Conducted by James Bolen April 1984
About this Interview
An exclusive candid conversation with one of the two “hidden personalities” behind the manifestation of one of the Century’s most enigmatic and profound spiritual thought systems – A Course in Miracles. Once a professed agnostic, Dr. Thetford now openly discusses his secret role in scribing the Course and how it personally affected him and his work in psychology, as well as the prestigious positions he held as Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and as Director of the Psychology Department at the Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
~By James Bolen
©1984, All Rights Reserved,
Used with Permission
NEW REALITIES: As one of the two persons responsible for scribing A Course in Miracles, what has been the impact of it on your life?
THETFORD: It has changed my life totally. I recall typing the first fifty principles On miracles that came through Helen Schucman in the fall of 1965, and realized that if this material was true then absolutely everything I believed would have to be challenged – that I would have to reconstruct my whole belief system.
At the time, however, I thought that would be impossible; I didn’t know how I could do it. Yet I felt that was a requirement since the material that came through Helen in the beginning phase seemed so authentic and genuine. I went into shock for a brief period, wondering how it would be possible to make such an abrupt change in my perception of life and the world.
Later I realized that God is merciful, and does not ask us to make changes so abruptly, that there would be adequate time to gradually begin to shift my perception. I think what was important was my willingness to change, not mastery of the material.
And, of course, I moved from the middle of Manhattan, where I had lived for twenty-three years in Tiburon, California, something I thought would never happen. I had settled into my routine as a New Yorker and felt that the Big Apple was the center of the Universe and the place where I belonged. That move was probably the greatest cultural shock I have ever experienced, making an abrupt transition from the turmoil of a hectic life in New York City to the tranquility of Tiburon.
Eventually, I left academia as well. First by retiring from my position as Director of the Psychology Department at the Presbyterian Hospital of the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, and several years later retiring from my position as Professor of Medical Psychology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.
NEW REALITIES: Was that to devote full time to the Course, or to pursue other interests?
THETFORD: A combination, I think. After twenty years at Columbia, I felt that it was time to leave academia. It seemed natural to leave when the Course was published.
NEW REALITIES: What exactly was your role in the scribing process of the Course? Did you hear a voice too?
THETFORD: Both Helen and I knew from the beginning that this was a collaborative assignment, although I did not hear a voice. While Helen heard the inner dictation, she was incapable of transcribing the material directly herself, since she found the content of the Course too threatening. My role was to offer the considerable support and reassurance needed each day for Helen to continue her shorthand notebook recording. She would then read the material to me, and I would type it directly from her dictation.
NEW REALITIES: Since the Course challenged your own belief and thought system, too, why didn’t you just reject it, chuck it out?
THETFORD: Well, my intellect did rebel at times. But I was the one who had asked for another way, a better way, with regard to the extremely stressful professional context in which Helen and I were trying to function. When the material in A Course in Miracles began coming, it was obvious to me that this was the answer to my question, very clearly the answer. So to reject it or even disregard it was never even a consideration.
NEW REALITIES: What specifically about it made it obvious to you that this was indeed your answer?
THETFORD: Perhaps the fact that it was so totally different from the way I had been operating throughout my life. But the authenticity of the material more than anything else struck me. I knew that Helen had not made this up, even with her very fertile imagination.
NEW REALITIES: The authenticity…?
THETFORD: Well, the material was something that transcended anything that either of us could possibly conceive of. And since the content was quite alien to our backgrounds, interests, and training, it was obvious to me that it came from an inspired source. The quality of the material was very compelling, and its poetic beauty added to its impact.
NEW REALITIES: It seems quite unusual that you, an established psychologist holding two very prestigious positions, would even consider embracing such material, considering your training and the rigid tenets within academia to which you no doubt subscribed and adhered.
THETFORD: I think if it had not been for many of the extraordinary experiences that occurred during the summer of 1965, neither Helen nor I would have been willing to accept the material she scribed.You have reported some of those experiences in these pages in the material from Robert Skutch’s new book Journey Without Distance, The Story Behind A Course in Miracles. However, our experience associated with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, was not reported in New Realities. Perhaps as much as anything, this series of events crystallized the whole new direction that we would take.
NEW REALITIES: The Mayo Clinic event occurred in September and didn’t the Course begin the next month in October?
