I admit, initially, I was excited to learn of U.S. presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. I found Williamson's emphasis on ethics and our inner lives as well as her call for a moral and spiritual awakening refreshing. This was a far cry from the language of the current occupant of the White House and not quite the sort of thing one, typically, hears from presidential hopefuls.
In her cultural diagnostics and aspirational language, addressed to the “better angels of our nature,” I heard echoes of spiritual teachers I admired, such as Muslim mystic, Rumi: “Perhaps, you are searching among the branches, for what only appears in the roots.”
Meaning that instead of remaining at the surface, and superficially addressing our societal problems one at a time, and in isolation, Williamson is urging us to dig deeper and consider the root of our difficulties. Indeed, what if we were to regard all problems as, essentially, disturbances of our spirit, and that of the collective spirit?
By placing the condition of our hearts at the center of our calamity and as the reason why we allowed ourselves to stray so far off course, I was reminded of these soulful words by Trappist monk and activist, Thomas Merton:
It is true, political problems are not solved by love and mercy. But the world of politics is not the only world, and unless political decisions rest on a foundation of something better and higher than politics, they can never do any real good...
Then, I learned that Williamson was one of the original popularizers of A Course in Miracles, a self-help book with a cult-like following written by Columbia University Psychology Department co-heads Dr. Helen Schucman and Dr. William N. Thetford. Following that, I learned that Oprah, an early champion of Williamson, had introduced her as “my spiritual counselor." Hmm, I thought. From what I'd seen, so far, it seemed like Williamson's heart was in the right place, only now I was concerned that she might turn voters off by pretending to know more than she truly did, spiritually, or by playing up the role of guru. Friends suggested that her presidential bid was some sort of publicity stunt and that she had framed it in her mind as part of a love ministry.
However, this was not my feeling. My concern was that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed woman is queen. To get a taste for the blind ambition and utter absence of modesty symptomatic of our confused times, head over to Instagram, for example, to read some of the outlandish titles that the spiritually immature assign themselves: prophet, sage, visionary, authenticity expert, freedom coach, transformation facilitator, inspirationalist, lightworker, alchemist. The list is as long as it is tragicomic.
Which is not to suggest that Williamson is a complete con. But, in a cynical age, ignorant or suspicious of organized faith, I was afraid that this vacuum was increasingly being occupied by far too many students-posing-as-teachers, or other opportunists who styled themselves as life coaches and metaphysicians, a term Williamson used to describe herself during her presidential announcement. I worried that this patina of spirituality might be a disservice to genuine seekers by seducing them to stop short of pursing the real deal, while surrendering their longing to another spiritual entrepreneur bandying about seductive buzz words.
With organized religion on the wane and spiritual-but-not-religious seekers on the rise, self-help books and self-made gurus appear to be omnipresent and omnipotent. That such books have mushroomed into a lucrative industry at a time of collective lostness and laziness in no real surprise. Yet, that Williamson, self-help guru to the stars (before Oprah and the Kardashians, she was friends with Barbara Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor and countless glittering others) was running for the highest office in the land seemed like a further form of compromise.
I know I'm not alone in feeling disillusioned by corrupt politics and immoral politicians. But I'm also dismayed by these so-called spiritual leaders who presume to speak for the universe. The background, learning and practice of these teachers matters a great deal. Although Williamson claims to be uncomfortable with the term New Age—as she feels it invites mockery and disqualifies her from being regarded as a serious thinker—she made her name popularizing A Course in Miracles, a book that was supposedly dictated to its authors by Jesus Christ, no less, over a period of seven years. In 1965, co-author Dr. Helen Schucman claimed Jesus Christ suddenly began to speak to her, saying “This is a course in miracles. Please take notes.”
Which is to say, Williamson is hardly a scholar in the traditional sense of the Tao Te Ching or any of the time-honored books of respected spiritual or philosophic traditions. In fact, it is precisely this sort of spiritual pastiche that makes reasonable people wary of New Age philosophy—with its tendency to cherry pick terms or ideologies out of context to create its cozy patchwork quilt. Removed as it is from tradition, New Age ideas are like a shadow of a shadow. In my modest experience and readings, truly holy persons—mystics, saints, masters—are humble and shun attention or power. As ancient Chinese philosopher, Laozi, memorably put it: "He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know."
