A friend recently drew my attention to an article that appeared in Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies from Brill publishers on March 22, 2017. The article attempts an analysis and I guess a “classification” of sorts of A Course in Miracles in the current religious/spiritual landscape from a theological point of view. The author is Simon J. Joseph, Ph.D., who is a scholar of religion, an author and a documentary filmmaker, with an impressive reach. The title of the article is: “‘Knowledge is Truth’: A Course in Miracles as Neo-Gnostic Scripture.” The article is certainly interesting in that it simply acknowledges the Course as a part of the Judaeo-Christian spiritual/religious landscape. The author has done a remarkable amount of reading on the Course, but unsurprisingly, he appears somewhat challenged in dealing with it, which manifests primarily in his need to categorize the Course. In other words, he tends to focus more on form than on content.
One point that stood out to me right away is the author’s position on the dating of the Gospel of Thomas (GoTh), which to me is very telling. Clearly, there is still a split along those lines in the scholarly community, which really revolves around the question of whether GoTh predates the synoptic gospels or not. Generally speaking, the Pauline school of thinking places the GoTh after the Synoptics, whereas those who think that the teachings of Jesus need to be understood on their own terms, free of the later influences of Paul, tend to come to the conclusion that the GoTh predates the Synoptics. Conversely, the Pauline school of thinking, which is the Christian mainstream, does not want to see any discontinuity between Jesus and Paul. They bought Paul’s version of events for they are, intellectually, his descendants.
To my way of thinking, the most compelling and intuitive argument for dating Thomas before the Synoptics is that the sayings of Thomas, as a pure matter of literary form, are the more rudimentary and primitive forms of the story, and that evidently it is the later gospels that engage in mythologizing Jesus and his life, thereby changing – often subtly – Jesus’ meaning under the influence of Pauline theology. Another friend reminded me of some comments by Joseph Campbell on that point. As so often, Campbell has remarkable insights to offer, as per this segment with Bill Moyers:
Jesus or Paul
As I read the article, I tried to understand the author’s vantage point, but in a way I feel out of my depth. The Church view of Jesus as the Savior who died on the cross, presumably for our sins, was never mine, not even as a kid. To me Jesus was a living presence in the mind as “God’s Help,” the meaning of his name in Hebrew, and I never really bought into the Christian theology about the crucifixion as a matter of conscious belief. By the time of my teenage years, I began reading the New Testament in Greek, and it quickly dawned on me that the typical Christian interpretation and translation of certain words was very interpretive indeed, if not anachronistic at times. I also came to understand more deeply, once I started studying the Course, the psychological reasons why we would be tempted to believe the Christian version: the ego wants its cake of separation and eat it too.
One of those key words was metanoia, which, with the Pauline theology of guilt, was always translated as “repentance.” Later, especially after I started working with the Course, the psychological dynamics that explain our attraction to that interpretation became that much clearer to me, and I realized that Jesus was never talking about repentance of sin, but about a change of mind. Paul twisted the meaning of metanoia towards ‘repentance’ and used it as an instrument for converting people to his budding new religion, which reflected his deep guilt over his own life, which, in spite of his brilliance he does not seem to have resolved and thus channeled it into converting others to his newfound “belief.”
Understanding that dynamic of Paul’s role indicates another clear reason for dating the Thomas Gospel earlier. The Pauline theology of the meaning of the crucifixion is entirely absent from it. Nothing could be more telling. Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson also felt this in his stocking feet and dismissed the mythologizing of the Pauline tradition, concentrating on only the actual biblical sayings of Jesus, who is not the source of the theology of sacrifice that came in with Paul. Jefferson’s opinions in the matter deserve to be better known. He called Paul “the great Coryphaeus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” In fact these issues were being actively debated in France during the time Jefferson was stationed in Paris, do it makes sense he should have picked this up. Figuring out where and why that disconnect occurred was something that has fascinated me since my early teens. Campbell’s commentary in the video clip above is very pertinent for that reason as well – he appreciates that the Jesus of the Thomas Gospel was of a radically different order than the Jesus of the Synoptics.
Also very telling is the fact that the Thomas Gospel was excluded from the accepted list of canonical books only as of 367 AD by Bishop Athanasius. Evidently, its rejection at that time was one of the reasons someone wisely buried the manuscripts that were later found again at Nag Hammadi in 1945–the Church had been actively destroying books that were, in its eyes, heretical. Meantime, we might also remember that some of Jesus’s statements that were adopted for inclusion in the Synoptics and given a different interpretation would tend to be read very differently in the context of the Thomas Gospel, such as the idea that to those outside the Kingdom, everything comes in parables. Simply put, Jesus was a teacher of non-duality, and Paul scuttled its meaning by turning it into a dualistic teaching and making it into a religion that he then ascribed to Jesus, as was commonly done in those days, has been done throughout history, and is still being done today.
