QUARTERLY REVIEW, Vol. 9(4): 28-47, 1989
WHAT MUST I BELIEVE TO RECOVER?
THE SPIRITUALITY OF TWELVE STEP PROGRAMS
by Michael Wyatt
With a sly wink at the bartender, Bill, a New York stockbroker, grabs the bottle of bourbon from the bar and pushes his way through the crowd into the storage closet where the phone is. It is October, 1929, and things have gone inconceivably wrong. Bill spends the next few hours making deals: to shield his reputation, to rescue his finances, to hide from his wife, and above all, to have his own way. As he talks, he swallows bourbon with the desperation of a man about to be washed away in a flooded river.
The same man, over twenty years later, is not the embittered wreck one might expect to see. Instead he is instrumental in organizing a vast program to help alcoholics. But for all this activity, and the ceaseless travel it requires, he is unrecognized among the very groups he helped form, and he does nothing to call attention to himself. His gaze on the frightened man sitting next to him is candid and gentle, and he puts aside his own plans for the evening without comment when he realizes the man needs help.
These are scenes from the Hallmark Hall of Fame dramatization of the life of Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. Perhaps some of us have seen a similar transformation: a person we once knew as hostile, unreliable, evasive, unsteady, prone to erratic behavior, and suspected of hiding some secret, now now looks better, smiles, contributes, participates, and comes across with rare candor and courage. You may have wondered what happened to bring this change about. One possibility is that the person has become involved in a Twelve Step Program. If we ask what these programs have that enables these transformations to occur, we learn that they claim to ground recovery in spiritual principles. For those of us who are tempted to think of “spirituality” as something esoteric, or neurotic, or self-indulgently ineffectual, these claims can sound nonsensical. For those of us who think of spiritual principles as the particular domain of the church, these s a m e ideas can be threatening. These programs counter criticism with a simple boast: “it works.”
Several questions come up. How does it work? Where did these programs come from? What do they offer? What are these spiritual principles? Are these principles in conflict with Christianity at some level? What might these programs need from or offer to the church? Or are they somehow in competition with the church?
Where Did Twelve Step Programs Come From?
Alcoholics Anonymous is the mother of all Twelve Step Programs. It names two co-founders: Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, an Ohio surgeon, both natives of Vermont.
The United States already had a long history of attempts to deal with “dipsomania.” Bill Wilson’s recovery took place in the mainstream of that tradition. He was dried out more than once at Towns Hospital in New York, which was considered to be on the cutting edge of treatment of alcoholics (or users of barbiturates and belladonna!). He had come to trust Dr. Silkworth, his doctor there. He had begun to go to Calvary Episcopal Mission, which was connected with the Oxford Group. Their members had also been successful in sobering up drunks. Bill investigated it in the first place because he was amazed by the recovery of one of his old drinking buddies, Ebby, who had joined the group.
On the 11th of December, 1934, Bill returned to Towns Hospital, having been drinking for a month. His attempts to quit had all failed, and he knew his life would end in insanity or alcoholic death. There he had a startling spiritual experience: in a pitch of despair, he cried out for help, and suddenly found himself in an ecstatic blaze of light, surrounded by wind, and heard “You are a free man.” After a time, the sensations subsided and he felt “a great peace” and “a Presence which seemed like a veritable sea of living spirit.”
Dr. Silkworth gave him cautious but sincere encouragement. Such experiences did occur, he said, and whatever the change was, Bill ought to hold on to it, because it was better than what he had before. Ebby, though now “religious,” was even more cautious, stressing moral responsibilities (restitution and working with others) over insights and experiences. He gave Bill a copy of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. That book was to prove seminal, since it gave Bill a philosophical validation of spiritual experience and introduced the idea of gradual conversion, what he was to call the “educational variety.”
It is of supreme importance that Alcoholics Anonymous does not date its founding from that experience. Bill tried for months to “carry the message” to other alcoholics; none stayed sober. Eventually he had two insights. One came from Dr. Silkworth: Bill’s aggressive preaching, emphasizing his “vision,” was driving prospects away. Why not start where Bill himself had started, the fearful, entrapping finality of alcoholism? First break their denial of the gravity of their disease, then they will listen. It was Bill’s despair, after all, that led him to call out.
