Utilizing A.A.'s Spiritual Roots Today

Dick B.

Utilizing A.A.'s Spiritual Roots Today


The Dilemma

There are a number of challenging questions that present a dilemma for those who wish to know or attempt to define what A.A. stands for today. Such people may include AAs themselves, other Twelve Step fellowships, churches and clergy, and the recovery community. Here are some points that may leave them wondering:

Bill Wilson's Comments

Bill Wilson said:

A.A. should always give full credit to its several well-springs of inspiration and . . . should always consider these people among the founders of our Society (Kurtz, Not-God, p. 323, n. 33).

A.A. was not invented! (As Bill Sees It, p. 67).

Who invented AA? It was God Almighty that invented A.A. (Sam Shoemaker's record of Bill Wilson's November 9, 1954 address at the Commodore Hotel in New York; Episcopal Church Archives, Texas).

As a society we must never become so vain as to suppose that we have been the authors and inventors of a new religion. We will humbly reflect that each of A.A.'s principles, every one of them, has been borrowed from ancient sources. . . . Let us constantly remind ourselves that the experts in religion are the clergymen; that the practice of medicine is for physicians; and the we, the recovered alcoholics, are their assistants (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, pp. 231-32).

We are only operating a spiritual kindergarten in which people are enabled to get over drinking and find the grace to go on living to better effect (As Bill Sees It, p. 95).

The problem of the Steps has been to broaden and deepen them, both for newcomers and oldtimers. But the angles are so many, it's hard to shoot them rightly. We have to deal with atheists, agnostics, believers, depressives, paranoids, clergymen, psychiatrists, and all and sundry. How to widen the opening so it seems right and reasonable to enter there and at the same time avoid distractions, distortions, and the certain prejudices of all who may read, seems fairly much of an assignment (Pass It On, p. 354).

A.A.'s Retired Archivist Said

Frank M., A.A.'s just-retired archivist at General Services in New York, has frequently said:

Whenever a civilization or society perishes, there is always one condition present. They forgot where they came from [often heard by the author].

Yet even before Dr. Bob died, Bill seemed increasingly pressured by several major issues that had surfaced in the course of A.A.'s shift from Akron to New York in terms of spiritual ideas, thinking, and emphasis.

The Contrasting Factors

As Lois Wilson Saw Them

Bill's wife Lois said of Bill's writing of the Big Book and A.A.'s abandonment of specific mention of A.A.'s biblical and Christian origins:

Finally it was agreed that the book should present a universal spiritual program, not a specific religious one, since all drunks were not Christian (Lois Remembers, p. 113).

Well, I didn't have much use for the Oxford Group; I didn't think I needed "conversion" (Kurtz, Not-God, p. 314, n. 58).

[The] Oxford Group kind of kicked us out (Pass It On, p. 174).

Roman Catholic Concerns

There was another issue - Roman Catholic distaste for the Oxford Group. A.A. Historian Ernest Kurtz has said that Father John C. Ford, S.J. is a significant figure in the history of A.A.; that he was America's leading Roman Catholic moral theologian in the 1950's; and that he was a frequent writer on the moral problems of alcoholism and alcoholics. Father John Ford met Bill Wilson at Yale in 1943, and Wilson became impressed with Ford as a writer. In consequence, Wilson sought Ford's editorial assistance for A.A.'s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions(published in 1952 after Dr. Bob's death) and A.A.'s Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (published in 1957). The following facts deserve mention:

[John Cuthbert Ford, S.J. said] . . . I recalled the early 1950's, when I taught at the Yale School of Alcohol Studies, edited Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and A.A. Comes of Age for Bill Wilson, and met Sister Ignatia and Dr. Bob Smith (Darrah, Sister Ignatia, p. x).

[Father Ford's main concern with the texts was] "too explicit MRA attitudes" (Kurtz, Not-God, p. 323, n. 31).

[Father Ford wrote in 1960] Catholic participation in MRA was ably discussed by R. Bastian, S.J. and J. Hardon, S.J., about two years ago. . . . The authors unhesitatingly reject active cooperation of Catholics in this movement. MRA is a religious movement with fundamentally Protestant, theological orientation, and involves Catholics in serious dangers to their faith (N.C.C.A. "Blue Book", Vol 10, 1960: "Moral Re-Armament And Alcoholics Anonymous").

[Writing to Sam Shoemaker on June 14, 1957 about John Ford's A.A. editing work, Bill Wilson said] He [Father Ford] went over Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions with a fine-tooth comb and is most solicitous that we never get into a jam with the [Roman Catholic] church. He is one of our very best under-cover agents (Episcopal Church Archives, Austin, Texas).

