On Thursday, April 14, Marianne Williamson addressed a lecture hall packed with Columbia University students. Covering topics from capitalism to Christ and psychic health to sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, Williamson dazzled the crowd with her unique outlook and powerful personal presence.

As part of their speaker series, Columbia Political Union partnered with the Roosevelt Institute to bring Marianne Williamson to campus. Though she spoke at Uris Hall, filling lecture room 301 nearly to capacity, Williamson is far from a business-woman. Ali Alomari (CC ‘25) of CPU introduced Williamson as an author, spiritual thought-leader, and political activist who ran for president in 2020. Williamson introduced herself as simply “Marianne.”

Williamson started her speech leaning casually against a table in the center of the hall, ignoring the podium behind which the suit-clad student organizers began the event. And then she began to talk. 

The central theme of Williamson’s speech was two-fold. Firstly, the system in which we live is broken. This is hardly a new sentiment to those familiar with discourse on the political left. Williamson stands out because of her second point, though. The way to fix the broken system does not start with large-scale economic or political reform, but with a recentering of one’s own spiritual health. You can’t fix the problem that threatens to kill you if you are already dead.

To Williamson, spiritual health means more than just going outside for a walk every once in a while (though that certainly couldn’t hurt.) She argues that we must free ourselves from the shackles of mere rationality and allow ourselves to be guided by what she calls “the non-rational.” Distinct from the irrational, the non-rational is the aspect of experience that can’t necessarily be explained by logical deliberation but is nonetheless true and real. Love falls into this category, as became apparent on the 2020 primary debate stage when Williamson promised to “harness love for political purposes” in order to defeat Donald Trump in the presidential race.

That strategy did not work out, but the idea underlying it is a powerful one. It is the same idea that Williamson cited when describing the importance of labor unionizing, like that organized by Christian Smalls on behalf of the workers of Amazon. Williamson told the story of Smalls who, every day, sat out by the bus station that Amazon workers took to and from work and just talked to them. He communed and forged relationships out of dignity, respect, and love. Is it rational to think that strategy would be sufficient to take on a behemoth like Amazon? No. But despite the millions of dollars Amazon spent trying to destroy Smalls’s efforts, his non-rational strategy prevailed.

The important lesson from this, for Williamson, is that we cannot go up against the system using its own tools. We cannot fight power with power, because the institutions that she views as corrupt are too powerful. We must fight them together, with love.

The night was not purely political, though. Williamson connected the 1968 student occupation of Low Library in protest of the Vietnam War and Columbia’s gentrifying expansion to a much more personal event happening concurrently. During the time of the student protests, Dr. Helen Shucman, a researcher, clinical psychologist, and professor at Columbia, began to hear a strange voice. She believed this voice to be the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, who told her to “take notes.” So she took notes, which eventually became the book A Course in Miracles. Williamson later read the text, which changed her life forever and set her on the path to spirituality and activism. While it would be easy to dismiss a story of disembodied voices as crazy, Williamson argues that this revelation, with its emphasis on love, could not have existed and affected her so much without accepting some non-rationality. 

Williamson was also careful not to endorse any particular religious dogma and does not see herself as a representative of any one codified doctrine of beliefs. Throughout the night, she made reference to her Jewish heritage, the importance of Jesus as a Messianic archetype, and “Eastern” philosophical traditions. No matter what belief system she specifically referenced, her message was clear. She believes that social justice must always come from a recognition of human connectivity through spiritual truth. She also warned about the dangers of a nihilistic and hedonistic culture, especially on the political left, because the separation of people from one another is a tool of the system that she sees as turning “rugged individualism [into] rabid narcissism.”

Perhaps her religious views can be best summarized by this quote, which she used to end her speech: “Pray in the morning. Kick ass in the afternoon.” What followed was thunderous applause and a prolonged standing ovation.

The evening wasn’t over, though, and Williamson wouldn’t receive her second standing ovation until after she took questions. With topics ranging from reparations, to mental health, to Big Tech monopolies, to the glory days of the 60s, Williamson answered each with an intensely personal level of attention. She made a point to walk up and down the aisles of the lecture hall to personally greet each person as they inquired, which didn’t stop her from telling them off if she thought she had been asked a repetitive or self-serving question. During one question in which Williamson perceived a critique of the social movements of the 1960s, she replied with a rousing defense of boomer activism, ending by nearly shouting, “You guys need more sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll if you ask me!” It was only after the thunderous applause that she realized that the question was not, in fact, criticizing hippie culture.

The Q&A session only came to a halt when the event organizers stepped in to point out that the night had gone half-an-hour over the time limit and Williamson had dinner waiting for her with a few lucky members of the audience. Even so, she stayed another half-hour personally greeting and making conversation with her fans in the audience, as well as posing for pictures and signing everything from books to vape pens (though, despite her generally care-free air, she refused to hold a bottle of poppers while taking a photo with a student.)

By the time she finally allowed herself to go eat the dinner CPU had provided, she probably personally spoke to every person still standing in the lecture hall, whom she thanked profusely before departing.

CPU holds many events, including conversations with speakers such as Marianne Williamson, which can be found on their website.

Marianne Williamson via Columbia Political Union website