Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Stop it!

There is a funny Bob Newhart skit on YouTube called Stop it!

Jesus is a little more gentle in the Course, when he says:
How long, O Son of God, will you maintain the game of sin? 2 Shall we not put away these sharp-edged children's toys? 3 How soon will you be ready to come home? 4 Perhaps today? 5 There is no sin. 6 Creation is unchanged. 7 Would you still hold return to Heaven back? 8 How long, O holy Son of God, how long? (ACIM:W-pII.4.5)
Or, to put it differently, the problem is always the same, it is our belief in the tiny mad idea of separation, which keeps us in the self-destructive pattern of choosing the crucifixion (being buried alive in a box?!) over the resurrection, of choosing the body over the spirit, of choosing form over content. The wheel of Samsara, the ego's hamster mill is to keep making the same dumb choice over and over again, and expecting a different result. Jesus in the Course is perhaps the better choice for a therapist, because he does not just tell us to stop it, but he teaches us forgiveness, which brings us back to the mind, so that we can change our mind, and step off of that wheel of repetitious justification of our one bad decision. He also says: "Therefore, seek not to change the world, but choose to change your mind about the world." (ACIM:T-21.in.1:7) He had the same focal concern in his original teachings, teaching us to change our mind, "metanoia" in Greek, meaning a change of mind, not just repentance in the moral sense as it was misunderstood later.

Much like every good lawyer knows that the best way to thwart a law is to satisfy the letter of it, and do what you want anyway. This is the ego's strategy - to kill the spirit by choosing the form. Jesus constantly reminds us not to, most famously in the New Testament in Mt 16:11 where he tells the apostles (again): "Don't you still get it that I was not speaking to you of breads?"  I.e. he was speaking of the content, not the form, while they keep asking for the form, not the content. This IS the tiny, mad idea at work, this is to say I prefer the specific "something," over the everything of the Kingdom. Thus the ego asserts it is right, and ensures we will not be happy.

In passages like Mark 4:2, Jesus tells us that to those outside the Kingdom, it all comes in parables. In other words, as long as we're joining with him, looking at things from "above the battleground," from the mind level, or the Buddhic plane, we look with him at content not form, and thereby we can change our mind, which changes everything. Again in Mark, in 4:34 he makes it clear that when we join with him, he explains everything. This is the essence of the forgiveness process in the Course. Particularly if you read Mark in the original with Thomas beside it, you could start to hear these original teachings quite clearly.

There is more as you go along. There are numerous references to eyes that do not see, and ears that do not hear, as well as interactions where Jesus restores sight and hearing. Or, in Mark 5:36 Where Jesus "overheard"  the meaning of the words, and clearly is not confused by the form. Evidently he "overhears," as much as he wants us to "overlooks" the ego, because he hears and sees through the form to the content, as would we if we join with him, which is the essence of the miracle as A Course in Miracles presents it: taking back the projection and thereby empowering ourselves to change our mind by now choosing Jesus or the Holy Spirit, our Right Mind. As long as we see the problem in form, in the world, changing our mind is impossible, which is the very purpose of the world. Only once we realize that our mind is projecting the problem (as long as we are choosing the ego), can we take the projection back, and do something about the cause of the problem, in our minds, by turning to a different teacher.

The point is, Jesus always was, and always is teaching from a non-dualistic perspective, about his Kingdom, not of this world (the world being dualistic), the Kingdom that our unseeing eyes don't see, and our un-hearing ears don't hear, because "the world is too much with us." (Wordsworth) And he was clearly always teaching about projection, as the teaching of the splinter and the beam should make clear. However, as the world inevitably distorted his teachings, particularly in Matthew, Luke and Acts, the teachings are increasingly diverted to justify the formation of religious communities, to bring people together in religious gatherings, and evolve into the church in the literal sense, instead of the promised joining with Jesus which is the message of the Eucharist, and so the church eventually becomes a worldly influence. What we do with his teachings is to pull them into the world more and more, to bring the solution to the problem instead of the problem to the solution, as the Course would say. So, if we bring him down into the world, to fix the problem where it can never be fixed, we are recruiting Jesus in the service of Caesar, which is exactly what happened.