[In one of several lengthy letters to Father Ford, Bill wrote Ford on May 14, 1957] Please have my deepest appreciation for the careful pre-publication survey you have made of our book, "A.A. Comes of Age", from the theological point of view. No one could agree more fully than I on the principle that we should avoid every possibility of theological dispute which might result in a justification for declaring Alcoholics Anonymous a heresy. What you have done might well make much difference in later time. Needless to say I have transferred nearly all your suggestions to the new book, hedging on a few points only (Episcopal Church Archives, Austin, Texas).

Atheist Hoopla

One can seriously question just how many atheists, Jews, Hindus, and Moslems were participants in A.A.'s earliest years. But Bill Wilson later gave "atheists" a great audience. Question: Were the people he mentioned even atheists? One person was Bill's partner Hank Parkhurst who was actually an Oxford Group point man in New Jersey - a fact verified when the author examined the Shoemaker-Parkhurst correspondence in the Episcopal Church Archives in Texas. The other "atheist" was James Burwell. Granted, Burwell originally "flabbergasted" Bill "by denouncing God at our meetings." But Bill was later to point out to a distinguished Yale audience that Burwell had read the Bible one day at a point of despair, had then seen Bill and another involved in prayer and meditation, and had thereafter managed to get sober for the first time in five years of trying. Nonetheless, Bill wrote in A.A. Comes of Age:

At first they [Parkhurst and Burwell] wanted the word "God" deleted from the book entirely. Henry had come to believe in some sort of "universal power," but Jimmy still flabbergasted us by denouncing God at our meetings. . . . What Henry, Jimmy, and company wanted was a psychological book which would lure the alcoholic in. Once in, the prospect could take God or leave Him alone as he wished (A.A. Comes of Age, p. 163).

A.A. legend has it that Jimmy Burwell invented the phrase "God as we understood Him" and that this phrase was inserted to placate the atheists and open A.A.'s doors. The first part of the claim was never, to the author's knowledge, authenticated by Bill himself. The fact is that surrendering to God "as you understand Him" was a well-known and long-used Oxford Group phrase and that Bill retained the word "God" in one form or another more than four hundred times even in later editions of the Big Book. When Bill wrote his chapter to agnostics, he pointed out, "And it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God" (First Edition, Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 57).

Treatment and Therapy Jabber

As the years moved on, and therapy and treatment moved in, a new lingo crept into the Twelve Step scene: "abuse," "acceptance," "addiction," "chemical dependency," "child within," "codependency," "committees," "cross-talk," "denial," "dry drunk," "enabler," "fake it till you make it," "feelings," "Good Orderly Direction," "group therapy," "guilt," "HALT," "higher power," "higher power is the A.A. group," "higher power is a tree," "higher power is a light bulb," "inner child," "in recovery," "intervention," "ism," "Keep It Simple Stupid," "relapse," "renewal," "self-help," "shame," "spiritual, not religious," "spirituality," "stinking thinking," "substance abuse," "support group," "tapes," "therapeutic community," "therapy," "victim," and many many more. Some were descriptive. Some were helpful. Some were nonsense. Some were called "psychobabble." See some contrasting examples in: (1) The Recovery Book; (2) Robertson,Getting Better Inside Alcoholics Anonymous; (3) Hazelden, A Spiritual Odyssey; (4) Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Care Counseling, (5) Daily Reflections; and (6) Ragge, More Revealed: A Critical Analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Twelve Steps.

Publishing Additions

Finally, out of A.A.'s own publishing organization, came a flood of ideas that bear no resemblance to any of the early spiritual principles we have discussed above. For examples, see Turning Point: A History of Early A.A.'s Spiritual Roots and Successes, pp. 5-8, 161-62: a "higher power" that can be "Him, Her, or It," a "lightbulb," a "chair," a "tree," a Group Of Drunks, "Good," or nothing at all.

Conservative Christian Recoil

As "any god" became more and more synonymous with "higher power" in A.A., some Christian writers: 1) Rejected A.A. (Playfair, The Useful Lie), 2) Condemned A.A. (Bobgans, Twelve Steps to Destruction and Burns, Alcoholics Anonymous Unmasked), 3) Proposed some "Christian" alternatives - sometimes called "Christ-centered Twelve Step Groups" (Bartosch, Overcomers Outreach: A Bridge to Recovery, Chambers, Two Tracks-One Goal, and Doyle, In Step with God).

Where Lies the Answer?

