a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

A Course in Miracles

by Andrew Ventimiglia

<em>A Course in Miracles</em>
A Course in Miracles

The hardcover third edition of A Course in Miracles is bound in navy blue rexine with embossed gold lettering. No author is listed on the front cover or the spine, no compilers, no editors. Instead, under the title are simply listed the contents that make up the Combined Volume—Preface, Text, Workbook for Students, Manual for Teachers, Clarification of Terms and Supplements—and centered at the bottom of the cover, the publisher: the Foundation for Inner Peace. This text, ‘scribed’ by Columbia psychologist Helen Schucman from a channeled inner voice that she attributed to Jesus and published in 1975, resembles nothing so much as a combination of college textbook and Gideon’s Bible, works whose authority is often materially inscribed in their packaging and presentation: leather binding, pages with gold trim, distinctive typography. A yellow sticker is affixed to the front proclaiming this volume as “The only COMPLETE Course ad authorized by its scribe & published by its original publisher.”

But there are other versions of A Course in Miracles: an ‘urtext’ that consists mostly of unedited transcriptions of the divine messages dictated to Schucman, a version of the Course given to the son of Edgar Cayce and deposited in the archives of the Association for Research and Enlightenment, and another, curious version typed and bound in six black thesis binders that was photocopied and circulated in the summer of 1975. This latter version was described in testimony given by co-founder of the Foundation for Inner Peace Judith Skutch Whitson during a case involving copyright infringement on the Course. Skutch Whitson stated that she permitted the xeroxing, “and it seemed very right that people would pass it along, copy it over and copy it over, until finally people’s copies were getting so light that they couldn’t see them anymore.” This promiscuous sharing did seem appropriate for a book that encouraged its readers to experience the plenary nature of existence by giving in the name of the Holy Spirit, by recognizing that, “to spirit getting is meaningless and giving is all,” and that in giving, “all of it is still yours although all of it has been given away.” This expansive and emphatically optimistic understanding of the world is a guiding idea throughout the text, underpinning a spiritual process by which the individual ego is overcome and a complete and fulfilling union with God can be accomplished.

This unofficial photocopied version was circulated before publication as a means to generate interest in a project that had theretofore been kept secret by Schucman and her co-editor William Thetford. On a trip to San Francisco, Skutch Whitson put copies in the hands of a number of people interested in new methods and modes of spiritual practice, including Dr. Edgar Mitchell, founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, researchers at the Stanford Research Institute who were working on parapsychological research and the limits of human potentiality, and others across the Bay area. These figures represented nodes in a distributed network of spiritual practitioners, people who could potentially turn A Course in Miracles from a tentative experiment in channeled authorship into a canonical text of contemporary spirituality.

Separated by roughly thirty years, these two contrasting versions of A Course in Miracles—one professionally bound, elegant in design, authenticated by the original publisher and the other incomplete, passed from hand-to-hand, repeatedly copied—indicate two alternate visions of spirituality and the nature of contemporary religious organization. The first vouchsafes its religious legitimacy through rigorously controlled and highly centralized publication practices; the other generates its own organic authority by circulating in a non-centralized and informal network of readers, its movement constituting the very relationships that make up an interconnected spiritual community. The tension between these two visions—a tension between dissemination and control—has played out in the recent history of A Course in Miracles. Indeed, copyright litigation over different versions of the text has not only circumscribed the horizon of spiritual practices but also shaped the contours of the communities in which those practices take place.

In 1999, the Foundation for Inner Peace filed a copyright complaint against the New Christian Church of Full Endeavor whose Endeavor Academy was printing an adapted version of the Course as part of their core curriculum. Endeavor’s defense during the ensuing trial asserted that the Foundation’s copyright was invalid and the text had entered the public domain. They argued that the work was ineligible for copyright protection due to its divine authorship, as Schucman had been specifically instructed by Jesus to keep her name as author off public records. They also claimed the plaintiffs’ assertion of copyright constituted an infringement on their freedom of religion and that the publication and use of the text was permissible as fair use. All of the aforementioned defenses along with eight other arguments were dismissed save one: prior publication. Endeavor Academy successfully determined that un-copyrighted manuscripts—the ones circulated by Skutch Whitson in San Francisco in 1975—had been generally distributed before publication, thus nullifying the later filing for copyright. Had the Foundation for Inner Peace demonstrated that they distributed the book to a limited and select group of people, then distribution would not have qualified as prior publication and the copyright would still have been legitimate. Instead, in the summary decision on the case the presiding judge wrote, “The Court is unable to see in this picture any definitely selected individuals or any limited, ascertained group or class to whom the communication was restricted…An interest in spiritual experience fails to define a class adequately.”

