Understanding A Course in Miracles

A Course in Miracles is a self study curriculum that guides students toward a spiritual way of life by restoring their contact with what it calls the Holy Spirit or internal teacher. The Course uses both an intellectual and an experiential approach within its Text, Workbook of 365 daily meditations, and Manual for Teachers. The Course was written down in shorthand over a period of seven years by Dr. Helen Schucman, a research psychologist at Columbia University, and typed up by her supervisor Dr. William Thetford, Director of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center's Department of Psychology.

Schucman said she heard a Voice that gave her an inner dictation, and she never claimed authorship of the material. There is no central organized religion or membership institution built around the Course, and no "guru" widely accepted as an embodiment of the teaching.

As a psychological discipline, the Course encourages the transformation of the self through the constant practice of forgiveness. As a spiritual training it insists on a complete reversal of ordinary perception, urging acceptance of spirit as the only reality and the physical world as a mass illusion (similar to the Buddhist and Hindu notions of samsara and maya, two terms designating the everyday world we see as a kind of dream).

While Christian in language, the metaphysics of the Course is thus more aligned with Eastern mysticism than traditional Western religion. The theological challenge of the course is intensified by the fact that the authorial Voice of the Course clearly identifies itself as the historical Jesus Christ, bringing a correction of traditional Christianity to the world in modern psychological language. His corrective tone is clear in such passages as the following:

"If the Apostles had not felt guilty, they never could have quoted me as saying, I come not to bring peace but a sword. This is clearly the opposite of everything I taught. Nor could they have described my reactions to Judas as they did, if they had really understood me. I could not have said, "Betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?" unless I believed in betrayal...As you read the teachings of the Apostles, remember that I told them myself that there was much they would understand later, because they were not wholly ready to follow me at the time." —ACIM Chap 6

The Course's alleged authorship and its challenge to Western religious tradition have served to make it simultaneously popular with people seeking alternative spiritual guidance and troubling to its critics. When it has been discussed, its various critics have described it in wildly contradictory terms. Noted psychologist and author James Hillman, for instance, has gone on record characterizing the course as "old-fashioned, self-deluding Christianity." Yet evangelical Christian critics want nothing to do with the course, warning their followers away from it as a satanic message disguised in Christian language.

A prominent Course student, president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and former University of California regent Willis Harman, Ph.D., has stated that he regards the Course as "perhaps the most important writing in the English language since the Bible." At the least, the course's substantial and growing popularity makes it clear that it is far more than a short-lived spiritualist fad. Although the fundamental facts of the course's nature and origin can be briefly summarized, they do not fully answer the question of what A Course in Miracles is. Because it can be interpreted on many levels and even some veteran students do not claim to understand it completely, an exhaustive answer to the questions "What is the course?" may actually be impossible.

How The Course Came To Be

Columbia University in 1965 was perhaps not the sort of place one would have expected to find the stirrings of spiritual renewal. In the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the psychology professors' struggles to affirm their discipline as a respectable branch of medical science went forward-attended by the usual amount of professional jealousy, fierce competition, and outright back-biting. In the midst of this, the reticent and scholarly director of the Psychology Department of The Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, Dr. William N. Thetford, one day decided that he'd had enough of the academic sparring. "There must be another way, and I'm determined to find it," he announced in an uncharacteristically forceful speech to his chief colleague, a sharp-tongued research psychologist, Dr. Helen Schucman. Moved by Thetford's commitment to a change, Schucman vowed to help him. This alignment of these two professors' sympathies seemed to catalyze an eruption of mystical energy on Schucman's part that left the rational scientist in her groping for explanations.

Unexpectedly Schucman began to experience a recurrence of the symbolic visions she had witnessed in her youth—visions which had largely ceased in young adulthood when she bitterly ended her search for God. But now, at the age of fifty-six, Schucman found herself involved in a dramatic progression of waking dreams and visions in which she was gravitating toward a mysterious duty she felt she had "somehow, somewhere, agreed to complete." In these reveries she was sometimes spoken to by an inner soundless voice who clarified the meaning of various events for her. Over time this voice became an authoritative presence whom she referred to as the Voice or Top Sergeant. She was not unaware of the voice's self-professed identity, but evaded acknowledging it.

