A Course In Miracles: an examination
Introduction: A Course in Miracles remains a major presence among non-aligned and New Age seekers that follow New Thought religion primarily in the Western, developed nations. It has been years since I posted anything on ACIM, but I continue to get inquiries, so I dusted off this old 1991 paper and decided to share it again. Another factor for this discussion regards the emergence of Eckhart Tolle whose subjective idealism echoes ACIM in remarkable ways, so much so that celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, have taken to promoting Tolle just as Winfrey and others promoted ACIM since the late 1980s.
Joseph P. Szimhart
©1991, 2007, 2012, 2013
A Course in Miracles (ACIM) is a three volume religious document bound in blue that appeared in finished form around 1975. The story behind the creation of ACIM is perhaps as enigmatic as the document itself. ACIM’s biography was sketched out for us by one of the book’s promoters, Robert Skutch, in his book Journey Without Distance (Celestial Arts, 1984). Skutch tells us that ACIM was born through the interaction of two psychologists working at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. In 1965 William Thetford, PhD (1923-88), 42, and the head of the Department of Psychology, and Helen Schucman, PhD (1909-81), 56, his assistant were troubled over what to do about discordant staff.
Around that time, Helen experienced a dissociated persona, a “voice,” that urged her to take dictation. After initial resistance, she succumbed to a process encouraged by Thetford that engaged her for seven and one half years. Kenneth Wapnick, then in his early 40s and also a psychologist, began editing ACIM in 1973. After favorable reviews from like-minded folks including Hugh Lynn Cayce of the Association for Research and Enlightenment and Judith Skutch (Robert’s wife), a parapsychologist, ACIM was published in three volumes in 1976 by the Foundation for Inner Peace. In 1976, Reed Erickson, a wealthy transsexual philanthropist, received a copy of the manuscript that he used as a basis for study by a group in Mexico. Erickson was the primary financial backer of the first hardbound edition of the Course, donating $440,000 [Wikipedia source].* ACIM has since been released in a one-volume edition in 1985. Prior to the Internet boom, ACIM sold mainly through New Age shops, Unity Church and metaphysical bookstores. I have seen it for sale in Christian and commercial bookstores as well. An early, non-copyrighted 1972 edition of ACIM is available online (http://acim.home.att.net/acim_tx-1972.html).
* per 15 Jul 2012 email from Judith Skutch Whitson, President of the Course's Foundation for Inner Peace, the actual amount was $60,000. For more on R Erickson: http://www.mindbodyspiritjournal.com/the-strange-case-of-reed-erickson-and-the-course-in-miracles/
There is no reliable way to estimate the influence of ACIM, but it is safe to say that it has hundreds of thousands of staunch devotees and millions of readers. One church [now defunct], the Dispensable Church in Santa Fe, NM founded by Hugh Prather and others, used ACIM as its bible. The Foundation for Life Action directed by Tara Singh in Los Angeles established a nation-wide ministry and published many books based on ACIM. The transpersonal psychology of Gerald Jampolsky and his Attitudinal Healing centers directly reflect ACIM influence. A psychotherapy cult called Bridging the Gap in Fort Collins, CO developed around ACIM in the mid 1980s. The controversial, cult-like Endeavor Academy or The Academy, founded in 1993 as the New Christian Church of Full Endeavor of Wisconsin, is a school and residential community for spiritual transformation that uses a version of ACIM as its core teaching [see Wikipedia online]. Many Unity churches have permitted ACIM classes on their premises while their bookstores and ministers often promoted it. ACIM has been very popular with New Thought Alliance churches like Church of Religious Science. ACIM study groups are common, but its primary use appears to be private. Celebrities John Denver (1943-97) and Oprah Winfrey have publicly declared devotion to ACIM.
Similar to other new religious movements that stress subjective perception (Transcendental Meditation; Silva Mind Control; Scientology), ACIM attracts clergy and laity from mainline groups as well as a significant number of mental health professionals, especially those that favor Jungian and transpersonal views. ACIM interfaces well with Transpersonal or ‘fourth force’ psychology. ACIM reflects Gnostic world-views and mimics deconstructionist philosophy that stresses subjective realities. ACIM attempts, it appears, to ‘deconstruct’ Christian themes (salvation) and terms (atonement) while infusing Gnostic elements. The ‘voice’ that Helen Schucman scribed claimed to be “the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ.” ACIM dictates that guilt, fear, illness, and sin are only states of mind. I argue that it drains such terms of their rich and appropriate meanings.
At this point, we can look into the characters that developed ACIM. Helen Schucman, the channel or "scribe" for the ‘voice,’ grew up as an only child to Jewish parents in New York City. Her father was aloof to religious beliefs while her mother was an early “new ager” who sought spiritual truths from occult teachings and Theosophy. As a teenager Helen was attracted to the Catholic faith of her governess. She later opted for the more ‘holy spirit filled’ Baptist faith of a family housekeeper. By the time she entered New York University, Helen rejected her youthful visionary experiences and Christian leanings. She became a non-religious intellectual and married Louis Schucman who was also from a Jewish background. They shared a primarily secular worldview.