THETFORD: Yes. I had been asked to go to the Mayo Clinic and find out why they made money on their psychological service operations, while at Columbia-Presbyterian it seemed that we were always losing money. I thought I knew the answer to that question because we saw primarily clinic patients who couldn’t afford fees, and the patients at the Mayo Clinic were middle or upper class and able to pay. Nevertheless, it seemed this was an important trip to make and I asked Helen to accompany me.
Just before we took off – I think it was the night before – Helen had this very vivid image of a church, which she described to me in great detail; she even made a sketch of it. It was an old church with a number of turrets and towers. She thought it was probably a Lutheran church. She was convinced that somehow we would see that church from the airplane window as we were about to land in Rochester. That, of course, seemed rather unlikely, since the airports I know aren’t built near churches. Anyway, we kept our attention very closely focused on the windows during landing and much to Helen’s disappointment and distress no such church was visible. In fact, Helen was so upset at not finding her church that I didn’t hold out much hope of accomplishing our business the next day unless she could somehow be reassured. Rather desperately I suggested to Helen that we hire a taxi and see if we could find her church anywhere in the Rochester metropolitan area.
So Helen and I went church hunting. At first, we thought we would confine ourselves to Lutheran churches. I think there were two of those, and neither one was remotely like Helen’s image. Then we decided that we might as well see all the other churches while we were at it. I think there were twenty-seven altogether in the environs of Rochester. And not one of them bore any resemblance to Helen’s image. Obviously, she was pretty crushed, but we pulled ourselves together in preparation for the following day’s business.
The next day after we had successfully completed our survey, Helen and I prepared to leave our hotel. I went down to the lobby to wait for her with the luggage, and noticing a newsstand I decided to get a paper. Instead, I saw a little booklet entitled “The History of the Mayo Clinic.” Thinking it would be nice to have a souvenir of our visit, I purchased it for a dollar. As I leafed through it very quickly, I saw a picture of Helen’s old church, exactly as she had described it with all the turrets and towers. It was even a Lutheran church. The only problem was that it had been razed and the Mayo Clinic was actually built on the former site of this Lutheran church. It was a very dramatic moment, and I was eager to share it with Helen.
When she came down, I said quickly, “Helen you really weren’t out of your mind after all. Your church was there but it’s no longer around. When you thought you were looking down on it as from an airplane, you were really looking back through time.” Helen displayed a peculiar mixture of emotions. On the one hand, relief that she wasn’t totally crazy; on the other hand, it was clear that she was doing something which she regarded as highly paranormal, and this was an area that made her very uncomfortable.
On our way back to New York, we had to change planes in Chicago. While we were sitting in the waiting room, Helen spied a young woman in the corner reading a magazine and looking vaguely unhappy in the way people frequently do when they are waiting for planes in airports. I was surprised when Helen said to me, “See that young woman over there, she’s really in serious trouble – she’s got a lot of problems.” Helen insisted that she would go over and speak to this woman. As it turned out the woman, whose name was Charlotte, had never been on an airplane before. She had flown on Ozark Airlines to Chicago en route to New York and was in a state of panic. She knew nothing about New York. We later found out that she was leaving her husband and two young children, and was in a state of great distress.
Charlotte was booked on the same plane as we. During the flight, we sat on either side of her, holding her hand, and trying to calm and soothe her. We asked where she was going to stay in New York since she didn’t know anyone. She said that since she was Lutheran, she thought she would contact a Lutheran church and somehow they would find a place for her in the city. It was at this point that Helen and I exchanged glances, The message was clear to both of us, Helen heard her inner voice saying, “And this is my true church, helping your brother who is in need; not the edifice you saw before,” The authority of this inner voice became increasingly familiar to both of us when the Course began a few weeks later in October.
NEW REALITIES: It must have been somewhat trying during that period, living a dual life in receiving and dealing with the miracles’ material coming through and continuing your normal academic life.
THETFORD: Yes, in a way it was like living in two different worlds. My feelings were so complex it’s hard to put it very simply. Obviously, Helen had not flipped, nor had she lost her mind. The material made perfect sense, but there was a feeling of having plunged into something that was way over our heads and for which we were unprepared.
Naturally, we did not discuss this with our colleagues, and none of our professional associates were aware that this was going on as an additional dimension in Helen’s life and mine. At the same time, we could not completely separate the Course from our academic responsibilities, and a good deal of the actual typing of the material did take place at the Medical Center. Helen dictated her notes to me during our lunch hour or at odd moments, but this did not interrupt the flow of our professional commitments which included giving lectures, writing research grants and papers for publication, as well as a multitude of administrative chores – all those things that make up very busy professional lives. So the experience that we underwent during that period was indeed a highly unusual one.
