How Literally Do We Take the Course?

by Robert Perry

What do we do when we read something in A Course in Miracles that doesn't seem to fit the rest of the Course? One very widespread approach, pioneered by Ken Wapnick, is to see that passage as a metaphor. According to this view, Jesus fully appreciates just how fearful we are of the straight truth. And so he purposefully tells us things that speak to us where we are and comfort us, but aren't literally true. They are, in fact, metaphors, colorful words and images that aren't really meant to be taken literally.

What is a metaphor? Here is how Webster's Dictionary defines it: "the application of a word or phrase to an object or concept which it [the word or phrase] does not literally denote, in order to suggest comparison with another object or concept, as in 'A mighty fortress is our God'" [italics mine]. God obviously is not an actual, physical fortress, with walls and towers and battlements. Calling Him a fortress is merely a metaphor. It suggests a comparison between God and a fortress: Just as a fortress protects us, so does God.

We find the same kind of metaphor in the Course: "Father, my home awaits my glad return. Your Arms are open and I hear Your Voice" (W-pII.226.2:1-2). Now certainly, God is not actually waiting for us with actual, physical arms. Just as calling Him a fortress was a metaphor for His protection of us, so speaking of His open "Arms" is a metaphor for His complete welcome of us.

Yet not all apparent metaphor in the Course is quite so clear-cut. Here is a passage often given as an example of metaphor: "God is lonely without His Sons, and they are lonely without Him" (T-2.III.5:11). It is very easy to take this as a metaphor. The Course teaches that God is changeless and forever complete. How, then, can He feel lonely? That would make Him both changing and incomplete, wouldn't it? Clearly, the human emotion of loneliness is like the terrestrial image of arms—it must be a metaphor.

Must it? Before we decide this so quickly and casually, let's take a more careful look. A metaphor compares one thing with another. It says, for instance, that God's protection is comparable to a fortress. It says God's welcome is comparable to welcoming arms. What about God is comparable to the emotion of loneliness? This presents a problem, for if anything about God is even comparable to loneliness, then that it sounds as if God is changing and incomplete. We are right back where we started.

Therefore, when Course students say that God's loneliness is a metaphor, what they really seem to mean is this: "Jesus didn't mean that line. We can, therefore, just write it off." But that's not how metaphor works. Metaphors stand for something. They refer to something. If you say that Jesus was being metaphorical when he said God is lonely, then you are saying that Jesus meant there is something in God that is like loneliness. If what you are really saying is that Jesus simply didn't mean what he said—he was telling us an untruth in order to make us feel good—then that's not a metaphor. That's a benevolent lie.

The problems with reading this line as a metaphor, however, are just beginning. In the passage about God's Arms, "Arms" was an isolated image. It didn't fit into a larger web of teaching about God. It wasn't, for instance, surrounded by references to God's Legs, Muscle, Bone, and Nervous System, and how all these parts work together. This, however, is not the case with God's loneliness. It does tie into a larger web of teaching, a web that we see in the sentences right around the passage in question, a web that we see stretching throughout the Course.

To begin with, shortly before the passage about God's loneliness, we find this sentence: "God and His creations are completely dependent on each other" (T-2.III.5:6). It is not hard to see how this connects with our passage on loneliness. If two parties are dependent on each other, and some sort of separation occurs, then both parties will feel lonely.

Furthermore, these teachings are not confined to one paragraph in the Course. Note these parallels:

The constant going out of [God's] Love is blocked when His channels [us] are closed, and He is lonely when the minds He created do not communicate fully with Him. (T-4.VII.6:7)

You are as lonely without understanding this as God Himself is lonely when His Sons do not know Him. (T-7.VII.10:7)

The loneliness of God's Son is the loneliness of His Father. (T-15.VIII.3:2)

The consistency of teaching in these passages, spread out over many chapters, is striking. All of them say, in essence, what our passage says: When we do not know God, we are lonely, and He is lonely, too.

The other passage we looked at—"God and His creations are completely dependent on each other"—also has parallels elsewhere in the Course:

By [God's] willingness to share [His function with you], He became as dependent on you as you are on Him. (T-11.V.6:3)

God is as dependent on you as you are on Him. (T-11.V.12:1)

These themes of mutual loneliness and mutual dependency are not only found in many places in the Course. They also connect with a larger tapestry of Course themes about the whole relationship between us and God. In hundreds of passages this relationship is given a very personal, relational quality. God created us. He loves us. We are His Son, His joy. To communicate with Him is an intensely personal experience. When we fall asleep to Him He feels lonely. He yearns to have us come home. He calls us home with His Voice. He makes promises to us. He stands at the end of the road, waiting to enfold us in His embrace.

Do you see now what I mean by our passage on loneliness being part of a larger web of teaching in the Course? If you label our passage a metaphor, you must also label the entire web a metaphor. All of that talk about our relationship with God must be seen as a metaphor.