The Schucmans first years of marriage were difficult due to frequent quarrels. Helen felt stifled in her husband’s barely successful book selling business. Her father often lent them financial support. Many years later, when she began her graduate studies in psychology, Helen proclaimed her atheism. However, she continued to report visionary experiences despite efforts to remain positivistic and rational. During one of her mystical encounters while riding on a subway, Helen saw a blinding light embracing a female figure. Helen claimed to feel “an indescribably intense love streaming from it” (Skutch 28). Shortly after Helen received her PhD in 1957, she landed a job as a psychologist under Bill Thetford at Presbyterian.
Thetford was a Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University. Bill spent his youth in Chicago. His parents were Christian Scientists until he was seven when his older sister died despite the ‘prayerful’ treatments by Christian Science practitioners. Bill’s family felt deceived, let down and they were grief-stricken. They dropped out of Christian Science. Around that time Bill contracted Rheumatic fever that prevented him from going to school for several years. After he recovered, he did well in school. He was drawn to psychology as a college sophomore at DePauw Universityin 1944. The following year he met Carl Rogers who accepted Thetford as a research and teaching assistant. By Thetford’s account, he hardly felt qualified nor did he appreciate the significance of his dissertation that impressed Carl Rogers.
After hiring Helen in 1958, the two had a daunting task to organize psychological services at their hospital in a disagreeable climate among the entire board. Bill and Helen spent seven years in a respectful but tense professional relationship that would often “bring out the worst in one another” (Skutch 31). After receiving a new facility for their department in 1965 at Presbyterian, the two decided to incorporate a more positive approach toward tenuous interpersonal relationships at the hospital. To Bill’s surprise, Helen agreed to support the effort.
During this time of change in attitude, Helen had an incredible series of visionary dreams. Some involved exotic past lives in which Bill would appear in major roles. In one, Bill was an organist playing the Hallelujah Chorus. Helen ‘saw’ an altar with the words “Elohim” and “Evoe” (the cry of the Greek Bacchantes) on it. The pagan Evoe disappeared when lightning struck the altar. A Jesus figure stepped out and knelt down beside Helen. They were glowing in bright light. “And then a Voice, with which I was to become increasingly familiar, said in silent but perfectly clear words, ‘That altar is within you.’ The emotional impact of the conclusion was so powerful that I burst into tears.” (Skutch 45)
These visions had an unsettling effect on the “atheist” Helen but intrigued Bill, as she shared her visions before work each day. Bill encouraged Helen to engage the Voice which, by then in 1965, had convinced Helen that she was ready to receive the Course in Miracles. Prior to this, Helen had a vision of some plants growing in a bleak desert after asking the Voice for something cheerful. It told her, “And now that it’s finally started…you will go on watering it, won’t you?” Almost overcome, Helen promised she would (Skutch 53).
Although her rational outlook yet struggled with this submission/possession of her will, Helen continued her nightly sessions with the Voice until she completed ACIM in 1973. Helen conscientiously recorded the dictations word for word but claimed no understanding of the often radical subversion of normal meanings to words and concepts as she understood them. Bill, on the other hand, sympathized with the “new reality.” Nearly every morning in the office Bill and Helen went over the latest dictation that Bill dutifully typed and filed away. “It represented a truly collaborative venture between Bill and myself [sic, Helen], and much of its significance, I am sure, lies in that” (acim.org). One wonders, what would have become of Helen’s visions and auditory hallucinations had she another boss?
At one point, Helen demanded to know, What ACIM was for? The Voice answered: “The world situation is worsening to an alarming degree. People all over the world are being called on to help and are making their individual contributions as part of an overall prearranged plan. Part of that plan is taking down ACIM, and I am fulfilling my part in the agreement, as you will fulfill yours. You will be using abilities you developed long ago, and which you are not really ready to use again. Because of the acute emergency, however, the usual slow, evolutionary process is being by-passed in what might best be described as a celestial speed-up.” (Skutch 60) With her tenuous belief that she now served a grand if mysterious “plan” to “save the world,” Helen submitted.
ACIM’s style and agenda curiously echoes an earlier version of another “voice” with a similar “Plan” channeled by Alice A. Bailey (1880-1949) for nearly thirty years. Bailey reported that her source entity was “The Tibetan” or Djual Khul. In her The Unfinished Autobiography Bailey tells us that she initially resisted her “voice” around 1919-20 (Bailey 163). Bailey was born Alice Bateman to a wealthy aristocratic British family that attended the Anglican Church. In her autobiography she related three childhood suicide attempts: the first at the age 5, the second at age 11, and the third prior to age 15. After her troubled life as a teenager, she moved to India as a social servant. There she met and married a minister. They had three daughters. She finally left him in America after years of marital conflict [he once threw her down a stairway]. After relocating in California with her children and taking a job at a fish cannery, she abandoned Christianity. Bailey encountered and became a student and teacher of Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky’s occult writings. Her ‘Tibetan’ first surfaced as Djual Khul (DK) among Blavatsky’s five “masters” whose teachings Blavatsky scribed in the late 19th century.
There is no evidence that DK/The Tibetan was ever anything but a figment of Blavatsky’s outsized imagination, therefore by extension, Bailey’s. Blavatsky was famous for her alleged paranormal powers, vehement anti-Christian but pro-Gnostic, Buddhist, and Hindu polemics. Later research established Blavatsky as an inveterate plagiarizer, a fact that thrusts into doubt her connection with invisible Masters (Campbell 1980: 84-95; K. Paul Johnson; Peter Washington). In any case, A. A. Bailey created her unique version of Theosophy from 1920 onwards. She and her husband Foster founded The New Group of World Servers and the Arcane School to support The Tibetan’s cult following. They established Lucis Trust to publish 24 volumes of the Bailey/Tibetan teachings.
