A Dialogue Between Jim Marion and Robert Perry
How does A Course in Miracles relate to wider streams of spirituality around the world, both ancient and modern? Is it restating the ancient truths in new form or is it heading off in its own unique directions—or perhaps some of both? Mystic and public policy lawyer Jim Marion, author of Putting on the Mind of Christ, graciously agreed to explore these issues with Course interpreter Robert Perry.
Click to read Part One of the dialogue.
Thank you for your explanation of the Course's teaching on the origin and nature of the physical universe. I will try to reply:
Origin and Nature of the Physical Universe
Unfortunately, from my point of view, the Course does seem to teach what you say it does. The Course does say, "God did not create it [the world], for what He creates must be eternal as Himself" (C-4.1:2), and "The world was made as an attack on God" (W-pII.3.2:1). I agree with you that this view (the second sentence) is not compatible with Christianity. The first sentence, I think, is philosophically erroneous as I think the accomplished American philosopher and contemplative demonstrates in her wonderful book, "God's Ecstasy, The Creation of a Self-Creating World." Put simply, it attempts to limit what God can and can't do. I will deal here, however, only with the second sentence.
You elaborate, "God created a Son, an extension of His Own Self that possessed all of His characteristics. This Son was composed of an infinite number of parts, each being one with the whole, each containing the whole. These parts (or at least some of them) fell asleep. They had a psychotic break with reality and withdrew into their private bubbles. In their sleep, they collectively dreamt up a universe that was the outward picture of their inward insanity. It was a universe, therefore, that was anti-God. It was a place of tooth and claw, of collision, explosion, and death." You explain that "This view allows us to see God as pure Love, because the blood of this savage place is not on His hands."
You suggest that perhaps, like depth psychology and evolutionary biology, what the Course teaches is the wave of the future, a perspective unknown to the ancients. I would argue, on the contrary, that the question of God's relationship to the apparent evil of this world is, historically, the oldest and most fundamental question in monotheism. The question arose with the advent of monotheism itself.
Polytheism, the creation of magical consciousness, posited many gods, some benign and some malignant. The latter were the source of evil. With the arrival of mythic consciousness about 3,000 or more years ago, and consequently of monotheism, the problem immediately arose: how does one square an all-loving Creator with the world's apparent evil? Zoroaster (1200 BCE?), the Persian founder of Zoroastrianism, the first great monotheistic religion, and the first religion with a revealed Scripture, solves the problem (the religion still exists today, the Parsis in India) by attributing the origin of evil to a lesser being. God, Ahura Mazda, remained all good and loving. The lesser spirit, Angra Mainyu, created the dark forces that battle the good. The war between the dualisms of good and evil involves all of creation. Good will eventually triumph.
Zoroastrianism's various doctrines had a profound effect on the later Western monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Angra Mazda later morphed into Satan, Lucifer. Psychologically speaking, monotheism represented the rise of the human ego, the mind, the central organizing principle of the human psyche. The mythic God was the ego projected into the sky. Satan represented the projection of the psyche's dark or shadow side.
Valentinus, a disciple of Theodas, himself a disciple of the Apostle Paul, was a very early Christian Gnostic mystic and theologian, at one point considered for bishop 100 years after Jesus. Valentinus, like many of the Christian Gnostics, believed this world was evil. He taught that God, who is all good, projected 30 heavenly archetypes. One was Sophia. Sophia's weakness, errors and questioning of God led to the creation of the world and humans, both of which are flawed.
Finally, to give one last example, the Persian Zoroastrian mystic Mani (c. 217-277 CE), combined Zoroastrian doctrine with the Christian Gnostic notion of matter as evil (also adding a little Buddhism) to produce Manichaeism, the chief rival of Christianity in the later Roman empire (St. Augustine was a Manichaean before his celebrated conversion to Christianity with unfortunate consequences for the theology of sexuality for Augustine remained Manichaean enough to see all sexual pleasure as evil). Mani taught that good and evil originated separately, clashed in this world, and that good would eventually triumph. His religion was influential into the Middle Ages (and, via Augustine, even until today).
I see the Course's teaching (under the very guise of denying the reality of separation) as apparently another variation of the dualism between good and evil that has been with us since mythic level monotheism's birth. The Course is apparently even more radically dualistic than the above described ancient religions because the Course apparently projects dualism right into the Godhead itself. According to the Course, the Son of God himself somehow becomes psychotic, entertaining the mad, crazy idea that we are separate from God. Where this idea comes from the Course does not say. From outside of God? From some ontological source of evil? From some flaw in God's nature? I believe the Course's view would be judged erroneous by all the world's monotheistic spiritual traditions. The Course, for example, seems to flatly deny the assertions of the Christian Creed that the only-begotten Son of God is equal in being with the Father, light of light, true God of true God, through whom all things were made (all of Creation, as Genesis says, being "good").
