A COURSE IN MIRACLES TIMELINE
1909 (July 14): Helen Cohn was born.
1921 (Summer): Cohn had a religious experience at Lourdes, while on a family vacation.
1922: Cohn was baptized as a Baptist.
1923 (April 25): William Thetford was born.
1931-1935: Cohn attended New York University and received a B. A. degree.
1933 (May 26): Helen Cohn married Louis Schucman.
1938: Helen Schucman had a mystical experience while riding the subway.
1940s: In what she called “the greatest experience” of her life, Schucman dreamed that God had a special message for her.
1952-1957: Schucman Helen attended New York University and received a Ph. D. in Psychology.
1958 (February): Schucman met William Thetford and began to work for him at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons; they developed a complex and contentious relationship.
1965 (June): Thetford declared that “There must be another way” to resolve problems with Schucman.
1965 (June): Schucman began to have experiences and visions that lead to her reception of the Course.
1965 (October 21): Schucman began scribing A Course in Miracles.
1972 (c. September 7): Schucman received the last portion of the Manual for Teachers of Course in Miracles.
1969-1971: Schucman scribed her early poems.
1973 (January): Schucman scribed “Psychotherapy: Purpose, Process, and Practice” (also January and March 1975).
1973-1978: Schucman scribed her later poems.
1973 (Late)-1975 (Early): The final editing of A Course in Miracles by Schucman, Thetford, and Wapnick took place.
1975 (Summer-Fall): The first 300 photo-offset copies of A Course in Miracles were distributed.
1975 (September): Schucman began scribing “Clarification of Terms.”
1976 (June 22): A Course in Miracles was published.
1977 (September): Schucman began scribing “The Song of Prayer.”
1978 (February 8): Schucman began scribing “The Gifts of God.”
1981 (February 9): Helen Schucman died.
1982: Kenneth and Gloria Wapnick set up the Foundation for A Course in Miracles.
1988: The Wapnicks’ foundation established a retreat center in upstate New York.
1988 (July 4): William Thetford died.
1992: Marianne Williamson published A Return to Love, helping to popularize the Course.
A Course in Miracles refers to a collection of revelations received by Helen Schucman [Image at right] (1909-1981) over seven years from a disembodied “Voice” that she identified as Jesus Christ. The course was eventually published in 1976 in three volumes, the Text, the Workbook, and a Manual for Teachers. Schucman received other material from the Voice, both poetry and prose, but neither she nor the readers of the Course accord it the same authority that they give to the Course itself (see Wapnick 1991:394).
At the time that she received the Course, Schucman was working as a research psychologist at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, under the direction of William Thetford (1923-1988). She had taken her position early in 1958 after receiving a Ph.D. in Psychology from New York University the previous year. She and Thetford had a fractious relationship virtually from the beginning. In June of 1965 during a personal meeting, Thetford told Schucman that “there must be another way” for them to relate to each other. They eventually came to see the Course as outlining the principles of that other way.
Throughout her life Schucman had a contentious relationship with religion. She was baptized a Baptist as a young girl and read the Bible frequently with a family maid. Around the same time as her baptism, during a family summer vacation, she visited the Catholic shrine to the Virgin Mary at Lourdes. She was so impressed that she prayed that God would grant her a miracle in the form of a meteor. When it seemed that He had, however, the apparent miracle’s impact on her quickly dissolved into doubt. Schucman wrote in her unpublished autobiography that
I had become deeply suspicious of the whole thing. I even got a little bit angry about it. Perhaps, I said to myself, the water and the healings and the crutches were all like the meteor shower. People just thought they were miracles. It could happen that way (Wapnick 1991:32).
That ambivalence towards religious phenomena would continue to mark Schucman’s life and shows through in the pages of her autobiography. Schucman desperately wanted to portray herself as a rational, scientific atheist, in keeping with her professional status as a practicing psychologist. At one point she even described herself as a “virulent atheist” (Wapnick 1991:115).