I think even that would be all right if you meant that all of that talk stands for something: God feels something like yearning for our homecoming; God will enfold us in something like an embrace; God regards us in a way that is like the way a father regards a son; God "calls" us home in a way comparable to how a parent calls a child home.

But if by metaphor you mean "Jesus didn't really mean that; he was merely telling us a nice fairy tale," then you have just erased a broad tapestry of teaching in the Course. It is as if you stood before a huge wall tapestry and saw one thread that seemed to be out of place. So, quite naturally, you reached to pluck that thread out, to keep it from marring the tapestry's beauty. But when you pulled, you found it connected to other threads, so you kept on pulling, hoping you would soon reach the end of the thread. By the time you were done pulling, a huge pile of thread lay at your feet and the tapestry was stripped bare.

I believe that we should approach the Course with more far respect. How do we know if something is a metaphor? Did we write the Course? Rather, I think we should look carefully for indications of what the author intended. Did he mean this passage as a metaphor, or did he mean it literally? That is the only question that matters.

What clues does the author give us about this? I can think of three main clues. The first one we have discussed: Does this word or phrase connect in a meaningful way with a larger web of teaching? Going back to the example of God's Arms, there is no larger web of teaching about God's Arms; no discussion about God having a literal body with parts. I take the reference to God's Arms, therefore, as a metaphor. In contrast, we saw that the comment on God's loneliness did connect with a larger web of teaching. This suggests it is not a metaphor.

The second clue is this: Does the author ever say directly, "This idea cannot be true"? For example, there are many passages which say or imply quite clearly that God does not have a body. Here's one: "Any thought system that confuses God and the body must be insane" (T-4.V.3:1). If God has no body then he obviously cannot have arms. However, there is not a single passage in the Course that says, "God cannot feel lonely." This, I think, is extremely important. It means that we have no solid basis for discounting that web of teaching about God's loneliness.

The third clue: Does the author ever say, "I didn't actually mean this," or, "I really meant this"? For instance, look at this passage on the ego:

I have spoken of the ego as if it were a separate thing, acting on its own….We cannot safely let it go at that, however, or you will regard yourself as necessarily conflicted as long as you are here. The ego is nothing more than a part of your belief about yourself. (T-4.VI.1:3,5-6)

You should know, however, that this kind of comment—"I said it that way but didn't mean it that way"—is quite rare in the Course. Most of the time the author is encouraging us to take what he has said quite literally:

When I said "I am with you always," I meant it literally. (T-7.III.1:7)

Think not that this [the idea that the body was made to limit the unlimited] is merely allegorical, for it was made to limit you. (T-18.VIII.1:4)

You have surely begun to realize that this is a very practical course, and one that means exactly what it says. I would not ask you to do things you cannot do, and it is impossible that I could do things you cannot do. Given this, and given this quite literally, nothing can prevent you from doing exactly what I ask. (T-8.IX.8:1-3)

The above quotes (and there are lots more like them in the Course) are very telling, I think. The author is clearly concerned about our tendency to assume that something was not meant literally. We do this all the time. When a statement feels threatening or too hard to believe, we often assume that it was some sort of poetic metaphor or exaggeration. It is a way to discount an idea, to distance ourselves from it, to protect ourselves from it. One can see why Jesus would warn us against this device, for it is a device for protecting ourselves from his teaching.

Herein lies my concern about this metaphor idea. It gives us license to do the very thing that Jesus is trying to get us to avoid. It gives us license to alter the Course at will. If we are uncomfortable with a certain passage, we can just wave the metaphor wand and poof! The passage is gone. If we don't see how a passage fits with our understanding of the Course, rather than considering that our understanding might be flawed or partial, we just wave the metaphor wand, and again the passage is gone. Do we really want to place the editor's red pen in the hands of the insane, whose minds do not understand why the Course was designed the way it was, and whose hearts are deeply threatened by its uncompromising sanity?

There is no question that not waving the metaphor wand will drop problems in our laps. What do we do, for instance, if we decide that God's loneliness is an actual teaching, and not just a nice fairy tale? How does God's loneliness go along with God's changelessness and completion? I can only conclude that somehow there is room within God's changeless completion for something analogous to what we call loneliness. That is definitely a paradox. Yet the mystics of all times and places have said that Heaven can only be described in the language of paradox. Our minds are uncomfortable with paradox, yet to honor the Course as it is we will have to learn to live with it. For otherwise, we will start pulling threads out of the Course's tapestry, a tapestry we should instead stand back and appreciate as a whole, for in it lies the memory of our wholeness.