What does make sense to me is to say, like St. Jerome, that we have all been in God from all eternity, as potentially aware beings, but, as the Course says, asleep in God; that God, as the Course says, wants us to wake up, to wake us up to the conscious realization of our own divinity as God's sons and daughters, as part of the Collective Sonship (what Catholics call the mystical body of Christ); that God created this world of polarities (male and female, light and darkness) precisely to wake us up, to teach us awareness; that dualism and separation, though they may be erroneous from God's point of view, make perfect logical sense to a human consciousness sent to evolve on this planet; that dualism and separation are essential to the creation of the ego, the central organizing principle of human consciousness until such time as the ego is transcended. But, of course, this is an evolutionary and psychological understanding of the Course and perhaps reads into the Course nuances that perhaps are lacking in the text itself.
Two Final Thoughts
Many New Age baby boomers believe that we create our own reality. Wilber, who is very critical of many boomers' narcissistic ego inflation (boomeritis), likes to quip in response: "It is psychotics who create their own reality." The Course's creation story, taken literally, could be seen as boomeritis to a megalomaniacal degree: not only do we create our own reality but we create the whole of reality including all the countless stars and planets as well as the realms between the physical plane and the Godhead, realms attested to by the mystics of every tradition and by the Christian Creed (whether one characterizes such realms as metaphysical "supernatural" realms or, per Wilber, Sheldrake and Bohm in recent years, as apparently rarified physical/energy ones). That we humans create all such realms by our dreaming is an astounding assertion.
You suggest that perhaps only parts of the Son of God became insane. I detected that caveat near the end of your book when you referenced the animals. After all, we do share this world with trees and grasses, sponges and worms, elephants and gorillas. Are all these sentient beings insane too? Or are they mere figments of the human creative dreaming imagination with no existence or independent God-spark of their own (the position of extreme idealism)? And, if they aren't insane, what are they doing on this planet in the middle of our supposed psychotic dream? It seems to me that this is another serious problem with taking the Course's creation story literally.
All in all, this is the one area of the Course that, if taken literally, I find extremely problematic and not credible.
What Then about Evil?
But I guess that is enough for now.
I am finding this to be a very useful exchange. I really do appreciate your willingness to engage in it, and even to say where you find the Course to be problematic and not credible. I agree that when it comes to the origin and nature of the world, the Course is way out there on a limb. And I think it's important to just face that, explore it, and see what we make of it.
However, I don't agree that the Course is dualistic, especially not in the Zoroastrian or Manichean sense. (What I mean by this will become clearer as I go.) It seems logical to try to plug the Course into familiar categories like that, but in my experience, such an attempt is always unsuccessful, simply because the Course doesn't fit the categories. When I have tried to categorize it, the more that I honored what it actually said, the more I ended up conceding that it was in a category all by itself. Forming a category just for it does take time and effort, but in my experience it's the only way to really honor the Course as it is.
What I want to do is argue for the benefits of the Course's view. I am not going to try to argue for the truth of it (even though I believe it's true), in part because we are dealing with ideas that are virtually impossible to verify. How exactly do we find out, fourteen billion years down the line, how or why the world began? I don't think we can do that by just submitting our views to the judgment of Christianity or other religions. Not only is there no consensus among them, but all of them, so far as I can see, would disagree with both of us. They would obviously disagree with the Course, but I can't see how they wouldn't disagree with your view as well. I don't know about you, but I can't think of a major religion that affirms that we were asleep in God from eternity, and that God created the universe as an evolutionary classroom through which to wake us up.
Let me, then, restate the Course's view and then look at its benefits. First, because God is Love and only Love, He created us already perfect. That means fully realized, fully awake. "God creates only mind awake. He does not sleep, and His creations cannot share what He gives not" (W-pI.167.8:1-2). Second, we the Sons of God (this includes Sons that show up now as humans and those that show up as animals or plants—to answer a question you raised) chose a sleep, and in this sleep, dreamt a world that was simply the outpicturing of the essential theme of our sleep: separation. Because this world was our dream, not God's creation, two things result. One is that this world is not a statement about God's character. Its savage ways are not a reflection on Him. Two is that, since the world is only a dream, it has no actual power over us. We are not subject to its harsh winds. We remain inherently awake and inherently free. We have merely dissociated from that fact and formed in our mind a tiny alcove of denial.
The benefits of this admittedly unorthodox view are enormous. One benefit is that at the summit of reality, in God, there is absolutely no duality. There is only one principle: love. There, at that summit, we are perfectly safe from duality. Another benefit is that since God is the Author of what is real, that safe and loving summit is the only thing that is truly real. Consequently, anything other than God's Love is not real and has no power over us. This means that the unloving physical world has no power over us, no power to hurt us, belittle us, or scare us. A third benefit is that since our true nature is always inherently awake and free (not subject to the winds of the world), we can claim that inherent perfection right now—on a belief level, on an emotional level, and on a realization level. All three of these benefits—a perfectly loving God, a world that has no power over us, and a true nature that is the basis for ultimate self-esteem—are massive.
While there are many benefits to your view—benefits that I am very familiar with since I used to hold that view—these three are not among them, as far as I can see.
First, it doesn't seem to me, in your view, that at the summit of reality, in God, there is no duality. Rather, it seems that this God has two faces. Think about it. Instead of God creating us fully realized, we start out asleep. Being asleep, we are required to go through a painful evolutionary obstacle course in order to wake up, an obstacle course created by God. Why didn't He just create us awake in the first place and spare us the whole long, bloody ordeal? Is such a thing beyond His abilities? And if He's not lacking the ability, must He not be lacking the goodwill?
