With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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As copy editor for The Sun, I have the opportunity to see virtually all that goes into each issue several times before it is printed, as well as to offer my opinion about the material selected for publication. Very rarely do I come across a piece to which I object so strongly that I argue against running it at all. Such, however, is the case with the interview on and excerpts from A Course in Miracles [“Higher Learning,” March 1995].
It pains me to see The Sun promoting a spiritual philosophy so antithetical to what I value about this magazine: its taking seriously of the social and natural worlds, as well as the spiritual realm; its appreciation for the dark in life, as well as the light; its insistence on intellectual and emotional honesty; its refusal to buy any spiritual bill of goods, however facilely packaged. All these qualities I find sadly lacking in the Course as presented by its students Kenneth and Gloria Wapnick (and D. Patrick Miller), and in the excerpts from the Course itself.
If one looks beyond the defensive protestations of Kenneth Wapnick (“It’s not biblical; it’s neither Judaism nor Christianity; it’s not Christian Science; it’s not new age. . . .”), one finds in the Course what could fairly be described as a variety of Christian fundamentalism, updated for “this psychological age”: the material world is not so much sinful as “unreal”; “the ego” stands in for Satan. Like other fundamentalist philosophies, the Course offers an infallible guide to living — not, in this case, the Bible, but the Course itself (“a perfectly integrated whole,” in Kenneth Wapnick’s words), which is not to be questioned, for, as Course author Helen Schucman’s “Jesus” instructs, “You either believe all of this course or none of it.”
What I find most disturbing and irresponsible about the Course, beyond its evident hostility to free thought and critical reason, is its hatred of the world — the real, messy world of social interaction and finite lives bound up in political, economic, and ecological systems; the world in which, according to Gloria Wapnick, “nothing works.” There is nothing new about such an attitude; within Christianity it dates back at least to Augustine (as Matthew Fox notes in the interview in this issue). Nor is the Course’s spiritualized conception of Jesus, which seeks to erase his engagement with the social issues of his own time, anything out of the ordinary for a particular strand of Christian theology. What is new — or, more accurately, new age — about the Course is its steadfast adherence to an it’s-all-in-your-mind philosophy: “this is a course in changing your mind — which is the cause of everything — and not your behavior, which is the effect,” says Kenneth Wapnick. In the Course’s proudly solipsistic universe, politics and ethics are matters of no concern (except insofar as they are said to change “automatically” under the benign influence of “Jesus” or “the Holy Spirit”).
Needless to say, not all spiritual philosophies seek personal solace by making the troubled world disappear, nor must all mysticisms be otherworldly (I think of the everyday mysticism finely depicted by James P. Carse in “Breakfast at the Victory” [January 1995], or the creation spirituality discussed by Fox in this issue). In this time of accelerating ecological destruction, with multiple wars raging around the world and the triumph of meanness and selfishness in our national political culture, A Course in Miracles presents us with just what we surely do not need: another world-denying, escapist spiritual philosophy — comfort for the comfortable, affliction for the afflicted. I very much regret its appearance in The Sun.
As a journalist with ten years’ experience investigating a wide variety of spiritual paths, I have learned that it is unwise to assess the value of any teaching without closely studying its principles, and then talking to followers of the path to learn of its real effects (as opposed to what I might presume to be its effects). Seth Mirsky apparently didn’t have the time for such tedious journalistic footwork before announcing his passionate conclusions about A Course in Miracles.
As a student of the Course since 1985, I can certify that its principles have only intensified my political activism in the everyday world. The Course’s teaching has helped encourage me to march against the war on Iraq; it has motivated me to write about the issue of capital punishment and support prison reform; and it has inspired me to support a wide variety of activist organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earth Island Institute, Oxfam America, Working Assets, Habitat for Humanity, and Amnesty International. (The latter organization will receive a percentage of the royalties from my Course-inspired book, A Little Book of Forgiveness.)
These are not the involvements of someone following a “world-denying, escapist spiritual philosophy,” as Mirsky describes the Course. There’s a simple explanation for this paradox: Mirsky doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He has not investigated the subject sufficiently to discriminate between its reality and his presumptions. Ironically, such discrimination is precisely the discipline that the Course offers.
