Early in the 1990s, I made the leap from full-time reporting in a mainstream newsroom — the Rocky Mountain News (RIP) — to teaching at Denver Seminary.
My goal was to pull “signals” from mainstream media into the world of people preparing for various ministries (key summary document here), helping them to face the ideas, symbols and stories that were shaping ordinary Americans, in pews and outside traditional religious groups. I wanted to pay attention to valid questions, even if traditional believers couldn’t embrace the media world’s answers.
In my main class, I needed a book that could open a door into what I called “Oprah America.” Thus, in 1992, I required my students to read “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Some of these evangelical students were not amused.
This, of course, leads us to that massive New York Times feature that ran the other day:
The Curious Mystical Text Behind Marianne Williamson’s Presidential Bid
The New Age author was drawn to an esoteric bible in the 1970s. It made her a self-help megastar. And now it has gone mainstream.
To my shock, the world’s newspaper of record dedicated large chunks of newsprint to the religious content — the doctrine, even — at the heart of Williamson’s life, ministry and her politics. I would say this story gets the equation about 75 percent right, but the Times team needed to back up a bit further in order to understand why so many Americans will — if told the roots of her thought — find her beliefs disturbing.
Hold that thought. Here’s the key question: How would the Times, and other elite media, have handled a feature about the beliefs of a Oneness Pentecostal or a faith-healing preacher who sought the presidency as a Republican? With this light a touch?
Now, here is a crucial chunk of that Times feature, which comes after a brief discussion of her remarks in the recent debates featuring a flock of Democratic candidates:
She was … drawing directly from a homegrown American holy book called “A Course in Miracles,” a curious New York scripture that arose during the heady metaphysical counterculture of the 1960s.
This is not some homey book of feel-good bromides. Rather, it is taken by its readers as a genuine gospel, produced by a Manhattan doctor who believed she was channeling new revelations from Jesus Christ himself. And stepping into this unusual book’s story, in fact, is the key to understanding Ms. Williamson’s latest venture.
There’s an essential question for journalists to ask: Does Williamson still believe that her career is based on new divine revelations, received via a New Age Jesus? Let’s continue:
The mystical text has sold millions, been translated into two dozen languages and has attracted fans like Carlos Santana and Beyoncé. Mitch Horowitz, the author of “Occult America,” called the Course one of the “largest and most popular alternative spiritual movements in America.”
“For followers, it holds out a hope that there is a greater world than the one that we are experiencing,” he said, “that illness, emotional torment, fear, self-doubt, prejudice are all simply illusions.”
And few have done more to spread the text than Ms. Williamson. She rose to fame in the 1990s as part of a pantheon of New Age megastars (Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle and Oprah Winfrey are all collaborators) and has offered counsel to elite celebrities like the Kardashians, Cher and Steven Tyler. Through this all, the Course has been her compass: It saved her life, made her famous and has now inspired her new political project.
The Times noted that an article in Psychology Today described the Course as a crucial development in our culture’s “supermarket of cults, religions and psycho-mystical movements.”
There is quite a bit of background here, helping readers understand how Williamson moved from Judaism into The Sixties, as a theater and philosophy major jumping from trend to trend — from Transcendental Meditation to Ram Dass to the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh to a New Mexico commune. Then she hit it big with “A Return to Love” and an AIDS ministry, leading to ties to Elizabeth Taylor, Oprah, Michael Jackson, Bill and Hillary Clinton and, oh yes, Donald Trump.
Then there is Helen Schucman, the mystic behind the three-volume Course. She was raised as a secular Jew in New York City and, of course, trained as a psychologist at New York University. Here is the key material on her evolution into a prophetess:
As an adult … Ms. Schucman began having strange experiences. She had vivid dreams; in one, she found herself in a dim cave, unfurling a mysterious scroll. And once, while riding the subway, she saw her fellow passengers glow in holy light.
Then, in 1965, while working as a research psychologist at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, a voice addressed her. It urged her to take dictation. “This is a course in miracles,” it said. “Please take notes.”
Ms. Schucman was hesitant. … She came to believe the voice belonged to Jesus. Her spirit channeling unspooled over several years, culminating in a three-volume, 1,300-page tome. It was published in 1976 by the Foundation for Inner Peace.
The book drew from older traditions like Christian Science and New Thought, a related 19th-century metaphysical movement. It also incorporated Freudian language. Reality, it taught, was illusory; conflicts dissolve when one realizes the power of love and forgiveness. This change in perception, the book’s narrator says, produces miracles.
It opens cryptically: “Nothing unreal exists. Nothing real can be threatened. Herein lies the peace of God.”
There’s so much more to cover, so please read the whole Times piece. At one point, the story notes that, in 1999, “Ms. Williamson moved outside Detroit to lead a megachurch. The congregation …. preached a blend of Christianity and positive thinking.” The online version of the story does include a URL that offers more background, noting her tense ties to a group many religion-beat pros would know — the Unity Churches movement.
In other words, Williamson was not really new New Age (in the 1990s), she had lots of ties to old New Age, in terms of sects that claimed to offer an evolved Christianity — blending elements of Eastern mysticism into Christian language.
This leads me to a crucial passage drawn from my marked-up first edition of “A Return to Love.” If journalists want to understand where Williamson is coming from — leading to must-ask questions for the minister and her critics — then this is it.
This is the rare case in which political journalists must, in order to do their jobs, ask a public figure questions about religious doctrine. In her chapter on “Hell,” Williamson writes:
“When we think with God, then life is peaceful. When we think without Him, life is painful. … Asking God for help doesn’t seem very comforting if we think of Him as something outside of ourselves, or capricious, or judgmental. But God is love and He dwells within us. We were created in His image, or mind, which means that we are extensions of His love, or Sons of God.”
This leads to the earlier Course quote: “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists.”
Ah, but what about evil in the world? What about “sin”? Later on, there are these two remarkable passages from Williamson:
“Only love is real. Nothing else actually exists. If a person behaves unlovingly, then, that means that, regardless if their negativity — anger or whatever — their behavior was derived from fear and doesn’t actually exist. They’re hallucinating. You forgive them, then, because there’s nothing to forgive.”
That could lead to some interesting questions about Trump’s behavior and his own roots in positive thinking.
Then, a few paragraphs later there is more:
“A sin would mean we did something so bad that God is angry with us. But since we cannot do anything that changes our essential nature, God has nothing to be angry at. Only love is real. Nothing else exists. The Son of God cannot sin.”
Who is the “Son of God” in that sentence? Would that view of human nature apply to Trump?
Stay tuned for future Democratic Party theology debates.