NEW REALITIES: Weren’t there times when Helen seriously considered seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist about this? Or maybe consider obtaining some medication that might take away the voice dictating to her?
THETFORD: It wasn’t a voice in that sense at all. Helen was not pursued by voices; it was a very specific sense of channeled communication that would come to her from time to time. She would be aware that there was material to be transcribed, and she could do it when we chose. There was no pressure to immediately drop anything she was doing in order to take notes. Rather, the material was there almost as if it had been pre-recorded, and was waiting for her attention. It presented itself to her in a very separate and distinct part of her mind; she did not experience it as an external voice at all.
NEW REALITIES: Yet given the nature of someone hearing a voice – in the traditional psychotherapeutic sense – what do you think might have been the diagnosis or prognosis of Helen, without understanding the dynamics involved?
THETFORD: I think people who do unusual things of that type are probably considered somewhat dissociated or possibly schizophrenic. However, the fact that Helen’s ability to function as a psychologist was not impaired in any way during this period was a clear indication that she did not suffer from a delusional system. If anything, I would say that her ability to function professionally was enhanced as we continued with this work. During the time we were working on the Course we seemed to actually increase our professional productivity and quality. One confirmation of this is that when we completed the manuscript we were both awarded tenure as professors.
NEW REALITIES: Helen seemed to have much more difficulty embracing the Course material than you did. Was there any kind of spiritual or religious background in your life, or anything else, that made this so?
THETFORD: Well, it certainly wasn’t due to any early religious background for me, I had gone to the Christian Science Sunday School until age seven when my sister died suddenly and my parents lost interest in all religion. Later in my youth, I attended various Protestant churches, but by the time I had started my graduate work at the University of Chicago, I had certainly given up any interest in religion. Besides, I recall how the University of Chicago was often described as a Baptist University where atheist professors taught Jewish students Thomistic philosophy! With that kind of background, I think it’s apparent that whatever religious beliefs I might have had would simply have become more confused.
NEW REALITIES: What would you say was your philosophical or spiritual outlook then?
THETFORD: I would describe myself as an agnostic. I was not really concerned with whether spiritual reality was a fact or not. Freud regarded religion as an illusion, and I think many of the graduate students and faculty with whom I associated at the time saw religion as something that lacked intellectual respectability.
NEW REALITIES: Given your agnostic outlook at the time, was there anything you were involved with that might have set the stage for your being the catalyst for A Course in Miracles.
THETFORD: Not as such, although I was one of Carl Rogers’ first graduate students after he came to the University of Chicago in 1945. He taught that “unconditional positive regard” was an essential prerequisite for client-centered therapists. I now realize what Rogers was really emphasizing was that total acceptance in our relationships meant expressing perfect love. Although I recognized how far I was from being able to practice this concept in my life, I grew to appreciate its contribution to my own spiritual development. Actually, I always thought that a Higher Authority must have goofed in selecting Helen and me for this assignment. When Helen asked the voice once why she was chosen for this role, the answer she got was, “You’re obviously the right person because you’re doing it.”
NEW REALITIES: What’s so curious is that both of you – Helen the atheist and Bill the agnostic – would entertain the notion of doing something like this. How do you reconcile that? Surely something must have been triggered within you.
THETFORD: During that summer of 1965, we had many experiences that shook up my belief system and caused me to be much more open-minded to the possibility of divine intervention. By the time the Course started, I would say I was no longer really an agnostic. Helen, however, had great difficulty with the Course regarding her own personal beliefs. She continued to question what was happening to her throughout the time she was transcribing the Course, and I’m not sure she was ever able to reconcile what she was doing with who she was.
NEW REALITIES: It’s interesting that you often use the word “assignment” with regard to your and Helen’s involvement with the Course. Why?
THETFORD: Well, the events we experienced leading up to the Course‘s dictation seemed to us to be a preparation for an assignment that somehow, somewhere, we had agreed to do together. In a sense, we were fulfilling our function.
NEW REALITIES: The events you refer to as preceding the Course‘s dictation by Helen involved a number of psychic and mystical experiences she had. Did you have similar experiences?