In the late summer of l965, Schucman experienced a vision in which she entered a cave by a windswept seashore and found a large, very old parchment scroll. Unrolling the aged parchment with some difficulty, she found a center panel bearing the simple words "GOD IS." As she unrolled the scroll further, more writing was revealed to the left and right of the center panel. The familiar Voice told her that if she wanted, she could read the past on the left panel, and the future on the right—an apparent offering of clairvoyant capacities. But Schucman pointed to the words in the center of the scroll and said,

"This is all I want."
"You made it that time," replied the Voice, "Thank you."

After this vision, Schucman's anxiety lessened somewhat and she thought with relief that her inner turbulence might be receding for good. At Thetford's suggestion, she had begun recording her inner experiences, and was about to make an entry when the Voice spoke clearly in her mind.

"This is a course in miracles," it said with authority, "Please take notes."

Schucman was soon on the phone to Thetford, her precarious emotional equilibrium once again shattered. She told Thetford what the Voice was suggesting to her and asked in panic, "What am I going to do?" Thetford was calm and curious. "Why don't you take down the notes? We'll look them over in the morning and see if they make any sense, and throw them out otherwise. No one has to know." Thus began seven years of difficult extracurricular labor for Helen Schucman as she faithfully, though often unwillingly, scribed the material that became A Course in Miracles and read aloud her shorthand notes to Thetford, who volunteered to type them.

The prolonged and profound inner conflict that Schucman felt about her peculiar task is clear in Schucman's unpublished autobiography. In fact, early in her work she argued with the Voice about the purpose of the undertaking and her role:

"I soon found I did not have much option in the matter. I was given a sort of mental explanation, though, in the form of a series of related thoughts that crossed my mind in rapid succession and made a reasonably coherent whole. According to this information the world situation was worsening to an alarming degree. People all over the world were being called on to help, and were making their individual contributions as part of an overall, prearranged plan. I had apparently agreed to take down A Course in Miracles as it would be given me. The Voice was fulfilling its part in the agreement, as I would fulfill mine. I could sense the urgency that lay behind this explanation, whatever I might think about its content.

'Why me?' I asked. 'I'm not even religious. I don't understand the things that have been happening to me and I don't even like them. Besides, they make me nervous. I'm just about as poor a choice as you could make.'

'On the contrary,' I was assured. 'You are an excellent choice, and for a very simple reason. You will do it.' I had no answer to this, and retired in defeat. The Voice was right. I knew I would do it. And so the writing of the Course began."

Who Is The Author?

Although Schucman's personal notes were vague about the identity behind the Voice, the overt historical references made in the material itself were unmistakable. In a discussion of the meaning of the crucifixion, the Voice said:

"I elected, for your sake and mine, to demonstrate that the most outrageous assault, as judged by the ego, does not matter. As the world judges these things-but not as God knows them, I was betrayed, abandoned, beaten, torn, and finally killed. It was clear that this was only because of the projection of others onto me, since I had not harmed anyone and had healed many. I undertook to show this was true in an extreme case, merely because it would serve as a good teaching aid to those whose temptation to give in to anger and assault would not be so extreme."

Not Exactly Easy Reading

A frequent criticism of the course by its own students and others who have attempted to examine it is that its patriarchal, Christian, and just plain difficult language puts up a formidable barrier to study. Rick Fields, a prominent writer in American Buddhism and the editor of Yoga Journal, probably speaks for untold thousands when he says that "the Christian language was just too much for my taste."

Course student and psychotherapist Frances Vaughan says that the consistently masculine tone of the teaching "was not something I liked about the Course at first, and I would translate terms like Son of God to Child of God as I read it. I'd also substitute Enlightenment for salvation, and so on. What worked for me was to take what fit, and let pass the things that didn't." Over time, however, Vaughan says that her technical difficulties with the Course terminology diminished to the point of irrelevance.

Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) president Willis Harman found his early study of the Course slowed by an indefinable resistance. "I tried to study the books every day, but after the first six months it dawned on me that I hadn't finished a single page of the text. Every time I started reading, I'd end up at the refrigerator looking for something to eat, or getting drowsy and falling asleep. When I realized that something strange was going on there, I began to take it much more seriously."