The second insight came in Akron, Ohio. In April, 1935, Bill went there on business, but after setbacks and angry maneuvers, the deal collapsed. On a Saturday night in early May, Bill found himself in the hotel lobby, alone, depressed, and for the first time in months, wanting a drink. He recalled that he had not wanted to drink while he was trying to sober other alcoholics up, even though he had not yet been successful with any of them. His second insight hit him forcefully: he needed another alcoholic to work with as much as he had been telling himself they needed him. He must “work with others.” Here is the seed of the principle of anonymity: hope lies not in the distinction of who I am, but in the equality of what we are. Alcoholics need each other as alcoholics.
These two insights, the inexorable progression of an actual disease (resolved by abstinence) and the inescapable obsession of dependency (relieved by surrender to a Higher Power and by working with others) are the core of the Twelve Step Programs.
Bill made some phone calls and organized a meeting for the next day, May 12. Among those who attended was Dr. Bob Smith, an alcoholic surgeon. “Dr. Bob,” as he was called by the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous, had made his wife promise they would only stay fifteen minutes; but they arrived at 5.00 p.m. and left six hours later. As he later recalled the meeting, the doctor said the difference was made in hearing for the first time someone “who knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from actual experience.” He did not stop drinking immediately, but on June 10, 1935, after a binge that lasted several days, he told Bill that he was “going to go through with it.” One is not the core of a group but two can be. Alcoholics Anonymous dates its founding from that day.
Bill and Dr. Bob formed an effective team. Others in Akron joined quickly. When Bill returned to New York, the program was on a firm footing in Akron, and New York soon followed.
Within a few years, their focus on alcoholism led them to separate from the Oxford Group and to develop a group on their own. They kept the principles of surrender, confession, restitution, and work with others. With the help of the Reverend Dr. Samuel Shoemaker of Calvary Episcopal Church, who was a strong supporter of the Oxford Group in New York City, they formulated the steps which give the program its name.
Further milestones in the history of Twelve Step Programs are the extension of Bill’s second insight: working with others. The message could be carried in print as well, so Alcoholics Anonymous (“the Big Book”) was published in 1939. It was essentially written by Bill Wilson, though with constant revision and approval by the groups in Akron and New York. It was favorably reviewed by Harry Emerson Fosdick and praised though not officially endorsed) by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.
Not only alcoholics assisted in spreading the word about recovery. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., bought 400 copies of the book, which he distributed among friends. Though he stated that the new program ought to be financially self-supporting, he hinted that some temporary assistance would help them through their initial steps and he set an example with a contribution of $1,000. The “Jack Alexander Article” was published in The Saturday Evening Post of March 1, 1941, giving a sympathetic and perceptive description of the program and the fellowship. These events brough astronomical increases in both attendance and inquiries, and an office was established in New York City to handle these new demands on the groups.
Growth meant changes. Through trial and error certain organizational principles evolved. The first International A.A. convention met in July of 1950 and accepted the Twelve Traditions, which are the guidelines for the organization of groups, assuring essential uniformity. Bill Wilson prepared another book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, published in 1953. The General Service Conference, which coordinates the life of A.A., assumed full responsibility at the Second International A.A. convention in July of 1955. Bill Wilson’s account of that event and the years leading up to it is Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.
A significant change involved the formation of new groups based on the same principles. The first of these was the Al-Anon Family Groups, which began in the late forties. Originally, alcoholics and their spouses met together, as was customary in the Oxford Group, to discuss the application of general spiritual principles in their lives. As emphasis shifted to the work of alcoholics with other alcoholics, it became apparent that the spouses were being left to one side; but it also became apparent that certain problems were specifically connected with recovery from the role of “caretaker’ or “martyr,” which many spouses felt they had been forced into by the behavior of the alcoholic. Why shouldn’t they work with each other? Why not have meetings that focused on the spouse’s experience both before and in recovery?