Shooting from the hip is common in letters of opinion. But if Mirsky considers himself a journalist capable of exercising editorial discretion, he should know better.
Thank you for Jonathan White’s interview with Peter Matthiessen [“At Home in the World,” January 1995]. At a time when the environmental debate seems to have degenerated into double talkers versus paper shufflers, it’s refreshing to hear Matthiessen’s voice of experience, insight, and humanity.
Maggie Smith’s “Rats” [January 1995] brought uncomfortable twinges of memory. Back in the seventies, I put myself through my senior year of college by working as a lab technician in the immunology department, where I oversaw experiments on a small colony of white mice. First I would mix aqueous antigenic solution with mineral oil in a blender, then inject a bit of this concoction into each animal’s rear foot pad. It must have been enormously painful, and it left the mice limping for days. After a few weeks they would be “sacrificed,” the preferred method being to hold the body with one hand and grasp behind the ears with the other, pulling forward until the cervical vertebrae parted. Afterward I would collect a blood sample by plucking an eye out — there’s a highly vascular sinus just behind the socket — and would excise the spleen to be sent down the hall for testing.
I went through three stages of reaction to this mayhem: first numbness, then feeling exceedingly uncomfortable and squeamish, and finally becoming hardened and actually looking forward to the afternoon massacres. This last phase shocked me, and I began to consider resigning.
What finally did it for me was an experiment involving the transfer of cancerous tumors from an afflicted mouse to a healthy one. The idea was to catch the dying animal a day or so before it keeled over and pass on the cancer for continued study.
One Friday, I forgot to check the cancerous mouse, and by Monday it was dead. An arrogant postdoc then lectured me on how my negligence had brought the march of science to a halt. In response, I pointed out that twenty generations of mice had died waiting for him to devise his experiment, while the original culture was in deep freeze and available to begin the infection anew within the hour. I still recall him pompously drawing himself up to his full height and asking, “Are you quite done reacting?” I quit the next day.
Now I write travel guides for a living, and here in Greece the attic mice and rats have avenged their long-dead cousins. They raid the cupboard and eat the leather on my luggage. I have traps and four cats to keep the numbers down, but it’s certainly a more level playing field.
Congratulations to Maggie Smith on her Ph.D., her ability to finally stand up for herself and do the right thing, and her appropriate dissertation dedication. Congratulations, too, on her membership in Nazis of America. Mengele would have approved.
I am probably as much of a Nazi as the next person. It is my understanding, however, that a person with remorse is not the sort of whom Mengele would have approved.
I am writing for Shorty of Santa Cruz, California, the prisoner whose letter appeared in Readers Write in the January 1995 issue. There are people outside prison fighting to repeal the three-strikes laws. Prisoners concerned can contact the following for information and assistance: Families Against Mandatory Minimums, 2000 L Street NW, Washington, DC 20036; Friends Outside, 116 East San Luis St., Salinas, CA 93901; American Friends Service Committee, AFSC Criminal Justice Program, 405 Fourteenth St. #183, Oakland, CA 94612.
For a couple of years I’ve been getting your invitations to subscribe. I’ve read each one carefully, then left it out for a day or two, debating. But in that time I would inevitably see my pile of unread magazines accumulating, and I’d throw your brochure away.
But last week I was in Boston and bought your January issue. I read it straight through, underlining things, making marginal notes, thinking of friends who would like to read this piece or that one. When I came to the subscription card, I filled it out, thinking I’d let it sit for a day or two, still with half an eye on that unread pile.
Then Readers Write hooked me. Any publication with readers who can write that movingly deserves to be read by millions. By the time I got to “Their Turn,” in which Sy Safransky managed to slam Gingrich, Jefferson, and Mount Rushmore all in the same piece, I was reaching for my checkbook.
In her letter in the January issue of The Sun, Jessica Rigney applauds Richard Cole [“Waiting for Emma,” November 1994] for showing “how he fumbles with the ideas of what a man should do.”
I think it is not men but women who for the last twenty years have been defining, redefining, and trying to dictate how a man is supposed to act. Men fumble because they try to keep pace with the ever-changing demands of women. Unfortunately, men who try to live up to women’s expectations present themselves as clumsy, what-do-you-expect-from-a-guy cartoons. How safe.