The book that changed lecturer, activist, and current presidential candidate Marianne Williamson’s life, A Course in Miracles, is not available for free online, but its workbook is. You can find it on the website for the Foundation for Inner Peace, which includes a gif of what I assume is a third eye, blinking. The Workbook’s introduction explains that, while “[s]ome of the ideas the workbook presents you will find hard to believe…. [t]his does not matter. You are merely asked to apply the ideas as you are directed to do.” The ideas do not need to be accepted or believed; they simply need to be applied, and they will work.
The ideas include the illusory nature of the world, which is a malignant dream created by humanity’s desire to prove its separation from God, who made it. Our guilt over this willed separation is projected outward, into external evil, which we control: Everything we want to happen does; nothing we don’t want to happen can. Our consciousness is actually collective, because we all collectively are the Son of God, who is Christ. The first lesson is “Nothing I see in this room [on this street, from this window, in this place] means anything,” and the exercises involve applying the sentence to specific things one sees. The 223rd lesson, the one open in another tab as I write this, is “God is my life. I have no life but His,” and is a meditation on the practitioner’s total oneness with God (“I was mistaken when I thought I lived apart from God, a separate entity that moved in isolation, unattached, and housed within a body. Now I know my life is God’s, I have no other home, and I do not exist apart from Him. He has no Thoughts that are not part of me, and I have none but those which are of Him”). It ends with a prayer.
A Course in Miracles does not purport itself to be a religious book, but rather to describe objective laws, and the school grown up around the book since its publication in 1976 considers it a “spiritual self-study program.” Inasmuch as the definition of “religion” has been debated for the century-plus that religious studies has existed as a field, that’s a defensible position. It’s certainly no more tendentious or self-serving than the insistence of white post-Christians that Buddhism isn’t a religion, either. But A Course in Miracles posits a God, a Christ, a metaphysics, true things we do not immediately grasp or see, an explanation for suffering, categories of sin and forgiveness, power beyond us that can be used, and a goal for the spiritual person to pursue. It was written by a psychologist and professor at Columbia University, Helen Shucman, who took shorthand notes on what the clear inner voice she identified as Jesus dictated to her between 1965 and 1972. Shucman then read the notes to her department head, William Thetford, who typed them out. She was not identified as the writer of the work until after her death, at her own request.
The book was a New York City phenomenon appearing on the coffee tables of the disaffected (including Williamson herself, who found it at a friend’s in 1977) until Williamson took it to LA in 1983 with lectures at the Philosophical Research Society. Though it gained left-coast notoriety through Williamson’s teaching and controversial AIDS activism, it did not explode until Oprah Winfrey invited Williamson to speak about her own book, A Return to Love, and about A Course. ACIM sold two million copies that year. A Return to Love became a bestseller as well. Williamson has since held the title of “spiritual friend and counselor” to Oprah, appearing regularly on her show (including in September of 2001 to offer guidance on our path after 9/11) and giving extended Oprah-branded talks under the Super Soul TV banner. For nearly thirty years, Williamson has been a particular kind of household name, and ACIM, regularly cited by Williamson in her interviews, received the glow of Oprah’s blessing alongside Williamson’s work.
What’s actually happening isn’t something new, but rather something very old: Marianne Williamson is religious, and she is describing the world in explicitly religious terms.
If the free workbook is enticing, one need not pay for a copy of A Course in Miracles to access the ideas that undergird the book. The language comes primarily from the Bible, available in the drawer of your local hotel side table, though put to a radically different end: all of humanity as the collective Christ, God as Source that cannot be truly distinguished from Creation, sin as illusion, and forgiveness not as pardon but as recognition that no injury has occurred at all. The concept of nonduality and the illusory nature of the world we experience come right out of Hindu scriptures, and the Bhagavad Gita is free if you don’t mind translations from the 19th century, or run across someone who is passing out copies. And the conviction that our truest thoughts and innermost desires in fact control the outside world is not just free (it even has a library online) but home-grown: New Thought, which has influenced both Christian teaching from Christian Science to the prosperity gospel and less obviously Christian strands of American thought (consider the “law of attraction,” or 2006’s wildly popular retread The Secret).
Marianne Williamson’s books are not free, but they are widely available. My county library has five copies of A Return to Love, all checked out, with five additional holds; one copy of Age of Miracles, her book on middle age, checked out; five of A Politics of Love, all checked out, with eight additional holds; The Law of Divine Compensation, both copies checked out, with an additional hold; and Tears to Triumph and Healing the Soul of America, both available. There are free-to-read articles about her previous iterations — a religious guru who beefs with boards of directors and the turn toward politics, for instance. She gave lectures on ACIM and her own books for years. A Return to Love is, at least in part, a spiritual autobiography not unlike Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions.
