I am currently reading a powerful and provocative book entitled The Sins of Scripture, by John Shelby Spong.1 We are used to hearing of sins against scripture, but the sins of scripture, the scripture's own sins? One might assume that only an outsider, trying to tear down Christianity, would write such a book. Yet far from being an outsider, Spong is all the way on the inside. He was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark for many years, before retiring in 2000. He remains a believing Christian, though one who speaks out passionately against many elements of his own tradition. Spong's claim about the Bible can be boiled down to three points.
1. He says that the Bible is littered with what he calls "texts of terror," texts that have been used to justify overpopulation, destruction of the environment, oppression of women, hatred of homosexuals, abuse of children, and anti-Semitism. He quotes, "If a man lies with a male as with a woman…they shall be put to death" (Leviticus 20:13), which has been used to justify persecution of homosexuals. He quotes, "Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man" (1 Corinthians 11:9), which has been used for centuries to keep women "in their place." And he quotes, "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die" (Proverbs 23:13), which has led to generations of child abuse in the name of God.
2. He claims that the Bible is not the Word of God, but the product of human authors bound by their culture. Thus, attitudes against women, for example, are not inspired by God but are simply the product of the "tribal mentality" of the ancient cultures which produced the Bible. When this tribal mentality is elevated to the position of God's will, it stands in the way of natural historical progress.
Like all other peoples, the writers of these sacred scriptures could escape neither their limitations in knowledge nor their place in history. Because of the advance in scientific learning, however, the attitudes, prejudices and ignorances of the past tend to die out as new ideas challenge old practices. This very normal and constant process is much more difficult to accomplish, however, if a cultural assumption is made along the way that the words in this particular book cannot be wrong because God is their author. So the limitations and the uninformed ignorance of ancient biblical authors have been quoted to perpetuate, throughout the history of those who call these writings sacred, the prejudices of antiquity. (p. 123)
3. The Bible is not the Word of God, says Spong, because there is no God as an active agent who tells us what He wants us to do. "There is no theistic God who exists to take care of you or me" (pp. 61-62). This obviously has sweeping implications for the notion of scripture as God's Word:
Perhaps the strangest claim ever made for any written document in history is that its words are or somehow contain the "Word of God." Such an assertion assumes that God is a very humanlike being who has the ability to speak to a particular people in a language they understand and that God is intimately invested in the minutiae of human life. Yet without any apparent embarrassment such claims have been made throughout Western history for what we call the holy scriptures of the Christian church. (p. 15)
Spong does believe in God, but (as best as I can figure out) he sees God as a kind of biological dynamism, as "the power that emerges within all of life" (p. 64). He traces the relentless evolution of life on our planet over billions of years, from single-celled organisms, to plants and animals, and finally to humans, and then says, "God's spirit…is not a theistic, supernatural, alien-to-our-world deity, but the source of our common life" (p. 65).
Where does all this leave A Course in Miracles? For it too is a scripture, since a scripture is simply "a body of writings considered sacred or authoritative" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). And it too is considered to come from God in some sense. It doesn't call itself the Word of God, but it does claim to be authored by Jesus, who, according to the Course, received its teachings from the Holy Spirit and ultimately from God (see W-pI.rV.In.8:1).
Where does this leave the Course? My response is that even though the Course is a scripture which claims to come from God, Spong's critiques simply do not apply to it. Let me demonstrate what I mean by going through his three points.
1. Does the Course contain "texts of terror?"
Spong's "texts of terror" are biblical texts that directly or indirectly justify some form of mistreatment—of women, children, homosexuals, Jews, or the environment. Spong, however, does perceive "minority voices" in the Bible which speak for another way. Chief among these voices is Jesus:
Jesus crossed the boundaries separating males from females and invited women into full discipleship….
Jesus also embraced the outcast. He touched the rotting flesh of the leper and gave him back his own humanity (Matt 8:2-3)….Jesus welcomed the touch of the woman with the chronic menstrual discharge, though by touching him in her uncleanness she rendered him unclean according to the Torah. Jesus stood between the woman taken in the act of adultery and her accusers (John 8:1-11). No sinful deed made anyone ultimately rejectable, he said, certainly not worthy of death….
…He expanded the concept of humanity to include both our enemies and the objects of our prejudice and scorn (Luke17:16). He called on his followers to love their enemies (Matt 5:43) and to be willing to let their enemies love them (Luke 10:29-37). (pp. 291-292, 293-294)
Jesus, in other words, stands for the opposite of those texts of terror. Rather than condoning the mistreatment of those who are different from us, he called us to grant ultimate regard to everyone, especially those usually considered "other."