Does A.A. bury its Christian roots because not all AAs are Christians? Does A.A. ignore the fact that its basic ideas came from the Bible because not everyone respects the Bible? Does A.A. gloss over its hundreds of borrowed ideas, phrases, and practices from the Oxford Group and Sam Shoemaker because some Roman Catholic clergy didn't like the Oxford Group? Does A.A. turn God into an dumb idol, a group, or an "it" because someone thinks that will attract newcomers? Does A.A. surrender its biblical/Christian history to manufactured words and ideas that come from outside A.A.

Or, does A.A. endeavor to understand itself better, to learn why it was so successful in the beginning, and take pains to avoid being so "inclusive" that it excludes no self-made religion, no half-baked prayers, and no absurd names for God? Does A.A. ignore the clergy, the church, and the religious community of its roots by surrendering to ideas propounded by Bill Wilson's wife, some dissenting religious writers, two or three outspoken atheists, the fears of treatment programs, and just plain market appeal? These are not wholly accurate descriptions of the pressure factors, but one needs to bear in mind that A.A. developed something between 1935 and 1939 that worked! Depending upon which documentation one prefers, AAs who really tried in that early period attained a seventy-five percent success record (Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd ed, p. xx), an eighty percent success record (Kurtz and Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection, pp. 109-10), a ninety-three percent success record (DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers, p. 261), or a one-hundred percent success rate among non-psychotics (The Jack Alexander Article about AA, p. 15).

As soon as his thinking began to clear enough to wonder how A.A. started, the author began to prefer the success rate of yesteryear. In the earliest published draft of their proposed basic text (the multi-lith volume), AAs proclaimed "Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path" (p. 26). That was the phrase that caught the author's attention. Though most of the personal stories in that volume have since been removed, those original stories talked of a path which involved a "Heavenly Father" and expressed pity for atheists, agnostics, skeptics, or prideful people who refused to accept the formula in the book. See the Personal Stories, p. 6: God (pp. 11, 15-16, 18-20, 26, 41-42, 48, 55, 68, 73, 79); Christ (p. 15), Divine help (p. 19), Our Father in heaven (p. 29), Father (p. 75) the Bible (p. 19, 79).

The success rate of yesteryear was explained again and again in A.A.'s DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers. These were the golden years. They involved God, the Bible, prayer, Quiet Time, surrenders to God (actually acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior), Christian literature, Christian fellowship, and daily Bible devotionals.

There is an answer as to whether A.A. should bury its Biblical and Christian history or relearn and study it. A.A. has had no problem hashing and rehashing the supposed relevance of Washingtonian mistakes, though the events occurred a century and a half ago. Yet A.A. virtually ignores it more recent, direct, and relevant roots involving events barely more than half a century old. The real answer concerning A.A. history lies in how much value one places on the Biblical principles and the success rate these principles produced when factors are compared to the hodge-podge of fellowship prattle that abounds today.

In their recent title discussing A.A.'s program of recovery versus fellowship ideas today, Joe and Charlie point to the early success rate, to today's diminished success rate, and to their belief that drunks haven't changed, alcohol hasn't changed, the Big Book hasn't changed, but the fellowship has. These active, recovered A.A. veterans say:

The only thing that has really changed is the fellowship itself. We believe that this is a big problem in many AA meetings today. It's a serious problem, too, because far fewer people are recovering from their illness (A Program for You: A Guide to the Big Book's Design for Living, p. 15).

And How Can You Use the History of Early A.A.'s Roots Today?

Combine Big Book Study with Historical Roots Study!

Few recovered AAs today lack respect for A.A.'s basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous. That text contains a description, albeit edited and changed over the years, of how the early AAs recovered. It describes "the steps they took." It suggests these steps as a program of recovery. And it very definitely contains specific instructions on "how to take" most of these steps; and where the instructions are not specific, details are nonetheless there for those who care to look for them. In fact, a study of the Big Book will demonstrate that the entire program of recovery is explicitly described in the first chapter, Bill's Story.

The author learned early on that he was getting little helpful information on either the Big Book or the Steps from Big Book meetings, Step Study meetings, or the other types of meetings he was attending daily. His sponsor and grand-sponsor, though dedicated AAs, did not seem to have the capacity to instruct and perhaps did not even have an understanding of how the Big Book instructed its readers in taking the Steps.