It is probable that Schucman was exposed to that same Theosophy and occultism through her mother. Helen’s “father owned a metaphysical bookshop” says Michael Murphy of Esalen Institute (Schultz 62). We must keep in mind Bill Thetford’s family roots in Christian Science because ACIM relates a host of similarities to that new religion as well. Schucman, as stated above, collaborated with Thetford to write the Course. As to ACIM’s Gnostic tone, we cannot point to any direct evidence that Schucman or Thetford studied Gnostic texts, but any student of New Age movements will easily identify Gnostic elements that include a revision of the Christ myth and a radical dualism or split with material reality while emphasizing ideal states of mind. Moreover, this material world is either seen as an illusion (Maya) or a dark and evil trap for the soul. Only God is real and good in ACIM: "The world you see is an illusion of a world. God did not create it, for what He creates must be eternal as Himself" (ACIM Manual 81). Whether Helen’s Voice was distinct from her own thoughts and philosophy we turn to a comment by Ken Wilber: “If you look at Helen’s poetry, you’re initially very hard pressed to find any differences between that and the “Course” (Schultz 62).
To a general reader not specializing in religious studies, ACIM can appear superficially Christian if only in an esoteric sense. The desire for esoteric Christianity drives many seekers to new revelations like ACIM. The yearning to avoid years of tampering by “Churchianity” with the original spoken teachings of Jesus leads the seeker to channels or mystics that claim Jesus speaks through them now. For example, philosopher and seeker Jacob Needleman in his Lost Christianity hints that an esoteric and “true” Christian teaching exists outside the churches. In his quest he comes up with nothing more than an obscure Sufi (Sarmoun) sect purportedly discovered by G. I. Gurdjieff early in the 20th Century. There was no such sect. Gurdjieff”s model, unfortunately for Needleman, harks back to the Theosophy of Blavatsky and the occultism of the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) more than to any Sufi order (Webb 1987: 505). Needleman was speculating about Christian truth and he admits it. ACIM is not speculation. It asserts that it represents the very words of Jesus and the Course is not an option, not for you, not for anyone:
“This is a course in miracles. It is a required course. Only the time you take it is voluntary” (ACIM Introduction).
Furthermore, ACIM demands total acceptance: “This course will be believed entirely or not at all. For it is wholly true or wholly false, and cannot be but partially believed” (ACIM Text 440).
Gnosis in a New Age
Gnostic systems have been around for nineteen centuries or more and they have generally been at odds with orthodox Theism. The arguments and distinctions are too intricate to state here but they stem from conflicts in moral codes and world-view (Rudolf 1987). Beyond the radical psychology, Gnostics tended to avoid procreation, maintained stricter separation from worldly life-styles and diets, and sustained frequent self-purification rituals, more than average Christians and Jews.
Theologically, the Judaic tradition sees the God of Abraham as the Creator of a good world (Genesis 1) whereas the strict Gnostic views the material world as an “evil” constraint created by the Demiurge or a lesser god. The creation traps the “light” emanating from pure Being or the “Alien” God in human bodies. The typical Gnostic claims, "I am not the body." To the Gnostic the world is an “interruption of eternity” (Raschke 1980) or a divine mistake. In contrast to ancient Gnostics, today’s ACIM advocates blend well into society while privately entertaining a radical spirituality. For the most part, the neo-Gnostic suffers psychologically, whether from real causes or imaginary, and finds the cause of his suffering in a world or body gone awry. Note that Blavatsky, Bailey, and Schucman all “suffered” as misfits in this world. In good moments the neo-Gnostic is aware that there must be another world wherein the good moments are permanent. ACIM affirms that the ideal world exists as “the only world that exists” and that there is a way to “create” it for oneself by breaking the spell of this one.
Gnostics have had a hard time with the real world of matter, energy, space, and time—in short, the creation. Over the centuries the prophets of Gnosticism have devised means of escape or transcendence. These devices include ecstatic experiences framed by imaginative cosmologies and cosmogonies (Rudolf 53-104). ACIM provides the student with means for ecstatic experience and/or transcendence through daily meditations. The Workbook for Students is a series of 365 lessons that contain daily affirmations for meditation. Each has a purport of one or two pages. For example,
Lesson 187: “I bless the world because I bless myself.”
Lesson 191: “I am the holy Son of God Himself.”
The entire Lesson 268: “Let all things be exactly as they are….Let me not be your critic, Lord, today and judge against You. Let me not attempt to interfere with Your creation, and distort it into sickly forms. Let me be willing to withdraw my wishes from its unity, and thus to let it be as You created it. For thus will I be able, too, to recognize my Self as You created me. In love was I created, and in love will I remain forever. What can frighten me, when I let all things be exactly as they are?...Let not our sight be blasphemous today, nor let our ears attend to lying tongues. Only reality is free of pain. Only reality is free of loss. Only reality is wholly safe. And only this we seek today.”
Lesson 338: “I am affected only by my thoughts.”
