue with our culture’s traditional religions because of their emphasis on a God who punishes.
The reason that this is the foundation of Jesus’ message is that our image of ultimate reality does make a difference. If we believe in a God who punishes, then our lives will become a fearful attempt to preserve ourselves in the face of cosmic threat. If, however, we have faith in a God of love, then our fundamental response to life will be one of trust.
Jesus’ diagnosis of the human condition challenges our most cherished assumptions, for it locates the problem not in the depths of antisocial evil, but in what we call the good life. He indicts our primary relationships as being fundamentally self-serving. He takes aim at our preoccupation with material wealth and possessions, claiming it replaces devotion to God and therefore constitutes idolatry. He denounces our love affair with gaining a special standing among others. And he criticizes the understanding of religion which amounts to trying to live up to the dictates of a demanding God.
Throughout all aspects of conventional life Jesus sees the workings of a profound selfishness. He sees an anxious, fearful self, one which is preoccupied with its own security and identity, with its own gain, and which sees the world around it primarily as a means to that end.
The cure, according to Jesus, does not lie in simply behaving better on the outside, for that does not solve the root of the problem. There must be a deep-level transformation, a revolution on the inside, which moves us from being one who selfishly tries to grab security and identity from the world, to one who opens up and receives them from God. We must reach a place where we rely on God for the sense of safety and the sense of self which we would normally seek from the world.
How do we reach this place? That which lies at the center of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors must pass away. The old self, the self with which we currently identify, must be let go. We must willingly undergo a kind of internal death. Out of this, we will receive a new center inside. We will feel as if we have been born again.
It is tempting to view this teaching as a new commandment, especially given how much it asks of us. But in truth, it is merely an offer, an offer to step through the doorway to life, an offer to leave the broad way and take the easy way.
Jesus does not simply care about the individual. He has a vision for society, one which, like the way he teaches, is radically different than the norm. Conventional society is based on the idea that one must measure up to certain standards or be punished and excluded. Jesus’ social vision is based on the idea that God loves all and embraces all without condition, and that, to be like God, this is how we must be in relation to others. Jesus’ teaching calls us, therefore, not simply to a new experience inside, but to a new way of being with others.
His social vision seems to require someone who is a living embodiment of this new way. This person becomes a mediator of God’s love to those who come in contact with him. To be with him is to feel accepted and included by God. He therefore becomes a gathering point, a place of refuge for those who feel alone and cast out. He moves among people in a way that breaks down conventional walls. Everyone is welcome; no one is turned away. In his presence, people find a sense of inclusion they never experienced before. The space around him becomes a place of joy and celebration, symbolized by a feast to which everyone is invited. This alternative community is not meant to remain a private affair, but to ultimately transform all of society, replacing the conventional way with God’s way.
Jesus was killed because he represented an alternative way, and was thus seen as a threat by those committed to the way of the world. His death was not a transaction with God in which he paid for our sins, but it was a demonstration of the way that he taught.
His resurrection was primarily a resurrection of the mind, an entry into a higher condition of being. In this higher condition, his followers were not cut off from him, but continued to experience him as a living presence. In fact, in this condition he could be known anywhere. And he still can be.
This article, though exceptionally long for this newsletter, is only a brief examination of a topic that really requires a much longer exploration. But even at this level, there are some things we can say.
To begin with, I find the parallels truly amazing. They don’t prove anything, of course. They certainly don’t prove that Jesus wrote the Course. But they do make me wonder: How could there be so many specific parallels between the Jesus of the Course and the Jesus of history (at least as seen through the eyes of Borg)? It seems to me that these two figures may possibly look more like each other than they look like anyone else. How could such a thing have happened? To my knowledge, Helen Schucman was not exposed to Jesus scholarship. Furthermore, I don’t think that Borg has been at all influenced by the Course. Both Borg and the Course seem to have arrived independently at an uncannily similar view.
What do we make of the situation? Here is what I think: If a leading scholar puts forth a portrait of Jesus that is this similar to the author of the Course, and also suggests that Jesus can still be experienced today, then the idea that Jesus dictated the Course to a twentieth-century woman begins to look like an intellectually plausible position. We, of course, usually come to believe that Jesus wrote the Course for more interior reasons — a sense of inner knowing, or personal experience, or trust in the Course and its claims. But our interior reasons can often lead us to believe in things that are intellectually implausible. We can derive comfort from the fact that, in this instance, that does not seem to be the case.
What can we learn about the Course from this study? The parallels with the historical Jesus throw a spotlight on a particular dimension of the Course; for instance, on the Course’s social thrust, or its dim view of conventional life, or its emphasis on a God Who cares. These are elements which are in the Course, but which we may have managed to overlook. If we find ourselves uncomfortable with certain aspects of the above joint portrait, we may want to consider the possibility that we have distanced ourselves from certain aspects of the Course.