THETFORD: Yes, but they never seemed as dramatic as Helen’s. However, one that had a very profound effect on me occurred Easter Sunday in 1970. I had agreed to take Jean, an elderly woman artist, down to dinner in Greenwich Village with some other artist friends. It was a very cold, stormy wintry day, with sleet and high winds – unusual for that time of year. Being without a car, I realized I was going to have a lot of trouble getting a taxi, and so I meditated briefly about what to do. I got a clear message that I was to go to the corner of 78th Street and Fifth Avenue, near where I lived, at exactly 3:15, and the problem would be taken care of. I had enormous resistance to doing this, but I put on my stormy weather gear anyway, walked to the corner, and tried to hail a cab. Since I was in competition with all the doormen on Fifth Avenue it seemed utterly useless.
Then for just a moment I closed my eyes and let go of my troubled thoughts, saying to myself: “Thank you, Father, it’s already done.” And for an instant, I truly believed that. When I opened my eyes, a chauffeur-driven limousine had stopped right in front of me at the corner and the driver rolled down his window and asked, “May I help you, sir?” This, as anyone who’s been to New York or lived there knows, was a highly improbable happening.
I was very tempted to ask him why he had stopped for me, and then I realized that this would be an inappropriate question; I was simply to accept this gift. I got in and we drove over to Jean’s and picked her up. She was absolutely thrilled that I had come to pick her up in a limousine!
The interesting thing, too, is that I didn’t discuss a fee with the driver. He simply took me without any question, and when we arrived at our destination I asked him how much it was, and he said something ridiculous like five dollars. I think I gave him several times that amount out of enormous gratitude and relief.
NEW REALITIES: What other such experiences . . . ,?
THETFORD: While we were in the process of transcribing the Course material, I prayed that we might encounter a living teacher – someone who embodied these teachings in his or her own life, Around this time a priest friend, Father Michael, told me about Mother Teresa of India. Duly impressed, I obtained a copy of Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God, the first book which describes Mother Teresa’s astonishing healing work with the poorest of the poor.
Shortly after I read the book, Father Michael informed me that Mother Teresa was currently in New York. She had recently established a New York Center for her order in the South Bronx – at that time, the worst of all crime ridden poverty areas in New York – and he had been asked to help facilitate some of her local arrangements. He invited Helen and me to join him in visiting her in the Bronx. Initially, I felt apprehensive about actually having my prayers answered since I was not sure that I was up to meeting a living saint. However, when this tiny woman graciously met us with palms extended, I felt an almost instantaneous sense of relief. It seemed as if I had always known her. Completely selfless and without pretense, she radiated the joy of total spiritual commitment. Later, when she turned to me and said, “Doctor, wouldn’t you like to come to India? There is so much that you could do to help the poor,” I felt an almost irresistible impulse to answer, “Yes!”
I have met with Mother Teresa on a number of occasions since that time, including one visit she made with Father Michael to our offices at the Medical Center the year before Helen retired. To me, her life is a demonstration of the importance of total dedication and complete consistency on the spiritual path. Our prayers are answered, even though frequently in the most unexpected ways.
NEW REALITIES: There has been some speculation that you and Helen edited the Course, did you?
THETFORD: No. Bear in mind that at the beginning we didn’t know exactly what was happening. So we asked questions of a personal nature and recorded the answers that Helen would receive. I would type these answers as part of the continuous process, not distinguishing them from the inner dictation that Helen was recording in her shorthand notebook. Later, when we realized that this material was obviously not a part of the Course itself, we did, indeed, delete it. It is true there has been editing of capitalization, punctuation, paragraphing and section titles in the Text. However, these changes were minor and the Workbook and the Manual for Teachers also appear exactly as they were taken down by Helen.
NEW REALITIES: Could you give an example of the personal material you deleted?
THETFORD: Oh, there were questions like, “Is there anything that we should be doing that would increase our ability to meditate better?” There was also some commentary on psychological theories that got introduced as an intellectual digression at the beginning, which had nothing to do with the Course itself.
NEW REALITIES: Briefly, what do you think the Course‘s purpose is?
THETFORD: To help us change our minds about who we are and what God is, and to help us let go, through forgiveness, our belief in the reality of our separation from God. Learning how to forgive ourselves and others is really the fundamental teaching of the Course. The Course teaches us how to know ourselves and how to unlearn all of those things which interfere with our recognition of who we are and always have been.
NEW REALITIES: Why do you think it was named “A Course in Miracles“? Why not a Course in Love or Forgiveness or Truth?