Finally, he attended his first Joe and Charlie Big Book Seminar in Sacramento, California. From this detailed, line-by-line, humorous, and analytical study, he learned a great deal about A.A.'s Big Book. He does not agree today with all the teaching, but he does believe that all of it was extremely useful. It focused the student on the Big Book and what Joe and Charlie believed to be its plan. The Seminar was so useful, in fact, that the author attended it several more times and succeeded in getting most of his sponsees to attend. Today, that material is available in written and in taped form. But the most significant thing for the author was that the seminar always began with a discussion of A.A.'s beginnings and how the Big Book was written.

Though the Big Book Seminar history presentation was informative, it was far too scanty for those in search of the spiritual roots - a fact that has several times resulted in the author's being invited to Sacramento to make his books available during the seminar period. And the absence of specific details is one reason why the author undertook his research, travel, interviews, and writing.

The first suggestion here, therefore, is that every AA - every AA who wants to understand recovery and tap into A.A.'s vital ideas about God, the Bible, forgiveness, healing, deliverance, prayer, meditation, and Christian standards that inspired the pioneers - should learn A.A.'s true spiritual roots when he or she is learning the Big Book.

Without such study, it is too easy to slip into all the pitfalls and pressures that were previously outlined.

Put the Good Book First on the Study List

A.A. has been so busy tar and feathering the Oxford Group for the last fifty years that it has derailed attention from A.A.'s primary source, the Bible.

Most critics of A.A.'s spiritual roots focus on the shortcomings of Oxford Group Founder Frank Buchman or upon Roman Catholic criticism of Moral Re-Armament or upon the fact that AAs left the Oxford Group in the very late 1930's. They ignore the fact that A.A. was founded on the Bible, not the Oxford Group. Oxford Group ideas came from the Bible. A.A. ideas also came from the Bible. But these similarities are far from making the two origins identical.

AAs should know by now that A.A.'s basic ideas were taken from the Bible. Dr. Bob said so explicitly (The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches, Their Last Major Talks, pp. 13-14). These ideas, which were derived from the Bible, came from Bible study, use of daily Bible devotionals, Quiet Time observances that involved Bible study, Christian literature of all kinds - including the Roman Catholic writings of St. Augustine, Thomas a Kempis, Brother Lawrence - and Anne Smith's Journal. All these contained comments about and references to the Bible. Furthermore, if Sam Shoemaker was regarded by Bill Wilson as the teacher of A.A.'s Oxford Group concepts, one should remember that Sam's major focus was on the Bible, not the Oxford Group per se. The Oxford Group, for Sam, was a vehicle for bringing people to Christ, not the source of the idea. Sam was an Episcopal Clergyman, and he left the Oxford Group in 1941 primarily because he did not want to give up his own primary focus upon his church and the liturgy and methods of that church.

The second major suggestion for understanding A.A. by using its roots, therefore, is that one can understand A.A. best by pulling out the Bible. Then by doing a line-by-line study of important parts of the Bible (particularly Matthew 5 to 7, 1 Corinthians 13, and the Book of James). The student should focus on those words, phrases, and ideas which the author has specifically identified as biblical in origin and rooted in the specific portions of the Bible covered here.

Study first. Accept help. Understand afterward. That's the approach to Big Book study that worked for the author. That is the approach to the Bible that God suggested (John 5:39; Acts 17:11, 8:26-35; 2 Timothy 2:15). It is an approach to understanding A.A.'s spiritual program of recovery that can lift the fog.

Learn the Early Technique for Quiet Time

In their haste for a quick fix and easy reading, some AAs have allowed writers to burden them down with meditation after meditation after meditation book. And each book seems to get shorter and farther away from the Bible.

Learn why Anne Smith said the Bible is the main source book. It is the book that explains who God is. It is the book which tells what God's will is. It is the book that points out how to come to God, or - if you prefer - to "find" God. It is the book which contains God's promises, God's admonitions, and God's suggestions for communications to and from Him. "Thy will be done" means very little if one does not know where and how to find God's will. Yet Jesus Christ taught that doing "the will of my Father which is in heaven" was key to entry into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21). Jesus said in a prayer to God that he had spoken God's Word (the words of God he had received by revelation) and that it (collectively, the word) was truth (John 17:14, 17). Then Jesus declared unequivocally that "the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32, italics added).

Once one understands the technique for Quiet Time - Bible study; helpful books; prayers for help and guidance; prayers of thanksgiving and praise; prayers for healing and forgiveness; and listening for God's messages - he or she can begin to reap the rewards of communion with God. Jesus admonished against vain repetitions that simply displayed ego to a Father who already knew the needs and how to take care of them. Anne Smith explained that to early AAs.