What have we learned about Jesus? I will speak for myself here. I for one find the historical scholarship fascinating. I feel as if someone has rubbed clean a small spot on an impossibly grimy window, and that through this spot I can see in the distance a figure whom I immediately recognize as distinctive and original. The net of sleep that society cast over the rest of us somehow missed him. He stands free of the universal assumptions that shackle the rest of us to a vast chain gang, forcing us to shuffle along together. We stand watching him, wondering how he can move so freely. Yet despite all the power displayed in his originality and freedom from convention, he is not a dominating or aggressive figure. Rather, he is incredibly loving. That is what makes him original; that is his power; that is what frees him from convention. And now we know what he is doing as he moves about so freely: He is trying to lift that net of sleep from our heads. He is working to set us free.
I feel that I see this same figure moving in the pages of the Course as well. And I believe that I see him much better when I look at him from both vantage points — the historical scholarship and the Course. This seems to grant me a kind of binocular vision, allowing me to see him far more clearly than when I peer through that one little spot in the window. What I see through my binoculars is not a comfortable figure. I am irresistibly drawn to him, but he also scares me. He seems to ask for too much. He asks me to leave my nets, yet my nets are all that I have known. I suspect that I am not alone in my reluctance; that this is why tradition obscured him, and this is why Course students have blurred him. Are we comfortable with a Jesus who wants to change everything in order to set us free?
Through my binoculars I also see a figure who is doing the same work he was doing all those centuries ago. He hasn’t even paused for a rest. Long ago he had some blindingly clear insight into the nature of the human disease, and he found the cure. And ever since then he has been working ceaselessly with one goal in mind: to deliver us that cure. Yet the disease is all we’ve known, and so accepting the cure can look like insanity. Huston Smith captured the situation perfectly: “Either there was something mad about this man or our hearts are still too small for what he was trying to say.”129 Perhaps he is still trying to say it.
- Speaking of himself in the third person, he says, “His little life on earth was not enough to teach the mighty lesson that he learned for all of you. He will remain with you to lead you from the hell you made to God” (C-5.5:3-4). This subtly claims that he is teaching in the Coursethe same “mighty lesson” he taught on earth as Jesus of Nazareth.
- Dr. Kenneth Wapnick, Absence from Felicity(Roscoe, NY, Foundation for A Course in Miracles, 1991), p. 229.
- Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time(New York, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).
- Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision(New York, HarperSanFrancisco, 1987).
- Huston Smith, The World’s Religions(New York, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991). The chapter on Christianity in The World’s Religionshas been significantly revised under the influence of insights from Borg’s Jesus: A New Vision, which Smith lists first in his suggestions for further reading on Christianity, calling it “for the general reader the most helpful book on Jesus’ life and ministry.”
- Huston Smith, The Religions of Man(New York, Harper & Row, 1958).
- Borg, Jesus: A New Vision,p. 4.
- Borg, Meeting Jesus,p. 35.
- Ibid., p. 36.
- Borg, Jesus: A New Vision,p. 45.
- “There is no gift the Father asks of you but that you see in all creation but the shining glory of His gift to you” (T-29.V.5:1).
- C-5.2:1. This passage is specifically about Jesus’ attainment.
- Robert Skutch, Journey Without Distance(Berkeley, CA, Celestial Arts, 1984), p. 134.
- Borg, Jesus: A New Vision,p. 61.
- Ibid., p. 60.
- Borg, Meeting Jesus,p. 31.
- Borg, Jesus: A New Vision,p. 67.
- See T-1.IV.2:8and T-3.II.4:3, which both speak of the mind being possessed.
- I personally wouldn’t want to rule out the possibility that there are actual disembodied entities involved in what we call possession. However, from the Course’s standpoint, such entities couldn’t be evil by nature, only particularly ego-bound by choice. And they couldn’t actually possess someone. They could only operate at the invitation of that person’s own ego. Thus, even in this case, the ego of the “possessed” person would still be the real story, and would still be what needed to be dispelled by the healer.
- Borg, Jesus: A New Vision,p. 97.
- Ibid., p. 98.
- Borg, Meeting Jesus,p. 30.
- Luke 6:39 = Matthew 15:14
- Borg, Meeting Jesus,pp. 70-71.
- Ibid., p. 80.
- Marcus Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship(Valley Forge, PA, Trinity Press, 1994), p. 172.
- There are scores, if not hundreds, of examples of the Course using “way” to mean its path to God, many of them accompanied by journey imagery. Here is one example: “So let us follow One Who knows the way. We need not tarry, and we cannot stray except an instant from His loving Hand” (W-pII.324.2:1-2).
- M-4.IX.1:6. See W-pI.11:1:1and M-28.2:2 for other references to the reversal of the thinking of the world.
- Frances Vaughan and Roger Walsh, Accept this Gift, A Gift of Peace,and A Gift of Healing, bound together in Gifts from A Course in Miracles (New York, Tarcher/Putnam, 1995).
- His private remark to Helen that she should examine his credentials by reading the Bible was not an attempt to coerce her, but an invitation. He said “You have every right to examine my credentials” (Absence from Felicity,p. 229), but even that kind of remark is unusual for him. There are no statements like that in the Course itself.