THETFORD: For good reason, we realized later. I do remember, however, when Helen called me that memorable night and said an inner voice was dictating to her which kept repeating, “This is a course in miracles, please take notes.” At the time, I certainly didn’t respond positively to that title. However, when you get into the Course and then into the definition of what a miracle is, it does make sense. In fact, it’s the only appropriate name for the Course.
NEW REALITIES: And a miracle is . . .
THETFORD: I think a miracle is the love that sustains the universe. It’s the shift in perception that removes the barriers or obstacles to our awareness of love’s presence in our lives. The Course also tells us that there is no order of difficulty in miracles – one is not more difficult than another since the expression of love is always maximal.
NEW REALITIES: What was your reaction as a psychologist when the Course presented you with the concept that there are only two emotions: love and fear?
THETFORD: I remember very distinctly typing that section, where it says, “You have but two emotions, fear and love, one you made and one was given you.” And I remember thinking that concept really takes care of the whole psychological problem of different emotional states. And it’s true, for example, that anger is simply an expression of fear in action. I can’t get angry unless I first feel threatened in some way, which means I’m afraid. Love is really the only other emotion that exists, and it simplified things greatly to recognize this as a fact.
NEW REALITIES: And what is love by your definition, the kind of love being referred to here?
THETFORD: Very simply, love is the absence of fear. You might also say that fear is the absence of love. Love and fear cannot co-exist at the same time, although most of us try to live as if they can. We try to balance a little fear with a little love and hope that we can know the difference. Yet when we let go of fear for an instant, love is automatically there. It isn’t something we have to figure out or look for, love simply is.
It’s very much like the sun which is hidden by clouds on a foggy day. Although we can’t see the sun, we know it is there. The moment the fog lifts we can see it. Such is the case for us, too, the moment we can stop our fearful thoughts we can accept the love and light which is always there.
NEW REALITIES: That pretty much entails trust it’s there always, yet it seems we’re often brought to a place, almost a precipice, and asked to step out, with faith it’s still there. That’s really hard to do, or to muster up the trust to do,
THETFORD: I frequently refer to that in my own life as “celestial brinkmanship” – when we’re out there walking the plank, not knowing what’s going to happen next. But how else can we increase our awareness of our God-given potential if we don’t take the plunge into the unknown?
I think all of us have to be at least partially willing to try to find out if there is a different and better way to live, otherwise, we will simply perseverate in the same old patterns of our lives.
NEW REALITIES: The Course also distinguishes between the ego and the Self in other than conventional terms. What was your reaction to this as a psychologist?
THETFORD: The term “ego” as used in the Course refers to our surface or false self, which identifies with the body as its outward form of expression, This ego-body identification is the self we made as contrasted with the spiritual Self which God shares with us. The ego is really our belief in a self-separate from God. The projection of this thought of separateness gives rise to a world of form. The ego believes that this phenomenal world exists independently, although it has no existence apart from the split mind that projected it.
NEW REALITIES: One of the most provocative concepts the Course presents is that this world is illusory, not real, and that God is really not invested in it. That God is only invested and concerned for us, not our things, and it’s we who value them, not God. That’s a very difficult concept to grasp and deal with, isn’t it?
THETFORD: Yes indeed. It’s a challenge and problem for all of us. But as you know, many twentieth-century physicists have written extensively on the implications of quantum mechanics for mysticism and mystical thought.
Ken Wilber has recently edited a book entitled Quantum Questions, which deals with the issue of physical reality and mystical experiences in the writings of Einstein, Heisenberg, Eddington, Schroedinger and a number of Nobel Prize-winning physicists. Wilber points out that all of these remarkable scientists developed a transcendental or mystical view of the world. While modern physics does not prove that mysticism is true, it does remove any major theoretical blocks to the possibility of spiritual reality. In effect, the solid material universe has dissolved into a series of abstract mathematical equations.
The point here is that many physicists view the material world in the same way that the Course does: that this world is illusory since physical matter is no longer understandable in terms of our sensory awareness, Somehow we are perceiving something that isn’t there, and it is our perception of it which gives it reality. The question then becomes what is the nature of the sustaining power which lies behind all forms?
The Course‘s emphasis on changing or shifting perception applies to everything in our lives, not simply the external universe, and most particularly to our relationships – the way we look at ourselves and others. As we shift this perception, or rather as we shift our attitudes from fear to love, from guilt to total acceptance, then what we see as the limited, bounded universe also shifts.