A second important change occured in the formation of groups to deal with problems other than alcohol. After serious soul-searching, the A.A. groups decided first, that they could only be effective with their own kind, and second, that they had no exclusive claim to the principles by which they lived. If others wished to form groups along the same lines, they had the blessing of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first of these was formed in July of 1953. It dealt, as might be supposed, with the abuse of other substances: Narcotics Anonymous. Others followed, most significantly applying the principles to non-chemical dependencies (i.e., Gamblers Anonymous) and to dependencies on substances from which abstinence was difficult or impossible (i.e., Overeaters Anonymous). The Al-Anon Family Groups evolved in the early 50s and into the groups for the Adult Children of Alcoholics (for adults whose childhood was passed in an alcoholic home) in the late 70s.
Currently the application seems unlimited. For example, according to the analysis of some theorists, the obsessive heedlessness of technology and the paranoid willfulness of contemporary corporate business practice are .identical to the patterns of addiction. They see the Twelve Step understanding of addiction and recovery as the most incisive way to do social, institutional, and systemic critique.
Why Are Twelve Step Programs Needed?
An adequate medical definition of addiction has not yet been formulated. Even when it is admitted as a disease, it is seen as an unusually complex one. And throughout the debate, the millennia-old but often unrecognized prejudice, which claims that addiction indicates moral laxity and a weak will, continues destructively.
The complexity of addiction points to a spectrum of factors, none of which can be isolated as casual. George Vaillant, in The Natural History of Alcoholism, eventually quotes the National Council on Alcoholism for the best summary definition, in his opinion: “The person with alcoholism cannot consistently predict on any drinking occasion the duration of the episode or the quantity that will be consumed” (Vaillant, p.44). Paradoxically, with this behavioral definition, what we are to observe is the failure to predict behavior.
A more recent presentation is that of Gerald May in Addiction and Grace. May’s definition pivots on the word “attachment.” He uses it to point to the physical and mental condition of increasing adaptation to and dependence on a substance, behavior, or relationship. He also uses that word because of its historic connections with asceticism: it is pointless, even perverse, to displace our spiritual longing onto the things of this world. That is the first step of idolatry. The world can never satisfy us, who long ultimately for God. In this, he stands in line with Carl Jung and Gregory Bateson, both of whom saw addiction, especially alcoholism, as distorted spirituality.
Twelve Step Programs agree with that analysis, and offer three ways to identify the disease to be treated. None of these should be understood as clinical. They are all functional: they provide addicts with an approach to recovery spiritually.
One is the original description of Dr. Silkworth: alcoholism (that is, addiction) is an allergy manifested by the phenomenon of craving. This allows the essential coupling of a physical condition with a mental one. Whether or not alcoholism is technically an allergy, it does involve an abnormal, toxic, irreversible, eventually life-threatening, physical reaction to a substance. There is no cure; abstinence is the only hope of arresting the course of the disease. But there is also a craving for the substance, an obsession that leads to characteristic self-destructive behavior. Recovery is learning how to deal with the physical craving and mental obsession and how to repair the damage they have caused.
A second identification stresses behavior: addiction is a disease characterized by denial, isolation, and relapse. This allows the obsessive pattern to be examined more closely. Any addict routinely denies the existence of the problem, hides in order to continue using the substance, and returns to the substance whenever possible. These therefore set the agenda for the addict’s recovery, which becomes focused on learning to live by honesty, participation, and abstinence.
A third identification, building on the previous one, emphasizes a tripartite schema: addiction is a disease with physical, mental, and spiritual components. Whether one starts with the physical dependency or with the spiritual defiance, each eventually issues in the other. As addicts, the need for the drug (on the physical level) will distort our outlooks and interactions with others (on the mental level) and set our addiction up as the governing principle of our lives (on the spiritual level). Or our self-centeredness (spiritually) will make us indifferent to others and to our own integrity (mentally) in the search for the removal of our pain and the gratification of our desires (physically). As examined in the next section, the program addresses all three levels.
