What is the relationship between the Course and Jesus of Nazareth? I taught a class recently on this topic for our Circle Course Community and thought I would share my notes from that class more generally. Even though I have polished them, they are still fairly rough, but I thought it better to post them in a rough state than not post them at all. I hope you enjoy them.
We all know that Jesus supposedly wrote A Course in Miracles. And Course students generally seem to like Jesus and accept that claim of authorship. But my observation is that we like what I call Jesus 2.0, the current version—contemporary, disembodied, nonjudgmental. I think we tend to keep a bit of a distance from Jesus 1.0, the one in the Bible.
This is understandable. Just think about our image of the biblical Jesus:
- Virgin birth, wise men, angels—a unique child born to fulfill a stupendous mission
- God's only begotten Son
- He has come to save the world from sin
- His message is largely about his own unique status as Messiah and Son of God
- He does miracles as proof he is the Son of God
- He dies a horrible death in order to pay for our sins, so we can escape God's wrath
- Now our job is to believe in his uniquely divine nature and his sacrifice on the cross, so we can go to Heaven
- The Christian tradition represents him in the world. It is the carrier of his influence and authority.
- We should take our place in some sort of church hierarchy, which he sits at the top of
There is, in other words, a whole mythology, in which he comes to earth as the Son of God to save us from damnation by dying for our sins and inducing us to believe in him as Son. We simply cannot square that with the Course. So we tend to back away from that whole mythology. It's part of religion anyway, the very religion most of us are trying to get away from.
Ken Wapnick has another way of trying to resolve this same tension. He speaks of three Jesuses:
- The actual Jesus who walked the earth
- The biblical Jesus who exists in the pages of the New Testament
- The Course's Jesus
Ken says that #3 and #1 are indeed the same figure. But then what do we do with the tension between #2 and #3? His way of resolving that tension is to posit a complete disconnect between #2 and #1:
"The biblical Jesus represents the collective projections of the various authors of the gospels and epistles>" (The Most Commonly Asked Questions About A Course in Miracles, p. 102).
This disconnect between #2 and #1 naturally leads to a disconnect between #3 and #2:
"The Jesus of the Bible and the Course are mutually exclusive figures, with only the common name linking them together" (The Most Commonly Asked Questions About A Course in Miracles, pp. 102-103).
The problem with this view is two-fold. First, based on the conclusions of historians, we can say that there is just too much actual history in the gospels for us to write them off completely as mere "collective projections." Second, the Course itself affirms too much about the biblical Jesus. If we include the Course's statements as well as things Helen Schucman wrote down from Jesus that are not in the Course itself, here is all that is affirmed by the Jesus of the Course:
- Jesus' mother, Mary, and her lofty spiritual attainment
- Many of his recorded teachings (though some are corrected)
- The miracles—healing the sick and even raising the dead
- The disciples—Peter and Judas are mentioned specifically
- The crucifixion—including its cause being that those in power were threatened by what he represented
- The burial in the tomb
- The resurrection
- Post-resurrection appearances/communication with followers
- Ascension (which the Course equates with what it calls the final step)
- The sending of the Holy Spirit
The Course even contains views that echo the unique theological importance given Jesus by Christianity. It speaks of Jesus:
- Being the first to fulfill his own part (his special function in the world's salvation) perfectly
- Being the leader of the plan of Atonement
- Being the one who "set in motion" the Atonement (by his resurrection)
- Calling down to earth—making accessible to us—the Holy Spirit, in a way He wasn't before
- Being personally present in every single mind and every single life
So what actually happened in Jesus' life? Based on my study of New Testament scholarship and based on the Course, here are my current beliefs:
- He did come to earth to fulfill a purpose: "The lesson I was born to teach, and still would teach to all my brothers, is that sacrifice is nowhere and love is everywhere" (T-15.XI.7).
- No virgin birth—hardly any scholars take the Christmas story seriously anymore (though guidance to Helen did suggest that there was some unique purity of intent in Mary's conceiving of him)
- He did experience some kind of profound spiritual awakening—though when that was, we do not know. Those who see Jesus as a realized master usually place that awakening at his baptism.
- The teachings in the gospels are a mixed bag, with teachings that go back to him and teachings that don't.
- The teachings that I believe are authentic have a special quality. They turn your perception of reality upside-down and usher you into a new reality. In doing so, they depend on your own inner recognition of the truth in them. Those teachings that I don't believe go back to him are much more flat and prosaic, and depend much more on Jesus' assumed exalted authority.
- From leading scholar Marcus Borg: "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." This quote should cause any Course student's jaw to drop.
- At the center of the reality put forward by these teachings is a God of unconditional love and lavish care. If we make his love and care the center of our reality, then even when attacked by the world, we can feel immune and carefree, and can respond to our attacker with that same unconditional love. We students of the Course can recognize this immediately as the concept of forgiveness.
- I believe the miracles really happened, especially the miracles of healing (I'm more skeptical of the nature miracles). But not as proof that he was the Son of God. Rather, as the demonstration of his message.
- I believe the crucifixion happened, but not as payment for our sins, but rather as an extreme demonstration of forgiveness and defenselessness.
- I believe the resurrection happened. There is actually what I consider good historical evidence for it. But the emphasis was not on the return of his body. That was just a sign that he was in reality unharmed, that everything done by the crucifixion had been undone. Again, it was a demonstration of his message, the ultimate one.
- In short, I think at the core of his ministry was a transformational wisdom that offered freedom in the face of a harsh world, and that the deeds and events of his ministry were all intended as demonstrations of that message, as the proof that these teachings can be lived out in the real world, with miraculous results. This especially includes the final events of his life.
- I believe he did stay in contact with his followers, especially in the weeks, months, and years immediately following his life. And I think that personal contact still happens today.
- I believe he was indeed trying to save the world, but through the spread of his transformational wisdom.
Obviously, this is a very different story than we come away from the gospels with. This story's teachings are straight out of the gospels, but we also find other teachings in the gospels that do not fit this picture. This story's events are also straight out of the gospels, but here they are interpreted solely in the light of that authentic core of teachings.
So what happened? How did Christianity go so wrong? I think the obvious explanation is that his followers really didn't understand him. A teaching aimed at a radical change in perception always runs the risk of being misunderstood, simply because the old perception is so stubborn, and will subtly work to twist that teaching back around to accommodate itself. It was only natural that Jesus' followers accommodated his teachings to the framework that they had inherited from their culture. This is exactly what we do today with A Course in Miracles.
In my view, the three main distortions introduced by Jesus' followers were:
- Bringing back a God split between love and wrath, which compromised Jesus' God of unconditional love, the very core of his vision
- Focusing on the person of Jesus and on what he accomplished in his final events (especially the crucifixion), rather than retaining his own focus on entering the kingdom as an experiential condition in the present
- Seeing Jesus’ aim in historical terms, so that he came to shift the axis of history (or to catalyze God doing so), rather than seeing his aim in terms of timeless wisdom—embodying it and extending it
In my mind, then, there is a reasonable case to be made for a genuine continuity between Jesus of Nazareth and the Jesus of A Course in Miracles, a continuity that can be seen in the pages of the gospels, but a continuity that was obscured by Jesus' followers, for reasons that come down to plain old human nature.