If you have not already known or guessed it, the idea behind ACIM is that there is no reality but one of being perfect, being “Christ.” All else is illusion and only our thoughts control that illusion (Lesson 338). ACIM in intent is Monism or a ‘monist’ philosophy despite its expression as a radically dualist one like Gnosticism. ACIM goes one step beyond Gnosticism indicating that not matter alone is illusion but what we perceive as matter and experience as matter creates the illusion. Sometimes I sense a bit of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology creeping into the Course, but it is not that consistent or sophisticated. ACIM states that we are forever “one” with God if we would only know it and stop believing (perceiving) we are separate from God. ACIM claims we are in reality only in the “holy instant” or that no-time in which we realize ourselves as God (ACIM Text 535).
ACIM and Christianity
The ACIM Lessons help a student break down (deconstruct) normal perceptions that ACIM views as aberrant. Typical of many New Age teachings, ACIM devalues words by emptying them of nuance and range of expression. All guilt is bad and there is no healthy version of guilt in ACIM. The same applies to sin, fear, doubt, illness, anxiety, and all negative thoughts—it is New Thought philosophy born again. Particularly irritating to Christian apologists is ACIM’s twisting of established scripture and its meaning. In 1987 the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, a Christian cult-watch organization, compared ACIM to a standard Christian teaching in SCP Journal Vol. 7, No. 1. For the sake of brevity, I select three examples:
1. ACIM Text 141: The Bible says, “The word (or thought) was made flesh.” Strictly speaking this is impossible, since it seems to involve the translation of one order of reality into another…Thought cannot be made into flesh except by [false] belief. [Bracketed words added by SCP].
Bible: 1 John 4:13; cf. John 1: 1-18: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the anti-Christ. (SCP 28)
2. ACIM Text 223: The Holy Spirit dispels [guilt] simply through the calm recognition that it has never been.
Bible: John 16: 8-9: When [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin. (SCP 29)
3. ACIM Manual 83: All your sins have been forgiven because they carried no effects at all. And so they were but dreams.
Bible: 1 John 1: 8-10, cf. Romans 3:23 and 6:23; Ephesians 4:18: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us…If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar, and his word has no place in our lives. (SCP 29)
SCP listed fifteen contradictions to show that ACIM violates the very core of Christian teaching. Kenneth Wapnick, the primary editor of ACIM and a Jew who once studied to be a Christian cleric, has stated that the “Course” is not compatible with biblical [traditional] Christianity (SCP Journal 15). Wapnick is not concerned in the least. He stated that one should choose whatever path “works for them” and in this sense he “accepts” Christianity even though ACIM contradicts it (SCP 16). In the final analysis, the Bible forbids the very process of divinization and spirit channeling that produced ACIM: Deut. 13: 2-6; 18: 9-22; 1 John 2: 18-23; Peter1:20and 2:1.
Vedanta in Christian Drag?
Bill Thetford and others have skirted the argument with Christian apologists by claiming that ACIM is more a form of Hindu Vedanta (Skutch 72) in Christian costume, so to speak, that reveals for our age the perennial philosophy. Perennials claim that all true spirituality partakes of an ancient stream of thought indigenous to the human connection to the sacred or divine, in other words, a sapiental metaphysic. ACIM in that view is a kind of revival or restoration of an ancient truth, albeit a flawed version. One critic of an earlier version of this paper told me that my dismissal of ACIM as a form of Vedanta was a “red herring” and off topic but I am merely addressing what one of the writers of ACIM claimed.
Vedanta is a Sanskrit term stemming from Veda (knowledge; sacred teaching) and anta (end). It is the conclusion of the Vedas in the Upanishads that comprise the last shruti (revealed Veda). Vedanta in this sense is canonical scripture for Hindus who envision it much the same as Christians do the Bible and the Sikhs, the Adi Granth. The similarities end once we enter the content and intent of these rich reflections on the Vedas. Without trying to do the impossible (for me) task of explaining the Upanishads (see references) in a few paragraphs, we can consider a sample of seminal concepts from the Vedanta to compare with ACIM.
Bill Thetford may have “seen” Vedanta in ACIM due to inadvertent Theosophical influences on Helen Schucman. We must keep in mind that Helen’s parents were very much into that world of spirituality that combines channeled information with Eastern religion and Gnosticism, neo-paganism and magic. Today we call it New Age. There was also Helen’s youthful yet intense devotion to Christian teaching. The fact that she scribed a run on version of some of these influences, perhaps in an effort to resolve them, in ACIM only confirms for me those influences. ACIM before editing was “two hundred fifty thousand words, with not one chapter or subchapter break” (Skutch 73).
Central to the Upanishads is the significance of “atman” and “brahman,” knowledge of the identity of these two, and the meaning of the sacred syllable OM or Aum (Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion 392). Brahman signifies the eternal, imperishable, Absolute; the supreme non-dual (IBID 44). Atman, according to Hindu understanding, is the real immortal self of human beings, known in the West as the soul. In virtue of its identity with Brahman, its special characteristic marks…are identical with those of Brahman: eternal, absolute being; absolute consciousness; and absolute bliss (IBID 22).
It is not difficult to see why Thetford saw a similarity in Vedanta to ACIM’s “holy spirit” and its meaning as no separation from God. ACIM states: “My mind is part of God’s. I am very holy” (Lesson 35). “My salvation comes from me” (Lesson 70). “My Self is the ruler of the universe” (Lesson 253).
