Over the past several years I have quoted often from a book called A Course in Miracles. People have asked, “What is this book, where did it come from, and why is it so important to you?” Today I reply as clearly and succinctly as possible. The Course book came through two professors at Columbia University. Bill Thetford, age 42 in 1965, was Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons as well as Director of the Psychology Department at the Presbyterian Hospital. Helen Schucman, 56, worked as a psychologist in the department which Bill directed. Both were frustrated with the rivalry and stress of the institution, and expressed a wish to find a “better way.” In 1965, a Voice, which clearly can be identified as Jesus, began speaking to Helen during the night. Helen wrote down the words of the Voice in shorthand, and in the morning dictated the words to Bill who typed them out into some 1500 pages over a seven year period ending in 1973.
In 1987, I was handed a copy of the book by friend, shortly after I had returned from a trip to India. In India, I had spent time in various ashrams seeking to discover how silence might be used to discern one’s way of life and to possibly touch or make contact with “the other side.” I later wrote up my conclusions in a dissertation on silence as a way to discovery and empowerment to live. In this dissertation for San Francisco Seminary presented in 1989, I included many references to the Course, albeit with a fairly beginner’s understanding of the book (and some outrage from a member of the review committee.).
What does the book say? Using language with Shakespearean iambic pentameter, which reminds me of the King James Bible, quoting from over 800 verses in the Bible, the book says that we can experience deep peace and joy by understanding who we are, the Sons or Children of God. Through forgiveness of our mistaken perceptions, what we call sins, we come to think of ourselves, and others, as the Sons of God (the masculine gender is used without, to the anger of some). Jesus was not the “only Son of God” but came to teach we all are. Forgiveness from what? Forgiveness from our mistaken thinking that God made or caused this world and from the idea we were ever separated in any way from God our source.
As such, the Course has a radically different metaphysical world view from anything I have ever encountered in the Christian tradition, or any place for that matter. In the East, I heard of the world being “maya” or illusion, but never had I so clearly read how the creation of the world as we know it came from ourselves and is our dream. I had read in Seminary of the early Christian Gnostics, who were later condemned as pagan heretics for believing this world was not made by God. But to more fully understand the Course, which can be extremely confusing and stressful in the beginning, one must understand this radical difference from our normal way of thinking. As such, the Course turns upside down most everything many of us have believed about God and Jesus It can feel very threatening and at times dangerous. It doesn’t agree with the 4th Century Apostles Creed, for example. A Course in Miracles is thus a course in mind training, of thinking and understanding in such a new way that love, joy, peace, and freedom reign supremely in one’s mind. A “miracle” occurs when this new understanding is attained with its results of forgiveness and a deep sense of oneness with all people.
I have studied and tried to learn and apply principles of the Course for over twenty years, and only in recent years have I felt I’ve begun to actually “get it.” Perhaps it was because I was nearing the end of my career as an active Presbyterian pastor, feeling a new freedom to explore. Maybe it was related to my deeper desire to understand the writings and see if an increased sense of peace and guiltless living could be attained. Maybe it was the willingness to challenge my ego in such a way I could overcome its power to keep me from looking more deeply within.
Thus to understand and appreciate more deeply the Course, I believe one must understand the Course teaches God did not make this universe and world, but the world is our “tiny mad idea.” The world of our “mad idea” is a world of separation from the Creator, our Source. The Course teaches our true identity as Spirit, not body, and that God, as Spirit, never created such an illusionary dream as time and space, but it is our dream of separation which we then project back onto God in order to escape the horror of what we have done. The Course also teaches that we seek to overcome our sense of separation by seeking out special relationships to fill our void, in people, groups and structures. And in doing our remake of creation, we seek to assign to our special relationships that which God has done for us.
The very idea of this world being my dream and that God doesn’t even know or recognize what I have done has at times brought deep stress and confusion to my thinking, to my ego. The ego is used to identify our normal body/mind identification. Yet with patient reading and thinking, and access to some good teachers, I have learned to let go and experience a deeper peace and freedom than I have known. One of my favorite and most helpful teachers has been Ken Wapnick, a man raised in a Jewish family in New York City, later studying psychology earning a Ph.D in Clinical Psychology, becoming a monk in the Roman Catholic church for a short time and then discovering the Course. He became a valuable source in getting the book prepared for publication in 1975. Ken presently lives and teaches in Temecula, California. He has written extensively on the Course.
How then do we learn about God, a God who doesn’t share our dream of separation? The Holy Spirit was sent to that part of our minds which never forgot our Oneness with God, to awaken us and help us forgive ourselves for our sins, our mistakes, and return to our Home. The whole process of undoing our thinking is called the “atonement,” a process which seemingly takes years but in reality, is a “journey without distance.” In other words, in reality we never left our home or oneness with God. In the change of our thinking we can escape the world of time and space by letting it go and in forgiveness of ourselves, find our way back to deep peace and love.
The Course teaches this “undoing” through 31 chapters of a text followed by 365 workbook lessons to help retrain the mind toward its original state. The book also concludes with a Manual for teachers and a section clarifying many of the terms used in the writing. Later editions of the Course include additional supplements given to Helen on the practice of psychotherapy and prayer; Psychotherapy: Purpose, Process and Practice and The Song of Prayer: Prayer, Forgiveness, Healing.
The Course is a fairly new book in time, which although growing in its recognition and acceptance, still is quite unknown in most organized religious circles. Some traditionally trained Christians and religious establishments have dismissed the Course as “ridiculous, ancient Gnostic heresy, and silly.” Many have attacked it with a scant a reading of the book and with little understanding. Some have attacked it and rightfully dismissed it as contrary to traditional Christianity and its traditional creeds established since the 4th century. Many dismiss it due to its Shakespearean style, sexist language and its psychological approach and reasoning. It certainly is not a reading for many people. Beyond the criticisms of content and style however, its message can be profound and engaging. Its ideas, if applied, “work” as Ken Wapnick once said. In future years, I feel it will become much more known and discussed, and no doubt replaced in the future by another more modern and “non sexist” version. But for now, I commend the book and its study to any who long for a deeper sense of peace and freedom, the ability to live and enjoy life without the heavy burden of guilt we so often carry. This guilt is so deeply encouraged and promoted by most modern western religious structures. I also commend it for study to understand the millions who have found this book and have made it an important resource for their spiritual practice.
Is it true? Well, is any religious theory and teaching true? Are not they all just theories of what can help people travel through life and face its end with hope, peace, and fearlessness? Don’t they all need the test of reason and experience to discover whether indeed they do work? One thus needs to explore and test for oneself. To wander away from our normal securities, even though they do not work well, will leave many, myself included, with frustration, stress, fear and guilt. It will often take some courage when the normal thinking around you may tend to brand you as silly, pagan, or ridiculous.
Good luck if you decide to begin a reading and study of A Course in Miracles. A great little book to help understand where the book came from with more detailed circumstances is Robert Skutch’s book, Journey Without Distance. I welcome comments and questions. There are some study groups in the area, one at the church I led as pastor for many years, located in Wayside Presbyterian Church, Hamburg, NY. Another is at the Unity Church on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo. Peace and love to all.