The conflict between Schucman’s self-conception as a rational scientist and what she experienced with the revelation of the course continued unreconciled throughout her life. Towards the end of her life, she said about the Course: “I know it’s true. I just don’t believe it” (Wapnick 1991:173). Once the Course was published, Schucman generally withdrew from its public life, leaving the promotion of its teachings in the hands of others.
Although Schucman was the scribe for the Course, several others played important roles in its reception, editing, and dissemination. From the beginning of Schucman’s reception of the Course, her colleague William Thetford [Image at right] served as a crucial sounding board; in addition, he typed the first manuscripts from her own notes. The Voice behind the course provided personal guidance for Thetford, just as it did for Schucman. Eventually much of that material was edited out of the final version of the manuscript because it was thought to be meant only for Schucman and Thetford as individuals. But Thetford also received answers to queries that he put to the Voice of Jesus, some of which became part of the Course itself. Like Schucman, Thetford viewed his custodianship of the Course as a “sacred trust.” Once the published version began to attract an audience, Thetford, unlike some others closely involved with the publication of the text, was open to a wide variety of interpretations of it.
Although Kenneth Wapnick was not involved in the reception or initial recording of the Course, he played a crucial role in bringing it to publication and disseminating its message. Wapnick [Image at right] first met Schucman and Thetford in late November, 1972. At that time he heard about “Helen’s book,” but he soon departed for a scheduled trip to Israel. Wapnick recollects that he continued to think about the book while he was away and that one of his reasons for returning to New York in May, 1973 was to read that book. His reading had a dramatic impact. He laconically remembers that, “as I began reading the manuscript and spending time with my two new friends. . . [I] realized I was to remain in New York: I had found my life’s purpose and work” (Wapnick 1991:335). Wapnick then played an important role in making the Course public. He worked closely with both Schucman and Thetford on editing the manuscript and in 1982, with his wife, he set up the Foundation for A Course in Miracles, dedicated to teaching and applying the principles of the text. The foundation was followed in 1988 by a retreat center in upstate New York.
One other person was instrumental in bringing the Course to a wide audience. Schucman, Thetford, and Wapnick met Judith Skutch in the spring of 1975. [Image at right] Skutch responded enthusiastically to the teachings of the Course and used her extensive contacts in the “New Age” community to bring them to a larger audience. For example, she set up trips to California and London for Schucman, Thetford, and Wapnick to meet people interested in the message of the Course. As efforts at dissemination continued, however, Schucman and Thetford played increasingly diminished roles and early enthusiasts like Wapnick and Skutch moved to the fore.
The Course is forthright about what it is designed to accomplish. It describes itself as “a course in mind training” (Text:13). The reader is admonished to “seek not to change the world but choose to change your mind about the world” (Text: 415). [Image at right] One fundamental realization that the Course emphasizes is that each individual is a Son of God. In the Course “sonship” is collective, rather than being a special characteristic of Jesus, as it is in traditional Christianity (see Wapnick and Clarke 1995:37). The particular gnosis that the Course promulgates is expressed multiple times through each of the volumes. This passage provides a good example: “The Christ in you is very still. He knows where you are going, and He leads you there in gentleness and blessing all the way. His Love for God replaces all the fear you thought you saw within yourself. His holiness shows you Himself in him whose hand you hold, and whom you lead to him. And what you see is like yourself. For what but Christ is there to see and hear and love and follow home” (Text: 474).
The reorientation of perception that the Course promotes is clear in the statement about “all the fear you thought you saw in yourself” (my emphasis). For the Course, a root problem in human existence is that individuals do not see themselves (or others or the world) as they truly are. They have forgotten that “Heaven is the natural state of all the Sons of God” (Text, Introduction: n.p.). The separation of humans from God goes back to the Garden of Eden, but “God is lonely without His Sons, and they are lonely without Him” (Text:19). Echoing ancient Gnostic systems of thought, the Course frequently describes humans as being asleep, when it comes to recognizing their true nature; what is distinctive about Jesus is that he “woke up” and realized his true Sonship. He therefore serves as a role model for what all humans can accomplish. As Wapnick puts it, “The difference is that he knew it while the rest of the world still remains asleep, believing that its dream is real” (Wapnick and Clarke 1995:37). From the perspective of the Course, pain, suffering, evil and indeed the entire material world are “real” only within that dream, but they have no reality when individuals wake up and realize who they really are.