Clearly, the central notion of “gnosis”–“knowledge” in the Course–is an expression of the innate, direct, spiritual knowledge that transcends dialectic thinking because it is our connection to our source in God; it comes to us outside of space and time. It is the Voice for God, as the Course calls it, or Abraham Lincoln’s “the better angels of our nature.” In Ken Wapnick’s terminology, the key concept here is the “decision maker,” the faculty of our mind that has the ability to choose as our ally either the ego or the Holy Spirit. That choice is the “change of mind” Jesus was always talking about. Never mind all the bizarre theologies that made up later gnosticism, it is this essential idea of direct knowledge as a possibility and a choice, which is accessible to everyone of us, that is material to the teachings of Jesus, from the ancient texts that still remain to A Course in Miracles today.
With the above realization comes the Course’s notion of Salvation: it is a choice, and the Course is a mind-training program to help us make that choice. Joseph, however misses that point entirely. He uses a lot of the terminology without apparent comprehension.
Why Knowledge is Truth
All this the Holy Spirit sees, and teaches, simply, that all this is not true. 2 To those unhappy learners who would teach themselves nothing, and delude themselves into believing that it is not nothing, the Holy Spirit says, with steadfast quietness:
3 The truth is true. 4 Nothing else matters, nothing else is real, and everything beside it is not there. 5 Let Me make the one distinction for you that you cannot make, but need to learn. 6 Your faith in nothing is deceiving you. 7 Offer your faith to Me, and I will place it gently in the holy place where it belongs. 8 You will find no deception there, but only the simple truth. 9 And you will love it because you will understand it.
Fundamentally, “knowledge” in the Course or “gnosis” in gnosticism is direct and total and cannot be understood other than from the standpoint of non-dual reality, something the Course describes as oneness, or truth. Very simply and obviously, if something is not true, it must be a lie. Within truth, there simply isn’t anything else, for truth is one by definitioin. This seems very hard to fathom and beyond dialectic reasoning, which gets completely wrapped around the axle on this. In the Course, all these terms–God, Heaven, Oneness, Spirit, Eternity, Love, Truth–belong to the state of oneness, before the seeming separation and in the end they are all the same. They are all equally all-encompassing, and in that oneness “nowhere does the Father end, the Son begin as something separate from Him” (ACIM:W-132.12:4). One is one is one, so there is nothing (no-thing) to talk about, or, with what Ken Wapnick calls a “Level One” statement in the Course:
We say “God is” and then we cease to speak.
It is in this spirit that Ken Wapnick dedicated his book Love Does Not Condemn to all gnostics then and now and in the future. The central concepts of the Course are the non-dualistic understanding of gnosis, and the “theological” concept that God is the Source, He is One, and we never left, although we think we did. These days this can be somewhat understood within a quantum-physics model: the “tiny mad idea” in the Course is consciousness (dualistic) which selects a specific quantum moment out of the total universe of quantum possibilities, making, as the Course puts it, “an outside picture of an inward condition,” (ACIM:T-21.I:5) or, in psychological terms, our experience of “the world” is a projection from the mind.
In his article, Simon Joseph remains stuck in a dialectic concept of knowledge as something that is transferred from teacher to student, when he mentions the ideas of “lost Christianity,” or a “lost Gospel.” Later, he speaks of salvation as being attainable only by “receiving gnosis,” again as if it were a discrete item, a good, that can be passed on, something from the outside. The way he writes about knowledge objectifies it – as if there were two bins in the supermarket, one with dualistic knowledge and another with non-dualistic knowledge. Non-dualism cannot be “lost,” because by sheer logic it must precede dualism. That is, before any consciousness of subject and object there must be a mind in which such consciousness could arise (the Course’s “tiny mad idea”). In other words, Jesus taught non-duality, but then he was reinterpreted dualistically almost immediately. The same thing happened with Hinduism where Sankara read the Baghavad Gita in a non-dualistic light and later commentators turned it into a dualistic teaching. Again, organically, non-dualism must of necessity precede dualism.