Is ACIM representing the Brahman-Atman identification? Is it a reiteration of the non-dualism or “advaita” of Shankara (788-820 AD/CE)? It may seem so if you follow what Shankara said: “May this one sentence proclaim the essence of a thousand books: Brahman alone is real, the world is appearance, the self is nothing but Brahman (Encyclopedia of Eastern… 4).We should keep in mind that Shankara’s system was, in part, a Vedic answer to the previously dominant system of Buddhism in India, and Buddhism rejected the concept of atman.
There are many references in ACIM to the concept that only thought is real. “Projection makes perception. The world you see is what you give it, nothing more than that” (ACIM Text 415). From Lessons 201 through 220, ACIM states forty times a version of, "I am not a body. I am free. For I am still as God created me.” Although Shankara held to the “one reality” of Brahman, he repudiated certain Buddhist sects aligned with the Yogacara or Vijnanavadin (thought system) that taught that nothing exists except thought. Compare this Yogacara idea with ACIM:
To the Yogacarin, “The external world is illusion: only thought exists. All intellectual individual products are also mere phenomena, products of alayavijnana, the storehouse of intellectual impressions and form in each individual, which is sole foundation of a false belief in the existence of a self” (Farquhar 160). ACIM rejects the ego-body percept as illusory as does the Yogacara sect the self-body: “The ego does constant battle with the Holy Spirit on the fundamental question of what your function is…The ego attacks and the Holy Spirit does not respond” (Lesson 66). IN ACIM jargon, the Holy Spirit does not respond to the ego because the ego does not “really” exist. The Holy spirit does not recognize “attack.” In a confusing explanation, ACIM states: What is the ego? Nothingness, but in a form that seems like something” (Manual 77). “ I can be hurt by nothing but my thoughts” (Lesson 281). I am affected only by my thoughts” (Lesson 338).
Shankara, the great philosopher-saint of Vedanta, would not have accepted such ACIM notions because he saw the world (creation) as real as the individual perceiver. In other words, he criticized the Yogacara-Buddhist system by at least allowing a sufficient if not an ultimate reality to the physical world of time and space. He postulated a lesser reality for physical existence but a reality nevertheless. To extend this line of inquiry, two of the great traditions of Hinduism, Yoga and Samkhya, would also disagree with ACIM for similar reasons: “To sum up, it is clear that by “perception” Samkhya and Yoga understand a psycho mental activity oriented toward objects, the latter existing as such and being regarded as neither sensations nor moments nor illusions” (Eliade 376).
Essentially New Age
ACIM has little to do with a sophisticated grasp of Vedanta, it appears. If any, ACIM aligns with a sect out of Mahayana Buddhism, the Yogacara that flourished fifteen centuries ago that does not represent Vedanta. So, what does ACIM represent? What is it? We can easily fit it into the New Thought group of religious movements and perhaps into those inspired by Theosophy. ACIM in that regard is a classic text, if we can use "classic," of a new age paraculture. ACIM is distinctly New Age because it promotes a new way to revolutionize the human race and claims that the world is in dire straits. To reiterate what the Voice told Helen:
“The world situation is worsening to an alarming degree. People all over the world are being called on to help and are making their individual contributions as part of an overall prearranged plan. Part of that plan is taking down ACIM, and I am fulfilling my part in the agreement, as you will fulfill yours. You will be using abilities you developed long ago, and which you are not really ready to use again. Because of the acute emergency, however, the usual slow, evolutionary process is being by-passed in what might best be described as a celestial speed-up.” (Skutch 60)
Personal transformation or rapid “evolution” is a common belief among almost all New Age philosophies and cults. The Voice claims to have put Helen through a “celestial speed-up” in her evolutionary process “because of the acute emergency.” The idea that our age is going through a “paradigm shift” was taken up by Marilyn Ferguson in her seminal, apologetic book that described what this “shift” is all about. Ferguson published The Aquarian Conspiracy in 1980 and it still holds up as one of the best descriptions of the New Age Movement. Ferguson is an advocate of change from within as a hallmark of a coming New Age. Helen’s change certainly appears to have come from within, but appearances as well as perceptions can fool us--ask any stage magician or mentalist.
Was Helen Schucman Possessed?
I am not about to answer that question definitively. As a Catholic, I can certainly entertain that notion theologically and historically. As a skeptic, I can find alternative explanations easily. Catholics in modern times strive [or they should strive] to rule out all possible explanations before accepting demonic possession. Some of my fundamentalist cousins will say, “Well if it quacks like Satan…?” Quackery, however, may be a better explanation for ACIM than an independent spirit talking through Helen. The quack problem enters when we consider psychological disorders. Helen, as was told by her and her biographers, was prone to visionary experiences despite her intellectual drive toward atheism and rationalism. She was a woman in conflict. The conflict may have had a basis in a brain disorder though she was not "mentally ill." She functioned normally enough in life. Her "possession" may also have a cultural basis if we consider the concurrent proliferation of New Age channels and mediums. Consider what I. M. Lewis says here of possession:
“It is a cultural evaluation of a person’s condition, and means precisely what it says: an invasion of an individual by a spirit. It is not thus for us to judge who is and who is not really 'possessed.' If someone is in his own cultural milieu, generally considered to be in a state of spirit possession, the he or she is possessed.” (Lewis 40)
ACIM advocates like to say that Helen was “inspired” (Skutch) and not possessed, but if we take her view she certainly felt like “something” possessed her to write for seven years and she could not easily resist. “Evenings turned out to be a favored time for the Voice to dictate. Helen objected bitterly to this, as the writing was in no way automatic, and always required her full cooperation, and she resented her evenings being impinged on. Often, in a fit of defiance, she would go to bed without writing anything. When she did this she couldn’t sleep, and would eventually get up in disgust and write as directed (Skutch 63). That does not sound like merely “inspired” to me. If anything, Helen suffered a dissociated self that was obsessed with producing her personal resolution of religion. Her mental condition may offer clues to many reluctant prophets and their prophecies.