The question the court raised was a serious one and one that carries repercussions for the ways in which we conceive of organizations that arise around the self-conscious practice of spirituality. At what point does a distributed network of interested individuals cohere into an apprehensible group of like-minded followers, a united community of believers? For the many Americans who claim to be spiritual but not religious, how do they imagine their spiritual allegiances, their relationship to religious experience, their consumption of sacred texts? Are their actions simply tactics deployed in the service of individual self-improvement, self-exploration and therapy, or are they understood as being part of a shared set of practices among a community of like-minded seekers? The issue with A Course in Miracles was that the early version of the text was not distributed to a predetermined group precisely because its circulation in the early stages of its existence was serving to constitute the group itself. The movement of the text between hands constituted the very mechanism by which a network of individuals could be linked together, who could then become visible to themselves as a unified community of followers.

Ironically, both the assertion of property rights used to prohibit infringement and the free distribution of copies of an earlier manuscript were practiced by the Foundation for Inner Peace at different times in its publication history. What the courts saw as mutually exclusive and self-negating modes of distribution, the Foundation may have seen as mutually enforcing and supplementary methods of dissemination. The Foundation claimed that they copyrighted the work only so that it might be distributed more broadly and they could more effectively satisfy growing demand in the text. But the later recourse to intellectual property law by the Foundation in order to assert control over a revelation came across as disingenuous to many, including the court. The presiding judge wrote, “The decision to copyright and thereby to control and profit by the distribution of the Course was made after the distribution of the xerox copies described above…The mystical experience reported by Wapnick and Skutch Whitson [co-founders of the Foundation and stewards of A Course in Miracles appointed by Schucman and Thetford] was converted by Skutch Whitson into a property right.”

In response to their subsequent loss of copyright, many at the Foundation felt the need to explain their failed legal maneuvers. Joseph Jesseph, member of the Foundation for A Course in Miracles, wrote in his publishing history of the text, “There are some who still feel that true spiritual works such as A Course in Miracles hardly need the mundane protection of copyright,” a right that he described as being associated with and affirming precisely the same ‘ego framework’ that the text was working so hard to undo as the cause of many personal problems. But he provided the following apologia:

The Foundation—with regard to the fiduciary responsibility given to it—trusts in the fact that when Jesus directed Helen [Schucman] to perfect the copyright in A Course in Miracles, he intended that the Course be protected by copyright limitations within the ego framework. In effect, this ensures that the Course will remain intact and exactly as it was given, so that it will never be diluted, distorted, or changed.

Jesseph thus presented a rationale that described the use of copyright as a necessary compromise with human law put in the service of divine warrant. Instead of explaining the foundation’s use of intellectual property rights as simply being in the service of economic and distributional efficiencies, Jesseph instead described it as a mechanism for the maintenance of a divinely sanctioned message. The content of A Course in Miracles was susceptible to distortion, alteration and misinterpretation by the corrupting practices of those outside the Foundation’s networks of circulation, thus legal recourse to prevent such distortion was an entirely appropriate, even spiritually motivated strategy.

Jesseph’s justification does not conform to dominant understandings of copyright in the United States that usually depend either on a rationale grounded in the protection of the moral rights of [ostensibly human] authors or economic incentives designed to promote the production of creative goods. Nevertheless, he resurrected a sublimated theme within the law regarding intellectual property as intimately tied to questions of propriety. Foundation co-founder Kenneth Wapnick extended this logic even further in his statements after the case, describing the reading of current public domain versions of the Course (the urtext or the Cayce version) as a moral violation of the privacy of Schucman and Thetford, akin to listening in on a private conversation conducted between the scribes and Jesus and not yet reshaped into an official document destined for public consumption.

So what are we to make of the role of intellectual property as a determinant of the nature and role of a spiritual text within a religious organization? For those who inhabit non-traditional, unchurched types of spiritual community, communities whose coherence lies not in a centralized space like the church but instead in the realm of literary works and other forms of shared religious media, intellectual property law may provide a uniquely effective means to reestablish a measure of control. By providing legal tools capable of administering the texts by which intrinsically ephemeral beliefs and practices are mediated, intellectual property law can help to establish official works and stabilize their religiously approved meaning while also permitting the patrol of the very channels of distribution that move those beliefs and practices between members of a newly articulated community. For those organizations that still market spirituality but distance themselves from traditional forms of religion, they may look to new mechanisms to assert a measure of authority and control over their product. And as the physical, sacred property of the church becomes less central to contemporary practice, so may the intangible and ephemeral, yet equally sacred intellectual property move to take its place.