Imagine, for instance, that you were creating a sentient robot, with awareness and feelings, and you had two options. Option I: You could create this robot already fully perfect. Option 2: You could create a robot that was potentially perfect and then announce to him as you turned on his switch, "I'm sorry, but I created you only potentially perfect. Therefore, I have also created an incredibly long and torturous obstacle course for you to navigate. Only through passing down its entire length, which will take you eons of struggle and pain, can you realize your potential." If you really were free to take either option, but you elected the second one, what conclusions would we all draw about your character?
Second, it doesn't seem to me that in your view we are not subject to the physical world. The whole idea, if I understand your perspective, is that the world becomes the irritant, so to speak, that causes us to form the pearl. Without it acting upon us, we don't wake up. Its actions on us, then, are designed to have a real effect. And if something acts on us with real (and painful) effect, isn't that the very definition of being subject to? My word processor's dictionary defines "subject" as "likely to be affected by or with a tendency to be affected by a particular thing." If you found yourself in a torture chamber, which of the following two messages would you rather hear: "This is designed to hurt, but that's a good thing, because it will make you grow," or "This torture chamber is just your dream. You can wake up and watch it vanish, or you can stay asleep, but either way it has no real power over you"?
Third, it doesn't seem to me that in your view we are inherently awake and free, since we started out asleep and are now subject to the world. As I understand your view, we are becoming awake and free, and perhaps we can choose to get there quickly, I don't know. But it seems to me that until the moment I realize my potential, I really can't claim the cognitive strength and emotional security that come from the confidence that my nature is awake and free.
Let's go back to the robot example and say you created two robots, one imperfect and the other perfect. Let's say that the one you created imperfect is partway through the obstacle course and thus is still flawed and imperfect. And let's say that the one you created perfect has, in a small corner of his mind, fallen into a dream in which he dreams of being imperfect, just as imperfect as the one in the obstacle course. In a sense, they look exactly the same, but which one, right at this moment, has the right to a greater sense of genuine self-esteem? Isn't it the one who is already perfect?
Perhaps I have been unfair to your view, and if so, please let me know. From where I sit right now, though, it is a fair question to ask which view is the more dualistic. For the God that is responsible for the brutal drama of evolution is a God that appears to have two faces: loving and cruel. Given that this duality appears to be an inherent part of God's nature, can it ever be escaped? I'm not sure I want to spend eternity with the God who sent me into a torture chamber for billions of years because He didn't feel like creating me awake.
The Course, on the other hand, says that there are opposites: love and hate, life and death, spirit and matter. But then it says that the second side of each pair of opposites is utterly unreal. This means that reality has only one side, because God has only one face. This running theme is found right in the Course's introduction: "The opposite of love is fear, but what is all-encompassing can have no opposite."
These are two very different kinds of nondualism. One says that the two apparently opposite principles aren't really opposite because they are ultimately reconciled in a greater oneness. The other says that, yes, there really are two genuinely opposite principles, but one of them is completely unreal, which leaves only one that exists. Very different ways of getting to not-two. In the end, which one we consider more nondual, and for that matter, more affirming, is probably a matter of taste. Do we want a reality in which everything, even hate and limitation and violence, is ennobled by being ultimately part of a greater oneness? Or do we want a reality that is itself ennobled by being free of hate and limitation and violence?
We might also ask (a la Ken Wilber's concept of boomeritis, which I am in substantial agreement with) which view gives our separate selves more grandiose power over reality. In your view, yes, we do live in a universe created by Somebody else, but while we live in this universe, we seem to be making ourselves as we go. It seems to me that through our own actions, our fundamental nature goes from asleep to awake. This grants us power over a key feature of reality: our own being.
In the Course's view, though, we have no such power. God is the Author of reality (which is only spirit), and apart from Him we do nothing real. Yes, we can dream up an apparent universe, and also dream up an apparent separate self, but we don't have the power to make these things real, because we are doing them apart from God. Indeed, we are doing them precisely as a rejection of God's Authority. The Course says, in fact, that our authority problem with God is the problem behind all problems. "This is 'the root of all evil'" (T-3.VI.7:3). Of course, the core of boomeritis is also an authority problem: "Nobody tells me what to do!" So I find the Course, in its own unique way, to be profoundly free of the disease of boomeritis.
In saying all this, I am not trying to convert you to the Course's view. What I am really hoping for is that, for a moment, you can take off your usual hat and try the Course's hat on for size, and just for that moment, see that its view of the world, whether true or not, has an uplifting and liberating effect on the mind. That effect includes a God that is only love, a world that has no power to hurt us, and a self-esteem that rests on an already realized nature. What I am hoping for, in other words, is that you can ultimately grant, not that the Course's view of the world is true, but merely that it can be a useful tool on the way home. In the end, of course, all these concepts are just tools to get us to the place where we have thrown concepts away because we stand face to face with the truth.
Click for Part Three of the dialogue.