RELIGION IN LIFE, Vol. 34: No.4, 283-397, Winter, 1965
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS AND THE “THIRD” REFORMATION
by 0. Hobart Mowrer
Recently my wife and I attended the weekly meeting of an open discussion group sponsored by Alcoholics Anonymous, which started a year or so ago in our community with only four or five persons. This particular evening there were about twenty people present when we arrived, and additional chairs had to be set-up for another ten to twelve before the meeting started.
In the afterglow following this meeting the man who had been sitting on my right introduced himself as Jim and said he was a newcomer to the faculty of the university where I, too, am employed, and that he and his family had just arrived from a city on the Eastern seaboard. “Its the same way there,” he said. “A.A. groups are springing up everywhere, like mushrooms.”
Presently another A.A. member whom I knew as Joe joined us, and in the course of our conversation remarked that a few days before a young minister had asked him for advice and help in starting some A.A .-like groups in his church. And that same afternoon, it so happened, I had talked with two other ministers who reported successful experimentation along precisely the same lines in their churches.
At the moment I attached no special significance to the remarks which either Jim or Joe had made to me; but later, when two or three couples (including Joe and his wife) stopped by our home, I found myself continuing to think about these more or less random events. Presently I said: “It’s obvious that A.A. is growing very rapidly and is arousing a lot of interest on the part of people other than alcoholics. What do you think the fellowship will be like in another generation.”
There were some intriguing speculations, but Adam, who turned out to be particularly well informed concerning A.A. history and organization, seemed to reflect the thinking of the other A.A. members who were present when he said: “I believe and hope that in another thirty or forty years A.A., as an organization, will be substantially what it is now, and nothing more; namely, a fellowship of men and women who have only one purpose, which is to achieve and maintain sobriety. But I also believe that the A.A. program is a way of life which, if followed, can help anybody become a better and happier person.”
At this point the conversation turned to other topics, and I, too, put the matter out of my mind. But that night, after having slept a few hours, I waked up and could not go back to sleep until I had made extended notes on what seemed to me to be the ramified and portentous implications of the things I had heard the previous afternoon and evening.
Even nonreligious laymen today know the term “ecumenicity” and realize that a new spirit of unity is stirring in Christendom. When I was a child, growing up in a small mid-western town, denominational rivalry was so intense that at the time of “revival” meetings in the fall Protestant school children would taunt and revile each other; and the rest of the year about the only thing we had in common was that we all hated the Catholics. How very different the situation is today! The minister of the church my family and I most often attend (we frequently go to other churches, I may say) is an indefatigable ecumenicist and recently, in a communion meditation, described the remarkable occasion, a few months ago, when a convention of Christian students of various faiths (including Roman Catholics) participated in a common communion. As the minister appropriately noted, communion is supposed to symbolize the community, the unity, the universal fellowship of Christ’s followers; yet even this supreme ritualistic act has become the occasion for divisiveness and isolation.
There have been, I am sure, many reasons for the growing discontent in the Christian world with this “scandal of separation,” among which would certainly have to be listed the fact that in this century Christianity has found itself confronted and threatened by two other great ideologies and “evangelical” movements which have, so to say, “built-in “ecumenicity.” I refer to what may be termed world communism and world science. The extent of the influence and impact from these sources is, of course, widely recognized and needs no elaboration. But I conjecture that the quiet example and subtle challenge of Alcoholics Anonymous has in some ways been even more significant.
I cannot recall ever having seen or heard the word “ecumenicity” in an A.A. context, but the porgram itself, I submit, exemplifies the fact to perfection. As thousands of A.A. members could readily testify, one of the great failing of conventional Christians when they approach a “sick,” alienated person (be he alcoholic, neurotic, or just plain wicked) – or when such a person approaches them – is to say: “Brother, your trouble is that you don’t have my religion, don’t know my God, and don’t worship at my church.” Salvation, for perhaps the majority of Christians, is a matter of form and professed belief; but suffering human beings by the score have found that it takes more than word magic to change their lives in any very deep and lasting way.