In that context now, the Bible emerged as a very political document, which is dressed up by theological opinion and given the authority of being God's word, and the world seems to quickly forget how much the inconvenient aspects of Jesus' teachings were edited out in the selection process of canonical versus "apocryphal" books. This "Bible" becomes the justification of the founding of the Church, and Christianity as a religion, and it is taken very literally, to justify the most convenient reading of it. Subtle distortions and interpretations creep in, all the way to the "Heavenly bread" of the Lord's Prayer, which gradually evolves into our "daily bread," and Jesus becomes the spokesman for the Wonderbread account. Only if we start hearing the freshness of the original documents again, and avail ourselves of some of the literature which was excluded from it, can we restore some of the freshness of the original impression of Jesus, and can we start to hear him differently. A Course in Miracles is another path which brings us back to these original teachings of Jesus, by focusing us on content, not form. Its message of the Simplicity of Salvation ultimately revolves around the very basic insight that once you really see the ego for what it is, would you want it? When that stark choice becomes clear to us, through our incremental practice of forgiveness, what else is left to do but accept the Atonement?

In a variety of ways the Course provides a clear and explicit contrast to "the Bible" as a tool of Christian theology and dogma, there are also numerous allusions to the notion that the same stories could be read very differently, if we read them with the Holy Spirit. However the increasing attention to some of the apocryphal literature is advance the cause further, to a more independent reading of the Jesus literature.

The Thomas Gospel in particular, because of the total absence of a story line to dress up the various Jesus quotes, very clearly uses imagery to make a point, and clearly not to try to tell a story in the historical sense. In it we find Jesus pretty much as the teacher of nondualism, of choosing his Kingdom over this world of time and space.

In the synoptic gospels the sayings are framed in stories, which to the modern reader creates an impression of literal story telling, but it is doubtful if the reader in Jesus' time would actually hear them that way, when they are seen in the context of the rich mythological traditions of the Hellenistic world in which these stories unfolded. Moreover, even in the synoptics - as noted above, Jesus frequently admonishes us that it all comes to us in parables.

But in process of the birth of Christianity as a religion, there was an increasingly strong tendency to take these stories literally, and not as parables, and eventually the whole framework is adapted to justify the founding of what would become the church, and Christianity, and causing them to be read more as history than anything else, and construed in a moral sense to form the basis of that faith.

The symbolic reading of the stories as parables has been traditionally shunned by the emergent church and a more psychological/mythological appreciation, such as could be found in Philo of Alexandria and others was shunned. But even such a heavily interpretive approach was hardly reflective of the way Jesus taught, if we listen to the Thomas Logia. Even the Gospel of Mark still has a very abstract quality, which is very different from the story tellers of Matthew and Luke who purposely try to weave the Jesus story into Jewish tradition in the first case, and justify the formation of the Church in the second, turning the stories more and more in to would-be histories, with moral points. The Gospel of John however reverts again to a heavily symbolic and mythological framing of the story, which could not possibly be confused with the more narrow story telling of Matthew, Luke and Acts.

The more inner directed, and experiential way to relate to all this which was prevalent in the mystery religions of the Hellenistic world was completely blotted out by the emergent church, but there is no doubt it was around in great volume, but it just fades into the background in the face of the overwhelming "success" of the Christian religion which comes to replace Jesus' teachings. Eventually thousands of " Christianities" are either rooted out or forgotten or both, as the one dominant Catholic religion emerges under the sponsorship of the later Roman Emperors. Thus we end up with a literal church, a real estate empire, and gathering individuals in religious meetings, as well as proselytizing and missionary work, which shift the focus of the teachings from changing our mind to converting others, from inner change, and following Jesus, to a confession to a formal faith in an external Jesus, and from inner change to a moral philosophy and regulation of worldly affairs.

