TOWARD A NEW
THEOLOGY OF LOVE
THE FEARLESS INTERVIEW
WITH RICHARD SMOLEY
by D. Patrick Miller
Richard Smoley is one of the world's leading authorities on Western esoteric traditions. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford in classics and philosophy, Smoley says that his conscious spiritual work began in graduate school in England, when he first delved into the Jewish mystical system known as the Kabbalah. “Its intricate delineation of levels of the visible and invisible universe spoke to my intellect,” he recalls. “Its profound understanding of the Bible touched the part of me that was brought up a Christian.” But once he returned to the United States from England, Smoley had a difficult time finding Kabbalah teachers willing to work with a non-Jew. He took this as a sign that he needed to move on to a different phase of his spiritual education, and in 1981 he encountered the contemporary and controversial discipline of “mind training” known as A Course in Miracles (ACIM). At the time, he says, “I was heavily imbalanced toward severity: toward form, intellect, judgment. The Course, which teaches that all judgment is to be relinquished to the Holy Spirit, provided the perfect counterpoint.”
His studies of both the Kabbalah and ACIM coalesce in his latest book, A THEOLOGY OF LOVE: Reimagining Christianity through A Course in Miracles.
I met Richard not long after he became editor of the late lamented GNOSIS magazine, and over the years we’ve enjoyed periodic kaffeeklatsches in which the conversations have ranged from the struggle to keep our heads above water as writers to the finer points of metaphysics. He once told me about reading portions of the Bible in ancient Greek and Hebrew and stopping often to exclaim to himself, “My God! Does it really say that?" Though Smoley is much more of a scholar than I am, I’ve always appreciated his down-to-earth sensibilities as much as his intellectual acumen. He is currently editor of Quest: Journal of the Theosophical Society in America, and lives in Winfield, Illinois with his wife and two sons.
What is a “theology” exactly, as compared to what we think of as“religion” or the very loose term “spirituality”? Is there any practical reason to distinguish between these concepts?
RS: Let’s look at these in the context of contemporary meaning. A witty though cynical college friend once said, “In heaven, you don’t have to go to church. In hell, you do.” This reflects many people’s concepts of religion today. It is formal worship; it is rigid and stiff even when it tries to be flexible; and it is very boring.
At the same time, nearly everyone has some intuition of a world and a reality beyond this one. Many don’t like to call it God because they associate it with the God of present-day religion, who is a rather remote and vague (if not vindictive) figure. Nevertheless, as Thornton Wilder wrote in Our Town, “Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.”
We could call this intuition spirituality. There you have the familiar distinction — why many people today say they’re spiritual but not religious.
Theology is a set of views about God and the universe. You may not even think you have a theology, but you do. Even to believe in nothing is to have a set of beliefs about the divine and its relation to humanity. Is there value in distinguishing these concepts? Yes, because the more clearly you think about these subjects, the less prone you are to being deceived by others and by yourself.
One of the most distinctive features of the Course is its modernity. We know its origins, since it was published less than 50 years ago, and the influence of modern psychology, especially of the Freudian variety, is quite clear in its pages. But what would you say is ancient or timeless about it?
RS: Let’s focus on one key aspect, which has been repeated by the wisdom of the ages going back to Plato and the Upanishads. It is this: we do not see things as they are. What we see is illusory, or at any rate it is not what we think it is. The Advaita Vedanta of the Hindus used the analogy of seeing a rope and mistaking it for a snake.
By the way, this idea is validated by contemporary science, which states that we do not cognize the world as it is — we only do so through the narrow and constrained filters of the five senses. (To invoke esoteric Christianity here, these are symbolically the five wounds of Christ.) Other creatures with other senses no doubt experience the world quite differently.
When we open the Course, what does it say? “Nothing I see means anything.” “I do not understand anything I see.” “I am upset because I see something that is not there.” This is virtually identical to the very ancient doctrine of maya, illusion, or avidya, ignorance or obliviousness. Plato called it doxa — roughly, “appearance.”