This is the voice I hear in the Course, not as one of its many voices, but as its only voice. At the heart of the Course lies Jesus' ancient vision of humans as infinitely worthy children of God, regardless of their social status, lifestyle, morality, or treatment of us. The Course has taken this essential insight and expanded it into a complete path of transformation, which includes a profound metaphysics, sophisticated psychology, and a multifaceted system of spiritual practice. Yet all this complexity boils down to the simple idea that seeing and treating people as Jesus did is the key to our own spiritual liberation. In this scripture, then, there are no texts of terror.
2. Is the Course a product of human authors bound by culture?
The most natural assumption, of course, is yes—the Course must be a human product. It has been suggested that the Course is simply the result of Helen Schucman's brilliance, infused by a childhood sense of the miraculous, and informed by contact with Catholicism, Christian Science, and Theosophy. Yet of all the books in the world, I believe there are genuine problems with ascribing a human origin to A Course in Miracles.
The most immediate problems lie in Helen's own relationship with the Course. Based on all that we know, she really was a barely willing scribe for material that simply appeared in her head, material that was deeply threatening to her personal outlook and material that she never fully embraced. She later claimed that at the time she knew nothing about the Eastern and Western mystical concepts that appeared in the Course. And Patrick Miller, author of The Complete Story of the Course, states, "There is little evidence of 'new thought' or metaphysical schools exerting significant influence on Schucman before the transcription of the Course."2
Yet this is only the beginning of the problems with the idea that the Course had a human origin. To me, the biggest problems lie within the Course itself. In its pages I find a simply astonishing independence from the universal process of authors being influenced from without. The works that humans produce quite naturally soak in popular currents of thought as well as rely on the past development of thought. To put this more simply, we are all profoundly influenced by our culture. We are influenced by what everyone believes around us and by the great thinkers who went before us. We, quite simply, are culture-bound. This is an inescapable trait of human authorship. This, in fact, is how Spong identifies the Bible as a human product. He makes the obvious observation that the biblical authors were expressing currents of thought prevalent in their culture. That's what humans do.
But that is not what the Course does. It strikes me as completely independent of cultural currents, be they those of the 60s and 70s (when it was written), the twentieth century, the modern era, or any time in history, for that matter. In an age of relativism, the Course is firmly grounded in absolutes, and calls the popular wisdom that "the truth is different for everyone" (T-23.II.2:1) the first law of chaos. In an age of empowerment, in which psychology, spirituality, and even religion all seem joined on the idea of empowering the self to get the love, success, and material abundance it wants, the Course wants to dismantle the self we think we are, and free us from our enslavement to love (as we define it), success, and material abundance. In a scientific age, the Course contains not a shred of science. While the rest of us are marveling at the physical universe, the Course is calling it "a dismal alcove separated off from what is endless" (T-29.VIII.7:4). While the rest of us speak in awe of the big bang, the Course calls the moment when time and space began "the time of terror" ( T-26.V.9:1, 13:1; T-27.VII.12:4). Can you imagine anyone in our culture calling the big bang "the time of terror"? While other spiritualities are rushing to get cozy with science and to laud the importance of the physical world, the environment, the body, and the brain, the Course is saying that the physical world is an illusion, the physical environment is a massive dance of death that contradicts God's Will, the body is "an isolated speck of darkness" (T-20.VI.5:2), and the brain is far too tiny to perform real thought (W-pI.92.2).
Just to clarify: the Course doesn't encourage us to treat the world, the environment, the body, or the brain disrespectfully. It encourages us to see all living things, not just humans, as divine Sons of God. Certainly if we actually did this, we would find ourselves treating the environment differently. And it teaches us to use all forms, especially our own body, as instruments for the communication of love. Yet even while teaching this, it refuses to grant either divine origin or genuine reality to any physical form. And it sees natural processes as essentially obeying the laws of death.
The Course also strikes me as not relying on what human traditions and humanity's great minds have developed. This is a dramatic and risky claim, but let me explain my reasons for saying this. First, even though the Course will often agree with history's great minds, it will just as readily disagree, frequently offering completely new answers to age-old questions. Second, and perhaps more significantly, the Course will set forth highly developed conceptual systems around issues that have received little or no attention.
For example, Christian theologians have discussed the meaning of the crucifixion for two thousand years. The traditional interpretation, of course, is that Jesus died as a blood sacrifice to pay off our sins. The Course completely rejects this view, saying instead that Jesus died as an extreme example of forgiveness and defenselessness in the face of attack. In this view, his death was a real-life demonstration of his own radical teachings. This seems to fall within the outlines of what has been called the "moral exemplar" theory (the least popular of the three main theories of Atonement), yet it also seems to be a boldly original version of that theory.