And yet Marianne Williamson is nearly everywhere spoken of like she’s sui generis. Twitter prefers to meme her as some kind of Sybil Trelawney-as-played-by-Emma-Thompson, a funny New Agey aunt with crystals and no self-awareness, who every so often says something that rings improbably true. And for others — David Brooks, my mom, the sort of person who requests good vibes on social media — she is the only one who grasps what’s really at stake here, not policy but deep psychology, cultural impulses, something bigger. What’s actually happening isn’t something new, but rather something very old: Marianne Williamson is religious, and she is describing the world in explicitly religious terms. Conveniently, those terms sound sort of Christian (though Williamson explains that they are used for psychological resonance), or Christian enough to be familiar, and also not-Christian, such that they appeal without threatening.
The appeal of Williamson, apart from how natural she sounds set against background music from Sailor Moon, is due to the metaphysics humming just under her words. The only other politicians in the field right now that approximate this kind of attraction are Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders: Warren and Sanders are willing to identify moral actors — good guys and bad guys — and make strong and sweeping claims about what’s wrong and how to fix it. Beto tried for it, with instantly mocked word salad about America’s potential, but didn’t manage any gut appeal until he swore angrily at journalists after the El Paso shooting. But the crucial distinction, the reason that Williamson seems to be hitting something no one else is, is that she is hitting something no one else is: a spiritual frame for the profound malaise that grips us, the fatigue and the terror, the violence and the mealymouthed reactions, the fascism. You don’t have to be religious to know something is very wrong, but religion — or a spiritual study program, if you prefer — will provide a vocabulary with which to articulate that feeling. Who, besides the most callous and comfortable of people, doesn’t feel like there’s a “dark psychic force” embaddening everything?
Williamson’s seemingly-from-nowhere presidential bid and comfort in front of a crowd (she studied acting and tried for a while to make it as a cabaret singer before becoming a spiritual teacher and retreat leader) and her distance from anything most media, and most people, expect a religion to look or sound like make her hard to parse as a religious person, even as she says religious things. The five years she spent as the interim minister at what was then the Church of Today, now the Renaissance Unity Interfaith Spiritual Fellowship, in Warren, Michigan, have gone unremarked-upon nationally. So the excerpts from her books that now hound her in interviews — AIDS and cancer as psychic screams that are to be healed by love, in particular, in paragraphs that my Google Books search somehow can’t find, even though I have seen the same screenshots of them everyone else has — and her iffy ideas on vaccines and skepticism of both the diagnosis and medical treatment of depression are rarely situated in the religious framework that makes them intelligible. ACIM considers not just illness but bodies themselves fundamentally unreal, projections of our frightened and self-harming divine minds along with the rest of the world we imagine we inhabit. Medication is not so much bad as entirely orthogonal to the real problem, which is in the spirit. Companies that seek to make money off our illness are perpetuating a harmful delusion for a buck. Of course she hates them, and of course she is deeply suspicious of their reifying conception of disease and treatment.
It is not, of course, incumbent upon or appropriate for the American news media to dissect a given person’s religious beliefs in order to determine their fitness for office. Arguably, individuals don’t need to do that either. Antivax sentiment can be disqualifying without context. But the broad refusal to acknowledge that beliefs have consequences, or even that connections between beliefs, and between beliefs and actions, can be made to the greater intelligibility of a subject impoverishes our ability to speak clearly about the world. In our present political moment, it has not only hampered coverage of obviously religious public figures and events (intense right-wing support for Israel, for instance, is connected to ideas of “regional stability,” distrust of Arabs broadly, and a particular definition of “democracy,” but it is predicated on the necessity of the Jewish Nation of Israel to trigger the events of Armageddon; you decide which is a better way to understand the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital), it has contributed to the flourishing of reportage that cannot call things what they are, and cover stories that present ethnonationalist ideas as things well-meaning and reasonable people ought to consider. Some people benefit from fuzzy, simple, and incomplete accountings, but the public at large does not, and a political media conditioned to read everything in terms of polling or optics or idiosyncracy will of course sputter and flail when met with anything approaching real conviction.
In this way it’s useful for people like Brooks to grossly misunderstand the spirituality that Williamson is working with: shallow and self-serving glosses of complex and robust systems are easy to marshal in favor of shallow and self-serving points. But we do not, really, have time for that in our present emergency. It seems unlikely that Williamson will qualify for the next Democratic debate, and soon we will all forget about her again. That may be for the best, all things considered. But her weeks in the spotlight made two things sparklingly clear: how easy it is to be taken as a cipher, even when the code is already provided, and how little the “progressive” wing of American politics has at its disposal to counter the grand narratives and epic-spiritual language of an increasingly restive white supremacist and white nationalist right wing. If those we have trusted to see and describe reality for us are unwilling or unable to do so, that is nightmare enough.