A Theology of Love: Reimagining Christianity through A Course in Miracles

A Theology of Love: Reimagining Christianity through A Course in Miracles

Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2019. 240 pp., paper, $18.99.

My fascination with A Course in Miracles began decades ago, when the chunky blue volumes of the original edition were making their way through New York City’s alternative spiritual scene. One of my undergraduate philosophy professors, W. Norris Clarke SJ, engaged in a public discussion with prominent Course teacher Kenneth Wapnick (later published as “A Course in Miracles” and Christianity: A Dialogue).

I bought a copy of the Course, and tried to read it several times. But its language is sometimes difficult, and the challenge is compounded for someone accustomed to traditional Christianity, as the Course uses many of the same terms but in different ways. 

My copy of the Course gathered a lot of dust on my shelf before I began to find a way into it through interpreters like John Jacob Raub. I could have saved myself a lot of time and trouble if Richard Smoley’s fine new book had been available. Both those seeking simply to understand the Course and those who wonder about the Course’s contribution to a revitalized theology and/or the future of religion will find capable help here.

From his days at Gnosis magazine forward, Smoley has been known for his ability to translate the often specialized language of esoteric traditions into plain English. In A Theology of Love, he provides clear definitions of terms as used by the Course, and a guide to how to approach the several parts of the text in one’s own study and spiritual practice. In a particularly helpful chapter, accurately titled “Summa Theologiae,” Smoley considers the teaching of the Course organized by the classic categories of Christian theology, such as theodicy, Christology, and eschatology. 

Smoley admits that “the theology I have outlined here could, like its predecessors, turn into another set of manacles for the mind,” and that there are already interpretive disagreements about the Course and its various versions. He also notes that the Course’s scribe, Helen Schucman, had her doubts at times about the source of the Course and did not always agree with the material given to her. She stated, “I do not understand the events which led up to the writing. I do not understand the process, and I certainly do not understand the authorship.” However we approach this material, we should do so in similar freedom, as Smoley puts it, “with an attitude that is both flexible and rigorously logical” in order to keep from binding ourselves to a literal, dogmatic reading.

New revelations tend to be dogmatized by their enthusiastic devotees. Smoley protects against this possibility not only by warning against it, but by placing the Course within larger overlapping conversations, ranging from traditional Christian mysticism (John Climacus, Gregory of Nyssa) to other streams of esoteric Christianity (Boris Mouravieff, Emanuel Swedenborg), to non-Christian traditions (Jewish Kabbalah, Buddhist meditative practices). Such a web of connection is helpfully balancing, with other voices working to fill in gaps, and to raise good questions—and to be questioned in turn.

Smoley notes that the Course has received little sustained attention in the theological sphere (the Clarke-Wapnick dialogue being one of the few exceptions). One can only hope that A Theology of Love will expand and invigorate such conversations.

In the final analysis, I am not persuaded by the Course’s metaphysics—its account of the physical world, the body, and human suffering in particular. However, even where I disagree, there are aspects of the Course’s teaching (e.g., the primacy of consciousness) that may provide necessary correction to more traditional views. Regardless of one’s conclusions, Smoley has demonstrated that the Course’s theological position is logical and consistent, and worthy of engagement.

Beyond its metaphysics, the Course’s recommendations for life and spiritual practice are its greatest contribution. Who would disagree with the importance of knowing ourselves as always loved by God, and practicing forgiveness in every circumstance? Of course, such a practice is not as easy as it might sound (hence the need for a Course!). If there is anything that can help humanity toward an Age of the Holy Spirit (the subject of a wonderful discussion in chapter 17), it is surely radical forgiveness. For the vision of such love, and help along the way of living it, we can be grateful to both A Course in Miracles and Richard Smoley.

John Plummer

John Plummer is an independent theologian who lives in Nashville, Tennessee.