Jesus spoke of the change of mind that was needed to see the Kingdom, which is, in the words of the Thomas Gospel, “spread out” everywhere, but we don’t see it. For the simple reason that as long as we think we are “outside the Kingdom,” we must of necessity hear everything in parables, for duality is parable. In general, the article therefore remains stuck in a line of reasoning that broadly objectifies knowledge and thereby tries to keep something in the realm of dialectic reasoning when the very point is that it isn’t; it transcends dialectic reasoning altogether. A major focus of the article is explaining why the Course is “neo-gnostic,” and “New Age,” which may be useful in part, but it may actually obfuscate more than it explains.
The ‘neo-gnostic’ concept falls in with the attempt to date the Thomas Gospel after the Synoptics, while the New Age category is confusing for a different reason. ‘Gnosticism’ covers such a wide range of religious and spiritual traditions that some have argued it is a meaningless term, but the same could be said for the term ‘New Age.’ One principal feature of New Age thinking tends to be that it is very much focused on making the world a better place, and for that reason alone A Course in Miracles should not be categorized as a New Age document. Declaring Jesus or the Course ‘gnostic,’ or ‘neo-gnostic’ is likewise anachronistic–gnosticism flourished in the 2nd and 3rd centuries after Jesus, and the fact that some gnostic schools may have grasped the spirit of his teaching better than the Church still does not make Jesus a gnostic, nor does it make the Course ‘neo-gnostic.’ These categorizations risk ignoring the meaning of the Course. In the process, we lose the Course’s fundamental notion that the reason salvation is possible, is because we chose the separation and we can now choose to undo that choice with the process of forgiveness. Again, this is the process of changing your mind that Jesus appeals to, even in the Synoptics. Salvation in the Course is not something from the outside, it is a choice. For Helen and Bill and for Ken it is this psychological dimension that made the Course so powerful.
The ‘theology’ of the Course is really depth psychology, as reflected also in the three clinical psychologists who were most intimately responsible for its being first recorded and then published. To mistake the psychology for theology, shortchanges the Course. The Course’s construct that the God of Genesis is an ego projection, is something that must first and foremost be understood on a psychological/spiritual level. It is historically significant because it emphasizes that ‘the real God,’ who is our source, is Love, Oneness. If you contemplate that, it should be evident that this is true almost by definition. Again, the dualistic perception of the world seems to take place within a mind that is one, or, to put it even more simply, you cannot count to two, if you did not start with one. Hence everything in the dualistic world is unoriginal, for our Source is Oneness and Two-ness is hardly an original idea. In regard to Ken Wapnick specifically, it is very obvious that it was the psychological/spiritual value that was his primary connection to the Course. He deeply appreciated how and why the Course uses biblical terminology as a way of expressing its thought system within a Judaeo-Christian context.
The Course and the Bible
In his article, Joseph states (p. 103) that Ken Wapnick at first attempted to “reconcile” the Course with traditional Christianity, as if Ken said something else later. Specifically, Joseph cites a quote from the “Preface to the Fourth Edition-1992” in a later (1998) edition of Forgiveness and Jesus, where Ken explains why he would no longer be inclined to emphasize the bridges to biblical teachings, but would now be more inclined to emphasize the discontinuity between the two. Ken recognized the didactic process of first appealing to a known and then redefining the terms. Note that oftentimes even the Course itself contains statements that indicate Jesus was misunderstood from the very beginning. In other words, the Course itself implies that the subsequent Christian theology misconstrued Jesus’ intended meaning–which, again, goes back to Paul. Reconciling the Course and the Bible was never Ken’s purpose.
In my experience, too, Ken never meant to “reconcile” the Course and the Bible. Other than that, in the early years of his work with the Course, there was a need first to understand the Course’s allusions to the Bible, for only then did it become possible to explain the differences in meaning. To clarify my own observations of these developments, I offer some notes here. First of all, I was Ken’s student from 1991 to the end of 1999, attending workshops at the foundation at least 5-6 times a year on average. I have read pretty nearly everything Ken ever wrote and the Course itself dozens of times. What really happened is that, in the first few decades that the Course was in wide circulation, there were oftentimes not only people in workshops who were struggling with their particular faith in relation to the Course, but also interactions with various churches, some positive, some negative. For example, some factions in Unity Church for a while sort of co-opted the Course. We should see Ken’s efforts in sorting out the context of the Course in connection with these various developments. Perhaps the most accessible material in this regard is a book titled A Course in Miracles and Christianity, A Dialogue, which Wapnick co-wrote with Fr. W. Norris Clarke, S.J., Ph.D. In this book the two sort out point for point what the differences are between A Course in Miracles and Christian theology, which has been very helpful for many.