- Borg, Jesus: A New Vision,p. 99.
- Ibid., p. 100.
- Ibid., p. 94.
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- Borg, Jesus: A New Vision,p. 103.
<52. Ibid., p. 114.
- T-3.I.1:5-8, 2:8. Notice how this passage labels the traditional interpretation of the crucifixion both an example of upside-down thinking and an anti-religious concept. In other words, rather than being of God, this interpretation embodies the antithesis of God.
- This is borne out in the opening lines of “What It Says,” from the Course’s preface, which suggest that the Course’s conceptual starting-point is its “fundamental distinction between the real and the unreal” (Preface, p. x).
- M-4.II.1:1-2. Trust is the first characteristic on a list of ten and is the basis for the other nine, which are honesty, tolerance, gentleness, joy, defenselessness, generosity, patience, faithfulness, and open-mindedness.
- Borg, Jesus: A New Vision,p. 104.
- Ibid., p. 104.
- Borg, Meeting Jesus,p. 82.
- Ibid., p. 105.
- Ibid., p. 106.
- Ibid., p. 107.
- Though the Course is often seen as simply criticizing traditional Christianity, it is clear that the two share many deep points of commonality. The actual relationship between them is very complex and will undoubtedly take a long time to work out.
- T-13.V.6:4; W-pI.68.5:5; C-2.8:1
- Mark 7:6
- Matthew 23:25-26 = Luke 11:37-41
- Matthew 6:24 = Luke 16:13
- Matthew 6:19-21 = Luke 16:13
- Luke 17:33
- Borg, Jesus: A New Vision,p. 115.
- Matthew 11:28-30
- For instance, the Course interprets the gospel saying “Blessed are the pure in heartfor they shall see God” in this way: “A pure mindknows the truth and this is its strength” (T-3.I.5:5; italics mine).
- Wapnick, Absence from Felicity,p. 192.
- Ibid., p. 223.
- T-29.II.1:3. The Course,in fact, loves calling its way “easy.” Thirty-four times the Course calls doing what it asks “easy,” and once explicitly says that “this course is easy” (T-23.III.4:1).
- Borg, Jesus: A New Vision,p. 129.
- Leviticus 19:2
- Luke 6:36
- Borg, Meeting Jesus,p. 56.
- Marcus Borg, Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus(Harrisburg, PA, Trinity Press, 1998), pp. 95-96.
- Borg, Jesus: A New Vision,p. 132.
- Ibid., p. 134.
- Ibid., p. 142.
- A Better Way,Issue #31, September, 2000
- Luke 6:36
- Borg places emphasis on social standards that reward and include those who live up to them and punish and exclude those who do not. The Course does not emphasize social standards as such, but does emphasize our personal standards which do exactly the same thing. This falls within the topic of “judgment” in the Course.Judgment begins with our personal standards. We then measure a particular thing against those standards. If it measures up, we include it; if it doesn’t, we punish and exclude it. This produces a life composed of concentric circles – the inner circles being occupied by what we have selected and the outer circles populated by what we have rejected. The fullest discussion of this is in the section entitled “The Forgiving Dream” (T-29.IX).
- T-19.IV(A).16and T-28.III.7-9
- In one case, they dine with God and Christ; in the other case, with Jesus.
- T-18.VIII.9:8, 10:3
- Borg, Jesus: A New Vision,p. 161.
- Borg, Jesus: A New Vision,p. 184.
- Ibid., p. 114.
- Ibid., p. 185.
- Wapnick, Absence from Felicity,p. 399.
- T-3.I.7:6,7,9. Note the phrase “final demonstration.” The Course uses this phrase twice in speaking of the resurrection. The other reference says, “He [the author is speaking of himself in the third person here] offered you a final demonstration that it is impossible to kill God’s Son; nor can his life in any way be changed by sin and evil, malice, fear or death” (C-5.3:5). I would like to make a few points about this. First, this means that the Course sees the resurrection as yet another “parabolic action” (the final one), an enacted parable designed to teach that the true Son of God within us (symbolized by Jesus) cannot be killed. Second, this links with how the Course sees the message of the post-resurrection appearances, which is that the bond of love between minds cannot be destroyed by death. According to the Course,Jesus’ resurrection and his post-resurrection appearances to his followers conveyed the same message: Good cannot be destroyed by evil. Third, this view of the resurrection connects intimately with the Course’s view of the crucifixion. According to the Course, Jesus’ attitude of forgiveness and defenselessness during the crucifixion was made possible by his realization that his true Identity could not be injured or killed. The resurrection, in the Course’s view, was simply the outer manifestation of this inner realization. It was the proof that the attitude he displayed during the crucifixion was the truth, and not simply his own delusion. Thus, we can see the crucifixion and resurrection as two parts of a single “parabolic action.”
- Smith, The World’s Religions,p. 330.
- Smith, The Religions of Man,p. 306.