As the Bible emerged as the monolithic Holy Book of Christianity, and supposedly the Word of God, this literalistic, fundamentalist reading became the norm, and Jesus' original teachings were fairly effectively edited out of the book. The world had successfully replaced his very threatening teachings with an idol of him, a "bitter idol,"  as the Course calls it, for in the world's version Jesus died on the cross, and we can be none to certain that we'll rejoin with him after death. Throughout A Course in Miracles we find entirely the same theme, and there is ample opportunity at times to distort the Course by taking it literally, which leaves nothing but the empty form of knowing, let alone interpreting the Course, in lieu of practicing what it says, and turning to Jesus or the Holy Spirit as our teacher.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Above the Battleground

In the gospels Jesus is frequently quoted as asking the apostles to follow him, which is another thing which has been most often distorted by taking it literally, and in some absurd forms at times as in when early Christians thought that the imitatio Christi meant to get yourself crucified like him, when evidently the opposite was the case.

Jesus speaks clearly of a Kingdom not of this world. In the Course the first step in that direction is frequently expressed as the view from above the battleground, i.e. to join with Jesus in non-judgmental observation of the movie that is your life and forgive all the actors in it, including the character who plays you. In the previous post about Ken Wapnick's book on the Course and the Bible, I referred to the difference in the choices we face as they are presented in traditional Christianity - very much an egoic thought system - namely deliberate choices between good and evil, and between real alternatives in the world, seeking to make a difference.

In contrast to the above the Course exhorts us: "Therefore, seek not to change the world, but choose to change your mind about the world."  (ACIM:T-21.in.1) We should note also that even in the canonical literature of the NT Jesus constantly refers to a Kingdom not of this world, and again joining him in the view from above the battleground is the first step towards learning to see things his way.

Lionardo da Vinci, who must have known enlightenment also, just like Shakespeare, wrote:

" Noi tutti siamo esiliati entro le cornici di uno strano quadro. Chi sa questo, vive da grande. Gli altri sono insetti."  (As quoted by J.W. Kaiser in Four Open Field Books, p. 81), alternatively the quote is given as:
‘Noi tutti siamo asiliati, viventi entro la cornici di uno strano quadro. Chi sa questo, viva da grande. Gli altri sono insetti,’ in that form it apparently comes from a correspondence with one Gabriele Piccolomini and one wonders if that is a fictional character? After all Gabriel means " God's Strength"  and "piccolomini"  would mean something like "little littleness," (think: "a tiny mad idea.")  It all sounds like Leonardo might have been writing to his decision maker: If you chooses who you really are, you are God's strenght, but as the ego you're but a little fart.

The english rendering would be approximately: "We are all banished between the corners of a square frame. Whoever knows, lives grandly. The others are insects." That conveys the point exactly, for when you contemplate all those heavy choices in the world, a, b, c, d and e, and God only knows what else, and you then go inside to look at it all above the battleground, suddenly you might realize as you're holding Jesus' hand in the balcony seats there, that you're looking at reruns from something called "Rogier's Life" (fill in whatever name you wish) which is this movie you were watching, and which a minute ago seemed so real if not terrifying at times.

As I was writing this, my dear friend Annelies Ekeler, occasional co-author on this blog, researched the provenance of this quote from Leonardo, and it may not be attributable to him at all... the only connection seems to be a Dutch author, Godfried Bomans, who quotes the presumed letter from Leonardo, as if it were fact in his book Erik of het kleine insectenboek (Eric or the book of small insects). Bomans would be perfectly capable of making up such a story, with names that seem real enough (apparently there was a real Piccolomini family in Siena, but nothing is known about their ties to Leonardo). In all the point is valid as is Leonardo's real life motto: "Oh, poor mortals, open your eyes." Evidently he wasn't kidding, and people promptly forgot the most important thing he ever said. Such is life.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Course in Miracles and Christianity: A Dialogue

This little book is practically a classic already: Course in Miracles and Christianity: A Dialogue

A Course in Miracles periodically gives rise to confusion if its use of language is mistaken for Christian. It is not, in the same way that Jesus was not a Christian in the narrow sense, because Christianity was not conceived by him or even during his lifetime, but is an interpretation of him by others who came after him.

