VATICAN CITY, 12/20/02 ~ Mother Teresa appears fast-tracked for sainthood after an announcement Friday that Pope John Paul II has approved a miracle attributed to the late nun’s intercession. A Vatican committee approved the miracle earlier this fall, and the Pope formally seconded the finding during a ceremony at the Apostolic Palace Friday. The reported miracle involves a young Indian woman, Monica Besra, who recovered from a stomach tumour after an image of Mother Teresa was placed on the woman’s stomach. Doctors consulted by the Vatican judged that the woman’s recovery was “without any medical explanation.”— Canadian Broadcasting News Online
The use of miracles as spectacles to induce belief is a misunderstanding of their purpose. — A Course in Miracles
What is a miracle? Is it a sudden and inexplicable healing? Is it an apparition, or the murky outline of a holy symbol appearing on a wall or in the clouds? Or is a miracle just an unusual occurrence met with hopeful expectations?
Whatever the circumstances in which they arise, miracles always symbolize a different kind of reality breaking through the walls of our everyday experience. For the faithful of any religion, the miracle represents proof of divine intervention in earthly affairs. For the skeptical, the miracle is either a hoax, a misinterpretation of mundane phenomena, or an unusual occurrence which science may not yet be able to explain, but eventually will. And for all those who waver between a constant faith and habitual disbelief, the miracle is at least a suggestion that a higher order of reality exists, awaiting some mysterious alignment of outer circumstances and inner preparedness to break through for good and change our lives.
Those who take miracles seriously would agree that they occur unexpectedly—even when they have been prayed for—and derive less from human effort or intention than from supernatural forces or extraordinary capacities of our own subconscious. When someone is called a “miracle worker,” he or she is regarded as a saint or superhuman with exceptional dedication and nearly magical resources. The idea that any normal person could be trained to produce miracles on a regular basis would probably strike most people as absurd or even sacrilegious. The notion of a textbook that would specifically teach miracle-working would be seen as heresy, presumption, or outright fantasy.
Nonetheless such a textbook exists, and it has become one of the most significant guides to a new kind of spirituality that has been growing rapidly over the last several decades. Published in 1976, A Course in Miracles (ACIM) has over one and a half million copies in print and has already influenced the thinking of millions around the world. Because it was composed in a secular setting and was not intended as the foundation of a new religion, ACIM does not have a readily identifiable sect of followers. Those who use it regularly commonly refer to themselves as “students” rather than devotees, and many of them are members of a wide variety of religious traditions. Perhaps just as many consider themselves refugees from conventional and authoritarian religions, and no longer profess any church affiliation while still pursuing spiritual experience on their own. Others are agnostic, minimizing the spiritual aspects of the Course while regarding it as a highly effective form of esoteric therapy. There are thousands of people who have devoted their lives to studying the training, and hundreds who teach it. But there are many more who have sampled it only partially, integrating some of its ideas while shying away from its discipline as a whole. Among the critics from both religious and secular perspectives, ACIM is regarded as everything from a satanic seduction to an artifact of New Age psychobabble.
Having enjoyed a brief surge of celebrity-stoked fame in the 1990s, the Course has largely faded from view in pop culture even as its influence continues to spread. Because the 1200-page, three-in-one volume is intellectually challenging and requires a minimum of one year of intensive study to complete, ACIM tends to create its own select class of serious students over time. But there are no qualifying requirements for beginners nor any institutionally approved tests to certify graduates of this course. The book is widely available in trade bookstores in the original English, as well as in seventeen authorized translations around the world.
While spawning a diverse movement comprising thousands of small study groups, scores of offbeat churches and teaching centers, a few communal experiments, and an untold number of students studying privately, the teaching of the Course is neither promulgated nor regulated by any central authority. With the revocation in 2004 of the copyright and trademarks originally held by the two foundations who have historically managed the publication of ACIM, it is now the centerpiece of a wholly democratic spiritual movement whose future rests entirely with its far-flung students and self-appointed teachers.
Although there is no particular theological or therapeutic idea in the Course that can be described as completely new, it does represent an unprecedented synthesis of metaphysics, substantially revised Christian theology, and penetrating psychological analysis underpinning a daily meditative discipline. The Course refers to itself as a “mind training,” not a religious teaching in the usual sense. This unique blend of perspectives and practicum helps explain why the Course appears to be different things to different observers, and also why it is difficult even for veteran teachers to explain exactly what the Course is.
