A Course in Miracles seems anything but clear. I remember many years ago being in a bookstore with a friend who picked up the Course for the first time. She had heard remarkable things about it and thus approached it with anticipation, expecting that it might change her life. After she had leafed through it and read some, I asked her what she thought. She had a far off look in her face and sounded perplexed but also serene. "It doesn't make any sense…but then, it's not really supposed to." It was as if she had encountered something so high, so transcendental, that it could only speak in mystical riddles incomprehensible to the rational mind.
Many feel that the Course is doing exactly this. I heard one channeled source say that the Course was intentionally written to tie our brains up in knots so that it could bypass our intellects and speak to our deeper minds. Others take different approaches. Some say that we shouldn't study the Course at all. Others feel that the Course is inherently open to many interpretations. Still others prefer to argue over fine points of interpretation in study groups. Bill Thetford said that when tempted to argue over a page we should tear it out instead. Ken Wapnick tells us that the Course is filled with metaphor, and that its literal meaning may be in direct conflict with its real, underlying meaning.
In my opinion, in a chaotic mess such as this, the only thing we can do is consult the author of the book. What did he think about how clear and understandable his course is? As one might expect from an author, he actually has quite strong views on this subject:
I have made every effort to use words that are almost impossible to distort, but it is always possible to twist symbols around if you wish. (T-3.I.3:11)
This course is perfectly clear. If you do not see it clearly, it is because you are interpreting against it, and therefore do not believe it. (T-11.VI.3:1 2)
Like the text for which this workbook was written, the ideas used for the exercises are very simple, very clear and totally unambiguous….We are dealing only in the very obvious, which has been overlooked in the clouds of complexity in which you think you think. (W-pI.39.1:2,4)
According to these passages, the words and ideas of the Course are "very clear," "perfectly clear," and "almost impossible to distort." If the Course does not seem clear to us, they say, it is because we are trying to "twist [its] symbols around," are "interpreting against it," and are peering at it through our own inner "clouds of complexity." In short, according to the author, the Course itself is extremely clear. It is our own resistant, befuddled minds that make it seem unclear.
Could it be true that the Course is actually crystal clear? Could its words be literally almost impossible to distort even though they seem almost impossible to understand?
My answer to this question—which for many years would have been, "Gee, I don't know"—has finally become an emphatic "yes!" The Course now seems to me to be the clearest thing I read. I don't think that its passages are hopelessly ambiguous—riddles that can never be solved. I think it is actually possible to know precisely what the author meant by almost every single passage in the Course.
The reason that the Course is amazingly clear is, ironically, the same reason it seems so muddy: its unique style of writing. In normal writing, you have a whole that is built up from parts. Each sentence communicates a (hopefully) clear point. These points are then strung together, one after another, to make up a whole paragraph, a larger point. These paragraphs are themselves strung together to make a series of larger points which add up to an overall thesis.
The Course's writing has some of this quality, of course. But on balance its writing style is quite different. At the same time that one point is following another which follows another, multiple themes are weaving in and out of each other in great profusion. Ideas mentioned in a particular sentence will be referred to in a variety of ways in surrounding sentences and paragraphs. As a result, the full and clear meaning of that sentence will lie in this encircling network of references. A sentence by itself in the Course is often very ambiguous, open to many interpretations. It only becomes truly clear in light of the surrounding context. The sentence receives its meaning from the larger whole around it. In the Course, in addition to meaning being carried in the pieces and then given to the whole, meaning is also carried in the whole and given to the pieces. Now, all writing has this quality to some degree, but the Course's writing has it to an exceptional degree.
This unique style is initially very confusing. But once you learn how it works, its effect is the exact opposite. Things become crystal clear, just like the author says. If you are unclear about what a sentence is saying, you can check the many references to its ideas in the surrounding sentences and paragraphs. Each one of these references looks at the same thing that this sentence does, only from a slightly different vantage point. The net effect is like being able to view a baseball play from twenty different camera angles. At that point, your chances of calling the runner out when he was safe are reduced to almost nil.