Anything that is perishable is seen as an illusion, and anything that is eternal is true knowledge and comes from God, The Course‘s goal, then, is to enable us to shift our perception to the point where God can take us to the realm of knowledge. Its immediate purpose is to help us remove the obstacles to our awareness of love’s presence in our daily lives, which is what the miracle is all about. When we begin to recognize and accept the presence of God’s love in our lives, many of these other questions that we raise simply disappear. They no longer seem relevant, because they’re questions the ego asks based on the perception of a limited, bounded universe.
NEW REALITIES: Another difficult concept to deal with in the Course is that when we recognize illusions for what they are we can laugh at them. Well, certainly emotional crises are very real and not funny to most folks, such as death, grief, pain, starvation, and so on. How do you deal with this?
THETFORD: The Course suggests that we forgot to laugh at the moment we first began to believe illusions were real. Perhaps one way we can find our way back to our true nature is to begin to laugh at the foolishness of many of our beliefs. Norman Cousins has already demonstrated the importance of laughter in the healing process.
For example, in order to help anyone, whether in psychotherapy or in everyday life, I don’t think we can identify with the problem. What we need to do is to identify with the answer. Since any problem is always some form of fear, guilt or separation, our responsibility is to identify with the only answer that works. In offering God’s love in whatever form is appropriate, we are offering the only answer that is possible within this world. This certainly does not imply a lack of compassion, quite the contrary. If I identify with the problem that you or anyone else has, it simply means that I will suffer too. And when I join you in suffering, no one gains – rather we both lose by reinforcing the problem. The Course says that all of our problems stem from the belief that we are separated from God, and the only way out of this is to extend the miracle of love, which is our natural inheritance,
NEW REALITIES: Some of the people who begin studying the Course initially are disappointed that it doesn’t deal specifically with some personal, vital questions, such as sex. Why doesn’t it?
THETFORD: As you know, the Course‘s real focus is on mind training. Its emphasis is on spiritual development rather than the reinforcement of our ego-body identification. But there’s nothing in the Course that prohibits sex. What it does say is that the body is a neutral vehicle for the communication of love. What I think the Course is trying to underscore is that physical union can never solve the problem of our sense of separation from God. It can only be a substitute for our attempted union with God. That’s why physical gratification as a goal in a relationship is never lasting, never permanent in unifying individuals. And that’s also true of many other physical and emotional drives we have that stem from the ego – things that we do to try to permanently unite us with others, which always result in failure.
NEW REALITIES: Another specific subject not addressed in the Course and a concern to those who study it is murder – dealing with it as an illusion or through forgiveness.
THETFORD: Perhaps the difficulty comes in perceiving another as a body only. I think that’s the fundamental ego-body equation, which is responsible for an enormous amount of our unhappiness, the very core of it.
Without any doubt, murder is a very emotional subject for all of us, But the inner transformation that we are concerned with here has to do with our own shift in perception, our own ability to recognize that fear is a problem we all have, Whether it takes the form of murder, attack or loss, what we want to learn is how to teach love so that fear is no longer a part of our consciousness, As we change our own consciousness and our own awareness, we are helping everyone else do the same thing, and I think it is through this process that we make our contribution to a more sane society and world.
NEW REALITIES: Another vital concern of living this life is death, dying. Why doesn’t the Course deal with this for our peace of mind?
THETFORD: I think it does, the Course states very clearly that “There is no death. The Son of God is free.”
In a sense, since we were created eternal, we literally were never born, hence we can never die. That is, within the framework of eternity, we have always existed as an extension of God’s love. I think the notion of freshly minted souls coming into this material world for a few years, and then going into the great beyond is not the lesson that the Course would teach. The Course repeatedly states that we remain as God created us; we remain as eternal aspects of spirit and have never been limited by form. When the body is no longer alive and animated, it simply means we no longer have a use for it. Our body has nothing to do with our being alive or dead because our body is not our true reality.
NEW REALITIES: What about animals, then? Since the Course doesn’t mention them either, where do they fit in, or even insects or plants and trees?
THETFORD: The Course frequently uses the phrase “all living things.” Again, whatever has life has eternal life. Since all life stems from God and is one and inseparable, certainly the life force that animates animals and plants is the same as the life force that animates us.
And I’m always amazed at what animals can teach us. How quickly a dog, for instance, can forgive us for stepping on its paw. It doesn’t harbor grudges but shows us, instant love, the moment we open the door. Whatever grievances there might have been are not carried over in a dog’s mind. So I think pets are wonderful teachers of forgiveness for all of us. They are extensions of the love of God in bringing joy and additional dimensions of love into our lives.