Much less attention has been given by theologians to the resurrection. Roman Catholic theologian Claude Geffré lamented, "As strange as it may seem, the resurrection of Christ, which sums up all of Christianity, has still not been the object of any exhaustive reflection within dogmatic theology."3 Yet this lack hasn't hampered the Course, for its theory of the resurrection is just as powerful and original as its theory of the crucifixion. In its view, the resurrection was the definitive demonstration that attack can have no effect on the truth of who we are. This notion of the powerlessness of attack was the very idea that enabled Jesus to be forgiving and defenseless in the crucifixion. Thus the Course wraps both crucifixion and resurrection into a single coherent interpretation. Further, when the Course refers to the Atonement, it is actually referring to the resurrection, not the crucifixion, for in its view it was Jesus' full awakening in the resurrection that opened the way for all of us to awaken to God. This is an extremely original claim, one which flies in the face of the universal equation of the Atonement with the crucifixion.
In its views on the crucifixion and resurrection, therefore, the Course certainly does not appear to be relying on the contributions of Christian theology. Those contributions simply do not seem to be its starting point in any way. Where theologians have shared universal assumptions, the Course is free to go its own way. Where theologians have neglected certain issues, the Course's views are just as highly developed.
And this is what I find to be true whenever the Course speaks, on whatever topic. You see it echoing the insights of great thinkers, but you also see it going its own way, stepping outside universal assumptions, offering completely original insights, and putting forth sophisticated answers where no one has even been asking questions. And as it does all this, it stays consistent. The quality of its thought stays consistently high, and its views on countless topics somehow manage to stay consistent with each other.
The picture that comes to mind is that human authors have to get around in cars which are confined to roads, roads that someone built. The roads are the paths of thought laid down by a culture, by its popular ideas, its influential thinkers, and its enduring traditions. Most authors stick to the wide, well-traveled roads that run through populated areas and are often jammed with other cars. However, the more original ones get away from the crowds and up into the mountains, into higher pathways of thought, where they find the roads less traveled. The truly great ones have four-wheel drive vehicles which can get off the road altogether and push even further up the mountains toward their peaks. Yet even these can push only so far off of an existing road. Even the great ones are constrained by what human culture has already laid down.
As I read the Course, it seems to me that it is outside this system entirely. It is not confined to the road system that we have built. Rather, I see the Course as an airplane, flying at a constantly high altitude, whether it is above plains or above mountains, and flying in its own direction, not having to follow the twists and turns of the roads below. In other words, the Course, in my opinion, is completely unbound by culture, and so is not a product of human authorship. The Course does use cultural forms (for example, literary forms like iambic pentameter), and does so masterfully, yet it appears to be coming from a point beyond culture, and using those forms simply to reach those still within culture.
To the modern and postmodern ear, this can sound like lunacy, for it simply cannot be true. Yet, even though such a claim can never be proven, I believe that the more that humanity deeply investigates the Course, the more credible and indeed probable such a claim will become.
3. Is there a God who can speak to us?
Spong's final objection to the Bible being the Word of God is that God cannot speak. There is no God who has a will for human affairs, let alone who is able to express that will. If there was, how do you explain this God's failure to rescue people in their time of need? "Ask the Jews," says Spong, "where the God who could split the Red Sea was when they were being marched into Hitler's crematoriums during the Holocaust" (p. 62).
Yet how can Spong be so confident that there is no God who can speak to us? True, the theist's position has to explain the apparent absence of God stepping down and influencing human affairs (something the Course does quite nicely by seeing the world as our dream, which God can only enter with our permission). Yet Spong's position has to explain the apparent presence of that very thing. For there are events in this world in which, against all the odds, God appears to show up. There are events in which God appears to speak to us. A Course in Miracles is one of those events. The story of its origin and the content of its pages convey the overwhelming appearance that this book is the result of an activity from beyond the human, reaching down to offer us a better way.
Bishop Spong's criticisms of the Bible as the Word of God are well taken. Although I myself believe that parts of the Bible are Holy Spirit-inspired, I see the Bible for the most part as a very human product. And though I believe it has given the world incalculable gifts, I also find it impossible to deny that it contains many "texts of terror," texts which, as Spong says, "have been quoted throughout Christian history to justify behavior that is today universally recognized as evil" (p. 18).
Yet in my mind this does not mean that we should do away with the concept of a scripture that is the Word of God. It may yet be that there are instances in which God speaks to us, in which He speaks from outside the bigotry of human culture, in which He speaks only of love. I remain undeterred in the conviction that my scripture is one such instance.
1. John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). All page number references in parentheses are from this source.
2. D. Patrick Miller, The Complete Story of the Course: The History, the People, and the Controversies Behind 'A Course in Miracles' (Berkeley: Fearless Books, 1997), p. 33.
3. Claude Geffré, A New Age in Theology (New York: Paulist Press. 1974), p. 1.