Clearly, the understanding of Jesus in the Course departs from traditional Christianity in multiple ways. Many of the differences center on his death and resurrection. Most notably, the Course does not see the crucifixion and death as essential to the process of salvation. Wapnick describes the crucifixion as a “dream,” in which humans see themselves as sinful and evil beings who attacked and destroyed God. On the contrary, he asserts that from the perspective of the Course Jesus could not have suffered, since suffering comes from the guilt in our minds. Wapnick argues that “since Jesus had no guilt, there was no suffering: he perceived people’s attack on him as only a call for the Love of God they believed they had denied and that they could never regain” (Wapnick and Clarke 1995:44). Wapnick links that revisionist view of the significance of Jesus to the Course’s focus on transforming the way its readers see things. He claims that
we are forgiven for what we believed we accomplished; i.e. separated from God, which is what in truth we have not done. It is our belief system, then, that gets changed, but in the eyes of God we never really left Him and so there is nothing to forgive (Wapnick and Clarke 1995:46).
The gnostic perspective of the Course, which declares this world to be illusory and without meaning; pain, suffering and evil to be parts of a self-generated dream; human beings to be asleep and ignorant of their true nature, and Jesus’ suffering and death to be figments of a guilty imagination, also determines the way in which the resurrection is depicted. In the Text the voice of Jesus asserts that “Your resurrection is your reawakening. I am the model for rebirth, but rebirth itself is merely the dawning on your mind of what is already in it” (Text:86). Rather than being the unique agent of human salvation, Jesus becomes the role model for what every individual can accomplish.
Thus, the miracles which the Course mentions frequently are to be understood “as an expression of an inner awareness of Christ and the acceptance of His Atonement” (Text:4). The Text further emphasizes that “Miracles are everyone’s right” and that they can be received through prayer in which individuals receive God’s love and then express it to others (Text:1). Miracles involve accepting God’s forgiveness and then extending it to others (see Text:2). Miracles, however, are a temporary need, given the condition in which humans find themselves. The Course assures its readers that “When you return to your original form of communication with God by direct revelation, the need for miracles is over” (Text:4).
While the Course claims to come directly from the voice of Jesus, it certainly represents an innovative interpretation of the traditional Christian message. Whether that is considered a necessary correction or a heretical deviation is left up to the reader.
The Course has never generated a cohesive social movement. It certainly attracted and continues to attract an audience, but its partisans have never come together to form a single social group. In the terms of Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, the Course has become the focus of an “audience cult” (Stark and Bainbridge 1985:27-28). Consequently, the Course has not inspired a robust set of communal rituals. Instead, individuals interact with the Course largely on their own. There are study groups dedicated to the Course but they are not set up or guided by a central organization and they tend to come into and fade from existence with some frequency. The website for The Foundation for Inner Peace (A Course in Miracles website) maintains a list of study groups throughout the world.
The central ritual for the audience of A Course in Miracles is detailed in the Workbook. That text provides a set of 365 exercises that are to be undertaken, one a day and only one a day, over the course of a year. As the Workbook puts it, its goal is to make the theoretical framework meaningful (Workbook:1). The introduction describes the overarching goal of the exercises in this way:
The purpose of the workbook is to train your mind in a systematic way to a different perception of everyone and everything in the world. The exercises are planned to help you generalize the lessons, so that you will understand that each of them is equally applicable to everyone and everything you see” (Workbook:1).