Charles T. Tart, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at IONS and a retired psychology professor from the University of California at Davis who edited the landmark book Altered States of Consciousness, a rare best-seller among scientific anthologies. He remembers that the Course presented special difficulties for a mind trained in the scientific approach to reality. "The Course really came in at a right angle to most of my professional work," Tart remarks. "I could find a lot of stuff in there that fit my understanding of how we 'live in illusion' —that is, how we use psychological defense mechanisms that distort our perceptions and create trouble for us. But basically the Course goes right for the heart, and the heart is not a standard part of scientific discipline. So it was tough for me."

Why the Course Is Not Christian-Or is it?

The heavily Christianized language of A Course in Miracles, which makes frequent references to God the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit, has been a source of substantial confusion about its message and orientation.

Casual readers and surface-skimming critics have mistaken the Course for a contemporary restatement of traditional Christian theology. And there's no doubt that some novice students have happily taken it to church only to find that it receives less than a warm reception from their ministers or church elders. That's because the superficial resemblance of Course language to biblical prose rapidly disintegrates as soon as one comes across certain statements proposing complete reversals of contemporary Christian thought. Add in that the voice making such radical propositions claims to be that of Jesus Christ himself, and there's a wrenching surprise in store for any traditional Christian who decides to give this thick blue book, usually printed on familiarly thin "bible" paper, a serious look-see.

A few major thematic contrasts between regular Christian teachings and A Course in Miracles are:

1. A Course in Miracles teaches that God did not create the physical universe, which includes all matter, form, and the body, because all of these are illusions and God's creations are real and eternal.

2. The God of A Course in Miracles does not even know about the sin of separation (since to know about it is to make it real), let alone react to it; the God of regular Christian teachings perceives sin directly and His responses to it are vigorous, dramatic, and at times punitive, to say the very least.

3. A Course in Miracles' Jesus is equal to everyone else, a part of God's one Son or Christ; Christianity's Jesus is seen as special, apart, and therefore ontologically different from everyone else.

How The Course Has Spread

Of all the distinctions that set A Course in Miracles apart from other spiritual teachings, one of the most noteworthy is its timing. Most teachings of similar depth and complexity, be they mainstream or esoteric, originated hundreds if not several thousand years in the past.

Major teachings such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam originated with sole prophets whose messages were later written down, revised, and translated. Virtually every spiritual tradition was initially shepherded by a small band of followers, taking many decades or even centuries to evolve into forms that would earn the devotion of large numbers of people. But the Course sprang into being, complete and self-contained, in the middle of the latter half of the 20th century-just as mass worldwide communications were increasingly achieving the speed of light. Even before the Course was published as a book, thousands of people gained access to its message through photocopies, a modern complement to the "word of mouth" by which ancient traditions were first disseminated.

As the millennium approaches, many people are discussing the Course and sharing its lessons over the worldwide electronic network known as the Internet, for which there is no historical analogue. Another significant factor in the rapid spread of the Course is its accessibility. Unlike most religious teachings, the Course has no central orthodoxy controlling who can become its students, requiring any sort of initiation, collecting dues or requesting tithes, keeping an eye on the faith of followers or issuing rules for their comportment. Anyone can buy the book and study it, in whole or in part, alone or with company, as one wishes. Students can also drop it and speak ill of it without fear of excommunication or retaliation by any religious authority.

How The Course Went Public

In the first few months following the Course's completion, Bill Thetford showed the material to 4 people: 2 close friends, a Catholic priest, and Hugh Lynn Cayce, son of the famed psychic Edgar Cayce. Thetford had begun reading the work of Edgar Cayce long before, during the eruption of Helen's visions just prior to the initial scribing of the Course.

When Thetford prevailed upon Schucman to examine the Cayce legacy, she initially dismissed most of it as "spooky." Over time she would positively revise her opinion. In fact Hugh Lynn Cayce became close enough to both Thetford and Schucman that one of the earliest copies of the manuscript would be dubbed "the Hugh Lynn version (or Original Edition). "That was the copy of the manuscript first read by Kenneth Wapnick, PHD, who would eschew his chosen life as a monk to work closely with Schucman on further rounds of editing until the end of January 1975. But had it been left up to Schucman, Thetford, and Wapnick each of them introverted in a different way, the Course might never have progressed beyond a bulky, photocopied manuscript shared gingerly with their confidants.

