Julian Walker wrote in elephant journal last summer that the 1993 book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, recently released as an e-book, “is essential reading if you are interested in questions of power, shadow, authority, spiritual growth and freedom.”
While the book made many valid points, it demonstrated questionable scholarship in its assessment of the contemporary spiritual teaching known as A Course in Miracles (ACIM).
I came across this assessment while researching my 1997 book The Complete Story of the Course, which was revised and released in 2008 as Understanding A Course in Miracles. My original report on the The Guru Papers follows verbatim in the excerpt below, with some explanatory material added [in brackets].
A critique of A Course in Miracles appeared in a widely reviewed 1993 book entitled The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (Frog, Ltd.), by Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer [released as an e-book in 2012]. Alstad, an instructor in humanities and women’s studies with a doctorate from Yale, and Kramer, a yoga adept and former instructor at Esalen Institute, wrote their book to expose the “authoritarian structure” they feel is “interwoven and disguised in most arenas of human interaction, including religion, morality, power, institutions, the family, intimacy, and even sexual relations and personal problems, such as addiction.”
For the most part, The Guru Papers eschews criticism of particular institutions, movements, or individuals, instead providing a more general analysis of such topics as “The Seductions of Surrender,” “Fundamentalism and the Need for Certainty,” and “Love and Control.”
Two exceptions to their “essentially structural” critique include a five-page commentary on the Reverend Jim Jones and the 1978 mass suicide at Jonestown—and 10 pages on A Course in Miracles.
Kramer and Alstad focused on the Course “because it purports to be non-authoritarian, while claiming to be channeled by no less an authority than the spirit of Jesus Christ…We single it out because it is a classic example of programming thought to renunciate beliefs.”
Most of the ensuing critique focuses on the Workbook of the Course, which in Kramer and Alstad’s view pursues a kind of brainwashing proceeding along three routes:
1. Promulgating detachment from the world by denying its reality.
2. Decreeing forgiveness and the letting go of grievances to be the only route to love and salvation.
3. Promising immortality and the elimination of all negativity through identifying only with what is delineated as the god aspect within oneself.
The authors also note that the avowed purpose of the Workbook is to “eventually bring forth one’s ‘Internal Teacher’ which in turn, without any external authorities, will lead one to truth…This claim is worth examining because under the guise of presenting objective truth that any seeker can find, what is actually going on is the age-old ploy of authoritarian indoctrination: A worldview is presented by an unchallengeable authority as the truth to be found…Nothing could be more authoritarian, for who could argue against a disembodied spirit with the credentials of a traditional God?”
An obvious answer is Helen Schucman, the Course scribe who argued with the voice of a disembodied spirit in her own head until the end of her days.
Kramer and Alstad’s charge about the authoritarianism of the Course is further weakened by two facts. First, most authoritarian systems rely on an organization or embodied figure of authority rather than an implicit one [such as ACIM's "Internal Teacher"].
Second, many Course students do in fact argue with its voice, even as they study the message.
Many contemporary students—including such leading proponents as Jerry Jampolsky, Marianne Williamson, ACIM Editor and teacher, Ken Wapnick and ACIM Publisher, Judy Skutch—come from Jewish backgrounds and thus were not particularly inclined to regard the voice of Jesus as a divine or unimpeachable authority in the first place.
Possibly, a majority of students are veterans of other spiritual disciplines—including more traditional and overtly authoritarian structures—who report that what they like about the Course is its “take it or leave it” accessibility.
Still, others with agnostic orientations tell stories like that of UC-Irvine professor Roger Walsh, who shut his copy of the Course as soon as he encountered its claim of spiritual authorship, and did not reopen it for two years—until consistently positive reviews by respected peers convinced him to take another look.
As Ken Wapnick relates,
“I’ve heard countless stories of the Course sitting on people’s bookshelves for several years before they happen to read something in it that suddenly makes sense.”
Thus Kramer and Alstad’s critique incorporates little knowledge of what Course students are really like, or what they have to say about how the teaching actually affects them. Even when Kramer and Alstad rely on a student’s own words to draw an interpretation of the Course’s effects, their methodology and conclusions are decidedly questionable.
To illustrate their contention that “those willing to be programmed get programmed,” Kramer and Alstad assert that it is necessary to examine not only the Course’s Workbook exercises “but also the nature of the mind that is willing and able to do them daily for an extended time.”
As an example we will paraphrase and quote an enthusiast and teacher of the Course. We use this person’s words only to represent a position which we (and he, too) believe is similar to that of many others. Consequently, we do not think the identity of the person matters. He initially states that before doing the Course, he was very disappointed in life because he saw that ideals important to him would not or could not be achieved in this world. “The more I faced the ‘real world,’ the less real I felt.” He had “a divided sense of self that didn’t measure up to anything”; and his “fragmented idealism” was “contaminated by conflicting ambitions.”