"According to the diagnostic manual, you have Dissociative Identity Disorder if:
Clearly, Helen fits the first definition. DID used to mistakenly be called Multiple Personality Disorder but there is no reason to believe that any more than one personality was taking on other roles, like an actor out of control. Treatment always includes an attempt to fuse or return the person to one functional personality.
ACIM even in its edited form suffers from maladies common to New Age channeling. The run-on sentence and rambling, disorganized ideas are the rule. Editing is almost always necessary before production in print. Some channels with more experience will organize their “spirit” talks prior to performance. Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1939-2007), a highly successful channel before she contracted dementia around 1996, often researched, with help from staff, what later appeared to be a spirit talking through her. Interestingly, Prophet suffered since childhood from epilepsy that can stimulate visions and religious ideation, especially during an "aura" preceeding or precluding a potential seizure. Also of interest is how forgetful and irrational Prophet’s spirits (Ascended Masters) became as her dementia progressed (Paolini and Paolini 299-303). A neurological disorder may easily account for stimulating Helen’s frequent visions and Voice. ACIM's content was supplied by earlier Christian, New Thought and Theosophical influences on Helen’s idiosyncratic religious ideas.
Although most ACIM devotees report positive things (who wouldn’t if you believe that only positive things exist?), in my career as a deprogrammer I’ve encountered many downsides of ACIM’s influence. I am not merely referring to a misapplication of the book by some cults, but to the effect of its essential message when taken seriously.
ACIM Space Case
In 1989 I was having lunch with an author for whom I was designing a book cover. She mentioned that her twelve year old daughter was having enormous difficulties concentrating for the first time in school and at home. The girl seemed to be having a psychotic episode. After some probing the author told me that weeks before she took her daughter to see a licensed therapist who might address some self-esteem issues that appeared with the young girl’s emerging adolescence. The therapist introduced the girl to ACIM ideas during the first session. She gave her certain affirmations to repeat to ostensibly boost her self image. Obedient to a fault, the young girl did just that. By week three she spun out and seemed to be living in a dream world. My hunch was that she was a highly suggestible type of child—much like her mother who was very creative and talented but otherwise a “flake” by her own admission. By suggestible I do not mean stupid. What I mean is someone who is prone to trance states or a day dreamer, someone who can easily identify with themes in a novel or movie.
My suggestion was that the girl stop the New Age therapy immediately, stop all repetition of affirmations, and that the mother sustain a short task-oriented relationship with her daughter at home. They cooked meals, cleaned, and did homework together. The mother engaged her daughter’s teacher in the process also—she gave her different projects to do like monitoring attendance and checked on her progress regularly. The “psychosis” cleared up within a week! The attention even helped with the initial shyness that the girl felt
So, how would I know what would work? By that time I had encountered dozens of ex-members of cults that encouraged heavy doses of meditation, closed eye exercises, and repetitious prayer or chanting. Almost all the ex-members had dissociative problems upon exiting the groups. By concentrating on varieties of short tasks for weeks and increasing the duration of concentration, their ability to stay focused generally returned to pre-cult status.
Filling the Gap
Around 1988, Nick, a Romanian ex-patriot with a thick accent approached me at a conference. His wife, Claire, had left him for a cult that used ACIM one month before we met. He knew that I was familiar with ACIM—he read an early paper I wrote criticizing it. His wife was seeing a therapist for her chronic anxiety and new mid-life issues—Claire was forty four. The couple had been married for nearly twenty years and had a son who was in college. Now the wife was accusing Nick of abuse and creating an unhappy marriage. Within one month of entering therapy, she filed for divorce. I later interviewed the son by phone. He confirmed that nothing of the sort of abuse his mother now claimed ever happened. He said his father was a loyal husband and a strict but loving father. He often brought her flowers and supported her through her bouts of panic attacks whever they occurred. But the wife’s therapist recommended a new group process for self-transformation in the Denverarea founded by a psychologist. The doctor/cult leader called it Bridging the Gap (BG) and he based his therapy on two current New Age fads—ACIM and Rebirthing. Only after the wife took a workshop at BG did she accuse her husband of abuse and file for divorce.