NEW REALITIES: What about killing certain animals and eating them? How does this fit in with embracing all life and trying not to be separate from it?
THETFORD: Many people choose to be vegetarians for very good reasons. Anything that increases our sense of guilt would not be in our own enlightened self-interest. So I think students of the Course will determine what is right for them through listening to their own inner guidance.
Jesus taught us not to be so much concerned about what we put into our mouth as to what we let come out of it. So it’s not what we eat, but our thoughts and how we relate to others that witnesses to our spiritual progress. What is important is the opportunity we have each moment to choose between expressing fear or love in our lives.
NEW REALITIES: From this premise, then, one could conclude that bodies are not life.
THETFORD: The body is a vehicle for communication and learning – the source of life is always spiritual.
The Course also teaches us that whenever we have questions about any of our decisions or choices in this life we can ask for help in making them from our inner guide or, as the Course refers to It, the Holy Spirit.
NEW REALITIES: Regarding one’s inner guidance, the Course cautions about getting it from the ego, doesn’t it? How do you distinguish between it and the Holy Spirit? How do you know who’s talking?
THETFORD: Well, the Course says the ego always speaks first and that it’s wrong. In order to hear our inner guidance we must quiet our minds, be willing to let go of any investment in the answer and listen to that still, small voice within us, The fact that our inner guidance is never strident, but speaks to us in a peaceful, loving voice, is a sign of its authenticity, and I think all of us have to learn with practice to make that distinction.
NEW REALITIES: How do you personally deal with this problem?
THETFORD: If I am not feeling peaceful, I know I am listening to the surface static of my ego. Then I choose once again and try to let go of the interference so that I can listen to the gentle voice of my inner guide.
The Course identifies this Voice as the Holy Spirit. It also says that Jesus is equally available to us for help in this manner, at all times. In this sense, Jesus is regarded as our wise older brother, whose message is no different than the Holy Spirit’s, since God’s teachers all have the same message.
NEW REALITIES: Do you think such unconventional references to Jesus and the Holy Spirit, as well as to other “new” concepts with regard to Christianity, are contradictory to traditional Christians?
THETFORD: Well, I think if you go back to the original teachings of Jesus, the answer is no. For example, the Course illuminates and amplifies Jesus’ teachings on the fundamental importance of love and forgiveness, I think, perhaps, institutionalized religion has sometimes lost sight of the essence of that message, by its emphasis on guilt.
NEW REALITIES: Then you don’t think the Course challenges Christianity or any of today’s religions?
THETFORD: I think the Course is clearly in accord with the perennial philosophy underlying all the great religions. However, there are some fundamental differences, such as the Course‘s emphasis on giving up our belief in the reality of sin and guilt. Religion, as I experienced it when I was younger, seemed to stress these negative aspects.
The Course, however, continually tells us that we are guiltless; that we remain as God created us; that we may be mistaken, but that mistakes call for correction, not for punishment. Concepts of guilt, sin, and punishment are totally alien to the Course‘s orientation, The Course states unequivocally that love is our only reality and, “Love does not kill to save,”
Any religion that emphasizes fear, guilt, and separation from God would obviously have trouble with the Course‘s concept of total unity and love. However, the Course does not discuss institutional religion and does not advise anyone to give up membership in a church. In fact, I think the Course material would be very enhancing to people who want to develop a richer spiritual life within their own tradition; it’s ecumenical.
I do know there are some ministers, George McLaird of the Presbyterian Church in Sausalito, California, is one of them, who teach the Course on a regular basis in their churches. And many people associated with the Unity Church throughout the country are actively involved in the Course‘s teachings as is Rev. Terry Cole-Whittaker, who has a far-reaching television ministry.
THETFORD: That’s true. The Course does use Christian terminology but at the same time, it conveys universal spiritual truths which is perhaps why people of all faiths can find it of value. I think the Course states it very well when it says, “A universal theology is impossible, but a universal experience is not only possible but necessary.”
Shortly after we began transcribing the material, I started reading rather widely in the mystical literature of the world. One of the early writers who made a deep impression on me was Vivekananda, in his exposition of the Vedanta philosophy of India. He was a disciple of Ramakrishna who in the late 1800’s and in the early part of this century founded a number of Ramakrishna ashrams and teaching centers in this country. The Vedanta Advaita philosophy as expounded by Vivekananda seemed to have some striking similarities to the teachings of the Course, even though the context and the language are different. At the time I remember thinking that the Course could be described as a form of Christian Vedanta.