Nonetheless, A Course in Miracles is emblematic of a new style of alternative spiritual practice that has become a powerful if under-appreciated force in American culture over the last half-century. While it uses Christian language to convey its message, the Course radically redefines many conventional religious ideas, including the miracle itself. Whereas most religions translate the insights of original prophets into teachings that followers are expected to adopt with little questioning, ACIM offers a direct mystical practice to anyone who volunteers for its unusual discipline. Its intent seems not to be recruiting followers to its creed, but inciting authentic transformation of the human psyche—a modern version of the traditional spiritual process of metanoia, or “change of mind.”
Significantly, the Course induces this kind of change without the intercession of a church, religious hierarchy, or other forms of authority, and also without any threat of punishment or excommunication if its curriculum is not completed. Thus, “enrollment” into this course, as well as its fulfillment, is left entirely up to the choice and determination of the individual reader.
At a time when international politics is laced with religious conflict and domestic social policies have been significantly influenced by evangelical Christian activists, it’s important to understand the contemporary divergence between conventional religion and personal spiritual practice. A good place to start is demographics, by taking a look at how these two phenomena are statistically represented in the general American population. Many people may be surprised to learn which movement is clearly in the ascendancy, and which is at best stagnant, or actually declining in popularity.
The Rise of “Personal” Spirituality
Journalists have largely missed or misreported the story of America’s turn in recent decades toward a deeply felt, personal spirituality that is pursued independently of religious customs and institutions. One of the earliest significant markers of this trend appeared in the January 1988 issue of Better Homes and Gardens, when the magazine published a report on “Religion, Spirituality, and American Families,” based on a survey it had conducted among its eight million readers a few months before. The survey was returned by 80,000 people—more than two and a half times the response expected by the editors, and far more people than are usually sampled in public opinion polls—and provided the following information:
Some results suggest that respondents’ spirituality is strongest on a personal level. The largest group (62%) say that in recent years they have begun or intensified personal spiritual study and activities (compared to 23% who say they have become closer to a religious organization). 68% say that when faced with a spiritual dilemma, prayer/meditation guides them most (compared to 14% who say the clergy guides them most during such times) . . . .
While such results were revealing in themselves, it’s also worth noting that the title of this mainstream survey of the late 1980s already drew a distinction between religion and spirituality. The difference would probably have been lost on anyone but theologians just a few decades earlier. A noticeable divergence between the social conventions of religion and the individual pursuit of spirituality most likely took root in the 1960s and has only widened since the late 80s, as evidenced by more recent data from a variety of sources:
• In January 2002, a USA Today/Gallup poll showed that almost half of American adults do not consider themselves religious in the usual sense. In 1999, 54% said they considered themselves religious; that number had shrunk to 50% in 2002. A full third (33%) described themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” an increase of 3% over three years. Ten percent said they regarded themselves as neither spiritual nor religious.
• According to an “American Religious Identification Survey” released in 2001 by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the most dramatic demographic shift in religious identification is the number of Americans saying they do not follow any organized religion, increasing from 8% (about 14.3 million people) in 1990 to 14.1% (29.4 million) in 2001. During the same period, the number of Americans identifying themselves as Christians shrank from 86.2% to 76.5%, a reduction of nearly 10 percent. If the trend holds, Christians will be outnumbered by non-Christians in America by 2042.
• The Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling and research organization, noted in a March 2007 report that “one out of every three adults (33%) is classified as unchurched—meaning they have not attended a religious service of any type during the past six months. While that figure is considerably higher than the one out of five who qualified as unchurched in the early Nineties, it is statistically unchanged since 36% were recorded as having avoided religious services in the company’s 1994 study.” The Barna Group also notes that while 38% of the American population (84 million people in 2006) identified themselves as “evangelicals,” only 8% (18 million) met the Barna Group’s nine-point “evangelical filter,” an increase of just 1% over the previous decade.
The fact that evangelical Christians (by any count) are significantly outnumbered by Americans who do not consider themselves religious may be surprising to many, considering the prominence of evangelical activists in the press and their recent influence on society. For instance, after the national election of 2004, some analysts attributed the winning edge of President Bush’s victory to the mobilization of evangelical voters in the so-called “red states.” (Bush’s final popular vote margin over John Kerry was 2.5%.)
The evangelicals’ social perspectives and political agenda also get substantial and continuing coverage in the media, particularly in regard to such hot-button issues as abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, and the teaching of creationism vs. evolution in the public schools. Yet as the data above suggest, the overall number of Christians is steadily declining and a substantial and growing proportion of the population prefers to be identified as “spiritual but not religious.”