At the time the head of BG was a licensed psychologist with a PhD. he had gathered around 15 clients into his "circle" for workshops. Once recruited, members began moving from their homes to be closer to BG headquarters. It seemed that everyone in the group uncovered or recovered memories of abuse that they had not talked about before BG therapy. The "rebirthing" technique employed rhythmical breath work (ritual hyperventilation) while lying in a hot tub or bath with a "coach." Rebirthing has its origins in Arthur Janov's Primal Scream Therapy as interpreted by Leonard Orr and Sondra Ray who founded Loving Relationships Training (LRT). Orr and Ray mention that they integrate ACIM with their rebirthing techniques (Orr and Ray x). Rebirthers in that day were loosely trained within this unregulated LRT therapy. Orr's revision of the Ten Commandments is especially revealing--murder and adultery are merely states of mind and Orr blames the victims for "attracting" the abuse as if they "created" it (Orr 247-258). In other words, no one is murdered unless they somehow deserved it, and the killer may be only doing them a favor. In that, Orr was consistent with ACIM teaching.
The breathing technique in rebirthing puts one in an altered state, not unlike hypnosis, that can stir up dreams, visions, and powerful feelings. Rational processing (frontal lobe of neo-cortex) is thus bypassed and the more primitive brain accessed. Some drugs have the same effect on the brain. The coach urges the client to "recall" past painful events and talk about them, thus mimicking Freudian psychoanalysis. Sometimes the breath work can cause tetany (too much oxygen in the blood) or a painful feeling in the hands and feet causing the client to contract in a fetal position. Screaming helps to relieve the tension (reduces intake of oxygen), thus the "primal scream" that rebirthers interpret any way they want. Sometimes the interpretation depends upon the influence of the cult philosophy and leader.
After several rebirthing sessions, Claire revisioned her marriage and life. The bypass of her normal memory ostensibly brought her to a deeper more "true" indication of the source of her psychic pain. Now that she was convinced that all reality comes from within, the next step to accept whatever came from within as true was easy. BG used ACIM ideas and "God is within" affirmations liberally in its "healing" process. Nick attended two sessions with his wife at the BG center. What he saw and heard disturbed him very much. When Nick dared to question why she seemed hostile toward him, she "told him off" for abusing her, dropping F-bombs and abusive language on him that he had never heard her use before in his life. Nick retorted by calling the BG leader a "quack." Nick knew immediately what happened to his wife. He grew up in a communist dictatorship where re-education camps and prisons were the norm. His wife was "brainwashed." When he lost his temper, Claire took out a Protection From Abuse order against Nick. He was devastated.
Niick arranged for an intervention or exit counseling. By day two with Claire, we managed to gain her attention about a variety of factors including the validity of ACIM and Rebirthing. One of our team was a woman who had been in another rebirthing cult. As a ploy at one stage I pretended to read from the ACIM to Claire. I asked her if that sounded like what BG taught. She said , "Yes, it is the same." I showed her the book I was reading from. It was The Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey. I read:
"The god you save may be yourself." (LaVey 44)
"Why not really be honest if you are going to create a god in your image, why not create that god as yourself. Every man is a god if he chooses to recognize himself as one." (Lavey 96)
I compared that to ACIM Lessons:
"You are as God created you. Today honor your Self. Let graven images you made to be the Son of God instead of what he is worshipped not today. Deep in your mind the holy Christ in you is waiting your acknowledgement as you. And you are lost and do not know yourself while he is unacknowledged and unknown." (Lesson 110)
"My salvation comes from me." (Lesson 70)
"I am entitled to miracles." (Lesson 77)
My point was that ACIM is a very selfish philosophy that distorts reality and it had been employed to distort her memory of Nick. I was careful to point out differences between LaVey's philosophy and ACIM also--ACIM is NOT Satanism. The bottom line was that Claire "snapped" out of her BG dream world right in front of us when I asked her to confront her husband who was waiting anxiously in the next room. For two days all she did was curse at him and refused to see him. The man she knew before BG suddenly rushed back into her mind and she broke down and sobbed. The first thing she said to him after a long hug was," Thank God you did not give up on me." Claire's recovery included further study and therapy that helped her resolve the "mind control" issues and to put ACIM into its proper context as a highly flawed philosophy. To this day, twenty-two years later, she and Nick are happily married--again. I get a Christmas card every year telling me so. (The 1994 TV film A Mother's Deception starring Joan Van Ark was based on this case. I worked with the script writer as a consultant).
ACIM and real illness
In the early 1980s I worked with, Carlos, a young man on a construction crew. He was 22 and a plasterer at the time. I was a carpenter on that job. I knew him for six months when he suddenly showed the early symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis. It started in his left leg when he noticed inadvertent stumbling. Within a year he could barely walk despite following every know diet, supplement and exercise that included daily swimming. He began attending a new religious gathering called The Dispensable Church founded by Hugh Prather in Santa Fe, NM. Carlos believed in and applied the tenets [affirmations] of ACIM diligently. A year later he was completely wheelchair bound. I last visited him when he was in a nursing home. He was completely helpless beyond being able to sit up and speak. He died within the year. No amount of perceiving the world as perfect could change his illness. At best it gave him hope. To me this demonstrates how naive ACIM is at base. It is a philosophy for a Pollyanna, not real people in real situations. [The Pollyanna principle or Pollyannaism describes the tendency for people to agree with positive statements describing them. It is sometimes called positivity bias] (wikipedia).
