Richard Smoley is a writer, author, and speaker who focuses on the world’s mystical and esoteric teachings, themes which are all very much valued to the Hermes team. So we were delighted when Richard agreed to an interview on the theology of what love is.
Can you start by telling us about the theological study involved in writing your latest book, A Theology of Love?
Conventional Christian theology makes no sense. It tells us that God got mad at the human race because two people ate a piece of fruit in Armenia six thousand years ago. He got so mad, in fact, that he condemned them and all their descendants to eternal hellfire. Then God decided he may have been a bit harsh, so he sent down a part of himself to earth to have it tortured to death. Somehow that made it all right. Except not really, because if you don’t put your full faith in this story, you’re still damned.
This is the standard Christian theology, stripped of its grandiose language. It is utterly ridiculous. Liberal theologians know this, except they have very little idea of what to put in its place. Evangelical theologians still believe, or are supposed to believe, in this view, but they are having more and more trouble convincing anybody else.
This situation has led people to discard theology. Some academics are even calling for throwing the discipline out of universities, on the grounds that it isn’t a legitimate discipline at all. They have a point, yet theology is not optional—for any of us. You will have a theology whether you want one or not. Even to believe in nothing is to have a set of beliefs about God and the world.
I was first exposed to A Course in Miracles in 1981, and I am convinced that it is the greatest spiritual text of the twentieth century. Some have even said it is the only sacred text whose native language is English. It was channeled by a voice, which claimed to be that of Jesus Christ himself, to a New York psychologist named Helen Schucman in the 1960s, and it was published in 1975. I have no idea whether the intelligence that dictated the Course was that of Jesus, but I do know that the Course is a work of enormous profundity.
The Course uses Christian terminology. Apart from talking about Jesus Christ (usually in the first person), it speaks of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, heaven, and other familiar Christian concepts. It uses these terms, not as absolutes, but as correctives to the Christian theology that I have mentioned above.
The Course is the only consistent, rational, Christian theology that I have ever encountered. In 2000 years of Christian history, that is quite remarkable. Its theology follows naturally and consistently from its premises.
The Course’s theology comes down to this: God, the Father, has only one Son—which is all of us. He loves his Son, never stopped loving him, and never condemned him for anything. But the Son got what the Course calls “a tiny, mad idea” of being separate from God. Out of this idea, everything we know as the world was engendered—including the belief that we are separate from one another. This world is delusory, because the Father never willed it. But the Son—again, each of us—has all the power of his Father, so the Son was able to make this world of fear and separation seem extremely real and terrifying.
At one point, the Course sums up its teaching by saying, “There is no world!” If you are upset by the world and all the evil that appears to go on it, you may find this extremely consoling. As I do.
Because this world is delusory, in an ultimate sense nothing is wrong. Therefore, the only proper response to everything that happens in the world is forgiveness, and the only proper response to everybody else is love. Hence a theology of love.
This is what my book describes.
Being the editor for Quest magazine and also discussing A Course in Miracles in your book, could you tell us your thoughts on the similarities and the differences between the Course and Theosophy? For example; a similarity would be maya; a difference would be reincarnation.
Quest is the journal of the Theosophical Society in America, so its primary orientation is toward the Theosophy of H.P. Blavatsky and her successors. As you say, there are both many similarities and many differences. The concept of maya—the idea that this world is illusory—is a point of similarity, although Theosophy does not go as far with this concept as the Course does.
Actually, the Course does not deny reincarnation. It speaks of it as a rather open-ended possibility. It seems to be saying that in this world, reincarnation—coming back in body after body—may well be possible, but this is still part of the greater illusion that is the world.
But the great difference between the two comes down to this: Theosophy has a rather positive, melioristic view of the world. It says that our presence here is part of a greater cycle that involves coming down into matter and eventually evolving out of it. Theosophy sees this as a completely natural and positive process. Although there is evil in the world, it is simply the result of karma. If you do evil, it will come back to you. So also for good.
The Course does not regard this descent, which it calls the separation, as essentially positive. The Course sees this descent into the world we see as the result of an enormous cosmic mistake made by the Son before time and space were generated; indeed, it was this mistake that generated the illusion of time and space. In that sense the Course is closer to conventional Christianity, which speaks of the Fall.
So, you have Theosophy saying that descending into matter was a good thing—a part of a long-term educational process. The Course, on the other hand, says that it never should have happened, and indeed never did happen in reality, because God did not will it. The true reality of the union of the Son with the Father is far above what we can know in this world. It is heaven. It can be experienced instantaneously, says the Course, by stepping past the fears and judgments of the ego, the limited mind.
The Course, as its name indicates, is a course—in mind training. Therefore, stepping into this greater reality of love requires mental training. The Course says that it itself is only one form of this universal curriculum that all of us must learn in order to free ourselves.
Gurdjieff promotes faith, hope, love and conscience, does one need conscience to really understand the theological aspects of love?
Gurdjieff speaks of conscience in a rather specialized sense. He taught for much of his later life in French—and in French conscience means both what we call conscience and what we call consciousness. The two things are intricately intertwined, if not identical, in his though. He seems to consider conscience as a higher form of cognition that includes a moral sense—what he calls conscious love (the title of another book of mine).
What is conscious love? It is a genuine caring for the other person—doing and wanting to do what is truly good for that person in his or her own eyes, rather than treating that person as an object that can provide you with things you desire. In my book Conscious Love, I equate Gurdjieff’s conscious love with the Christian concept of agape.
Of course, there is a huge difference between understanding something merely conceptually and understanding it with one’s full being. I studied philosophy at Oxford for a couple of years, including moral philosophy. I learned all the theories about why we should be good. But I was amazed that some of the world’s leading experts on moral philosophy were apparently incapable of treating others—their graduate students, for example—with even the minimum amount of courtesy and decency. Oxford was a great education for me. It taught me the limits of the purely intellectual approach.
What do you see for the future of humanity?
I agree with the Course here. The Course speaks of the separation; it also speaks of the Atonement—which is not redemption by the death of Jesus on the cross (why would that atone for anything?) but the long process of the restoration of the Sonship to its primordial unity.
This concept appears in many spiritual traditions. The Zoroastrians talk of the cosmic man, Gayomart, who fell into the little pieces that are each of us. The Hindu tradition calls this cosmic man Purusha. The Kabbalists call it Adam Kadmon; the visionary Emanuel Swedenborg called it the maximus homo—the “greatest human,” sometimes translated as the “universal human.” Essentially each of us is a cell in the body (metaphorically speaking) of this cosmic human, and we need, not so much to be restored to our place in it, but to remember our place in it.
The Course says this process of Atonement could well take millions of years, so there is no question of Jesus Christ appearing in the clouds above the city of Dallas or what-have-you. But it also says that the “miracle,” a complete expression of love, can shorten this amount of time immeasurably. “All expressions of love are maximal,” it points out.
So, I look at the matter from this long-range view. Of course, there are problems in the short run. But the Course assures us, “the end is certain.”
Richard currently works as editor of Quest: A Journal of the Theosophical Society in America. Richard’s website is innerchristianity.com. and his latest book is ‘A Theology of Love: Reimagining Christianity through “A Course in Miracles,”’ published by Inner Traditions International in November 2019.