Interpretation. That thorny word. We Course in Miracles students tend to approach the Course as a revealed scripture brought to us from a pristine realm beyond the human. And yet, ironically, before we can understand it and put it to work in our lives, it has to pass through the very human filter of interpretation. This can feel like obtaining the purest mountain spring water on earth, and then pouring it into a dirty cup before drinking it.
This uncomfortable predicament has spawned a profusion of perspectives on interpreting the Course. The following is a partial list of ones that I have heard or read:
• We need to affirm the validity of all interpretations. There is no one "right" interpretation. The Course means what it means to you.
• "The only authoritative voice for A Course In Miracles meaning is each person's own connection to the Voice for God, the Holy Spirit, within their minds" (stated on the homepage of an ACIM website).
• The Course's surface meaning is largely metaphorical, often saying the opposite of its real, underlying meaning. We need to reinterpret its statements—decode its metaphor—in light of its nondualistic metaphysics.
• Since there's only one truth, we need to interpret the Course in a way that makes it consistent with the one truth expressed by all spiritual teachings.
• The right interpretation comes from listening to the right authority. The Course means whatever a particular someone who is "in touch" says it means—someone enlightened, in communication with higher beings, or close to the original story of the Course.
• Since other students and teachers seem to know what they are talking about, I will interpret the Course according to the things I hear repeatedly from them.
• The Course is meant to make no sense on the surface level. That way, it will tie up your brain in unsolvable riddles, so that it can then bypass your conscious mind and speak to a deeper part of you.
• Rigidly interpreting the Course according to the literal meaning of its words is fundamentalism. Even the Bible says "the letter killeth."
• We shouldn't interpret the Course. We should just feel it, know it, and live it.
• The Course is written on different levels in order to address people at different levels of development. Depending on the level on which you are reading it at the time, you can legitimately take away very different meanings.
• Yes, we will have different interpretations, but we shouldn't discuss them or make them important. Only the ego thinks such differences make a difference. And only the ego talks about them. Taken seriously, interpretations just cause separation.
• When we interpret, we are interpreting words, and words are just symbols of symbols, twice removed from reality. We need to stop emphasizing words and go beyond them to experience.
• We can't really ever know what the Course means. Why emphasize interpretation when it is doomed from the start?
No wonder the Course community is so splintered! Each of the perspectives I list above represents a starting point for one's whole relationship with the Course. As a result, we may have the same book (although these days, even that's in question), but we relate to it in such vastly different ways.
There is something else I see in the list above. I see a general shying away from interpretation as conventionally understood. Normally, you have a block of words on a page, and you simply ask, "What do those words say? What was the author trying to convey with them?" To me, all the perspectives I list above seem to subtly avoid that more usual, straightforward approach to interpretation. They either say that there is another way to approach interpretation—a deeper or more personal way—or they say that we should downplay interpretation altogether.
Personally, I think downplaying interpretation represents a kind of profound denial. I say that because whatever the Course is in itself, interpretation utterly determines what it is for us. Interpretation, and only interpretation, takes the Course from being a series of strange markings on paper to being something meaningful and something alive for us. If, for instance, we interpret the Course as mainly being about hating the world (which some have done), that's what it will become for us. Indeed, if (to use a ludicrous example) we were to interpret it as being about strangling kittens, that's what it would become for us. Whatever the Course is for us, it was made that by how we interpreted it.
So rather than trying to shy away in embarrassment from interpretation, we need to face it full on. Once we do, I think the first thing we need to ask is, "What did Jesus think about interpretation?" After all, he is the author. It is his course. Thankfully, he did not leave us without indicators of what his approach is. Indeed, there are so many that there isn't space here for a truly adequate treatment. However, the following quotes, drawn from the Course as well as the Urtext (the Course's original typescript), reveal clearly the general outlines of his approach:
The reason why this [section] is so short, despite its extreme importance, is because it is not symbolic. This means that it is not open to more than one interpretation. (Urtext)
You have surely begun to realize that this is a very practical course, and one that means exactly what it says. (T-8.IX.8:1)
I have made every effort to use words which are almost impossible to distort, but man is very inventive when it comes to twisting symbols around. (Urtext version of 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. (T-11.VI.3:1-2)
Be very careful in interpreting this. (Urtext)
Do not read this hastily or wrongly. (M-29.7:3)
Just re-read them and their truth will come to you (Urtext). Refer to point 1 and re-read now (Urtext). Re-read the actual quote (Urtext). Read these lessons carefully (T-4.In.3:11).