The A.A. program avoids this error in a particularly ingenious yet simple and, I think, eminently sound manner. A sober, informed A.A. member never says anything to a practicing alcoholic that is intended to “covert” him to the member’s particular value system, faith, or philosophy. Instead, he says something like this: “I don’t think you are in trouble because you don’t happen to accept or believe what I or anyone else believes. I think you are in trouble because you are not living up to your own highest convictions and commitments and therefore stand indicted in your own eyes of arrogance and hypocrisy” – except that the last words would probably be “egotism and phoniness,” and the whole statement would be clearer and more forceful than I have expressed it here. Taking a little white celluloid card from his billfold, the A.A. member would then go on to say something to this effect: “Here is our program or, as we call them, the Twelve Steps. As you can see, we sometimes refer to God or a Higher Power, but it is always with the qualifying phrase ‘as you understand him.’ And in order to try to make this still clearer to you, let me tell you how fouled-up I was and how A.A. helped me get straightened out, and sobered up, without asking me to change my value system, my religion, or philosophy. All A.A. asked or advocated was that I become true to the values I had already accepted and to start keeping the commitments I had already made. Let me tell you what my life situation was when I was drinking and how this program has worked for me.”
This strategy, if we may call it that, has enormous advantages: (1) it does not antagonize, threaten, or alienate the new prospect, whatever his prior religious or irreligious belief; (2) it permits the A.A. program to move peacefully across religious and racial lines, even international boundaries (A.A. is now represented in more than eighty countries); and (3) it articulates easily and naturally with science, particularily in the realm of psychology, where there is growing recognition that psychopathology does not arise (as Freud supposed) because people are unduly inhibiting their sexual and agressive “needs” but because they have gratified these “needs” inappropriately, in such a way as to create a discrepancy between their own standards and their performance. In short, the view is that an emotionally disturbed person, like the alcoholic, has lost his integrity, his self-respect (cf. Erik Erikson’s term “identity crisis” as a proposed substitute for the term “neurosis”) and needs, above all other things, to recover it.
The A.A. approach has already heavily influenced group therapy as it is evolving in mental-hospital practice, and it seems likely to receive increasing academic recognition in the future. Also, as we have seen, there is clear indication that it is stimulating widespread interest and experimentation in religious circles. It would seem that here is a way of conceptualizing the problem of “sin” so as to eliminate the Christian “scandal of particularity,” resolve the dilemma of cultural relativism, and reconcile “religion” with the most recent and best scientific thinking about “neurosis” and other personality disorders.
What the A.A. program (as I understand it) says, then, in congruity with the emerging new scientific view of psychopathology, is that alcoholism, along with other forms of personality disorder, arises because of fraudulence, not wrong faith. Conventional Christianity has said that salvation (“recovery”) is primarily a matter of right belief, of making the correct affirmations, and only secondarily a matter of the integrity, consistency, and courage with one lives and practices his beliefs, whatever they may be. A.A., like the guilt theory of psychopathology, turns all this around and says that integrity (A.A. calls it “the honesty part”) is absolutely of first importance, with only a secondary emphasis, or no emphasis at all, upon the specific nature of one’s beliefs. It is interesting to note, incidentally, that Freudian psychoanalysis, despite its strident disagreements with Protestant Christianity in certain regards, also stresses wrong belief (an excessive, perverse “superego”) rather than deviant behavior as the essence of “neurosis.” And it is probably no accident that neither has been able to make good its promises, therapeutically speaking.
If alcoholism, and “mental illness” in general, is therefore not a question of wrong faith but of false living, confession, as a means of admitting and eliminating this falseness and “phoniness,” becomes crucially important. For the traditional Christian (as for the orthodox Freudian) conversion (salvation “therapy”) consists of verbally repudiating one belief system and accepting another. But in A.A. and in the guilt theory of neurosis, conversion involves not a change in value systems per se but an admission of past dishonor and a desire for recovery of integrity, wholeness, and authenticity. This, of necessity, calls for a confession of sin, rather than a mere profession of faith, which can be made (remember Bonhoeffer’s term “cheap grace”) without great cost or real change.
