Theological discussions

Question Especially with those who see the Course as "demonic" or a cult, and if so, how?

Short answer: I think that certainly we may do so if we feel so guided, though with certain reservations (which will be discussed below). This is a behavioral question, and as usual, the answer is that our behavior should be guided by the Holy Spirit: "Your Voice will tell me what to do and where to go; to whom to speak and what to say to him, what thoughts to think, what words to give the world" (W-pII.275.2:3).


The Course's reservations about theory and theology

Before we look at how we might engage in a theological dialogue from a Course perspective, let's look at the reservations. Two sections of the Course (M-24 and C-In) contain important discussions of how to handle theoretical and theological issues, and both present much the same message. They tell us that "this course aims at a complete reversal of thought" (M-24.4:1), that "it is concerned only with Atonement, or the correction of perception" (C-In.1:2). The Course contains a great deal of theology which it certainly wants us to study, understand, and teach, but it "is not a course in philosophical speculation" (C-In.1:1). In other words, its theology is not intended to be a fascinating intellectual toy for armchair philosophers to play with, but instead has the singular purpose of facilitating a reversal of thought, a shift in perception—the goal of the Course.

These sections tell us that the Course has little use for theory and theology that is merely philosophical speculation. We are told that tangential theoretical issues, such as the validity of reincarnation, "are likely to be merely controversial" (M-24.4:3), and therefore the teacher of God is advised to "step away from all such questions, for he has much to teach and learn apart from them" (M-24.4:4). The Course cautions against stirring up controversy, and it especially cautions against theological controversy. It tells us that "theological considerations as such are necessarily controversial, since they depend on belief and can therefore be accepted or rejected" (C-In.2:4). Such controversy should be recognized as "a defense against truth in the form of a delaying maneuver" (C-In.2:3); the teacher of God should keep in mind that "theoretical issues but waste time, draining it away from its appointed purpose" (M-24.4:5).

Given these strong admonitions, one might come to the conclusion that the Course doesn't want us to discuss theological issues at all. But that would be going too far, as the Course qualifies these strong statements in a number of ways. Even while telling us that tangential theoretical issues waste time, it also tells us that "if there are aspects to any concept or belief that will be helpful, [the teacher of God] will be told about it. He will also be told how to use it" (M-24.4:6-7). This suggests to me that we may well be guided to discuss such issues if the Holy Spirit has a good reason for us to do so. Using the specific example of reincarnation, the Course also tells us that we needn't refrain from discussing our various beliefs with those who share those beliefs; if we are misusing a belief, the Holy Spirit will tell us so, and will recommend reinterpretation or sometimes renunciation of that belief (M-24.5:1-6). Clearly then, it is not simply a matter of keeping our mouths shut. There are times when discussing theological issues is appropriate, and the Holy Spirit will tell us when those times are.

Given these reservations, how should we handle the discussion of theological issues?

This long discussion of the Course's reservations about theoretical and theological issues is a preamble to the central practical question: Given the Course's reservations (and qualifications of those reservations), just how should we handle the discussion of theological issues? When should we pursue a discussion and when should we step away? What should we say and what shouldn't we say? My personal opinion is that it is extremely difficult to draw a firm line here. Therefore, I think we are wisest simply to listen as best we can to the Holy Spirit for guidance about when to enter into theological discussions, and what to say while participating in such discussions.

One measure that I like to use when trying to discern my guidance about entering into theoretical and theological discussions is based on the following statement from the Course: "Those who seek controversy will find it. Yet those who seek clarification will find it as well" (C-In.2:1-2). In the Course, motive is everything, and these lines help me discern my motive. I ask myself as sincerely as I can: Am I getting involved in this discussion for the purpose of stirring up controversy, or am I getting involved in it for the purpose of seeking clarification? Is my motive to attack and separate myself from the other person, or is my motive to truly dialogue with the other person so that we can come to a deeper understanding and perhaps join in the process? I find this line of questioning very helpful.

Even though a hard line may be impossible to draw, I do think that we ought to take the Course's reservations about theoretical and theological issues seriously. We can keep these reservations in mind as we ask for guidance about entering into theological discussions, and use them as rules of thumb for discerning the validity of our guidance. I think it is wise to ask ourselves whether entering into a particular theological discussion is truly necessary, or is merely a time waster. The Course's reservations about theology may seem unnecessarily restrictive, but they are simply intended to help us awaken more quickly by keeping us focused on the most important thing: the changing of our minds.

The positive uses of theological discussion

Now I want to turn to the positive uses of theological discussion. As I do so, bear in mind that what I say here should be taken in the context of the Course's reservations discussed above. Even given those reservations, I personally think that theological discussion (and discussions of potentially controversial issues in general) can be a very positive thing. Indeed, the Course itself is full of highly controversial theology. How could we discuss it at all, amongst Course students or with Course detractors, without getting into theological issues? It is simply impossible. Even saying, "The Course doesn't want us to discuss theological issues" is a controversial theological statement! No, the Course isn't against theological discussion, even discussion of issues that happen to be controversial. What it is against is engaging in controversy for its own sake, controversy that is entered into for the overt or covert purpose of wasting time or promoting discord and divisiveness. As I alluded to above, it would have us discuss theology for the purpose of clarification—for the purpose of joining together in an honest search for deeper understanding—rather than the purpose of stirring up controversy. This, I think, is a good general answer to the question of how we should engage in theological discussions: in a way that aims at clarification, not controversy.