We must not leave this section without looking at a related issue: codependency. Some years ago this was thought of as an addiction as well, but to a person rather than to a drug. In other words, the codependent was unable to let go of a destructive relationship. Dr. Vaillant’s description of the inability to predict quantity or duration as characteristic and the program’s identification of denial, isolation, and relapse, with their physical, mental, and spiritual components, as distinctive, both have applications here. The lives of codependents become defined by others. As codependents, we cannot resist their appeals, nor can we predict how much we will relinquish to them next. We deny that anything but love is involved, hide bruises and scars (whether physical or psychological), and return for more. We “actually hurt” when we are apart. We think about them all the time. They become the principal focus of our life, in effect replacing God or our Higher Power.
Some, the “adult children” of alcoholics, were trained in these destructive relationships during childhoods in dysfunctional families. The child who learned to survive by playing a role, by giving the parent what that parent narcissistically demanded, must, as an adult, “discover who he or she is” and learn to become for themselves the nurturing parent they never had.
Codependent recovery views alcoholism as a family disease. One advantage is that “the addict” is no longer “the problem.” The collusion of the family in the disease and the potential for sharing healing is recognized. In many ways, this is more realistic. However, this appropriation of the Twelve Step Programs by a therapeutic model has drawbacks. Too often alcohol and drugs become symbols and the Steps become psychologized. To talk of a single systemic addiction loosens the two initial moorings Alcoholics Anonymous had: the inexorable progressive reality of the physical disease, and the irreplaceable healing possible when one alcoholic works with another. We lose the sharp focus on a deadly physical problem, a situation both humbling and urgent, which unites the group. Ironically, this recalls the early days of the program, when all met together as the Oxford Groups, trying to apply the principles in common. Responsible family therapy, however, will not deny the physical reality of addiction.
How Do Twelve Step Programs Work?
Twelve Step Programs simply attempt to solve a common problem in common. A disease shared on a physical level is treated by principles shared on a spiritual level. This commonality expresses itself in meetings, sponsors, and slogans. The common principles are arranged in the Twelve Steps.
Meetings exist to “share experience, strength and hope.” Though meetings are of various kinds, there is a consistent framework. A selection of readings is used: a definition of the program, the Twelve Steps, other excerpts from program literature. Either the Serenity Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer is used to open and close the meetings. Three types of meetings exist: either the discussion of an issue in recovery, usually introduced by a personal account of the discussion leader’s experience with the topic; or a personal story recounting the progression of one’s addiction and one’s entry into and experience of recovery; or, more rarely, a lengthly reading of a chapter from program literature, followed by discussion. Usually the meetings are highly structured: participants are neither allowed to speak without being recognized nor to interrupt. Members customarily identify themselves as alcoholics when they speak and use only first names. Newcomers are recognized and applauded; anniversaries of sober time (30 days, 90 days, 6 months, 9 months, a year, several years) are acknowledged. An indispensable aspect of the meetings is the time spent in conversation and fellowship before and after the meeting; failure to establish these mutually supportive relationships within the program is a danger sign.
Sponsors are often the first of these therapeutic relationships. A sponsor is a person experienced in the program who guides a newcomer through the steps and encourages the newcomer in participation and exploration of recovery. Often the newcomer first begins to abandon the denial and isolation characteristic of the disease by means of questions and tentative confessions addressed to the sponsor. Often the sponsor is the first person the newcomer is able to trust as the reconstruction of a life begins. Sponsors vary from the empathic to the emphatic; no formula is foolproof. Of central importance is the fact that the sponsor has the same disease, though more time in recovery, and that the sponsor must “work with others” as part of his or her own healing. The situation is not one of “master and pupil,” but one of mutual need.
The slogans of the program are trite phrasings of profound truths: “First things first.” “Easy does it.” “Live and let live.” “One day at a time.” Their simplicity enables them to be recalled in extreme situations. What do these slogans mean? Their connotations are myriad within the program, though the initial interpretation usually refers to one’s addiction. The first thing to remember in a tense situation, for example, is that one is an addict and that, just for today, one is intending not to use drugs. Once their effectiveness in dealing with situations which used to lead to relapse is proven, they can be applied to other issues equally successfully. The slogans come to have personal associations with individuals and situations as well. To recall a slogan at a critical moment is to draw on a common wealth of support, reassurance, and conviction.