Throughout his writing, it is clear that Ken was fully aware that the Course purposely used Christian terminology, because it stood in a Judaeo-Christian world, not to mention the fact that Helen, the scribe, was steeped in biblical tradition. The Christian context provided a certain familiarity, but the Course frequently redefines terms to mean something different from the way they are traditionally understood. From a didactic viewpoint, this was a two-step process, first appealing to a known term and then redefining it. But it is not that he later interpreted it differently once he became acquainted with the gnostic and platonic traditions.
Some of the biggest differences between the Course and Christianity are that the non-dual God of the Course is a first source of all, being more à la Brahman in Hinduism, than the creator God of Genesis. As pointed out above, it is “the tiny mad idea” that is like the creator God of the Bible, and that is why the gnostics think the creator God of Genesis is not the real God, for the real God would not create anything dualistic like this physical universe. In quantum physics, it is the observer who determines the experience of a wave or a particle.
In his article, Joseph makes Ken out to be the one who was interpreting the Course along ‘neo-gnostic’ lines, but this is hardly the case. As a teacher, Ken truly explains the Course with the Course and adds nothing, except an occasional explanatory term. His acquaintance with gnosis and gnosticism came well after he was thoroughly steeped in the Course, and it would be more accurate to say that his book Love Does not Condemn simply pays homage to the conceptual parallels between the Course material and gnosticism, while specifically recognizing that the Valentinian school of gnosis was closer in understanding Jesus and the Bible along the lines of the Course’s thought system than anything else in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Needless to say, etymologically and epistemologically the terms “gnosis” in Greek and “knowledge” in English are the same. Along with that, Ken also explores the parallels between the Course’s thought system and that of Platonic philosophy, right along with gnosticism.
In spite of Joseph’s impressive reading, it appears to me that he simply does not have a grasp of the Course as a whole, and too often he gets stuck in the words without really getting the meaning of those words. Affixing labels like ‘neo-gnostic’ or ‘New Age’ might not be very constructive in that sense. In other words, there is a lot of “interpretation” he ascribes to Ken Wapnick, which would be cleared up if one were to read the Course in toto–there is no interpretation here, just explanation of the Course on its own terms.
For me, the reading of this article was kind of interesting just to see how the Course is being addressed in the world of religious scholarship. Evidently, it has become a significant enough phenomenon that it is getting some attention. Having said that, the article suffers simply from insufficient understanding of both the Course in its own right, or indeed the development of Ken Wapnick’s scholarship of it. Ken was a clinical psychologist first, who then found himself attracted to the monasticism of Thomas Merton, and converted to Catholicism with the thought of entering the monastery. Then he stumbled into Helen Shucman and Bill Thetford and ‘their’ Course at Columbia Presbyterian. Next, he became the editorial assistant to Helen and came to know the Course like nobody else, realizing full well that for Helen the relationship of Course verbiage to biblical language was a comfort factor.
As Ken moved into more and more teaching of classes on the Course, his reading also expanded ever wider as people from all walks of life took an interest in the Course and in those years he deepened his studies of a great many religious and spiritual traditions. Every conceivable question about whether the Course is anything like XYZ came up in the course of his workshops. Ken took an interest in all of it and could usually give you a clear answer about the similarities and the differences. Joseph’s claim that “It is difficult, in short, not to conclude that Kenneth Wapnick has performed a neo-gnostic reading of a neo-gnostic text” is a complete reversal of the temporal sequence in Ken’s work that is not supported by the facts. A lot of what Joseph claims is Ken’s ‘interpretation’ of the Course, ascribed by him to Ken’s ‘neo-gnostic’ leanings, is self-evident if you read the Course in its entirety. True enough there are numerous interpreters of the Course who publish widely, but the volume of material they put out does not make them experts on the Course as Ken Wapnick undoubtedly was. A number of these other interpreters of the Course that are cited by Joseph are quite obviously semantically challenged and twist the words of the Course.
More than anything else, the article was a reminder to me once again how critical it is to understand the position of the Thomas Gospel. If you are given to the position that Paul’s reading of Jesus was definitive, it is almost inevitable that you should want to associate the Thomas Gospel with the gnostic period of the Nag Hammadi manuscript. However, that reading is no more valid than calling Ken’s reading of the Course ‘neo-gnostic,’ just because later in his life he came to study the gnostics, as is clear in his book Love Does Not Condemn, which simply recognized the inner consistency of certain gnostic teachings with A Course in Miracles as a relevant aspect of Western tradition and the Course’s place in it.