Labeling oneself a Course purist can sound so restrictive. It calls to mind old images of religious purity, in which a righteous fence is erected that encloses a tiny piece of holy ground and shuts out the whole world. It sounds like a curb on our freedom, so that just as we reach for joy, handcuffs are slapped on our wrists. It sounds like the triumph of the letter of the law over the spirit. Finally, it raises the ugly specter of fundamentalism, in which believers quote chapter and verse to defend intolerance, in which holy books become weapons.
Yet being a Course purist is my life. It is a stance that I consider reasonable, healthy, freeing, and life-giving. In this article, I will attempt to explain why.
But first, what do I mean by "Course purist"? I mean that I take the Course at its word and that I consider it a complete and sufficient path, which means that I follow it alone. In essence, I treat its words the same way that I would treat the words of a living teacher. If I considered Jesus to be my teacher, and he physically walked into my house and began speaking to me in plain English, teaching me the truth and laying out a concrete path for me to realize that truth, why wouldn't I disciple myself to him? Why would I say, "Well, what he's saying is really all metaphor, and I should freely interpret his metaphors and then weave them together with everything I'm learning from other teachings"? I wouldn't say that with a living teacher, and I don't say that with the Course. That's what I mean by saying that I'm a Course purist.
I didn't start out this way, or anywhere close. For years, I was passionately eclectic, following many teachings at once. I focused mainly on those themes in the Course that I could read in other places. And I interpreted some of the Course's more unusual teachings metaphorically. When it said that we made the world, I assumed it meant that we made our mental and cultural "world," not the actual physical world. When it said the universe was the product of a mistake, I assumed that it was simply failing to mention the key point that it all happened for a purpose, as a result of God's evolutionary plan (an idea I had read in so many other places that I knew it had to be true).
So what got me from there to where I am now?
The Course asks its students to be Course purists
My main reason for being a Course purist is that this is clearly what the Course itself is asking of its students. This may sound surprising, but let me explain where I see that in the Course.
First, in the Manual for Teachers, the Course consistently speaks as if a teacher of God is following a particular path, "a special form of the universal curriculum" (M-1.4:1). This path is chosen for him: "You are not free to choose the curriculum, or even the form in which you will learn it" (M-2.3:6). This path is what he will teach to others; it is "the form of the universal curriculum that he will teach" (M-2.1:2). Finally, the Manual was written for those teachers whose path is A Course in Miracles: "This is a manual for a special curriculum, intended for teachers of a special form of the universal curriculum" (M-1.4:1).
Second, the Course bills itself as a path "in which nothing is lacking that is needed" (W-pI.42.7:2). Think about it. If you are buying a car and a voice booms out of the sky and says, "This is a car in which nothing is lacking that is needed," do you immediately tell the salesman to start adding on accessories?
Third, Jesus told Helen that we shouldn't try to walk someone else's path. Once, when Helen was judging someone whose spirituality she felt was flaky, Jesus told her, "Don't take another's path as your own; but neither should you judge it" (Absence from Felicity, p. 450). The message here is obviously twofold: Don't judge someone else's path. Maybe it is just the right path for that person. But if it is not your path, don't walk it. Don't take it as your own.
Fourth, the Course cautions us that mixing outside ideas into its thought system may weave threads of fear into its tapestry of love. It tells us, for instance, not to uncritically mix in ideas from the New Testament. "As you read the teachings of the Apostles, remember that I told them myself that there was much they would understand later, because they were not wholly ready to follow me at the time" (T-6.I.16:1). In other words, realize the teachings of the New Testament are a mixed bag. Otherwise, you may take in a teaching—like Jesus dying for our sins—that implies a fearful God. And, as Jesus explains, "I do not want you to allow any fear to enter into the thought system toward which I am guiding you" (T-6.I.16:2). You can see this same discerning stance in how Jesus handles the teachings of Edgar Cayce and Sigmund Freud in the Urtext (the original typescript of the Course).
Fifth, the Course says that mixing in outside ideas can detract from its radical, practical focus. In the section on reincarnation (M-24), the Course says the idea of reincarnation is basically a neutral form that can be filled with content of the ego or of the Holy Spirit. Being a neutral form, it is not inherently transformative and is therefore nonessential, invites controversy, and causes distraction. Consequently, "it would not be helpful to take any definite stand on reincarnation" (M-24.3:1). "The teacher of God is, therefore, wise to step away from all such questions" (M-24.4:4)—all such questions. We may believe in reincarnation, UFOs, or the Atkins diet, but we don't see them as part of the Course or teach them as part of the Course.
