[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
A Course in Miracles claims to be Jesus returned. Yet this Jesus, seemingly out of character, came to two non-religious university psychologists, and dictated to them an educational course, with a text, workbook, and teacher’s manual. Why didn’t he come to his own followers? There must be millions of Christian churches on the face of the earth, each of them filled with people deeply devoted to Jesus. Why didn’t he come to one of them? Why did he instead make his appearance outside the religious context entirely? If we can believe the stories, Mother Mary is still making appearances, yet she always comes to devout young Catholics. Why didn’t her son follow suit?
The Course clearly places itself more in the category of education than of religion. It did not originate from within the walls of the church and is aimed neither at enriching nor reforming the church. Rather, it originated within the walls of a university, coming through two non-Christians. Rather than being geared toward churchgoing believers, it offers itself to anyone, regardless of religious affiliation. Most important of all, it is a course, an educational program. It is modeled after the academy, not the ecclesia.
If the Course really is from Jesus, then why has he jumped ship from religion to education? I don’t have any definitive answers, but I suspect it is because the basic nature of education fits A Course in Miracles in a way that the basic nature of religion does not. Let me explain what I mean.
Having spent many years experiencing the church from the inside and observing it from the outside, it seems to me that at the heart of religion, at least Christian religion, is this notion that if we give our allegiance, devotion, and faith to God (and the earthly teachings, institutions, books, sacraments, and people which represent God), then we will be rewarded by God.
It is a kind of transaction. I give my worship and praise to God. I give my belief to Jesus and what he did for me on the cross. I give my time and money to my church and my power to its priests or pastors. I give my faith to the Bible and its teachings. In essence, I point my loyalty in the right direction—God’s direction—and then I expect God to respond with certain rewards. Hopefully, He will bless me in this life. And even if He doesn’t, He will take me to Heaven in the next.
It reminds me of the thief on the cross. While one thief is hurling insults at Jesus, the other thief sticks up for him. He says, “This man has done nothing wrong,” and then says directly to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Then Jesus responds, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” The second thief, then, gives his allegiance to the right person, the person who is in fact a divine king, and who can thus reward him with a mansion in paradise. In a sense, the second thief is the model for all religious believers. By giving their allegiance to the right Person, they hope that Person will reward them.
Education, of course, is a whole different deal. It is not about giving one’s allegiance and devotion to God, or to anyone, for that matter. It is about learning. It is about acquiring knowledge and understanding that give one an ability to operate differently in life. It is about enriching the mind so that one can lead a better life. Think, for example, about learning to read. Once you learn how to read, you possess an ability that changes how you go through life. You now can do things you couldn’t do before. Worlds are open to you that were closed before, all because you have this ability.
This, to me, highlights the essential difference between religion (at least as commonly understood) and education. In religion, the power that gives you the rewards is not within you. It is essentially an outside power, which you are counting on to reward your loyalty. Once you do your part, you have to wait for this power, trusting that it will act on your behalf.
In education, however, that power is within you. It is your own newfound knowledge and ability, gained through education, that enables you to go out into the world and lead a better life. In some way you have grown inside. You have gained a broader and deeper perspective on the world. You have enriched your mind. And this inner enrichment is itself the power that grants you the rewards you seek.
I think the Course presents itself within the education model because it simply has more affinity with that model than with the religion model. This is not only visible in the Course’s central emphasis on learning and mind training, but it is also apparent in the Course’s many very negative religious images. Here are just a few:
With love as enemy, must cruelty [i.e., the ego] become a god. And gods demand that those who worship them obey their dictates, and refuse to question them. Harsh punishment is meted out relentlessly to those who ask if the demands are sensible or even sane. It is their enemies who are unreasonable and insane, while they are always merciful and just. (W-pI.170.6)
Possession for its own sake is the ego’s fundamental creed, a basic cornerstone in the churches it builds to itself. And at its altar it demands you lay all of the things it bids you get, leaving you no joy in them. (T-13.VII.10:12-13)
In suffering, the price for faith in it [the ego] is so immense that crucifixion of the Son of God is offered daily at its darkened shrine, and blood must flow before the altar where its sickly followers prepare to die. (W-pII.12.4:2)
Notice all the religious imagery here. We have gods demanding that their worshippers obey, rather than question, their dictates. We have churches built on a creed and containing an altar at which gifts are laid. We have the blood from the Son of God’s crucifixion flowing daily at an altar at which followers are gathered (clearly a reference to the Catholic Mass). These are overtly religious images and they are profoundly negative.
Notice also the basic theme that runs through these images. In all of them, the god being worshipped is the ego, and rather than rewarding you, this god punishes and demands. Rather than giving, it takes. In the end, it demands that you sacrifice everything to it—your possessions, your health, and even your very life.
We should not take these images as the Course’s assessment of all religion. However, they do highlight what is perhaps the essential danger of religion. That danger is that in giving ourselves to a power we hope will reward us, we can choose the wrong power. We can choose a power that takes from us rather than gives. Or we can choose a power that is not actually there; we only think it is. In either case, we will give and give, we will pour ourselves out to our deity, but will receive nothing of value in return.
This is made possible, I believe, by the fact that since this power lies outside of us, we cannot see it clearly. As a result, it may exist only in our imagination. Or it may be a very different sort of power than we believe it to be. In the end, we are extremely vulnerable to both of these traps. We have a long history of giving ourselves to gods that we invented (like Zeus and Thor) and of giving ourselves to demigods that promised salvation but ended up enslaving us (like Hitler and Stalin). In both cases, since these gods lay far outside us, we were not able to see their real nature. Religion is about giving our allegiance to the right Person, and we humans have a near-bottomless capacity for misplaced allegiance. When we give our allegiance, we are usually just shooting in the dark.
Further, once we give misplaced allegiance, it is difficult for evidence of this misplacement to actually reach us. That is because the mere act of looking at that evidence is perceived as an act of disloyalty. As we all know, questioning the god is the opposite of allegiance to the god. And so, in a system in which allegiance is the ultimate virtue, refusal to question inevitably ranks as a revered sister virtue. This severs the feedback loop and thus allows us to stay in darkness about absurd beliefs literally for centuries.
In education, on the other hand, this feedback loop is more an inherent part of the system. True, we are taught a lot of false and useless things in school. Humans have a hard time seeing clearly in any context, including this one. But at least the knowledge base here is founded on the ideal of questioning and refining views so that they slowly come into greater accord with the truth. At least the ideal here is to acquire an ever-evolving understanding that more and more resembles reality.
All of this, I believe, more or less explains why Jesus has jumped ship, so to speak, from religion to education. It’s true, he does see a great deal of beauty in religion—for we can put our faith and devotion in the right direction—and he does openly criticize education (see especially W-pI.184.5:2-3). Yet I think the reason that A Course in Miracles is a course rather than a catechism is that he wants us to see spiritual awakening as more like education than like religion. He wants us to see it not as an act of shooting our allegiance into the darkness and hoping it will hit the right Person, so that we will be rewarded, not as the cajoling of a deity we think we see through the haze and think will bless us rather than drain our lifeblood.
Rather, he wants us to see spiritual awakening as the act of learning the way things really are. He wants us to see it as an enriching of the mind, in which we come to understand reality as it truly is. That understanding, then, becomes our reward. We no longer have to wait for the reward of some fickle external deity. Our reward is the fact that reality now lives inside of us, enabling us to live in harmony with it.