2013 edit: Another contact of mine who has been troubled by trying to comply with ACIM for years began having panic attacks:
I even went to a highly educated therapist who practices ACIM and one of the first things he said to me was that the world is a “dream” and that I wasn’t really here but lying in my Father’s arms sleeping and anything bad that happens isn’t real. I had a hard time with recent tragic news, but when I mentioned my feelings of grief in response to the tragedy, he responded, “Don’t worry, it never happened.” I told him that I was feeling very anxious about his responses and he said that it was just my “ego” resisting. I believe it was at that point that I inwardly said, “No more of this nonsense for me!”
The above is a common complaint my clients have regarding ACIM influenced therapies. There is an interesting parallel in the Transcendental Meditation sect. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi once said that with his TM, A hungry child can become a happy hungry child. In other words, all reality is just a state of mind--even if you let children starve.
A Course in Miracles advocates might argue that "their experience" with the Course is nothing like the cases I mentioned above. You can argue all you want and believe what you want, but the Course speaks for itself--you do not speak for its "Voice." I studied it and I know what it says. I do not blame Helen who I believe did the best she could in her situation but I believe that she was a victim of a subjective force that she could not explain or resist. I choose not to be a victim of that [her] flawed 'voice' nor let it attack the healthy reality I know.
Bailey, Alice A. 1949 original, 1994. The Unfinished Autobiography (Lucis Trust)
Campbell, Bruce. 1980. Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement (Los Angeles:University ofCalifornia Press)
Eliade, Mircea. 1970. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (Princeton)
Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. 1989. (Boston: Shambhala)
Farquhar, J. N. 1915, 1924. Modern Religious Movements in India (Norwood, Mass:Norwood Press)
Ferguson, Marilyn. 1980. The Aquarian Conspiracy (J. P. Tarcher)
Francis, Allen, M.D. and First, Michael, M.D. 1998. Your Mental health: A Layman’s Guide to the Psychiatrist’s Bible (New York: Scribner)
Janov, Arthur. 1970,1981. The Primal Scream (New York: Perigee)
Johnson, K. Paul. 1994. The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge (New York: SUNY Press)
LaVey, Anton Szandor. 1969. The Satanic Bible (New York: Avon Books)
Lewis, I.M. 1988. Ecstatic Religion: A study of shamanism and spirit possession (Routledge)
Needleman, Jacob. 1980. Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery (New York: Penquin/Tarcher)
Orr, Leonard and Ray, Sandra. 1977, 1983. Rebirthing into the New Age (Berkeley,CA: Celestial Arts)
Paolini, Kenneth and Paolini, Talita. 2000. 400 Years of Imaginary Friends: A Journey into the World of Adepts, masters, Ascended Masters, and their Messengers (Livingston,MO: Paolini International)
Raschke, Carl. 1980. The Interruption of Eternity: Modern Gnosticism and the Origins of the New Religious Consciousness (Chicago: Nelson Hall)
Rudolf, Kurt. 1987. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (San Francisco: Harper)
Schucman, Helen (scribe). 1975 original edition. A Course in Miracles (Mill Valley,CA: Foundation for Inner Peace)
Schultz, Ted. 1988. Fringes of Reason: A Whole Earth Catalogue (Harmony Books)
Skutch, Robert. 1996. Journey Without Distance: The Story Behind A Course In Miracles (Viking Books)
Webb, James. 1987. The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky and their Followers (Shambhala)
ACIM promo sites:
The Stammering Century by Gilbert Seldes (1927) offers a rich tapestry of fringe and alternative spiritualities leading up to 1926 from the early 1800s in American religion. Seldes covers various New Thought movements--NT ws called "the Boston Craze" prior to 1900--that easily define what later became ACIM. One affirmation from an early New Thought source, The Complete Christian Divine Scientific Philosophy states: ""I am one with health, wealth, and love...there is one mind in God (good) and that mind is my mind now. I am one with the gifts of God,...I am perfect in love, truth, and life eternal..."
I looked over some notes by Allen Watson, a teacher of ACIM at a Unity Church in Portland, OR. It struck me how ACIM is basically unecessary as it struggles to psychologize the Gospel of Jesus Christ. ACIM fumbles away the Gospel message into a mess of abstract concepts and words conceived by Helen S. and Bill T. who were both mired in mental health issues professionally as well as personally.
Allen Watson states: The Text goes on to say that we can claim the holy instant any time and any place we want it (4:4). (Note, not “a” holy instant but “the” holy instant. This is the eternal holy instant, a “picture of timelessness, set in a frame of time” (T-17.IV.11:5). It is what has always been and always is and always will be.) As was already said in Paragraph 1, it is this instant and every instant, and claiming it is entirely up to us and to our desire and willingness to have it." http://allen-watson.com/
The above is the core flaw with all New Thought approaches to reality as well as the Gospel. The New Thought mind-meld with the "Universe" or "God" through human will is essentially a total fantasy rooted in words, ie., affirmations or mantras. It is one thing to say and will that we will fight a disease with all we can muster, but quite another to say "I am perfectly healthy" when in fact, one has throat cancer or paralysis from a major stroke, or struggles with bouts of anxiety and depression.
Somewhere in her search, Helen S. missed or perhaps obscured the point of the Gospel: Not my will, but Thine be done.
If you want Jesus, go to the Gospel tradition. If you want Buddha, go to the Buddhist tradition. If you want Advaita or non-dualism in Hinduism, go to Sankara. If you want a qualified dualism, go to the Dvaita philosophy of Madhva.
ACIM is unnecessary and confusing, imo.