A certain amount of confusion has occurred from time to time when statements from the Course get mixed in with Biblical quotes, without clarifying the different context. This books seeks to address this issue, and clear up the confusion by clarifying the profound differences between traditional Christianity and the teachings of the Course. What makes it so valuable, is that the format is one of a dialogue between friends, who obviously mutually respect each other, and undertook this conversation purely to be of service to others, since the evident potential for confusion helps nobody.

However, it would be a mistake to think this book is only for Christians trying to make up their mind about A Course in Miracles. The fact remains that throughout Western culture, we are imbued with the history of Christianity, and the image of Jesus and his death on the cross is ingrained, even if for some that very image, and the presence of suffering in the world, may be part of the reason they rejected the teachings, and became atheists, such as is the case in our day and age with Bart D. Ehrman. The concept of the creator force is the same if we call it God, or Nature, or Evolution. It is the concept where the cause of our life experiences is external to us, and life "happens" to us. Along with this world concept of individual existence and a separate reality, the belief in sacrifice is completely ingrained in the ego's belief system. It is the difference between regarding the universe and the world as an objective, tangible reality, or as "maya," or illusion, a dreamworld caused by the mind, in which we are hoist on our own petard as long as we take that first cause - what the Course calls the "tiny, mad idea" of separation - seriously, but which can also be undone, by learning not to take it seriously any longer, through forgiveness.

A perfect example of taking things seriously is Christianity in all its forms, starting with its redaction of the Bible, and bombarding it into a Holy Book, after selecting just those books that are supportive of the Christian dogma, and discarding, if not burning, the rest. For the purpose of the discussion in this book then, "the Bible" is seen as the instrument of that Christian dogma, and of mostly taking the stories of the Bible quite literally, and granting it a sometimes problematic coherence by regarding it as the Word of God. Outside of the Christian context the Bible could obviously be read in different ways, as is suggested numerous times in the Course itself, a possibility which is also cited in the introduction to this dialogue. Taken at its face value as Christianity does, the Bible is as solid as Newtonian physics, and unreservedly dualistic, granting the physical world reality by declaring that it was created by God. Everything more or less follows from that.

The dialogue in this book represents a very fair and balanced presentation of the differences between this traditional Christian view of the world, which so much permeates the Western world, and the very different view point of A Course in Miracles. The categories which are discussed are basic, and quite conclusive:

  • The origin of the world: God created it (Christianity), vs. it's an illusion, a dreamworld projected on the basis of the tiny mad idea of the separation (Course).
  • Jesus: Exclusive, and different from us as literally God's only son - the Christ (Christiantiy), or inclusive and same as us, but first to remember Who we really are in truth, and teaching us how we can learn the same thing, in awakening to the Christ Mind where the sonship remembers its oneness. (Course). 
  • Crucifixion: Purposely suffered and died sacrificially in an act of vicarious salvation (Christianity), or did not perceive the attack because he knew he was not his body, and did not suffer, but taught only Love and forgiveness (Course);
  • Resurrection: Bodily resurrection after the crucifixion (Christiantiy), and the resurrection came before the crucifixion in the form of awakening from the dream and remembering who he was, and doing so before us, so he can now help us, as our older brother and teacher to lead us home (Course). 
  • Eucharist: The believers share in Jesus' vicarious sacrifice of his death on the cross, by symbolically partaking of the wine and wafer transmuted into his flesh and blood (Christian), or his followers share in his spirit, celebrating his presence to them in the mind as a demonstration that he did not die, but is alive in them (Course)
  • Living in the world: This of course is where the rubber meets the road, and - (very) loosely paraphrasing the book here the alternatives look like:
    • Christian style: Jesus, the Word become flesh, God's only son, who suffers and dies for our sins on the cross, and seven days later ascends and goes to Heaven, sitting at the right hand of the Father. He leaves us, the adopted children, with the promise that if we lead good and moral lives in this earth, and present our book with green stamps (good deeds), much like the S&H Green Stamps of old, at the gates, we may join him in Heaven after death, when the tally is made up for a game in which salvation can be won or lost based on making meaningful moral choices of free will. Thus our "stamps" are credits towards a hoped for future redemption. Temptation in this model is the doing of evil deeds on this moral field of experience;
    • Course style: Jesus as the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, who went before us as our older brother, remembering the way home before we did, who awakened to his true Identity so that he did not suffer when the world crucified his body, but instead only forgave, demonstrating (teaching) only love, for that is what he is and what we are, and who constantly reminds us that in making the same choice with him, and joining with him in the atonement, we are making the choice of hell or heaven in real time.
      The HS Green Stamps (Holy Spirit Green Stamps) in this case are not meritorious deeds collected towards a future stay with Jesus in the balcony seats of Heaven, but rather miracles - a Holy Instant, a momentary view from the balcony seat with Jesus. While we are still too afraid to choose them permanently, the miracle is our experiential confirmation of what it feels like to choose Him as our teacher over the false authority usurped by our jailer, the ego. When at last we become clear that our only fight is with ourselves and not with an angry God who opposes us, and that we only put the jailer in business by continuing to vote him in office, then we are free to learn how every miracle lessens our allegiance until we finally change our vote and join with Jesus in the atonement. We learn to "teach only love" with him, as we accept his love for ourselves. On this path then, our deeds will become more and more loving as we progress in choosing only Jesus as our teacher and guide, but the choices between A, B, or C in the world are seen as only a distraction, and literally a temptation to solve on the physical level what can only be solved by changing our mind ("metanoia" was the N.T. Greek expression for that). Thus in this model the choices are between heaven and hell, freedom and imprisonment, and we experience it as the ability to shift our allegiance from the ego and its separation thoughts, to Jesus and the Holy Spirit, in a joining with Who and What we really are in truth - spirit, and an integral part of the Sonship.
      This life now is a growth path towards spiritual adulthood, by shifting from a teacher of scarcity, slavery and imprisonment, suffering and death (the ego), towards listening to the Voice for God, who is ever present to us within (the promise of the Eucharist), never mind how much we bury him under the worldly drama. He remains the ever present Alternative, the Other Choice. In this model the world simply loses its hold on us, as we choose for freedom. Thus Jesus' living presence to us in the now, is restored to us by our choices, until we fully realize we really are him, for the illusion of a separate free will was the cause of our suffering and pain, and giving that up is no sacrifice at all. Free will then is the freedom to choose the Love of God, in lieu of the incarceration of the ego.
    • N.B. This paraphrasing was very liberal indeed - I made up the whole thing about the green stamps, but hopefully it serves as an illustration. I could also add that in the Christian tradition "taking up our cross,"  has been understood as following in Jesus'  footsteps as the suffering servant, in the mold of the passages in Isaiah which describe this. In the Course, "taking up our cross," would refer to taking responsibility for the fact that we chose the ego and crucifixion, simply because we cannot undo the choice until we first take responsibility for it, and recognize we made it in the first place. This willingness to see that we made the wrong choice and would now make another one is what the Course calls the " little willingness," which opens the gate for us to make another choice now.
In short, it becomes very clear in this book why mixing the two models arbitrarily really does not help anybody, because it muddies up either thought system. This little book is extremely helpful in clarifying the issues in a very elegant way. On another level it is a lesson in tolerance, where it simply becomes worthwhile to learn to understand another thought system and understand it for what it is, for that kind of freedom is loving and natural when we have no investment in the world. Whenever we can do these things in such an even handed manner, we will find ourselves where we are able to agree to disagree, and can simply be honestly curious about understanding another, and can enjoy better relations as a result. We learn to live with differences, not in the ego's way of conveniently ignoring inconvenient facts, which trip us up later, but because we have no investment in differences. Norris Clarke certainly represents Christianity in a very appealing way, and amazingly sometimes wanders very close to the Course in his appreciation, but eventually the unbridgeable differences remain.

