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Reading A Course in Miracles: Introduction Chapter Four

In general I try to avoid the politics that seems to adhere to the various editions of A Course in Miracles. There are plenty out there and people should choose the one that is most helpful to them. Debating the point generally means trying to identify one edition as the “real” one and that has always felt like a profound misunderstanding of the course itself. The course isn’t real either! Pick a text and get on with it. Besides which, the differences from one edition to the next – in terms of the core belief system being taught – are not really that significant.

Jesus offers a cautionary note in this regard. While directed at specific terms in the text, it is also helpful in terms of reflecting on what we are asking of the course in general, especially when we begin to make choices between the various available editions.

All terms are potentially controversial, and those who seek controversy will find it. Yet those who seek clarification will find it as well. They must, however, be willing to overlook controversy, recognizing that it is a defense against truth in the form of a delaying maneuver. Theological considerations as such are necessarily controversial, since they depend on belief and can therefore be accepted or rejected. A universal theology is impossible, but a universal experience is not only possible but necessary. It is this experience toward which the course is directed. Here alone consistency becomes possible because here alone uncertainty ends (C.In.2:1-7).

I have pointed out before – and any astute student paying attention to my reference system knows – that the main version I read is the third edition published by the Foundation for Inner Peace. I also own the Sparkly Edition – which reflects the last edit undertaken by Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford before Ken Wapnick joined their efforts – and a hard copy of the urtext annotated by Doug Thompson.

This year, my study of the course has intensified considerably. I read a section a day and write about it – and I do a lesson a day and write about that. I am not reading other writers about the Course – no more secondary material, regardless of who wrote it. I’ve been down that road and I want a more direct experience of Jesus and A Course in Miracles, one less mediated by the interpretation of others.

In doing this, I have found myself drawn to early versions of the Course. At first I resisted this, fearing that it was a “delaying maneuver.” But in truth, it is helpful. I don’t feel compelled to unsay anything I’ve already said about picking a version that works and sticking to it, but there is no doubt – at least at this stage of my study – the early versions are helpful, largely in their specificity and, oddly, in what feels to me a greater degree of devotion. Jesus’ love – and the humanity of Helen Schucman and William Thetford in responding to his outreach – is somehow more tangible. I am grateful for that and feel both lifted and edified by it.

I raise this now because for the first time in this particular writing project, I feel compelled to focus not on the FIP text but on the urtext. Doing so pushes me outside my comfort zone and I want to be clear with readers that this is the case. But the Introduction to chapter four is quite important and the differences from the early editions to the FIP edit are significant and, to my mind, render the text a bit more convoluted than necessary. Please bear with me. If you feel that I am crossing some forbidden ACIM rubicon, please know that I appreciate your sentiment and bear no ill will if you need to turn in another direction. Our shared goal is peace and – as this section suggests – our loving support of one another (even if on differing paths) is essential to salvation. It’s no big thing.

This section begins with a reference to Matthew 5:41: “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” It seems clear that Jesus still endorses the sentiment, urging us to recognize in each other only our mutual interest in salvation. When we help one another – going the so-called extra mile – we are really helping ourselves. We are acting in an inspired way – literally filling ourselves with spirit. This is Self-centeredness in the right sense. When we are filled with spirit, we are “enlightened.” What other goal can we have? What other purpose can we pursue?

I have written often of the challenge this mutuality poses to me. I am by nature a disciple of Narcissus – which is the Greek god evoked by the urtext to describe those who are not acting in spirit. To be narcissistic is to “place your faith in the unworthy (Thompson 53).” The unworthy, in this sense, is the false self, the ego. The ego needs everything to revolve around it. Its religion forbids sharing with others because what is shared is lost. This is the world’s thinking. And it is the very opposite of the thought system the course proposes: to have everything, give everything to everyone (T-6.V.A.5:13).

Indeed, it is this section that clearly lays out an important Course distinction: we can speak with the ego or with spirit. The former is dis-spiriting while the latter comes from knowledge and thus grounds us in soul or spirit, as God created us The urtext is clear that we are not only talking about the words that we speak or write, but also our thoughts. Indeed, it says that if we feel embarrassed by what we say, then it is surely because we have made ourselves responsible for our words (or thoughts). But if they are coming from Jesus or spirit, then we can have no ego investment in them, and thus should feel nothing but peace.

This is a handy litmus test absent from the FIP version and a good example of why I think the urtext can sometimes be a useful teaching aid. When we speak (or write or think) we can check the content of those thoughts against our feelings. If we are honest, the result will let us know whether we are invested in Jesus or the ego. Jesus – or spirit – creates peace and joy. The ego leaves us in a place of separation, characterized by fear, shame, guilt, embarrassment, anger, etc.

This section includes a beautiful phrase that is the ultimate revision of the crucifixion.

The journey to the cross should be the last foolish for every mind. Do not dwell on it but dismiss it as accomplished (Thompson 53).

The FIP edit uses “useless” in place of “foolish.” But foolish was deliberate – because Jesus had raised a very important example of this foolish journey. He talked about Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote.

Destroying the devil (who, remember, is the separation) is a meaningless undertaking. Cervantes wrote an excellent symbolic account of this procedure, though he did not understand his own symbolism. The REAL point of his writing was that his “hero” was a man who perceived himself as unworthy because he identified with his ego and perceived its weakness. He then set about to alter his perception, NOT by correcting his misidentification but by behaving egotistically (Thompson 53 – link and parenthetical note mine).

Quixote – whom G.K. Chesteron (also cited in this section in the urtext) called a “lean and foolish knight” – went tilting at windmills in a vain attempt to fix his pathetic misidentification with the frail and purposeless ego. But Jesus is clear – foolish journeys of this sort (i.e., trying to solve the problem by acting on the ego’s terms in the ego’s world) is doomed. The correction is internal and is merely a decision to identify with Spirit rather than ego.

The ego – whom Jesus compares with Chesterton’s characterization of Quixote – loves to seek out correction. It enjoys brainstorming ways to make itself better. It loves putting itself under a microscope. What it can’t bear is simply being ignored. Quixote does not wake up – does not become enlightened – because he wastes himself on the ego’s solution to the problem of the ego. And that is no solution at all. As Jesus points out “I cannot guide your egos. . . (Thompson 53)”

This problem – which is misidentification, believing that we are who and what the ego says we are – can repeat itself almost endlessly. This is one of the course’s most profound implications of reincarnation.

Human living has indeed been needlessly wasted in repetition compulsion. It re-enacts the Separation, the loss of power, the foolish journey of the ego in its attempt at reparation, and finally the crucifixion of the body, or death. Repetition compulsions can be endless, unless they are given up by an act of will, or, more propertly, as active creation. Do not make the pathetic human error of “clinging to the old rugged cross.” (Thompson 53).

Ending this cycle can be accomplished largely be recognizing that we have within us the power to overcome the cross. Doing so is essential, because it represents the eternal life that Jesus intends as his real gospel. It is as simple as choosing a different identification. This section puts it quite starkly: we can choose the false self of the ego or the true self of the spirit.

It is interesting that both the urtext and what is called the Hugh Lyn Cayce edit entitle chapter 4 “The Root of all Evil.” This is changed in the FIP edit to “The Illusions of the Ego.” In terms of meaning the differences are perhaps slim. Yet it seems to me that the earlier phrasing is more powerful, and better captures Jesus’ insistence that we appreciate just how powerful and, yes, evil the ego can be. There is a choice to be made – and made again and again until nobody needs to make it anymore – in favor of spirit, in favor of Jesus. There is nothing gained by taking this obligation to choose – because we are not making it only on behalf of ourselves – lightly.

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