THE TWELVE STEPS: The Twelve Steps are the distinctive characteristic of these recovery programs. They are admittedly neither new nor unique, but a reformulation of traditional spiritual wisdom. They outlined the method to be used for personal recovery.
When people talk about “taking,” “applying,” or “working” a step, or “being on” a certain step, a variety of things is meant. One is the deliberate study of the step, reading what has been written about it, discussing insights with others in recovery, writing one’s own reflections down. Another is the deliberate application of it to oneself, a disciplined shift in perspective, reviewing the facts of one’s life in the light of the principles embodied in it, making connections, sitting with the insights. The first is active and external; the second is reflective and internal. A third aspect is the “footwork”; the steps involve deliberate behavioral changes and activities, without which their successful application is either blunted or illusory. I have used “deliberate” three times deliberately: taking a step is a conscious process. If we are not sure which step we are on, we are not taking it. “If you aren’t looking for anything, then this isn’t the place.”
The steps are most effective when taken in sequence. Each step, when worked well, leads smoothly, almost inexorably, into the next. Some are used on a daily basis, some at wider intervals; all the principles are relevant at any point in one’s life. Familiarity with them enables one to select the most appropriate one to apply in a given circumstance.
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
The first three steps are thought of as “foundation” steps; they lay the foundation for the successful working of all the rest. Though powerlessness initally feels like hopelessness, the possibility of change offered in the Second Step and the readiness to attempt it transforms hopelessness into hope and strength. When I stop trying, something else has a chance. They can also be taken on a repeated, even daily, basis, since the principles contained in them summarize a perspective on the world which can be reaffirmed as a statement of faith. They have been condensed into slogans (“Let go and let God”) and quick blunt versions (“I can’t; God can; I think I’ll let God”).
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Steps Four through Nine are thought of as “action” steps; they are a sequential unit. To many churchgoers, they are familiar as the procedure for confession. They provide a way to come to terms with one’s past, to make restitution, to “sweep off our side of the street.” Since behavior during substance abuse is invariably destructive, these steps enable one to repair the damage. It is important to keep in mind that, for the addicted person, the motivation for these steps is not so much moral (“I ought to apologize and make it up”) as it is practical (“If I hold on to these guilts, I am likely to return to my former behavior”). However, embodied in these steps is the belief that avoidance and evasion, though they may enable us to feel less “guilty” momentarily, are dead-ends; the only way to relieve guilt is to face responsibility. These steps are usually done once, early in one’s time in the program. Later the sequence can be applied to troubling topics; for example, one might decide to work these steps around anger or jealousy.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and mediation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledhe of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. 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.
The last three steps are thought of as “maintenance” steps; the ongoing security of recovery. They maintain the new insights and habits gained by working the other nine. In a sense, Step Ten summarizes Four through Nine, Step Eleven summarizes Two and Three. Note that a “spiritual awakening” is not mentioned until this point; only after we learn and practice a new.way of life can we expect it. No doubt some persons have events similar to Bill Wilson’s vision, and no doubt some change must occur on a spiritual level if a person is even to attempt recovery, but the wisdom of the program is that behavioral change precedes (and perhaps precipitates) the fuller and more stable interior change.
The important new ingredient in Step Twelve is the idea of Carrying the message. This is what is called “Twelfth Step work.” In fact, “working with others” is the way Bill Wilson condensed this step. “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p.89). Again here, note that the motivation is neither moral nor altruistic, but practical.
This might seem excessively formal and simpleminded, but it works. Formality and simplicity facilitate focus. For people trained in avoidance, as addicts are, the tendency to rationalize and evade can be snipped at the root in this way. “Read the lines, not the blank spaces between them.” However, in another paradoxical move, the program presents the steps as “suggested” and the entire book as “suggestive only.” No one, after all, can force addicts to do what they aren’t ready to do. For them, “it works” can sound smug.
Most people enter recovery, though, when one particular force becomes overwhelming. As one program saying puts it, “I make promises to my intelligence, but I obey my pain.” The difference between my good intentions and the actual changes I make to escape the grip of a disease is a vivid one to people in recovery. For them, “it works” is the first turning of hope. The steps are not seen as ideals, but as practical functional guides out of the pain (physical, psychological, or spiritual) that one is in. At the same time, people in recovery only claim “progress, not perfection” in working them. As the Big Book says, “the spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p.83).