Here is a person who wanted the world to fit into what were most probably ideals of purity, where non-violence, compassion, selflessness and love would reign supreme. It is not surprising this man would gravitate toward a worldview that presented these four items as in fact reigning supreme, this being done by denying the reality of the world where they do not reign supreme. This same person went on to say, “After years of thrashing about in a senseless world that seemed to oppose my highest aspirations, I have simply forgiven that world . . . I’m no longer concerned with defining what the “real world” is—perhaps, as the Course asserts, there is no world at all, but I do know I have gained a personal sense of authenticity.” He then concluded that he now feels better than he ever felt before.
The danger of this kind of feeling better, Kramer and Alstad explain, is the “great illusion…that through denial one can transcend what one is afraid of, whether it be death or isolation…What all renunciate worldviews such as A Course in Miracles really create are internally divided people who need an external authority to help keep control of their unwanted parts.”
Kramer and Alstad did not acknowledge or footnote their source, making it difficult for readers to follow up their research or challenge their conclusions.
Reading their critique as a journalist, I decided that I would try to contact the quoted student myself. Beginning to read his excerpted statements a second time, I realized that this wouldn’t take much footwork—because the increasingly familiar language of this “programmed” student was my own.
In fact, the quotes Kramer and Alstad excerpted originally appeared in my first personal essay about A Course in Miracles, published in 1988 by The Sun: A Magazine of Ideas. In order to offer my own interpretation of what I wrote—about which I can be reasonably authoritative—it is necessary to reproduce the entire passage edited by Kramer and Alstad.
Italics indicate material they deleted or did not include:
“After years of thrashing about in a senseless world that seemed to oppose my highest aspirations, I have simply forgiven that world by realizing that it was largely defined and limited by my own pessimism. I’m no longer concerned with defining what the “real world” is—perhaps, as the Course asserts, there is no world at all—but I do know that I have regained a personal sense of authenticity. I know that I am here to learn and, through writing, to teach whatever I can discover, record, and synthesize. No other definition of myself is needed.”
This essay, written during recovery from a prolonged illness during which I encountered and completed my initial study of A Course in Miracles, represented a sort of personal “coming out.”
In it, I was exploring how what I had recently learned might be usefully extended to a world from which I had felt sequestered for several years by an intense struggle of physical suffering, psychological self-confrontation and spiritual crisis.
By learning how to relinquish long-time habits of pessimism and cynicism, I felt that I was “loosing the world,” as the Course puts it in Lesson 132, from my demands and judgments. I no longer expected the world to fit ideals of “non-violence, compassion, selflessness and love,” as Kramer and Alstad suggested; rather I had come to realize that fulfilling and communicating such worthy ideals were my responsibility.
To pursue them I needed to rely on a greater sense of instinctive guidance than my habitual ego-self. A Course in Miracles was invaluable in helping me discover and contact such a sense of guidance.
I should add that in the process of learning to access that guidance, my relationship to the Course was never that of unquestioning obedience to an “unchallengeable authority.” I have argued inwardly with the voice of the Course for over two decades of study, and probably always will.
In fact, it is the testing of Course principles against my own prior assumptions and prejudices that has validated the usefulness of the teaching to me. I have never particularly cared about the nature of the Course authorship, but only whether its discipline delivered results of positive change.
While examining The Guru Papers I became curious as to why anti-authoritarian writers like Kramer and Alstad would take the liberty of interpreting my writing without contacting me to discuss their perspective in a fair and egalitarian manner. (Reaching me would have been easy enough; my address was published with The Sun essay, and responses from readers were explicitly invited.)
I also wanted to discuss with Kramer and Alstad my reactions to their work.
In my letter requesting their cooperation, I advised Kramer and Alstad that they would have the opportunity to preview what I wrote about them in manuscript, correct any factual inaccuracies and discuss any points on which they might feel misrepresented before publication. (This was always my standard practice in journalism, and would seem to be a fundamental safeguard for anyone claiming scholarship on the topic of authoritarianism.)
In a written response, Diana Alstad stated that “we are truly sorry if you feel misrepresented.” But she declined to be interviewed, stating that “we are not interested in involving ourselves in a dialogue about the value of A Course in Miracles.”
This refusal to engage in discussion about the Course is ironic, since Kramer and Alstad remark in The Guru Papers that they “have a surety and confidence in what we are saying. But confidence need not be authoritarian in itself if one is truly open to being shown wrong. The essence of ideological authoritarianism is unchallengeability, not confidence.”
This is an excerpt from Chapter 10, “Secular Critiques of the Course,” in Understanding A Course in Miracles: The History, Message, and Legacy of a Spiritual Path for Today by D. Patrick Miller (2008, TenSpeed/Random House).
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Ed: Bryonie Wise