If the Course was to reach a wider audience, and none of the principals felt certain that it should, a different kind of personality would have to enter their small circle. With Judith Skutch that different personality arrived, as well as what might be called the 3rd force of the Course phenomenon.

1. The first force, that of academic psychology and psychotherapy, was originally conveyed by the mindset and professional back ground of Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford, and is still evidenced today by the strong presence of professional therapists and counselors in the Course constituency.

2. The second force of mystical spirituality was primarily conveyed by the voice of the Course itself and echoed in the contemporary popularity of ACIM with many ministers and teachers of various faiths.

3. Skutch would facilitate the joining of these forces with the ill-defined, much-maligned social current of the last several decades called the New Age.

While these 3 forces overlap in a number of ways, both within the Course community and within the culture at large, they are sufficiently dissimilar in essence to have spawned a great deal of confusion about the true nature of A Course in Miracles. Their confluence in one phenomenon has made the Course appear to be a variety of things to students, critics, and the public at large.

If Schucman, Thetford, and Wapnick lacked a certain public relations savvy, it's obvious that Judy Skutch made up for all of them and then some. Thetford once joked that Skutch was taking their little group to a New Age gathering in order to meet 5000 of her closest friends. In fact, Skutch's enthusiasm for spreading the word about the Course induced Schucman, Thetford and Wapnick to engage in a brief period of traveling and speaking about the Course, from California (where they met Jerry Jampolsky) to London.

This phase would not last long, however, as Schucman did not enjoy the limelight, and both she and Thetford did not wish to shoulder the burden of ACIM's "public life."That was clearly the work of Judith Skutch. Distributing several hundred photo-reduced versions of the Course, Skutch became aware that interest in the Course was growing "exponentially." In short order the group realized that they were destined to publish it. When they further asked where the money was to come from, Schucman reported that she felt "Judy will be told what to do," and indeed Skutch received the unspecific message: "Make the commitment first."

Realizing that this could mean the commitment of all her assets to the publication of the Course, Skutch nonetheless assented.But the next morning Skutch received a phone call from Reed Erickson, a wealthy industrialist in Mazatlan, Mexico, who was studying a photocopied manuscript of the Course. He urged Skutch to print a hardcover edition of the course as soon as possible. Erickson then revealed that he had called to offer $20,000 from the proceeds of a real estate sale to cover the printing of five thousand hardcover copies of ACIM. The entire project was completed by June 22, 1976, the official publication date of A Course in Miracles.

Who is the Course Student?

Ten or fifteen years ago it might have been reasonably accurate to typify ACIM students by their psychotherapeutic or New Age connections. Those constituencies remain significant elements of the Course audience today. But these correlations have more to do with where the Course originated and how it was first publicized than with any particular appeals of its message.

Robert Perry says that he feels "the only thing that all Course students have in common today is owning a blue book." The demographics of Course students have become impossible to characterize, increasingly crossing all borders of class, race, nationality and pre-existing spiritual orientation.

Apart from sociological indicators, are there any psychological factors common to all Course students? Are they all "total flakes" as one of my friends suspected? From my experience of talking to many Course students over the years, I would say they seem to be at many different levels of psychological growth and spiritual progress, from the flakiest to the most sophisticated. For a while I entertained the theory that the Course tends to attract especially dynamic people whose own misguided ego strength has led them into calamitous life situations—situations from which ACIM proves to be the means of a narrow but ultimately transformative escape.

I thought that theory fit until I mentioned it to Marianne Williamson, author of Return to Love. "I have to disagree," she replied. "I don't think that I, or other Course students, are especially intense or have had tougher problems than anyone else. I think everybody's life is on the way to peace or shipwreck, depending on where we direct our energy." From that perspective, perhaps a common identifying factor among serious ACIM students is their decision to follow a new course away from the typical shoals of human shipwreck, and toward inner peace and happiness.



"Knowledge is not the motivation for this course. Peace is."

D. Patrick Miller in Understanding A Course in Miracles combines thorough reportage and experienced insight in his accurate account of the important and controversial matters surrounding A Course in Miracles.




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