One thing you will not find here is the perspective of the pre-Christian Jesus tradition, such as the Thomas Gospel, which in recent years has shown us that the traditional Christian point of view is not compatible with the teachings of Jesus either. When properly seen, the study of Thomas and some of the other pre-Christian literature, which was excluded from the Bible - although Thomas was quoted throughout - puts us on an entirely different track, where the Bible falls apart into a collection of books, that we can then appreciate more selectively as literature, and no longer as the monolithic Word of God. Along those lines we would end up placing a lot of "apocryphal" literature on a level with some of the books of the biblical canon, if not sometimes even give them preference as being more likely unadulterated, or closer to the source. In that respect it is worth noting that none of the "Christian" positions and theology as are investigated in this book and represented by Norris Clarke, can trace their origins to the pre-Pauline Jesus literature such as Thomas and Q.

Personally, I have essentially always been inclined to look at the Bible as simply a significant book, and with the respect that is due the holy book of any tradition, but with inconsistent qualities, and particularly have usually ignored Paul in my readings, but I hasten to add that I have also realized more profoundly as I work with the Course how that "Christian"/Newtonian - and would be "Biblical" - model of the world is ingrained in us as part of the ego thought system. So learning to tell the two apart in all their forms is helpful in learning to understand the Course, and learning what it teaches. I have thus come to regard Paul as the exemplar of the ego's strategy of bringing Jesus into the world, or, in the Course's language, bringing the solution to the problem, i.e. trying to fix the world, whereas the Course advocates bringing the problem to the solution, returning to the mind, where Jesus is present to us, and asking for his vision, in lieu of our own mistaken perceptions, as the only possible way out of problems that are of our own making - our own projections.

Again, looking at this purely from a personal standpoint, it boggles my mind when I read Norris Clarke's accounts of what Christians believe, and it really gets kind of funny for me. For most of my life I would have said that I believed in Jesus, but I wasn't a Christian. My understanding of him would have been closer to the symbolic view in ACIM:T-19.IV.C.10, where the birth of Jesus is equated to the beginning of an inner spiritual awakening. As a kid, I was brought up with the notion that the birth of Jesus was just symbolic of the inner events of spiritual awakening. And his baptism in the River Jordan under John the Baptist symbolic of spiritual awakening. By the same token however, until the Course came along in my life, I was never clear on the underlying content of the ego thought system, even though I looked on Christians as a primitive tribe, doomed to die out as they became more and more irrelevant - for in my native Holland people were leaving the churches in droves when I grew up, going from 90% church attendance at the time of my birth to under 10% by the time I emigrated to the USA some 29 years later.

Looking back today, I see how I had taken leave of Christianity, without much clarity about the thought system it stood for or my own subtle investment in it - although I never believed in his dying for our sins, and was taught early on to see that particular theological slight of hand as a sneaky attempt of the ego to have our cake and eat it too, or if you will, to get away with murder. But again, it was not until I met the Course that sorting out the ego thought system began in earnest, and this book is destined to be a classic which untangles the underlying concepts and prevents the confusion that results if people read no further than some superficial resemblances. From that standpoint it is equally helpful to a church pondering if it should include the Course in the liturgy - it should not - to a Course student who is befuddled by the sometimes Christian sounding language - no, this is not your grandfather's Jesus speaking. Regardless of what your faith may be, clarity can only be helpful, and attempts at being inclusive at the price of lost meaning help no one. You can only pour so much water in the wine and still call it wine. After all, " Jeder soll nach seiner fasson selig werden," as the Prussian King Frederick II put it (Everyone should become happy after their own fashion).