There are at least three major factors contributing to this dramatic disparity between popular perceptions of America’s spiritual evolution and what is really going on. First is the media’s failure to pay attention to the actual shifts of belief that are occurring quietly behind the more easily reported controversies that involve religion. The second factor is simply that evangelicals have a mission to spread their creed. Over the last two decades they have done an increasingly effective job of enhancing their media profile and their political clout, even if the effect on the number of people espousing their cause is negligible.
Third, the “mission” of people who are turning away from organized religion toward a more individual style of spiritual practice could well be described as the polar opposite of evangelism. Instead of trying to convert others to their beliefs, the new spiritualists are questioning their own beliefs, and privately experimenting with alternative perspectives. Rather than feeling the evangelicals’ need to persuade others to adhere to a traditional vision of absolute truth, the new spiritualists are bent on experiencing mystical truths by their own direct experience, and then basing their moral decisions on what they have learned.
It is also through direct, unmediated mystical experience that many of the new spiritualists are gravitating to a perception of reality that is not only at odds with traditional Western religion, but contrary to the popular assumptions of our culture as well. It is in this context that the peculiar nature and history of ACIM becomes keenly relevant.
What is the Course?
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 650-page Text, 500-page Workbook of 365 daily meditations, and 90-page Manual for Teachers. Published by the nonprofit Foundation for Inner Peace in 1976, the Course was written down in shorthand from 1965 to 1972 by Dr. Helen Schucman, a research psychologist at Columbia University, and typed by her supervisor Dr. William Thetford, director of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center’s Department of Psychology.
Schucman said she was writing down an “inner dictation” given to her by a mysterious “Voice” and she never claimed authorship of the material, remaining personally ambivalent about its message until her death in 1981. 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. In fact ACIM directly challenges significant elements of contemporary Christianity, particularly the doctrines of sin and crucifixion. For instance, it argues that the significance of the Resurrection is not that Jesus Christ died to atone for the sins of humankind but rather that, as an advanced being who was fully cognizant of the illusory nature of the physical world, Jesus neither suffered nor died on the cross. The Course further maintains that everyone shares the potential to achieve such an enlightened consciousness.
The theological challenge of the Course is intensified by the fact that the authorial “Voice” clearly identifies itself as Jesus Christ, bringing a correction of traditional Christianity to the world in modern psychological language. Its 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. The whole message of the crucifixion was simply that I did not. . . . 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. (Ch6,I,15)
While the Course does not identify itself as philosophically superior to any other teaching, stating that it is only one version of a “universal curriculum,” it does suggest that serious students may progress faster by its use than by any other spiritual method. 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, especially in conservative Christian circles.
The Purpose of This Book
This volume is a substantially revised edition of my 1997 title The Complete Story of the Course: The History, the People, and the Controversies Behind “A Course in Miracles” published under my own imprint of Fearless Books. Although I had been a Course student for twelve years at the time, I was largely an outsider to the Course movement at the time I began research for that book, which was intended to provide a journalistic overview of the ACIM phenomenon without taking on the task of explaining central themes of the teaching.
Ten years later, I can no longer lay claim to a reporter’s outsider status, as I have been much more involved with Course organizations through my business as a publisher. I have also spoken at many Course conferences and editorialized on the politics of the spiritual movement through a section of my website entitled “The Continuing Story of the Course.”
Thus, this book is much more the work of an insider to the Course phenomenon than The Complete Story. In the central four chapters, this edition also takes on a task that the earlier version did not: a presentation of some basic principles of the Course teaching. Unlike other books about the Course, however, this one features a journalistic perspective by its reliance on a variety of voices besides my own, including students and prominent teachers. As I did in my first book on the subject, this volume also presents critical voices across a broad spectrum, from the evangelical to the secular. As an independent journalist and a spiritual seeker, I have long been convinced of the necessity of presenting a balanced view of a teaching I use and admire....
For all its influence, A Course in Miracles remains a fringe element of American spirituality, widely viewed as a superficial “New Age” teaching and mostly ignored by academic theologians for that reason. Yet ACIM continues to spread by the enthusiastic word of mouth of its students, and it’s safe to say that this unusual “mind training” will reach millions more people in the near future. This widespread and ever-growing recognition would have likely stunned the reticent scribes of the material—if not so much as they were once stunned to find themselves writing down the spectacularly strange and compelling teaching now known to so many simply as “the Course.”