Two steps have “as we understood Him” in italics. This qualification goes back to the earliest days of the program. In Bill Wilson’s telling of his story in the Big Book, the offer to “choose his own conception of God” is stressed even more than his vision. That flexibility made the difference to him. In the preparation of the Big Book, the phrase in italics was one of the changes the group insisted on. In this way, the door to recovery was opened as widely as possible, and the group was kept from becoming a theistic debating society. The point is not who or what God is, the point is surrender to and reliance on that Power for recovery.
Obviously, one understanding of God is not “Him” at all. Paradoxically, given its creedal “laissez faire,” Alcoholics Anonymous is cautious about changing the language of the early documents and are reluctant to tamper with it. Newcomers who object might be told that a Power truly greater than themselves can hardly depend on their language, and that they are free to interpret that Power as works best for them. All are urged to share their insights, but to practice tolerance as well. More importantly, the first Tradition is that the unity of the program comes first; personal reservations must not override the preference of the group nor A.A. as a whole. Changes for the good of the program, approved by the majority of those in it, can be made. And some discussion of inclusive language is already under way.
Spiritual Principles: Often when asked how the program works, members will say, “how it works is H-O-W: Honesty, Openmindedness, and Willingness. These are the foundational spiritual principles.
Honesty is the appeal to experience. True to its roots in pragmatism, the program insists that our starting point is life as we know it. Without firm grounding in reality, no meaningful sense of spirituality can ever be achieved. However, in order to deal with a disease characterized by denial, experience seems a starting point that is oddly vulnerable to self-deception. So the stress falls on honesty: not initally as self-conscious “feelings,” but as blunt facts. First, the experience of those in recovery is shared (“it works”). Second, the experience of those needing to recover is appealed to (“identify, don’t compare”). Newcomers are told to listen for the ways they identify with what they hear, to look for similar events and emotional states in their own lives, to notice what they recognize in the stories they hear. They are not to waste their time comparing themselves to others in recovery, singling out what is different; that is merely trying to locate an excuse to leave.
Honesty is the condensation of the First Step, the admission of powerlessness. It is associated with recognition of the physical damage of the disease and the confession of facts that make up a life in disarray. As one progresses in recovery, this rather extended form of honesty becomes internalized, and one learns to recognize and be honest about emotions and one’s inner life as well.
Openmindedness is the appeal to spirituality and hope. In the Twelve Step Programs, a “Power greater than ourselves” is stressed as indispensable, but this Power is “as you understand it.” It can be anything that truly works for the person (what William James called a “live hypothesis” in “The Will to Believe”), from Cosmic Flow to Christ to a specific Twelve Step group to one’s sponsor to a lightblub. Through the early literature is definitely theistic, the early members rejected “orthodox” Christian formulas in an attempt to open the program to as many as possible. But they expect this same openmindedness from the person who will attempt to recover by the steps, especially in the area of spirituality. What matters is that you believe that you can change and that a Power greater than you can help you.
Openmindedness is a condensation of the Second Step, the belief that a “Power greater than ourselves” can “restore us to sanity.” The question of “sanity” leads to the admission of the mental or psychological damage of the disease. As one progresses in recovery, this rather intangible suspension of disbelief in spiritual matters becomes concrete tolerance of others and of the dreadful scandal of their particularity, both inside and outside the program.
Willingness is the appeal to transformation and commitment. If we truly believe we are powerless, but that a Power greater than ourselves can help us, a decision to engage that help follows naturally – provided of course that we do want to recover. It is worth noting how “late” a decision comes; two steps must be taken before this. Of course, if they have been properly worked, the newcomer will sense the third step as practically inevitable. Since God is “as you understand Him,” this decision can be made in a variety of ways; all are legitimate if they promote recovery. The point is commitment, willingness to “let go absolutely” of our old ideas. Experienced members will say “This is a program of surrender, not self-improvement.”