Although the issues have not as yet, I suspect, been seen with complete clarity, many Protestant churchmen are today stressing, with various rationalizations, the need for a reinstatement of confession. Pastoral counseling is, of course, a confessional of sorts, but it carries over into the religious context a number of questionable concepts and practices from the secular healing professions (particularly psychoanalysis and nondirective counseling), and the present mood, on the part of many writers, is definitely is one of trying to restore the church to a more indigenous and hopefully more effective role in this area. Illustrative of such efforts are an article by Dr. George C. Anderson entitled “Medieval Medicine for Sin,” which appeared in the Journal of Religion and Health (1963); a master’s thesis prepared (in 1963) by the Rev. Goren Haggberg, at Perkins School of Theology, on “The Role of Confession in Pastoral Care”; and the book by Max Thurian, a Taize (Protestant) monk, entitled confession (1958). The common weakness of these and several other recent writings of a similar nature is the tendency to assume that, since confession needs to be restored to Protestantism, the proper form for it to take is the one presently and historically practiced in the Roman Catholic Church. What the authors of these works overlook is the fact that Catholic confession, since its “sealing” in the early Middle Ages, has commonly been associated with the distressing phenomenon known as “scrupulosity.” This, it should be remembered, is basically the same system that inspired the Protestant Reformer (Luther himself suffered from scrupulosity); but the Reformation made the error of “sealing” confession even more tightly, of changing the format from secrecy (In the confessional booth) to silence (in personal prayer), which, psychologically and humanly speaking was tatamount to rejecting confession altogether. What was needed at the time of the Reformation was a movement that would have broken the seal of confession and restored the healing and redemptive openness of the small, vital groups which constituted the apostolic, or primitive, Christian church.
Alcoholics Anonymous and other self-help groups today seem to be moving in the right direction here. Step 5 of A.A.’s Twelve Steps reads: “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.” This is manifestly a move away from the silent confession of Protestantism; but A.A.’s Step 5 might at first appear to be little more than a secular equivalent of the secret confession of Catholicism or the private psychiatric interview. However, as the A.A. program works out in practice, the Fifth Step is often only a prelude to a much wider openness, frankness, candor. Although there is some debate in A.A. circles as to how far confession ought to be carried, evidence from many sources suggests that the most rapid and radical personal transformations occur when the goal is full candor and transparency with the “significant others” in one’s life. (c.f. Jourard’s new book, The Transparent Self, 1964) – and a willingness to share deeply even with strangers if there is any prospect of thus helping them.
Indicative of a trend of thought quite different from that of the Protestant writers who have been cited is a paper entitled “The Place of Confession in the Protestant Church,” written by Frank M. Young while a student at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Mr Young says: “By enlisting against the “Scholastic Sophists,” Calvin opened the gate which to lead to a general omission of confession from the Reformed Church, with the one exception of general confession (prayer of confession in public worship). Calvin felt that only Christ could forgive because he had paid the price, himself. Therefore, penance could not be a sacrament.
“This study has shown that Calvin would be equally as hard on us as he was on the Roman Church because of the total lack of confession that has resulted. The success of psychotherapy in Protestant countries as over against Roman Catholic countries would suggest that we Protestants might take another look at confession provided that we do not return to a required confessional or try to make it a sacrament.”
It can hardly be said that psychotherapy in Protestant countries has been an unqualified success if by this term one means individual therapy. However, group therapy (or, should we perhaps say, group participation, experience) of the kind described in the preceding pages has been and is continuing to be extremely gratifying in its outcomes. Whereas many churches have frankly abandoned the attempt to produce “conversions” and quickly “refer” anyone who is deeply troubled or disturbed, and whereas in professional psychotherapy of the conventional kinds the most one hopes for is slow “improvement,” the effects achieved by the newer group methods often deserve to be called “transformations.” One not infrequently hears the exclamation: “Its just a miracle the way So-and-So has changed.” And the organized, formal church will continue to ignore these developments at its great peril. At long last the confessional seal seems to be in process of being broken, and there is excellent biblical authority for precisely this action: “Confess your faults to one another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed” (Jas. 5:16). This New Testament writer does not say: “Confess your sins, or faults, to a priest or only to God.” He says, “to one another” – and quite explicitly notes the healing power of such action.