4 Comments

  1. Greg Fillar
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Dear Robert,
    It seems to me that Charles Thomson [see response below] has formulated a very good and lucid statement about this issue of literalism. Wondering about whether a certain passage it literally true or, instead, a metaphor is, for me, a distraction and a digression from the task at hand. What we (or at least me) are trying to do is understand the underlying meaning of what the Course says. In this sense, the entire Course is a metaphor.
    What I think is happening is that in order for people to accept the various challenging and seemingly outrageous statements made in the Course, a need to declare the Course as entirely "true" has evolved. Why? Else people begin doing what you cautioned: Red lining certain parts of the Course. I absolutely believe that everything in the Course is true, but I believe a distinction must be made concerning at what level this truth lies. Is it physical literalism, emotional literalism or theological literalism? I think it's fairly obvious that when we reach the realm of emotional and theological literalism, we have already jumped out of the box of literalism, per se.
    To express emotional (i,e,. non-verbal) meaning verbally, we need to use metaphor. For instance, I might say "I'm angry". Fine. But if I really want to express the fact that I'm angry in a certain way or degree, I will probably need to use a metaphor: "Angry as a swarm of wasps", "Angry as a bee in a bonnet" (or other location), or "It's just something that gets under my skin" (in other words, more annoyed than actually angry).
    Artists, including verbal artists, understand the use of metaphor very well. After all, artists are usually trying to speak the "language" of emotion through color, sound or other sensations.
    So what does all this have to do with the idea that the Course says God is lonely for his sleeping children? Since, as Mr. Thomson points out, this information is being communicated in a dualistic reality context, metaphor must be used. How else could we begin to understand what is being expressed by the Source? The only other way would be through direct experience—revelation. Since most of us have not reached the point of being able to commune with the Divine via direct experience, we must settle for the next best thing—analogy.
    By analogy, we can get an "inkling" of what is being expressed. Saying "God is lonely" is neither true nor untrue. But because our frame of reference is dualistic, we want "the answer": Yes or No. Light or dark. Good or bad. The way I perceive it, Divine consciousness is something we can only approximate at this point. What God truly experiences (a phrase that is nonsensical, since God doesn't "experience" anything—God IS everything), we cannot know except by approximation (analogy).
    I think I understand the desire (need?) to keep our awareness that the teachings of the Course are intact, consistent and reliable. But I believe that we must also constantly remember that we are attempting to access a part of Mind (which is our own true Self) that our computer brain cannot comprehend. Our physical consciousness (i.e., everything we "think" via the cerebral cortex) is riddled with imperfection. We are looking in a mirror which is reflecting the light rays that the mirror behind us is reflecting. The image we see seems infinite and profound, but it is an illusion—our brain is easily fooled (as with those cartoon images that, when stared at long enough up close, suddenly seem 3 dimensional, as if we could actually walk right into them).
    To "awaken" we need thoughts, feelings and experiences that move us in the direction of what already truly is. God is not lonely. How could infinite, unqualified, complete "being" experience the emotion of loneliness. What the Course is trying to communicate, I believe, is the idea/awareness that the sleeping state of our Mind(s) is a very serious matter; a condition in need of profound healing. In fact it is so serious that one could even say that it's importance is so great that even God feels our absence in some way, much as we feel loneliness. But is God actually lonely? Yes and no. What is the sound of one hand clapping.
    Peace and blessings,
    —Greg Fillar in Chicago

  2. Charles Thomson
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Surely a helpful approach to this apparent question is to hold the recognition in mind that the answer to the problem we made has to adress itself to the level where the the problem seems to be: namely that of duality. Eventually, as the mind is healed, the problem is recognised increasingly as being generated by a mind which is entirely outside the universe of form,and that the situations that present themselves on this level of duality are indeed symbols of the one false belief in the separation. When this is acknowledged, the remaining true function of that mind is to decide to return itself to God. Until that point is reached the mind of God's dreaming son must be taught through the use of symbols because that is all he understands. The process of healing is literal and undeniable, the means are the very symbols God's son originally chose in order to convince himself that the separation was real, and are metaphorical in that they always stand for something else. Thus it is not difficult to see from here that the idea of a need to decide whether or not the teachings of A Course in Miracles are literal or metaphorical is a false one much as if one might want to decide whether the handle of an axe was qualitatively different from its head. Seen from the perspective of duality the answer must be 'yes', but seen from unity the whole notion is simply unnecessary and unhelpful.
    —Charles Thomson.


    The terms 'arms'..'fortress' are items of illusion, i.e.: physicality. Whereas 'lonely' is of the mind. If mind is unable to connect with mind, then it can cognize lonely. This is how I differentiate meanings in the Course.

    Great, informative article!!!
    —Diana

  3. Anonymous
    Posted October 3, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    GOD'S LONELINESS…..Understanding the meaning is difficult. Do we look at God's being lonely as detached from the actual need as from the attached feeling man often has when lonely?

  4. Martin Pettet
    Posted July 30, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I think you could argue to the effect that if God is Everything, that must include loneliness. If it doesn’t, then there is something that is in addition to everything, which is nonsensical. But it doesn’t have to be argued. Merely by being mentioned, it ( God’s loneliness) is made real – as real as any other idea. All of them – including the idea of God’s indifference – are based on the separated mind. That mind cannot, and never will, comprehend Reality. But it’s also true to say in the meantime every part or aspect of the illusion is equally as real, or as unreal, as every other part. It’s all up to us (it seems)

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