Sixth, the Course tells us to practice its methods, not to practice the methods of other paths. This extremely important point is found in "I Need Do Nothing" (T-18.VII). This section describes two practices: "long periods of meditation aimed at detachment from the body" (T-18.VII.4:9) and to "wrestle with temptation and fight against the giving in to sin" (T-18.VII.5:7). Then it contrasts these practices with the Course, saying, "Your way will be different" (T-18.VII.5:1). It explains that the Course's way is not solitary, but rather is undertaken "together with your brother" (T-18.VII.5:3), and that its way is not a tedious process of earning holiness, but a faster process of realizing our inherent holiness. Then comes the key line: "You are not making use of the course if you insist on using means which have served others well, neglecting what was made for you" (T-18.VII.6:5). Could any student take that line to heart and not be a Course purist?
Seventh, the Course says that we should not design our own curriculum, because we are retarded. You may find it hard to believe that the Course actually says such a thing, but it's in there. The Course flatly states, "You have learning handicaps in a very literal sense" (T-12.V.5:1). Now, "learning handicapped" was the term back then for "developmentally disabled." Jesus is calling us retarded. Then he says,
In this situation you clearly require a special Teacher and a special curriculum. Poor learners are not good choices as teachers, either for themselves or for anyone else. You would hardly turn to them to establish the curriculum by which they can escape from their limitations. (T-12.V.5:4-6)
Most of us are essentially trying to design our own mix-and-match path. We are trying to design our own curriculum. Yet Jesus likens that to telling a bunch of learning disabled kids, "Okay, you're the teachers now. Design your own curriculum. Make up lesson plans. From now on, you're going to teach yourselves." Who would do that?
Finally, the Course says that it "means exactly what it says" (T-8.IX.8:1). Seeing the Course as filled with metaphor is a common perspective. This includes Ken Wapnick's approach, which openly says that the Course is mostly metaphor, as well as approaches like my early one, in which I assumed that when the Course said we made the world, it couldn't really mean the world. A metaphorical approach seems to grant us license to reinterpret extreme statements, unusual teachings, or difficult instructions. Now we can relax their intensity by seeing them as mere metaphor. Yet the Course itself doesn't encourage such an approach. It will often emphasize that it means an extreme statement "literally" (as in the above quote: "You have learning handicaps in a very literal sense"). It says things like, "Think not this is merely allegorical" (T-18.VIII.1:4). Finally, it claims to be "perfectly clear" (T-11.VI.3:1), "simple and direct" (T-20.VII.1:3), "very simple, very clear and totally unambiguous" (W-pI.39.1:2), and "a simple teaching in the obvious" (T-31.IV.7:7). Does it sound like Jesus is granting us much wiggle room in how we interpret his words?
Let's look at the eight points I just drew from Jesus' own words:
1. The teacher of God follows and teaches a particular path that was chosen for him. The Manual was written for those teachers whose path is A Course in Miracles.
2. The Course is a path "in which nothing is lacking that is needed."
3. We shouldn't "take another's path as [our] own."
4. We should be cautious about mixing outside ideas into the Course's thought system, for that may weave threads of fear into its message of love.
5. We should be cautious about mixing in outside ideas, for that may detract from the Course's radical, practical focus.
6. We should practice the Course's methods, not the methods of other paths.
7. We should not design our own curriculum, because we are retarded.
8. The Course "means exactly what it says." We should treat its words as being "perfectly clear," "direct," and "totally unambiguous."
If you take these eight points to heart, then I think you end up where I am. You end up being a Course purist.
Now, these points may be incorrect. I think that in stating them, I have been fair to the Course, but maybe the Course itself was wrong when it made the statements that I was drawing from. Or maybe those statements were meant only for Helen and Bill, not for everyone (though I see no good reason to believe that). And even if the above points are correct, I think they (especially 4, 5, and 6) apply to those who have become clear that the Course is their path, not to newer students who are still exploring that question. However, if you are clear that the Course is your path, and if you agree with all of the statements in the Course from which I have drawn my points, then I don't see any option except being a Course purist. Do you?
Why being a purist is a gift, not a restriction
Yes, I know, the above eight points can seem to tie us up in a straitjacket. And that's exactly how I would have felt twenty years ago. But I don't feel that way now, not in the least. Instead, here is how the options look to me: I can spend my time shuttling between a number of different homes, with my toothbrush in one place, my computer in another, some of my clothes here and some there. Or I can settle down in this incredible mansion, which has been designed and built to perfectly suit my needs, which is so spacious that I will never stop finding new rooms, closets, and cubbyholes, yet in which all of the different parts work together flawlessly. Frankly, it's not much of a choice. Let me explain what I love about having settled down in this mansion.