Those who do follow the Workbook can see themselves as emulating the examples of Schucman and Thetford who worked through the exercises several times, once along with Wapnick and Skutch (see Wapnick 1991:375).
The exercises are presented as having an efficacy that is independent of the efforts of the individual undertaking them. Personal assent to the ideas contained in the Workbook is not required. The introduction cautions the reader that “you need not believe the ideas, you need not accept them, and you need not even welcome them. Some of them you may actively resist. None of this will matter, or decrease their efficacy. But do not allow yourself to make exceptions in applying the ideas the workbook contains, and whatever your reactions to the ideas may be, use them. Nothing more than that is required” (Workbook:2). Those directions recall Schucman’s own attitude towards revelations she received; she knew they were true even though she didn’t believe it.
Each lesson is arranged in a similar fashion. Each begins with a simple affirmation, followed by directions about how to apply the idea it expresses. Lesson forty, for example, focuses on cultivating a positive personal identity. It begins with the affirmation that “I am blessed as a Son of God” (Workbook:62). The reader is directed to make that affirmation frequently throughout the day. The text assures the reader that “Today’s exercises take little time and no effort” and that they can be practiced in virtually any context. The text also recommends adding to the central affirmation whatever attributes the reader associates with being a Son of God, such as being happy, calm, peaceful, loving, assured, etc. (see Workbook:62).
Similarly, Lesson seventy-seven emphasizes the positive message of the Course, focusing on its key term. The central affirmation is that “I am entitled to miracles” (Workbook:132). The lesson links the identity of the individual with the identity of God, asserting that
You are entitled to miracles because of what you are. You will receive miracles because of what God is. And you will offer miracles because you are one with god. Again, how simple is salvation! (Workbook:132).
The Workbook ritualizes an individual’s encounter with the Course but it also allows substantial flexibility in how any individual will enact the daily lessons. It does not require that the lessons be practiced in a community setting along with other devotees of the Course. The loose guidance built into the Course itself virtually guarantees that there will be substantial variation in how its principles will actually be put into practice.
Although Schucman received the Course, she remained decidedly ambivalent about what she produced and eventually withdrew from offering any explicit supervision of how the course was received and put into action. Similarly, Thetford at least passively countenanced multiple interpretations of the work he helped bring into being and shied away from any position of leadership. When the founders of the course essentially abdicated responsibility for controlling or even guiding its subsequent use, a leadership vacuum ensued. Kenneth Wapnick eventually addressed that vacuum by setting up the Foundation for A Course in Miracles, but that organization was insufficient to impose order on the growing audience for the course and the proliferation of readers of the text who set themselves up as authoritative interpreters.
Gerald Jampolsky, who met Schucman, Thetford, and Wapnick through Judith Skutch in 1975, was one early reader of the course whose interpretations of it reached a wide audience. Jampolsky, a psychiatrist, founded the Center for Attitudinal Healing in Tiburon, California in 1975; there are now outposts all over the world. Jampolsky’s first book about the Course, Love is Letting Go of Fear, appeared in 1979. Jampolsky has since written many other books including, the recent Poetry and Notes to Myself: My Ups and Downs with A Course in Miracles (2017).
In the early 1990s, thanks in part to an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Marianne Williamson [Image at right] brought the teachings of the Course to a broad popular audience, especially in the pages of her bestselling A Return to Love. Williamson continues to teach the principles of the Course. Visitors to her website (Marianne Williamson website), for example, can sign up to have delivered to them daily an audio recording of Williamson reading from the Workbook. Williamson also recently published A Year of Miracles: Daily Devotions and Miracles (2017), which offers her own year-long set of daily exercises.
Independent teachers of the principles outlined in the Course continue to come on the scene. For example, in 2012, Bill Free and Lisa Natoli founded the Teachers of God Foundation (Teachers of God Foundation website). Bill had been impressed by his reading of Gary Renard’s The Disappearance of the Universe, which led him directly to A Course in Miracles, about which Renard himself teaches. In fact, on his website Renard claims to have developed the largest study group devoted to A Course in Miracles in the world (Gary Renard website). Natoli reports that her life had been turned around by A Course in Miracles. The two now dedicate their lives to spreading the word about the transformative power of the Course.