Students of Buddhism tell me that the similarities between the Course and Buddhist teachings are very striking. Interestingly, too, is the fact that many people associated with the Course have come from Jewish backgrounds, and have found it extraordinarily meaningful and helpful despite the Christian terminology.
So I’ve been impressed with how ecumenical the Course is, and that its purpose is not to increase our sense of separation but to bring people together. And I see this happening all over with hundreds of study groups that are made up of people from all walks and religions who come on a regular basis to discuss and study the Course. To me, this demonstrates a spiritual joining, and a willingness to let go of a sense of separation from each other or from God. This is really what the Course is all about.
The experiences we are able to derive from following the Course‘s teachings are much more important than being caught up in any semantic traps about particular terms. So I’m in favor of the widest ecumenical use of the Course concepts in a variety of contexts, and I know people are doing that, and I applaud it.
NEW REALITIES: What about the exclusive use of masculine terms in the Course, such as Father and Son, Him or He, with regard to women students?
THETFORD: I know some women have been disturbed by the use of masculine terminology and have thought of substituting feminine terms. Several who have considered doing this concluded that Mother and Daughter, Her or She, would only throw it into another polarity. Others have found that using the word “Spirit” – a wholly neutral and androgynous term – resolves the problem for them.
NEW REALITIES: What’s been the reaction to all of this among your old friends and colleagues? Sympathetic, supportive, dissociative, concerned?
THETFORD: I haven’t been in contact with many of them, although the few I have been in touch with are sympathetic to the material. I have no idea what the general reaction among my former colleagues would be, nor have I tried to find out.
However, I’m sure most of them would have thought Helen and me crazy at the time if they had known what we were doing. Bear in mind, though, that it all began in 1965, and this is now 1984 when I think there’s a great deal more receptivity to spiritual concepts than there was nineteen years ago. So perhaps it’s really not quite fair to speculate on this now.
NEW REALITIES: At the same time, you and Helen didn’t show it to anyone then, you kept it hidden and your activities completely secret.
THETFORD: Yes. And I certainly would not have shown it to them. I had more sense than that. My assignment as I saw it was to learn the material myself and not confuse my responsibilities at the Medical Center with our transcription of the Course, But as I’ve said, this is another, much brighter day.
NEW REALITIES: What do you now think about all of this, the fact that you were a special, integral part of what some prominent people have referred to A Course in Miracles as one of the most important documents of the century?
THETFORD: Quite frankly, Helen and I had no intention of publishing the Course when we were transcribing it. Quite the contrary. The material seemed specifically for our spiritual education. We regarded it as our “guilty secret,” something we were committed to doing, but at that time there was no indication we were supposed to share it with others.
When we did agree to have it published anonymously, I thought that very few people would be interested in changing their perceptions through the methods suggested by the Course – I thought it was too difficult. Certainly, in my lifetime, I never expected that thousands of people would regard the Course as their map home.
I’m grateful that Helen and I were able to complete our part in making the Course available, and I’m equally grateful to a large number of students today who are making their own contributions in many different ways. With several translations already underway, it is apparent that the Course concepts will continue to reach an increasingly large readership.
It is wonderful to know that so many people on a worldwide basis are using the Course to facilitate their own spiritual awakening. I think the Course states what is happening with poetic clarity in the following passage:
“A sleeping mind must waken, as it sees its own perfection mirroring the Lord of Life so perfectly it fades into what is reflected there. And now it is no more a mere reflection. It becomes the thing reflected, and the light which makes reflection possible. No vision now is needed. For the wakened mind is one that knows its Source, its Self, its Holiness.”
NEW REALITIES: What are your plans from here on out?
THETFORD: I am currently working on a book with Jerry Jampolsky, a psychiatrist, and Pat Hopkins, a writer, and editor, based on Course related concepts. This book will be published by Bantam sometime next year. I have recently completed a chapter with Roger Walsh, another psychiatrist, for The Comprehensive Textbook in Psychiatry, edited by Freedman and Kaplan, which will also be published early in 1985. My immediate goals are to continue the exploration of ways in which Course concepts can be applied in my life and extended to help others.
~ James Bolen, as editor and publisher of
New Realities Magazine
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