Examine Anne Smith's Spiritual Journal

It is not difficult to get far afield of A.A.'s original spiritual program of recovery if one ignores the precise material Anne Smith wrote, shared, and taught to the pioneers and their families. The interrelationship of the Bible, the Oxford Group life-change, the Christian literature, and daily Bible devotionals becomes clear from reading Anne's comments.

Look on the Oxford Group for Understanding, Not Theology

A.A.'s debt to the Oxford Group lies in a number of areas. The Oxford Group brought special focus on the need for God, the guidance of God, the importance of fellowship, the importance of witnessing, and the necessity for practicing Christian principles as a way of life. A.A. bought these ideas whole hog, whatever they called them. Hence one can look to the writings of Sam Shoemaker and of the Oxford Group people for specific explanations of specific ideas A.A.'s adopted. The ideas are still there. God is there. The need for God is there. The need to quit playing God is there. Guidance is there. The Four Absolutes (perhaps minus purity) are there. Restitution is there. Continuance is there. Confession is there. Bill thought Conversion was there. Confidence is there. And Conviction had better be there. Fellowship is there. And witnessing is there. One does not need to agree with or fear the Oxford Group theology to know their ideas are important if one hopes to understand how A.A.'s "spiritual awakening" can possibly be the result of taking the steps. There is no message to carry if one has not learned and understood it. There are no principles to practice if one does not know what they are or what they are for.

Get an Understanding of God as He Understands Himself

In the Bible, God describes Himself in a way that we can understand. He is the Creator. He is the Maker. He is Spirit, not a man. He is light, not darkness. He is love, not hate. He is Father, if we choose to be born of His spirit. He is Almighty, if we want power. He heals, if we are sick. He forgives, if we sin. He delivers, if we are in trouble. He guides, if we do not know the way or want to be told. He promises health, prosperity, abundance, an everlasting life, and a way out of alcoholism, if we care to seek and entrust our lives to Him for care and direction. He is the God of peace, comfort, consolation, grace, mercy, and love, if that is what we want. That is how He understands and explains Himself. And the modern-day absurdities can't hold at candle to that.

If AAs are told to find God now, and they certainly are - in emphatic terms by their own basic text, then why settle for anything less than the "God of our fathers," of which Wilson and Smith spoke, and the "God of A.A.'s own founders" upon which Wilson and Smith relied?

"WHO ARE YOU TO SAY THERE IS NO GOD?" Those words, in capital letters, can be found on page 69 of the First Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous. What ever happened to that idea? "What seemed at first a flimsy reed, has proved to be the loving and powerful hand of God," said page 38. Whatever happened to that idea? "The central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous," said page 36. Whatever happened to that idea? "But my friend (Ebby Thacher) sat before me, and he made the point-blank declaration that God had done for him what he could not do for himself," said pages 20-21. Whatever happened to that idea? "As to two of you men, whose stories I have heard, there is no doubt in my mind that you were 100% hopeless, apart from Divine help," said page 55. Whatever happened to that idea? "We never apologize to anyone for depending upon our Creator?," said page 81. Whatever happened to that idea?

Virtually nothing has happened to any of these ideas. They are not lost, but they seem to be slipping away. Most of the phrases are still present in A.A.'s basic text today. They are part of the program of recovery. It's just that people are scared to death to talk about them in many of today's meetings and discussions - - to talk about God, the Creator, Divine help, the hand of God, and the way in which pioneers placed total reliance upon these.

The way to use the roots today is to "Go tell." Sam Shoemaker taught:

Men run from your arguments about God, they will not listen to your elaborate explanations; but when you tell them what life was without God, and then tell them what it is with Him, their hearts, as John Wesley said, are "strangely warmed," and their minds also are strangely persuaded (National Awakening, p. 28).

Then, as he usually did, Shoemaker pointed to the Bible and to this reply Jesus gave to the disciples of John when they asked if Jesus was the person who was to come:

Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them (Matthew 11:4-5).

At another point, Shoemaker repeated an idea well-known in the Oxford Group and in early A.A.: "The Gospel was originally 'news,' not 'views'" (The Conversion of the Church, p. 73).

Nobody ever recovered from alcoholism by relying upon a tree. Nobody ever recovered from alcoholism by praying to a group. Nobody ever recovered from alcoholism by meditating upon a lightbulb. Alcoholics may be sick. But they are not stupid. Tell the AAs of today the facts. Tell them the early success statistics. Offer them the opportunity to learn more. And let themdecide where they wish to place their reliance for recovery and deliverance from the deadly disease from which they suffer.

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