The Magazine

God Help Us

Marianne Williamson’s campaign to save America’s soul, starting with California’s 33rd Congressional District

Feb 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22 • By ZACK MUNSON
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In 1992, she wrote a self-help manual, A Return to Love, expounding on excerpts from The Course. A Return to Love’s overall spiritual lesson is that we as human beings are in fact all one being, not under but with God, that all of our minds are actually one mind, and that we have tricked ourselves into thinking we are separate from one another, thus creating fear, which dominates us and throws us into collision with everyone else, who, we need to remember, are really also us. According to Williamson, there is only one way out of this destructive cycle, and that is (spoiler alert) a return to love.

Both her book and The Course make liberal use of Christian theological terms, but deploy them as merely symbolic of universal spiritual truths. “The concept of a divine, or ‘Christ’ mind,” we learn, “is the idea that at our core, we are not just identical, but actually the same being.” Christ, you see, “is a psychological term” and “ ‘Accepting the Christ’ is merely a shift in self-perception. We awaken from the dream [that] we are finite, isolated creatures, and recognize that we are glorious, infinitely creative spirits.” And, not to leave anyone out, Williamson’s book also includes a smattering of references to other religious and cultural traditions:

In Taoist philosophy, “yin” is the feminine principle, representing the forces of earth, while “yang” is the masculine principle, representing spirit. .  .  . In Christic philosophical terms, Mary symbolizes the feminine within us, which is impregnated by God. .  .  . Through a mystical connection between the human and divine, we give birth to our Higher self.

And so on. And so forth.

Despite its mealy-mouthed pan-denominationalism, Williamson’s counsel is not, as these things go, all that bad: We should try to think of others more than ourselves; we should try to treat people with kindness; we should try to replace our selfish and fearful thinking with love. It is all just fuzzy enough about specific directives to appeal to spiritually minded folks who might be turned off by having to do anything, besides think happy thoughts, to achieve enlightenment. Perhaps as a result, the book spent 39 weeks on the New York Times self-help bestseller list and brought Williamson national attention (not to mention a lot of money).

In the intervening years, she has published nine more books (five more bestsellers), including, in 2000, Healing the Soul of America: Reclaiming Our Voices as Spiritual Citizens. The book is really a political manifesto, glorifying the protest politics of the 1960s and lamenting, “The invisible order that shot our heroes [i.e., JFK, RFK, and MLK Jr.] did not keep shooting, but began providing goods and services as quickly as possible to distract a grieving generation from our psychic pain.” The result of this materialist conspiracy, Williamson feels, has been a disengagement from politics, and Healing offers a broad indictment of the American voting public’s apathy and ignorance. “Today’s average American is more apt to rebel against a tennis shoe not coming in the right color than against the slow erosion of our democratic freedoms,” she declares. “Today, most Americans are too cynical, or tired, or both, to even approximate our Founders’ courageous repudiation of injustice.” The overarching message is that we need to slough off our materialistic chains and apply our great spiritual wisdom, above all our innate love for one another as human beings, to the political problems of the day. All we need, in other words, is love.

 On my way to meet Williamson at a restaurant in Brentwood, I’m not quite sure what to expect. I’ve never seen a guru before, let alone had lunch with one, and my East Coast prejudices are already starting to get the better of me. I’m half-expecting her to glide into the dining room in flowing saffron robes and to answer my questions in New Age hypno-babble. To be honest, I’m kind of hoping for it. But I find her sitting at a corner table dressed neatly in a black pantsuit, mundanely sipping a cup of coffee.

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