I suspect that to a traditional Christian, A Course in Miracles’ view of itself as the words of Jesus and "Third Book" of the Bible, after the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament, would be viewed as downright blasphemous. Despite its Christian-sounding language, A Course in Miracles is heretical in its treatment of the doctrine of salvation, referring to such teachings as "attack" philosophies, and claiming there is no sin, suffering or need to perfect oneself, since we are all perfect/divine. Students and teachers of A Course in Miracles made further outrageous claims, such as self-proclaimed "modern-day mystic" David Hoffmeister, who not only regularly heard from Jesus, too, but suggested he could raise the dead!
For the uninformed who seek the comfort of faith without the inconvenience of a commitment, A Course in Miracles offers easy solace. I suspect such false revelation and distorted theology, however, with its profusion of miracles, raised the blood pressure of Franciscan Catholic priest Benedict Groeschel. Groeschel was a former student of Schucman’s at Columbia and went on to become a psychologist (like Schucman) and a close friend of hers in the last dozen years of her life. More than once, Schucman told Groeschel, "I hate that damn book" referring to A Course in Miracles and repeatedly disavowed its teachings for leading people astray and the dangerous cult it created.
Ultimately, Groeschel believed that the book might not have been divinely channeled but rather inspired by evil, and wrote, "This woman who had written so eloquently [in A Course in Miracles] that suffering really did not exist spent the last two decades of her life in the blackest psychotic depression I have ever witnessed." Though initially Groeschel had regarded A Course in Miracles as a form of religious poetry, over the years, he came to view it as undermining authentic Christianity more effectively than any other work he knew of. Groeschel summed it up this way to journalist Randall Sullivan in Sullivan's book, The Miracle Detective: "I decided that [A Course in Miracles] was a fascinating blend of poorly understood Christianity... and poorly understood Christian Science... all of it filtered through some profound psychological problems."
Furthermore, in Groeschel’s assessment, A Course in Miracles’ co-author Dr. William N. Thetford was "probably the most sinister person I ever met." Yet, the book, which was spawned as Thetford and Schucman's answer to "there must be another way" continues to enjoy a disturbingly broad appeal with its moral relativism and pantheism, and is even referenced in church settings.
Now, here is unconventional presidential candidate Marianne Williamson demanding that America dig deeper and examine its soul while voting for her as our moral leader. Williamson's credentials are inseparable from her self-help career—in addition to calling herself an activist, she identifies as an entrepreneur. Only in an age of shameless advertising is it desirable for a human being to become a brand. Considering the seriousness of the position she is, today, campaigning for, it's difficult not to be put off by the superficiality of her belief system. To present A Course in Miracles as poetry or a collection of meditations is one thing, but to champion it as scripture is blasphemous and dangerous.
Given the current mess we're in, I maintain it is refreshing and necessary to hear Williamson introduce morality, spirituality, love and mercy into the national discourse as an antidote to the rampant fear and loathing we live with. Yet questions around her qualifications remain. For example, does Williamson pose a risk as a false prophet or a sign of the times: the spiritual equivalent of fast food for the starved and undiscerning? How discerning and intelligent is she; how morally reliable is she to have been duped by a hoax like A Course in Miracles and made it her life's work? Is she naive or a shrewd celebrity guru preying on the hunger and ignorance of the powerful in order to further her ambitions? In voting Williamson, do we usher in a potential cult leader as president, or an intellectual and spiritual lightweight posing as deep thinker and profound spiritual teacher?
This is not Williamson's first foray into politics; in 2014, she unsuccessfully ran for Congress in California, finishing in fourth place. And, of course, the issues Williamson is promoting are not all New Agey, but also non-partisan and touch on how we all live—notably addressing festering race relations in America, for example, and proposing $100 billion in slavery reparations. Perhaps, the charitable thing in considering Williamson as a candidate—if one is not, entirely, persuaded by other more competent candidates whose policies she shares, such as Bernie Sanders—is to try to look past the facile self-help talk and see her broad message of love and healing as a necessary corrective to our unconscious living. Should Williamson win, which might be something of a miracle, and we find ourselves with yet another celebrity president, one hopes at least that there will be less drama and, given her credentials, more self-knowledge.
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