I like to think of Christianity itself as the First Reformation, a rebellion against a religion that had become formal, corrupt, and unredemptive. Thus, the Protestant. Reformation of the sixteenth century was, by this reckoning, the Second Reformation; and it, like the First, was necessary, but it was not sufficient. Can it be that we are now well into the Third Reformation, and that it is being spearheaded by a lowly organization known as Alcoholics Anonymous which does not even call itself “religious?”
Granting, as now seems likely, that closed (secret, silent, private) vs. open confession is the central issue of whatever type of moral and spiritual revolution is today in progress, the question remains: What does a person do after he has said whatever needs to be said in this connection? Protestantism has taken the position that, following silent confession and appropriate contrition, one does not need to do anything if one’s “faith” is sufficient; for Christ died for the sins of the world, and in his death upon the cross there is an inexhaustible supply of grace and forgiveness to which the faithful have free and unfettered access. Catholicism has traditionally prescribed some form of penance, once very severe, now hardly more than a token (lest its members be offended and defect to Protestantism). One of the reasons for even such limited success as secular psychotherapy has had comes, it seems, from the payment thus extracted, not explicitly for sin, to be sure, but for a service which the therapist supposedly renders. But the effect, unconsciously and practically, is probably much the same. In comparison with psychiatrists and clinical psychologists who are in private practice, clergymen are pikers when it comes to the matter of penance. And it seems not unlikely that much of the appeal which the former have had for sin-sick souls lies precisely in the fact that, despite their talk about acceptance and permissiveness, they are more exacting. But the question is: How honest and healthy has this form of therapy itself been? And can such an ambiguous type of treatment do anything, in the end, but discredit itself and damage its clients?
Thus, when Alcoholics Anonymous or any other self-help movement starts taking fraudulence and its elimination (through confession) seriously, the question of penance, restitution and atonement arise in acute form. The position which A.A. writers take in this connection is unequivocal but utterly disarming – truly they are “as gentle as doves and as wise as serpents.” A.A. never engages in or invites theological argument, and does not even raise the venerable question of faith vs. works. Instead, it has proceeded as if there were no issue here and has tacitly taken its position on the side of works! Steps 8 and 9 state simply but explicitly: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all; made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others” (italics added). There is not one word in the entire Twelve Steps about grace or forgiveness. Sometimes, in casual conversation, individual members will speak of their need for forgiveness, acceptance, grace; but when more sophisticated ones are pinned down on this score, it is clear that they are works men. At the open meeting referred to at the beginning of this article, one member said: “Words get you nowhere, you have to act. I aplogized to everyone I knew and asked their forgiveness, but until I started doing something to restore my self-respect, I was licked.” And on other occasions I have heard A.A. members say that they do not believe that their salvation (they call it “sobriety”) is at all dependent upon forgiveness or lack of forgiveness from others. “Its strictly up to you,” they say, “and your willingness to work the program.”
“But there are not some sins for which it is impossible to make restitution, atonement? What do you do about them? This I regard as a cynical and disingenuous question; and it is likely to be asked, not out of common sense or experience, but from the perspective of those who have a vested interest. Some twenty years ago I recall having heard a famous psychoanalyst say: “Insight is no guarantee of readjustment, but readjustment without insight is impossible.” Insight has been the analysts’ stock in trade, and they have done everything within their power to make it appear to be something which so-called neurotic people desperately needed – and could obtain only through them. Today interest in “insight therapy” is rapidly waning; and it seems that a similar change may be occuring with respect to that special commodity, forgiveness, of which the clergyman has regarded himself as the sole dispenser, or at least mediator. This is not to say that either insight or forgiveness are complete irrelevances in human affairs but, particularly at this juncture in the history of ideas and culture, the most meticulous care should be exercised to avoid even a trace of professional chauvinism in respect to either of them.
Step 12 further solves the problem of penance and restitution for the A.A. member: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” But is not this program of self-help the road to intolerable pride and a spiritual state infinitely worse than the original one? The New Testament offers a variety of views on this subject; and the position adopted by A.A. is in full accord with one of them. Although I have never heard or seen them cited by A.A. members, the last two verses of the book of James (KJV) are eloquent on this score: “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide (the RSV says “cover” i.e., compensate for) a multitude of sins.” And even more unequivocally the New English Bible reads: “My brothers, if one of your number should stray from the truth and another succeed in bringing him back, be sure of this: any man who brings a sinner back from his crooked ways will be rescuing his soul from death and cancelling innumerable sins.”