I personally think that discussion of theological issues, both among Course students and with non-Course students, is immensely valuable, and even necessary—if it is done in the right spirit, motivated by an honest, open-minded search for truth and understanding. The word "debate" seems to be a taboo word among Course students; many people prefer to use the word "dialogue" instead. Personally, I like that word and often use it myself. But honest dialogue inevitably includes debate, if by "debate" we mean simply discussion which involves the use of logical argumentation and evidence to convince others of the validity of a position. I think that even debate and disagreement can play a valuable role in deepening understanding, as long as it is rooted in a spirit of love and sincere truth seeking. If we don't allow discussion of differing points of view, how will we ever grow in our understanding of the Course, of ourselves, or of each other? I don't believe it is healthy for people to insulate themselves and their views from challenge or criticism by refusing to engage in honest dialogue. Healthy dialogue that doesn't discourage appropriate debate can be an opportunity for us to face challenges and criticisms squarely, rethink our own positions, learn from one another, and come to understand differing points of view, even if we don't agree with them. Done in the right spirit, this exchange of views can lead to a greater joining, even with those who disagree with us.

That being said, I think each specific situation is unique. With some people, I'm sure the Holy Spirit guides us to lovingly withdraw from theological discussion; with others, I'm sure He invites us to dive right into it. I must say, however, that attempting a theological discussion with someone who thinks your path is "demonic" and a cult is probably not going to be very fruitful. My experience is that people who are that extreme in their position are generally not very open to discussing different points of view. They usually don't have the goal of clarification and deeper understanding. Trying to discuss theological issues with people who are that strongly opposed to the Course can easily become a huge waste of time, and can easily degenerate into a battle of egos. In most cases with such people, I've found it necessary simply to give them a blessing and gracefully bow out of the discussion.

But you just never know when the Holy Spirit might want you to engage someone in such a discussion, and we should always be open to the possibility. To give a personal example (this was about a controversial political issue, but the same principle applies), I once had a remarkable experience with the maintenance man of my apartment complex. The controversial political issue was an anti-gay rights ballot measure that was to be voted on in Oregon. The measure basically aimed to revoke anti-discrimination laws intended to ensure equal rights for gay people, and I was against the measure. Proponents (mostly conservative Christians) claimed that the anti-discrimination laws granted gays "special rights" not guaranteed to others. It was a very controversial issue in Oregon, one that sparked heated, divisive debate.

Somehow the topic of the ballot measure came up when I was talking with my maintenance man, and when he started grumbling about "special rights," I cringed. My first thought was, "Oh man, this guy's a gay-bashing yahoo—if I want him to ever fix my toilet again, I better change the subject fast." (What an egoic thought! I'm not proud of it, but to be honest, that is what I thought.) However, while part of me wanted to just forget the whole thing, something in me prompted me to gently but firmly confront his views. So, after first trying to set aside my prejudices about him and see him as a human being worthy of love, I did just that. As calmly as I could, I explained to him that I didn't think the anti-discrimination laws granted "special rights," but simply ensured rights that all of us are entitled to have. I told him all the reasons I thought the measure was wrong, and encouraged him to examine the wording of it himself before he decided how to vote on it.

To my surprise, his whole demeanor shifted. I could see the anger dissipate, and he said to me that he didn't realize that the anti-discrimination laws didn't grant special rights. He said that he had no problem with gay people having the same rights as the rest of us. I don't know how his vote eventually went, but I got a sense that my words had really caused him to stop and think, and that he was really seeing things differently. It really felt like a miracle.

Now, if I had gone with my first impulse to dismiss him as some sort of yahoo, or if I had invoked some sort of absolute "the Course says never ever to discuss controversial issues" rule in my head, or if I had simply backed off because I was afraid he wouldn't like me if I stood up for what I believed in (which I think is often the real reason we avoid discussing controversial issues), that shift never would have happened. In this case I really felt prompted to take a stand, and by choosing to engage in a loving dialogue with this man about this controversial issue, I really believe I helped facilitate a change of heart.

Should we as students of the Course get into theological discussions? We certainly may do so, but we would be wise to keep in mind the Course's reservations about theoretical and theological issues.

In conclusion, I believe that we as Course students may by all means enter into theological discussions if we feel guided to do so, keeping in mind the Course's reservations and qualifications discussed above. While certainly there are times when we should lovingly withdraw from such discussion, it is inevitable that we will need to engage in it at times. We couldn't talk about the Course at all otherwise. The main thing we need to do when contemplating entering such a discussion is to ask ourselves as honestly and sincerely as we can what our purpose for it is:

In any situation in which you are uncertain, the first thing to consider, very simply, is "What do I want to come of this? What is it for?" The clarification of the goal belongs at the beginning, for it is this which will determine the outcome. (T-17.VI.2:1-3)

If we align ourselves with the Holy Spirit's purpose and allow His words to come through us, theological discussion can be a gateway to deeper understanding. He may even guide us in some cases to engage in such a discussion with someone who is strongly opposed to our views; responding to a brother's call for controversy with an answer that offers truly loving clarification may even bring about a change of heart. It can lead to a miracle. Let us, then, trust the Holy Spirit to tell us when such discussion is helpful and appropriate, and let us trust that the words He gives us will lead to greater good for all:

Judge not the words that come to you, but offer them in confidence. They are far wiser than your own. God's teachers have God's Word behind their symbols. And He Himself gives to the words they use the power of His Spirit, raising them from meaningless symbols to the Call of Heaven itself. (M-21.5:6-9)

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