The ongoing appearance of new teachers of the Course promotes diversity (and sometimes conflict) of sources of authority. It leads also to multiple understandings of the fundamental principles of the revelations received by Schucman. Some factors, however, work in the opposite direction.
In 1975, Judith Skutch and her husband Robert transformed a pre-existing foundation that they had established into the Foundation for Inner Peace. That foundation became the publisher and the holder of the trademark for A Course in Miracles in the same year. The foundation maintains a website (A Course in Miracles website) that contains a variety of digital resources related to the Course and has worked closely with the foundation established by the Wapnicks, which is now headquartered in Temecula, California. The Foundation maintains the canonical texts of the Course so that the same touchstone is available to all interpreters.
Also as those who were directly involved with the reception and dissemination of the Course have died and the number of teachers of the Course has grown, efforts to ensure the “correct” interpretation of it have developed. One example is the group formed by former students of Wapnick, who constitute the School for A Course in Miracles located in Denver, Colorado. Its website contends that
As with any spiritual path there is a strong temptation by its followers to alter the original teaching to make it easier and more acceptable, and in so doing they dilute the teachings to the point of making them ineffective. The SFACIM, formerly School of Reason, was founded by three long-time Course students in 2007, who experienced this alteration and dilution as they visited Course groups throughout the country. They joined together to create a school in Denver to preserve the original teachings and offer them to others (School for a Course in Miracles website).
Despite such efforts at standardization and control, since the Course remains at the center of a loosely organized audience cult, it is likely that new interpretations of it will continue to appear and that efforts to control innovation in interpretation will never fully succeed.
The Text of the course is adamant that the revelations that Schucman received are not to form the basis of a new religion. After asserting that Schucman’s and Thetford’s names do not appear on the cover so that the Course can stand on its own, the Introduction insists that the Course “is not intended to become the basis for another cult. Its only purpose is to provide a way in which some people will be able to find their own Internal Teacher” (Text “Introduction” n.p.) Affirming that self-understanding expressed in the Text, Patrick Miller describes the Course as a “teaching device, rather than the foundation for a new religion (Miller 1997a:6).
As noted earlier, the statements contained in the course itself, coupled with the refusal of Schucman and Thetford to exercise any control over how the Course was received and taught produced a variety of understandings of it. For many readers of the Course that does not appear to have been a problem, but for some, such as the students of Wapnick who formed the School for A Course in Miracles, the diversity of readings constitutes a challenge to the “correct” or orthodox understanding of the Course that they received from their own teacher. Since there are no organizational structures or widely accepted leaders that could impose orthodoxy on the readers of the texts, however, it seems likely that idiosyncratic understandings will continue to multiply and that efforts to control how Schucman’s revelations are interpreted will achieve only minimal success.
Although the Course never developed the organizational structure and ability to mobilize a membership that would mark it as a full-fledged religious movement, it nonetheless has attracted its share of critics and opponents. The critiques come from several angles. Some, who generally resonate with the direction to find one’s own inner teacher, find the Christian language of the Course off-putting. Others find that the Course’s emphasis on “the good, the beautiful, and the holy” promotes passivity in the face of urgent political challenges. Still others see the procedures of the Workbook as authoritarian attempts at “brainwashing” those who undertake them (see Miller 1997a:163-85).