Although the members of A.A. and participants in related forms of group therapy do not ask or practice forgiveness in the sense of one person saying to another, “I forgive you” (or “Thy sins be forgiven”), they do two related but significantly different things: (1) they become forgiving of others (i.e., benign toward them) by eliminating their own neurotic (guilt-engendered) resentments, through admission of past wrongdoing and steadfast efforts at amendment; and (2) they become independent of the need to be forgiven by practicing, toward others, what Phillip Anderson has called fore-giveness, i.e., a willingness to give of their time and concern to others who are in need before others have “done anything for them.” This, it seems to me, is a far more redemptive and dependable formula than the concept of “forgiveness,” in the sense of a pardon (cheap grace) which we have to get from or give to others (including holy Others). It has, I think, been the universal experience of A.A. members that when they have confessed and made amends for their own sins and have started a program of fore-giveness (“twelfth-stepping” they sometimes call it), it doesn’t greatly matter whether others forgive them, in the conventional sense of the term, or not. By this other type of procedure a security and a strength come which others have not conferred and which others cannot take away. Thus persons who function in this way find they are freed, not primarily by what someone else says to them, but by what they do for others – and, indirectly, for themselves. Incidentally, this is what A.A. members mean when they say: “This, in the final analysis, is a selfish program.” But also, paradoxically it illustrates the New Testament injunction that it is more blessed to give than to receive, to be fore-giving than to be forgiven.
What a tremendous force for good in the world theologians have stultified by opposing the natural human tendency to seek reconciliation and rehabilitation through good works – not, to be sure, in the sense of artifically prescribed and irrelevant religious works, but in the sense of moral and social concern and service! Since the aim of the Second Reformation was to eliminate the sealed confessional and its abuses, not by opening it up, but by a sort of reductio ad adsurdum, it should not surprise us to find that the means employed to this end were also highly questionable. The doctrines of justification by faith only and of the substitutionary atonement served to undercut the exploitive practices of the medieval church with respect to penance and indulgences, but they also had the effect of hopelessly fixating men in their evil and weakness, instead of guiding them to real strength and redemption. Confession and restitution must both, it seems, be restored to common practice, but in an ideological context which will insure their human pertinence and protect them against theological misinterpretation and abuse.
A year or so ago I attended a large open A.A. meeting in Chicago, and a few days later it suddenly occurred to me that this organization is producing the finest “evangelists” of our time – and producing them in great number. As soon as a new member has been sober two or three days, he is urged to start talking about his experiences, “working the program,” and helping others. And his demand as a speaker will grow apace with his application and talent. Here the priesthood of all believers is a reality, whereas in most Protestant churches it is only a theory, a phrase – and in Roman Catholic churches it is not even that (although the hierarchy of the church is encouraging, more and more, what is called “lay action.”)
Somehow we have a stereotype of the alcoholic, or “drunk,” as a kind of congenital fool. But even cursory association with A.A. members will show that there are a lot of fine minds among them. I remember on one occasion making a comment to this effect in the company of several A.A. members. With characteristic wit and good humor one of them replied, “That’s right! In order to make enough money to buy all the booze we drank and to make it while drinking, you had to be smart.” A.A. members are not only smart, they have something to say. They have experienced something in their own lives which they regard as a kind of miracle, as do others around them; and instead of merely hearing the Word, as most clergymen are all too content for us to do, these men and women are prepared to speak it.
“The Three Legacies” of A.A., as they are called, are recovery, unity, and service. And each of these terms is aptly chosen, for they all represent something meaningful and real. But in some ways an even more striking attribute of A.A. members is their enthusiasm. Not long ago I attended an adult Sunday school class for the first time in twenty years; and after the informed, lively, earnest talk of A.A. groups, formal and informal, I was appalled by the lethargy and dullness of the class. One of my reasons for “demitting” as an elder of the United Presbyterian Church is the fact that the session meetings were resolutely routine and almost totally lacking in any kind of intellectual or spiritual excitement or inspiration. We were supposedly the overseers of the spiritual life of our congregation, but so far as one might from our meetings, there was none. Great issues were assiduously avoided, and it was apparently taken for granted that all was well in this “best of all possible worlds.” In comparison I find it stimulating and challenging in the extreme just to be on the fringe of A.A. Its open discussion groups and informal gatherings are vital and exhilarating; and the “big speeches” equal, if not surpass, the finest preaching that one can hear anywhere.