You’re a graduate of Harvard and Oxford in classics and philosophy, have studied or practiced several traditions in depth, and read the Bible in ancient Greek and Hebrew. You don’t exactly fit the profile of a New Age dabbler. You began working with the Course in 1981, and in the book you state, “I still find myself picking it up and thinking, ‘Yes, this is the only way out.’“ Why is that exactly? What does the Course provide that transcends other traditions with thousands of years of history?
RS: To answer from a personal point of view, that is a visceral response, and as such I can’t really explain it.
To put words to it, though, I would say that there is something called the Ageless Wisdom, the esoteric tradition, the Secret Doctrine. This has been known and present in all times and places, but it has different points of emphasis depending on the age and culture it is talking to. I believe the Course speaks directly to people of our time. It is a version of the universal wisdom that is uniquely suited to people today — Americans certainly, but people of other nations too.
The ego’s imagined desertion of God is central to the thesis of the Course, but you clarify that “the ego, in the Course’s system, is not the street-level self.” What is it then?
The ego is the 'world generator'. It is the element of our cognition that takes
all our perceptions,
all our thoughts, feelings, and everything else, and organizes a world out of it.
RS: To use a phrase I made up myself, it is the world generator. It is the element of our cognition that takes all our perceptions, all our thoughts, feelings, and everything else, and organizes a world out of it. As such it goes far deeper than the street-level self, which is only one small part of it. The ancient Gnostics called it the Demiurge, the “craftsman,” which was probably an attempt at expressing the same concept.
This world generator is defective and delusional. The Course teaches that the Son of God—which is all of us—imagined that he could be separate from God. Although in truth impossible and ridiculous, this “tiny, mad idea” sent the Son into a state of shock, a deep coma (far deeper than any coma you find in a medical context). Out of this coma arose a fiction that is called the world we see. The Course says, “I invented the world I see.” The “I” that invented this — which the Course calls the ego — is far deeper than the street-level self.
The idea that we live in a false reality is not new to the Course, but it has a way of confronting students with that idea in a novel, persistent, and sometimes disorienting way. “There will come a time when you see that the world of appearances is illusory,” you write, “but it is best if this recognition dawns slowly and, as much as possible, in manageable stages.” The Course itself reassures us, “Fear not that you will be hurled into reality.” Can you further define the idea of “manageable stages” of awakening?
RS: I could contrast them with states of awakening that are not manageable. If you spend any amount of time in a city, you will come across all sorts of strange people, many of them homeless, many insane. Yet some of them have remarkable insight — they can and do read your thoughts as you’re walking by (which is of course irritating). These people could have had a moment of illumination that sent them into this state. They may have awakened but could not handle the awakening.
Practically all of us go around fretting about the most ridiculous rubbish moment by moment. It can be liberating to say,
"This is really nonsense," and just laugh at it.
As you say, the Course’s approach is sometimes disorienting. It is hard to stomach the idea that nothing we see is really there, or if it is, is unrecognizably different from what we do see. Many people can’t take this. Some of them turn away from the Course at this point.
If we want to take this idea in a more manageable way, instead of saying, “This world is an illusion,” we could simply decide to take it less seriously. Practically all of us go around fretting about the most ridiculous rubbish moment by moment. It can be liberating to say, “This is really nonsense,” and just laugh at it. After all, the Course says, “the world will end in laughter, for it is a place of tears.”
Do you think it’s possible that the Course is actually the “second coming” of Christ — and that this time, his legacy could only be reawakened through a set of “self-study” ideas, rather than an embodiment of a holy person? This is what seems to be implied through ACIM’s redefinition of the crucifixion, when the voice of Jesus instructs, “Teach not that I died in vain. Teach rather that I did not die by demonstrating that I live in you.”
RS: In the early twentieth century, the Theosophists found a little boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti, and decided (for whatever reasons) that he was to embody the coming World Teacher. They brought him up, sent him to the best schools, gave him fancy cars. They created an organization to serve him called the Order of the Star.