The section on psychic energy should be re-read very carefully, because it is particularly likely to be misinterpreted until this section is complete. (Urtext)
I could include many more passages along these same lines, but from just this brief list, a clear pattern emerges. We can summarize this pattern in four points:
1. The Course is not meant to be "open to more than one interpretation." Jesus has a particular meaning that he is trying to convey.
2. He is trying to express that meaning in the clearest way he can, making "every effort to use words which are almost impossible to distort."
3. The lack of clarity, then, doesn't come from him, but from us. We are prone to "twisting" his words, "interpreting against" them, almost willfully misinterpreting what he says.
4. To correct for this, we must be willing to "be very careful in interpreting." We must resist the temptation to "read this hastily or wrongly," and instead read and "re-read very carefully."
In short, we have to counteract our tendency to turn Jesus' clarity into our confusion by approaching the interpretive act with the utmost care.
This entire picture is contained in a particularly interesting passage in which Jesus was reviewing Helen and Bill's mistaken thoughts over the course of a day. As part of that review, here is what he said:
[Bill] was discourteous when he told you that he wanted to keep the original copy of the notes, having decided to have them Xeroxed on his own will, and then justifying it by a very slight misinterpretation of what I said about "useful for others." In fact, if he will re-read the actual quote, he will see that it really means "useful for him." You had interpreted that way, and frankly this was pretty clear to me at the time. But this sort of thing happens all the time. (Urtext)
Bill had decided on his own that he (not Helen) needed to keep the original copy of Helen's Course dictation ("the notes"), because he needed to photocopy it. This was actually a discourtesy to Helen, but Bill justified it by misinterpreting Jesus' comment about the notes being "useful for others." To correct his misinterpretation, Jesus suggests that Bill "re-read the actual quote" and see what "it really means." In fact, "useful for others" actually meant "useful for Bill." Helen had interpreted it correctly, and Jesus himself was "frankly…pretty clear" on what he meant by it (is Jesus actually using sarcasm here?). The irony in this story is that Jesus really meant that Bill was supposed to apply the notes to himself, rather than be discourteous to Helen by seizing them for his photocopying crusade. And this is not an isolated incident. Rather, it is a typical example of a general tendency. As Jesus says in concluding, "But this sort of thing happens all the time."
What a parable of Course interpretation! There is some fundamental discourtesy in us that wants to misinterpret the Course in the way this discourtesy wants—basically, to justify itself. Instead, we need to go back and "re-read the actual quote," so that we can see what "it really means." For there is something it really means; it does not have multiple valid interpretations. Its real interpretation would be perfectly clear to a less biased observer (such as Helen in this case), because it was "frankly…pretty clear" to the author.
Here we have no less than a new vision of Course interpretation. To be quite honest, it doesn't fit with any of those perspectives I listed above. I regret to say that it goes against the majority of what I see students doing with the Course. Where we want to expand the range of what a passage might mean, affirming all possibilities, Jesus wants to collapse that range down to one. Where we want to bypass the surface meaning and have the real meaning unlocked by inner guidance, personal preference, or nondualistic metaphysics, he sees no need for this, as his words were already clear and plain. Where we want to use his words loosely as our initial takeoff point, liberally mixing in our own experience, learning, and inspiration, he wants to drag us back to those words and have us read and re-read, cranking out a careful interpretation the old-fashioned way.