A.A. members do not like to have their movement, or fellowship, called a “religion.” In the best sense of that term, however, A.A. is irrevocably religious. “Religion” means literally, a reunion, reconnection, reconciliation (with conscience, community, and God – as you understand him); and I know no formal religious body that works harder or more effectively at religion in this sense. But “religion” has other connotations which A.A. does well to eschew, connotations deriving largely from historic accretions during the Middle Ages and the Reformation. The primitive, apostolic church was, it seems, a small-group movement (witness the ubiquitous “house church”); and I submit that A.A. and related movements are a reasonable and living embodiment of the spirit and substance of primitive Christianity.
Many contemporary churchman are deeply puzzled by A.A. and don’t know how to evaluate it. They see in it many fine things, yet it is not the church, as they know it; and they see the ranks of A.A. constantly swelling, sometimes at the expense of church attendance and membership. Just as psychiatrists and clinical psychologists occasionally snipe at A.A. on the grounds that its members “have to continue going to meetings and are never really “cured,” so do clergymen sometimes complain that A.A. “keeps” the people who resort to it (although often as not the reverse happens – A.A. brings wayward members back to the church). If the church is not redemptive for men and women in their deepest’ need, on what grounds do they owe a continuing loyalty to it after they have found wholeness elsewhere? And to the charge of the professionals that A.A. converts but does not cure, is it so bad for people, after achieving sobriety, to continue to attend A.A. meetings? They have to go somewhere once in a while, and I know of no more interesting or helpful place for them, or anyone else, to go than an A.A. meeting.
In 1935 there were two A.A. members: cofounders Bill and Bob. Today the number is well over 300,000. It is estimated that during the period of their active alcoholism, A.A. members, on the average, have a negative, hurtful impact on five other people. We would therefore expect these same five people to be relieved and grateful after the A.A. member’s recovery. Thus, we may infer, conservatively, that upward of two million lives have been favorably affected by the A.A. program; and the number of people who know about and are otherwise interested in A.A. is, of course, far greater. In terms of statistics A.A. is, to be sure, still small compared to the great Christian denominational bodies; but in terms of influence it is big; and as to rate of growth it is in a class by itself. A.A. is barely thirty years old. What will the picture be in another three decades?
So far as I am aware, no one to date has made a systematic attempt to appraise the religious implications of Alcoholics Anonymous from inside the church. But Langdon Gilkey’s new book How the Church can Minister to the World Without Losing Itself aptly poses the problem:
“As countless seminary students witness, the deepest reasons for the contemporary movement of the clergy from the free into the liturgical churches lies in the barrenness of worship in the former and the religious emptiness of their sacramental life. My purpose in this…(book), therefore, is to try to explore how our present serious difficulties with worship and the sacraments have arisen; and, seeing in what ways they were vital and powerful in the New Testament church, to discover if possible how to strengthen them today.”
But instead of advocating a return to and revival of the intimate, open, redemptive group life of the early church. Dr. Gilkey emphasizes liturgical reform:
“The task of contemporary Protestantism, after it has taken a realistic look at the situation, is to rediscover the separated elements that can mediate the holy to the life of man, and I have suggested doing this through a re-examination of the classical symbols of the church life. In the area of worship this means that Word and Sacrament, as the objective means of grace given to the church, must replace our current weak concentration on subjective experiences of worship if the holy is again to appear in our churches.”
“And so we discover again the common answer to our problem in each of its facets. There is a transcendent element in the church, namely, the means of grace which God has given in Word and Sacrament, and around these alone can the church be built. The rediscovery of this has been the central motif of the new theology in relation to the church, and the search for this transcendent holy is the central characteristic of each serious seminary student’s personal quest…Only when they are relevant to our own life, its sins, and its needs do Word and Sacrament themselves become media of the holy, and only then is the church the holy people.”