In 1929, when Krishnamurti was in his early thirties, he gave a famous speech. In effect he said, “I’m the World Teacher, am I? Very well. Here's what I say: no more world teachers. Everyone has to think for themselves. I hereby dissolve the Order of the Star.” It sent a shock through the Theosophical Society from which it has not recovered to this day.
In an odd way, Krishnamurti was a world teacher, and the lesson he taught should not be ignored. Over the past fifty years, we have imported all sorts of gurus and roshis and lamas from the East. Many have turned out to be no better, and often worse, than the Christian clergy. All of this speaks to the need for greater self-direction than has been possible at any time in history. So the concept of the Second Coming as a self-study course has some appeal.
As for the Course, as I said in my book, I’m completely agnostic about whether it was channeled from Jesus or not. I wince when people say, “Jesus says in the Course . . .” although they have the right to their opinion. But I think the Course is a profound, valid, and self-consistent teaching and would be so whether it was channeled by Jesus Christ himself or banged out by a roomful of chimps with keyboards.
The Course says the Second Coming is “merely the correction of mistakes, and the return of sanity. . . . The Second Coming is the time in which all minds are given to the hands of Christ to be returned to spirit in the name of true creation and the will of God.” The Second Coming, then, is the time when all minds are finally healed, the illusion of separation is over, and the Son of God, reunified, can finally “reach up to God.” In ordinary time, this is probably very far off.
You suggest that the Course may be a little harsh in drawing a fairly distinct line between what it calls the “special relationship,” characterized by a transactional degradation of love, and the “holy relationship,” characterized by true communion and love of the unconditional variety. As you put it, “a kind of unconditional love can creep even into the most calculated and transactional of relationships.” Can you give an example of that?
RS: It happens in all sorts of ways. Two people have to work together on a big project. They start out unable to stand the sight of each other, but little by little, they create some mutual respect and even become friends. A man dates a woman because of the size of her breasts and comes genuinely to care for her. A woman marries a man for his money but becomes a sincere and devoted wife.
In 2008 I published a book called Conscious Love, in which I distinguished between transactional love and conscious love — what the Course calls “the special relationship” and “the holy relationship” respectively. Some people thought it was too harsh. But the Course’s view is far harsher than mine.
The Course bluntly states some unpleasant truths: much of what we call love is merely ego gratification. Much of what we call compassion is merely the ego trying to convince itself that it is a good person. These are stark facts, and they need to be seen in clear contrast, at least initially, even if in life things shift back and forth a bit more than that.
Near the end of your book you suggest that we may be moving, with the help of the Course, toward “the Age of the Holy Spirit.” What does that mean exactly? What are a few of its distinguishing characteristics?
RS: This idea goes back to the Italian visionary Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century. He posited an Age of the Father (the period of the Old Testament), the Age of the Son (the Christian dispensation), and a coming Age of the Holy Spirit, which would transcend differences, including religious differences, and open up an era of sheer love.
This time has not come yet. The Course says that the world has not yet experienced any comprehensive spiritual awakening. At the same time, I sense that humanity is collectively attempting to awaken. Whether it will or not remains to be seen.
I’m not making any prophecies here: I am not a prophet and do not believe in prophecies. I simply see an Age of the Holy Spirit as one of many possibilities that may or may not work out. If it does, we may enter an era of greater spiritual understanding, a lessening of dogmatism, and an ability to look into the unseen worlds with both openness and discernment.
In the short run — in the next few decades or centuries — this era may or may not come. But the Course is clear (and I agree) that the end is sure. The Atonement — the restoration of the Sonship, which is all of us — is certain, because it is the will of God and nothing can oppose it. We can delay it or attempt to stop it, but these will come to nothing: “The acceptance of the Atonement is only a matter of time.” As Christ says in the Gospel of John, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
OF RICHARD SMOLEY BY RAY GRASSE
COPYRIGHT 2020 BY D. PATRICK MILLER. ALL RIGHTS, INCLUDING ELECTRONIC, RESERVED.
MORE BOOKS FROM RICHARD SMOLEY:
THE DICE GAME OF SHIVA: How Consciousness Creates the Universe
THE DEAL: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness
HOW GOD BECAME GOD: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible
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