From the perspective of the Christian counter-cult movement, on the other hand, the Course clearly promotes un-Biblical and heretical ideas. The Christian Research Institute, for example, asserts that the Course is “carefully designed for radically restructuring a person’s perception against Christian faith and toward New Age occultism” (Christian Research Institute website). Similarly, a participant in a discussion forum on the website of the Christian Apologetics Research Ministry describes the Course as “a mixture of the Mysticism, Gnosticism, Eastern Religion and New Age which run counter to Biblical Christian beliefs” and asserts that “There is no doubt that whatever “voice” Helen Schucman was hearing, it was not the voice of Jesus Christ. If she did truly hear a voice it could have only been a demonic revelation” (Christian Apologetics Research Ministry website)
Examples of critiques could easily be multiplied. But the same factors that promote different interpretations of the Course (the lack of a strong organization with the central authority to enforce orthodoxy, for example) also complicate efforts to make a compelling case against it. The Course’s status as one among a variety of texts whose message a diffuse audience finds attractive suggests that it will continue to serve interested parties as a spiritual resource without arousing the concerted social opposition that a more robust religious movement would.
Image #1: Painting of Helen Schucman.
Image #2: Photograph of William Thetford.
Image #3: Photograph of Kenneth Wapnick.
Image #4: Photograph of Judith Skutch.
Image #5: Photograph of the cover of A Course in Miracles: Combined Volume.
Image #6: Photograph of Marianne Williamson.
A Course in Miracles website. n.d. Accessed from www.acim.org on 20 January 2018.
Anonymous. 1975. Course in Miracles (Volume One: Text; Volume Two: Workbook; Volume Three: Manual for Teachers). Tiburon, CA: Foundation for Inner Peace.
Christian Apologetics Research Ministry. n.d. “ A Course in Miracles is Demonic.” Accessed from https://forums.carm.org/vb5/forum/theology/general-christian-topics/bible-questions-and-discussion/62907-a-course-in-miracles-is-demonic on 20 January 2018.
Christian Research Institute. n.d. “A Course in Miracles.” Accessed from http://www.equip.org/article/a-course-in-miracles/ on 20 January 2018.
Gallagher, Eugene V. 2014. Reading and Writing Scripture in New Religious Movements: New Bibles and New Revelations. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.
Gary Renard website. n.d. Accessed from www.garyrenard.com/ on 20 January 2018.
Haskell, Brent, 1997. The Other Voice: A Companion to the Text of the Course Chapters 1-15. Marina del Rey, CA: Devorss and Company.
Jampolsky, Gerald. 2017. Poetry and Notes to Myself: My Ups and Downs with A Course in Miracles. Sausalito, CA: Mini Course Publishing.
Jampolsky, Gerald. 1979. Love is Letting Go of Fear. Third Edition. Berkeley: Celestial Arts Publishing.
Marianne Williamson website. n.d. Accessed from https://marianne.com/ on 20 January 2018.
Miller, D. Patrick. 1997a. The Complete Story of the Course: The History, The People, and The Controversies behind A Course in Miracles. Berkeley: Fearless Books.
Miller, D. Patrick. 1997b. Understanding A Course in Miracles: The History, Message, and Legacy of a Spiritual Path for Today. Berkeley: Celestial Arts.
School for a Course in Miracles website. Accessed from www.schoolforacourseinmiracles.org on 20 January 2018.
Skutch, Robert, 1984. Journey without Distance: The Story behind A Course in Miracles. Mill Valley, CA: Foundation for Inner Peace.
Stark, Rodney and William Sims Bainbridge. 1985. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Teachers of God Foundation website. n.d. Accessed from https://www.teachersofgod.org/about-us/bill-lisa/ on 20 January 2018.
Wapnick, Kenneth. 1991. Absence from Felicity: The Story of Helen Schucman and her Scribing of A Course in Miracles. Roscoe, NY: Foundation for “A Course in Miracles.”
Wapnick, Kenneth and W. Norris Clarke 1995. A Course in Miracles and Christianity: A Dialogue. Roscoe, NY: Foundation for A Course in Miracles.
Williamson, Marianne. 1992. A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. New York: HarperCollins.
Williamson, Marianne. 2017. A Year of Miracles: Daily Devotions and Miracles. New York: HarperOne.
30 January 2018