And yet, however different is his approach, its benefits are almost beyond belief. Let me go through those benefits as I see them:
First, this really can be done. If we truly carefully read and interpret, we can come very close to hitting the bull's-eye of what Jesus really meant. Yes, interpretation is a tricky and subjective business. I don't think it's ever perfect. Yet any given Course passage is surrounded by a whole host of clues about the meaning of that passage. And to the extent that we are willing to fully submit our interpretations to the verdict of those clues, to that same extent our interpretations can get increasingly more accurate. In the end, I believe that we can get extremely clear about what Jesus meant.
Second, as a result of this, we can to a significant degree actually contact Jesus' thought, rather than our own expectations. This, to me, is what is exciting about good Course interpretation. My own thoughts and expectations are honestly pretty boring. Yet when I pay close attention to what is on the page of the Course, I contact a thought that is not my own, that I never would have generated on my own, because it frankly towers above my own. That is exciting.
Third, when we contact Jesus' thought, what we find is immeasurably more rich, original, thought-provoking, practical, and transformative than what our own expectations would project onto that passage. The feeling I often get from students is that we don't want to be confined to the literal meaning of the Course. That would be thin, dull, restrictive. But if we can treat its words as evocative symbols that enigmatically point to a myriad of possible meanings, then we can have a real richness of meaning. This may be true of other texts, but my experience of the Course could not be more opposite. When I stick to Jesus' actual words, when I drag myself back to read, reread, and carefully interpret, I find an endless gold mine of original wisdom, which sees me exactly as I am now, yet which then lifts my mind into new perspectives, perspectives that have never been voiced anywhere else.
Fourth, in this scenario, we have only one final authority for how we understand the Course, the authority of what Jesus put there on the page. In the current scenario, we have countless authorities. We have the authority of our own feelings and inner guidance, the authority of what works for us or fits with our experience. We have the authority of Course lore—things that everyone "knows" about the Course—and the authority of general spiritual wisdom. We have the authority of particular teachers who claim enlightenment, or channel Jesus, or talk to higher beings, or were present at the Course's beginning. In my opinion, we have too many chiefs, too many cooks. As a result, the real authority, Jesus himself, has to take his place in the crowd, as one tiny voice among many. Wouldn't it be nice to say to all these other authorities, whatever their status, "Thank you very much for that. Now let's test it against what's on the page"?
Fifth, this way would actually allow for broad agreement among us about the Course. Wouldn't that be wonderful? I believe that we are all hurting over the distressing lack of agreement about what the Course says and what the Course is. We may never actually feel so alone as when we are in a room full of other Course students. Yet there is a potential basis for broad and substantial agreement: We all have the same words on the page in front of us (with minor exceptions), and those words, read very carefully, really do point to one particular meaning. Wouldn't it be great if we collectively had our eyes on that page, so that we could collectively see—and agree on—that one meaning?
Sixth, identifying that one meaning, to an ever more full and accurate degree, could become a community-wide collaboration. The fact is that understanding the Course is far too big a job for any one person. We really need to pool our talents in a project that would span generations. Such collaboration would be possible because we would all be playing by the same rules—his rules. In this collaboration, countless individuals would contribute different pieces of a gigantic puzzle. No one's interpretations would be privileged just because they were that person's interpretations. Everyone's contributions would stand or fall by the simple yardstick of what's on the page. Can you imagine the Course community pervaded by this collegial, cooperative spirit? Isn't this vision of everyone contributing to an ongoing "collaborative venture" more attractive than the fragmented collection of little kingdoms that we have now?
I said earlier that one's approach to interpretation is the starting point for one's whole relationship with the Course. The same thing is true of Jesus' approach to interpretation. It could become a whole new starting point for us, individually and collectively. It could become the beginning of a whole new future for the Course. Everything we did with the Course, all the effects it had on us, all the effects it had on the world through us, could be different. Everything could be different.
Unfortunately, in its first thirty years, the Course has started off on a very different track. And once momentum has built down a certain track, it is not easy to switch tracks. Could our loose-knit Course community ever jump over to this new track? The choice, as always, is up to us.