Willingness is obviously a condensation of the Third Step, the decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” This leads to the recognition of the spiritual damage of the disease: the profound self-centeredness of the addicted person, unable to consider anything except in relation to oneself, unable to perform an equal partnership with another human being. As one progresses in recovery, willingness becomes outgoing, self-giving service, the ability to “work with others” freely and generously.
A single reading cannot exhaust the interconnections between the first three steps and the foundational spiritual principles of the program. In the same way, the steps are never worked only once: new areas of powerlessness are discovered whenever the ego stakes new claims, whenever it is fanned into new obsessions. The only true expression of powerlessness is surrender, either to the object one cannot control, which is to choose death, or to the Power which restores and cares for all, which is to choose life.
How Can Twelve Step Programs
Interact With The Church?
One simple way of beginning to address this question is to raise the distinction between form and content. We can think of form as the common or generic aspect of a thing and of content as its particular expression in a given instance. Form and content influence each other deeply; they are inseparable.
Religion can be examined this way. There are elements common to all religions: ritual, ethical codes, some sense of a transmitted teaching and those who mediate it, common stories and a sense of ultimacy. There are also particular expressions: specific liturgies, explicit beliefs, articulated theologies, identified institutions, and recognizable hierarchies.
Twelve Step Programs can be seen, from this angle, to have the form of a religion, but to firmly avoid corporate articulation of content. Because of this, they are neither in competition nor in alliance with any existing religions. When members explain this renunciatory position, they usually indicate the phrase “God as you understand Him,” and point out that the Program firmly refuses to establish any content for that phase. Instead it returns the theological responsibility to the addict, to encourage the seriousness of the addict’s own spiritual effort. The form of theological statement is there, a reference to God, but the content is strictly “fill in the blank.” Given this, there can be no creed and no ritual. In a sense, God remains anonymous.
The roots of that position can be found in the origins of A.A. Bill Wilson’s preaching did not sober anyone up. The exodus from the Oxford Group had largely to do with the Oxford Group’s expectation that recovery was a prelude to, or even ought to be indistinguishable from, conversion to Christianity. The early members of A.A. found this expectation stiffling and detrimental to their work with alcoholics, their Twelfth Step work, which they had to continue for their own sobriety.
Other members will explain the program’s disavowal of itself as a religion by showing that it has no professionals and no property, both characteristics of the content of established religion as this country knows it. All space is rented, and all functionaries are elected for specific periods of time as “trusted servants.” In this way, the membership of the program remains anonymous as well.
It is hopefully apparent from this that what Twelve Step Programs provide is not religion in the traditional sense. They are not typically religious in content. That is, they have no articles of belief, no theology or official understanding of God, no rituals of worship, no institution, no functionaries, no central and primordial myths or symbols. However, a careful reading will also have shown that the programs are quite religious in form. That is, they have a ritual, a simple but stern ethical code, a sense of the transmission of a teaching through both texts and the lived example of people who have accepted the program’s spiritual discipline and advanced in it, an emphasis on shared fundamental spiritual principles, and, of course, the sense that one is dealing with the ultimate issues.
This satisfies many members. The programs give them a religious form that provides both a communal and personal focus, and that serves to energize and validate their lives. For those who want a religious content that is corporately articulated and celebrated, some connection with institutional religion becomes desirable.
Do the programs need the Church? The individuals within them often do. Some of their reasons are part of the essential work of recovery, which cannot be neglected. The foremost of these is the search for a place to do a Fifth Step. A formal confession with absolution, is one interpretation of this step. Another is the use of a minister as a pastoral counselor with whom one can review the course of one’s life and assess what needs to be done. Some look for a place to share spiritual journeys or to learn the discipline of prayer, as part of their Eleventh Step. Still others look for a context or vehicle for “working with others,” an application of the Twelfth Step; they look for those congregations with outreach and service programs that need volunteers.
Of course, other reasons are more personal. Some individuals look for a way to become reconciled to the religion of their past. For others, going to church is a symbolic way of “returning to society.” Others simply want an appropriate and explicit formal worship of the God that they understand is supporting them in recovery.