At the same time, if you misinterpret the sentence, your interpretation will grate against most or all of those references. It will clash with them. You will be like an umpire who called the runner out, but who later saw twenty different replays telling a different story.
Let me give an example of how this works:
The two voices speak for different interpretations of the same thing simultaneously; or almost simultaneously, for the ego always speaks first. (T-5.VI.3:5)
This sentence is fairly well-known among Course students. When read by itself, the sentence can appear to say that when you turn within for guidance, you will hear both the ego's voice and the Holy Spirit's. They will speak simultaneously, "or almost simultaneously, for the ego always speaks first." For many Course students, this became a rule of thumb: When you ask for guidance, realize that the first voice you hear will be the seductive voice of your ego.
But this has nothing to do with what this sentence is really saying, which is only revealed by looking at the larger context:
3:5. The two voices speak for different interpretations of the same thing simultaneously; or almost simultaneously, for the ego always speaks first. 6. Alternate interpretations were unnecessary until the first one was made.
4:1. The ego speaks in judgment, and the Holy Spirit reverses its decision, much as a higher court has the power to reverse a lower court's decisions in this world….4. Not only does the ego cite Scripture for its purpose, but it even interprets Scripture as a witness for itself. 5. The Bible is a fearful thing in the ego's judgment….7. Being afraid, you do not appeal to the Higher Court because you believe its judgment would also be against you.
5:1. There are many examples of how the ego's interpretations [of the Bible] are misleading, but a few will suffice to show how the Holy Spirit can reinterpret them in His Own Light. (T-5.VI.3:5 5:1)
What we need to do is comb this passage, looking for other references to the idea of the ego speaking first and the Holy Spirit speaking next. Such references are all over this passage. We are told that "the ego speaks in judgment, and the Holy Spirit reverses its decision" (4:1). We are told that the ego interprets Scripture fearfully and the Higher Court can reverse this interpretation (4:4,5,7). We are told that the ego's interpretations of the Bible are misleading and that "the Holy Spirit can reinterpret them in His Own light" (5:1).
If we take in all of these references, we see a clear idea emerging. The ego gives its interpretation of something, an interpretation which is fearful and judgmental (notice that different forms of the word "interpretation" weave through this passage from beginning to end). The Holy Spirit then steps in and reverses this interpretation. This, in fact, is why the Holy Spirit exists. "Alternate interpretations [i.e., the Holy Spirit's] were unnecessary until the first one [the ego's] was made" (3:6). If it were not for the ego's interpretations, we would not need the Holy Spirit. His whole purpose is to reverse the lies told to us by the ego.
To make the idea clearer, we are given an analogy: that of a higher court and a lower court (4:1). A lower court can make a wrong judgment. It can issue a verdict of guilt upon an innocent man. The higher court then has the power to reverse the verdict and set the man free.
To clarify this idea even further, we are given a concrete example of it: The ego interprets the Bible fearfully (4:4-5), and the Holy Spirit then reverses these interpretations (5:1). Directly following the portion we quoted above, the Course then discusses four Bible verses which have traditionally given rise to intense guilt and fear of punishment (such as, "The wicked shall perish"). In the process, it shows us how the Holy Spirit handles them: He reinterprets them as expressions of God's Love, rather than His vengeance.
Now we can see exactly what the Course means by that well-known line about the ego speaking first. The ego tells you that you are guilty and deserve God's wrath. The Holy Spirit then reverses this judgment, telling you that you are God's holy Son. As the closing line of the discussion says, "His verdict will always be 'thine is the Kingdom,' because He was given to you to remind you of what you are" (10:8). What a beautiful idea! It is so much more profound than the idea that when you ask for guidance, the first answer you hear will be the ego's.
We can wince at first when an old interpretation like this is shown to be off the mark. Yet the true interpretation vastly outshines the old, just as the Holy Spirit's interpretation of who we are outshines our ego's. I therefore encourage us to eagerly seek what the author really meant by his statements. He surrounded every sentence of his with all the clues we need. The clarity is there to be found. The author was right: This course really is perfectly clear.