First, I have come to believe that the Course is uniquely wise. Nothing I have found knows the interior of my mind in such depth and detail. And nothing I have found has fashioned keys that so perfectly fit the locks in my mind. When I read other teachings, even ones that I respect, I feel that I have come down to a lower elevation. I am sure I must be biased in this. On the other hand, I started out seeing a more level playing field. Much of why I am so totally focused on the Course now is that the more closely I worked with it, the more I realized that a unique force of wisdom was moving through its pages.
Second, I have to come to see the Course as uniquely practical. The world's spiritual traditions are a treasure house of practices with power to awaken us, yet for me the Course's practices have proven uniquely effective. For changing my perception, for healing my emotions, for bringing me peace through meditation or intimacy with God through prayer, nothing has worked for me like the treasures in the Course's storehouse. One of the best things that ever happened to me was falling in love with its practices. But those practices only came alive for me when I paid very close attention to the instructions. And I only did that when I decided that the Course was it for me.
Third, I have come to see the Course as breathtakingly original. They say that people like to hear what they expect, like churchgoers who want the comfort of the old familiar themes. Personally, though, I find that boring. I want to hear something I've never heard before. I want my mind stretched. I want to stand before genius. I want to hear something original. And I get that all the time from the Course. I don't think people realize just how deeply original the Course is. As an experiment, I just opened my book at random to see if my eyes fell on something that I couldn't read in any other teaching. I opened to the section in the Manual entitled "Is Each One to Be Judged in the End?" (M-15). Where else but in the Course can you read that, yes, in the end, each one of us will stand before God to be judged, yet instead of opening the book of all our misdeeds, He will throw it away, and announce to the entire world, "This is My Son, and all I have is his" (W-pII.FL.In.6:3)?
Fourth, I have come to see the Course as bottomless; it will never stop teaching me more. As long as my mind is unawakened, I want to learn new things that will contribute to my awakening. I want to come across new ideas that will trigger little awakenings. And I learned long ago that the Course is an inexhaustible ocean of new ideas. Yes, I have read it many, many times. But the amount that is actually in there is immeasurably greater than what meets the eye. As a result, there are always new things to learn. Some of them are tiny details and some of them throw new light on everything. Yet all of them spark awakenings.
Fifth, this is a path in which all the parts fit together. The Course has a simply amazing ability to run a straight line between its loftiest metaphysics and its most practical instructions. Everything seems to fit together seamlessly, which means that all the oars are rowing together. However, if I were to introduce elements from other paths, would they fit this well? Let's say, for instance, that I practice being in the present by tuning into the pure sensation of the moment, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the touch, without pasting on my busy mental overlays. How would this fit with the Course's teaching that my sight, hearing, smell, and touch are "senses without sense" (T-28.V.5:6) designed to show me a false world, to show me a world that looks like the present but is actually the ancient past (see T-26.V.5:6)? Couldn't it be that by loading on this other software I risk experiencing a software conflict and even a system crash?
Sixth, I have come to believe that by following the Course I am following one who knows the way. Humanity has produced a small number of towering religious geniuses, and I personally believe the author of the Course is one of them. This is partly because I believe he really is Jesus, but it's mainly because of how he shows up in the Course. He conveys such a mastery of the journey and such a feeling of having reached the end, such a feeling of egolessness. Yet he has none of the remoteness one might associate with egolessness. He feels like he is really with us in the process, that he honestly treasures us, just as he says (see T-13.X.13:2), that he genuinely cares about our welfare, even more than we do. I get the sense that he is totally on my side, yet is just as fully on God's side, and that he therefore holds the key to bridging the apparent distance between the two. I can't help but feel that as I traverse this unfamiliar territory, I am in the hands of the most reliable guide imaginable, one who walks with me all the way and yet also stands at the end, waiting with open arms.
I hope you can see why I feel that by sticking just with the Course and just with the straightforward sense of its words, I am living in that mansion I described. Why on earth would I want to go back to moving around from house to house? Why would I want to evade the plain sense of Jesus' words and read in my own metaphorical meanings, when that plain sense offers me such treasures? This doesn't mean that I don't have great respect for other teachings and other teachers. It just means that this is my teaching and my teacher. I once heard Huston Smith relate how a Hindu pandit told him that it's better to dig one well of sixty feet than six wells of ten feet each. I thought, true, but only if you have found the right place to dig. I have no doubt that, for myself, I have found that right place.