It is important to realize, however, that for many of the radical codependents and Adult Children of Alcoholics in recovery, the church perpetuates the worst features of a sick family. It has staked everything on maintaining an illusion; it demands total commitment and submission. It is authoritarian, dishonest, manipulative, defensive, and avoidant. They reject it and urge others away from it as well. For them, the program replaces the church with a healthy secular form. The church has nothing they want.
Does the church need the program? I believe so. Individual congregations can be revitalized by people intentional about a spiritual program for living, who see gratitude and service as central to their lives.
The phrase “if you want what we have” is used as part of the introduction of most meetings. In early recovery, the addict’s impression is that the Twelve Step Program, the groups, the sponsor, all have something unidentified that the addict lacks and wants. As recovery progresses, what the addict wants becomes clearer, as does the addict’s responsibility to help the group be what the addict needs for recovery. The search for a spiritual awakening is appropriated as one’s own inner growth, for which one has responsibility. It is no longer seen as something owned by those around us, which we might expect to eventually receive from them.
People in recovery will approach religion in a similar way. Initally, the congregation has an indistinct something the recovering addict wants, but participation clarifies what that desire actually is and raises the duty of the participant to contribute to the realization of those hopes. As I said above, usually this is some aspect of explicit religious content, often satisfied by ritual, creedal affirmations, or some form of mission or apostolate, either social service or social action.
However, this religious content must not violate the common form of the same programs which empowered the person to approach the church. Some content is significant enough to shape its form, and this is particularly true of the foundational principles of recovery which cannot be repudiated: honesty, openmindedness, and willingness to change. The difficulty is the uneasiness of some congregations with those principles. Many churches, in order to survive, become dishonest, closed, and unwilling to change. They live by denial, isolation, and relapse. They are not at fault; we all make mistakes when survival is our ultimate goal, and survival is not a mistake. These cramped values are antithetical to recovery, though.
If people do not talk about the facts of their lives, or if the budget never seems to be discussed openly, it becomes clear that honesty is not prized, denial is. If the sermons prove by example that an unexamined life is not worth living, certainly not worth listening to, or if theological speculation by the laity is frowned on or mocked, it becomes clear that openmindedness is not prized, isolation is. If the liturgy is corseted so tightly it cannot breathe, or if suggestions for new projects are dismissed at the outset, whether with sneers or sighs, it becomes clear that willingness to change is not prized, relapse is. Those in recovery will quickly realize they cannot survive under those conditions.
In Addiction and Grace, Dr. May states that no addiction is ever good. All attachments have an addictive side, even those to life and to God. For this reason God deliberatly remains hidden from us. With luminous insight, Dr. May adds, “I think God refuses to be an object for attachment because God desires full love, not addiction. Love born of true freedom, love free from attachment, requires that we search for a deepening awareness of God, just as God freely reaches out to us”(May, p.94). This is the secret behind the “God, as you understand Him” clause. The secret is not that God is ever to be understood, but that the attempt at understanding is personal, and therefore involves personal surrender to the exploration of spirituality. As Dr. May goes on to say, the desert of detachment (or withdrawal) is fearful. But, as Hosea proclaimed, the desert is also the place of wooing and betrothal, and as Isaiah promised, one day it will blossom like a rose.
The three principles of recovery grow from the recognition of two facts: one has a deadly disease and that one must be in honest, mutual relationships to arrest it. Perhaps the greatest gift the Twelve Step Programs offer the church, then, is the opportunity to ask certain questions: what is the disorder over which we are powerless and what is the work we do with others? Is it the disorder of sin and the work of forgiveness, or social oppression and empowerment; lies and truth? What is the life we cannot manage and what is the message we carry? Is it spiritual torpor and the message of awakening; estrangement and reconciliation? We may even address liturgical self-indulgence on the part of the ministers to work for true disciplined common worship by a whole congregation. What is the death we are fleeing and what do we truly need from one another?
Those of us in the church are accustomed to rhetoric about ultimate concerns – I indulge in some of it above. But those brought to maturity in Twelve Step Programs ask the church what the reality is with which the church deals. And they bring to the church some experience in facing that question fearlessly and in supporting each other as the answers are explored.