It is not my purpose nor is it within my sphere of competence to argue that liturgical reform is less pertinent or promising than the type of koinonia which arises and transforms people within small groups. The established church, in the face of its present crisis, can make its own choice and stand or fall by the consequences. But it should be noted that the direction in which Professor Gilkey points is the very antithesis of that which Alcoholics Anonymous and related group-therapy movements are taking. If the church, as we know it today, chooses not to recognize these movements as its own, this is the church’s privilege. But, as a psychologist, I can say with some confidence that the “transcendent Holy,” as a “means of grace,” will not prove “relevant to our life, its sins, and its needs.”
Not long ago, in the mental hospital where I am a consultant, I was talking with a middle-aged man on a closed ward about some hidden, cancerous secrets in his life which he had just disclosed to me. He had never before shared them with anyone, and I began to explore with him the possibility of moving on now to a larger sphere of openness and authenticity with his wife and a few fellow patients, he said: “But I don’t understand this. I’ve gone to church for many years and have always heard that Christ died for our sins and that we don’t have to confess or do anything else about them.” How many men and women have gone to mental hospitals with undisclosed evil eating away at their hearts and souls as a result of this doctrine? The claim that “the means of grace which God has given in Word and Sacrament” can be found only in the church may have served to attract the multitudes, but for a not inconsiderable remnant the church has been only a way station on the road to the purgatory we call a mental hospital.
The incident just described reminded me of the experience of a pastor friend of mine, a few years ago, when he tried to start some small self-help groups in his church, only to be waited upon by a committee of laymen, who said, in effect: “You know, Brother ______, it is traditional in our denomination to believe in the substitutionary atonement. Don’t you believe in it anymore? In these groups, you are now telling people they ought to confess their sins and engage in ‘good works.’ Brother ______, we love you and we don’t wish you any harm, but this group therapy has got to stop, or we leave this church.” Were these men acting under the sway of a speculative theory, willing to be held accountable for the harm they might do in depriving sin-sick, guilt ridden people of this avenue to integrity and strength?
While writing this paper, I happen to have heard an astute layman define a theologian as a man who “reads four books and writes one.” As a result of the reading I’ve done the past ten years in the field of theology, I’ve been amazed at the extent to which theology is a kind of academic game, the object of which is to get other writers to accept, or at least pay some attention to, your particular views. (In other words, men are out to make reputations in this field quite as much as in any other – with rather less than average attention, I fancy, to the pertinent empirical evidence.) There ought, somehow, to be greater discipline and responsibility in a domain which purportedly deals with the “truths we live by,” with propositions and presuppositions on which men and women base decisions that can mean spiritual death or life. More than forty years ago Anton Boisen urged theologians to put their books away for a season and come to mental hospitals and there “study the human documents.” By and large this challenge has not been accepted. Theologians continue to read and write books and to refer troubled people to a profession which knows a lot about the human body but precious little about mind, soul, and spirit.
In terms of the categories of thought which modern man commonly accepts and employs, emphasis upon the “transcendent holy” is essentially mystical, mysterious, magical; and the church has already found itself impotent in the realm of the sick soul and unable to compete effectively with even the feeble accomplishments of psychology and psychiatry. It now appears that A.A. and the emerging real-guilt theory of neurosis are powerful new developments which will make talk about Word and Sacrament and Symbol even more remote and irrelevant. A new emphasis upon immanence, rather than transcendence, seems the only way for the church to stop referring its spiritually most needy members to secular healers and recapture the redemptive potential and power which are its true birthright.
The very title of the Gilkey book suggests, does it not, the weakness of its central theme. Its author is interested in the question: How can the church minister to the world without losing itself? Oddly, one of the basic tenets of the New Testament is that confused, wayward individuals find their lives by losing them. Yet Professor Gilkey implies that the modern church, as an institution, which he admits is in trouble, can find itself without losing itself. Indicative of the fact that most churchmen today have no clear idea of how far we already are into an entirely different type of reformation than the one Gilkey envisions is the fact that in his book there is no reference whatever to A.A. and its program or to similar movements. Insofar as they are aware of such movements, most theologians probably regard them as mere irritants, minor threats to the church. They overlook the very real possibility that they are the church, the very “Christ incognito.”