Alcoholics Anonymous, commonly called the Big Book, is an attempt to collect and codify all knowledge gained by the new fellowships. Because of the differences between New York and Akron, the result is not a perfect description of either group’s program but represents a middle ground between the two, less religious than Akron, but still less social than New York. The final manuscript shows that, whatever the program of Alcoholics Anonymous may actually be, it is much removed from the Oxford Group.
The Big Book expresses a clear Conversion Experience view of recovery. It suggests that a conversion experience, or a spiritual experience, may be necessary for recovery from alcoholism.
We were in a position where life was becoming impossible, and if we had passed into the region from which there is no return through human aid, we had but two alternatives: One was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help.
The Big Book has high expectations for alcoholics who successfully work the Steps. By the time alcoholics reach Step Ten, the Big Book promises that they will no longer be possessed by the obsession to drink, and will experience a reversal of their natural inclinations toward selfishness. Self-centeredness will be replaced by altruism and reliance upon God.
We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook on life will change. We will intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Even thought the Big Book expresses a strong Conversion Experience view of recovery, it still differs from Oxford Group thinking in four important ways.
First, the Big Book contains no reference to Jesus Christ. To a modern reader, the Big Book may seem to smack of Christian language, with constant reference to God as “He.” In its own time, however, and in the context of the Oxford Group, the Big Book was actually taking a big step away from Christian language and theology by leaving out references to Jesus. Furthermore, the Big Book makes clear that each alcoholic can choose their own concept of God.
Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him…When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God.
Second, the Big Book is primarily concerned with alcohol. While the Oxford Group is concerned with the whole of a person’s moral condition, and treats alcoholism as one aspect of that condition, the Big Book focuses on alcohol first and foremost.
Third, the process of inventory outlined in the Big Book has important differences from the Oxford Group practice of the Four Absolutes. Instead of a straightforward self-examination using the ideals of Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love, the Big Book outlines a three-stage inventory, examining resentments, fears, and sexual behavior. In examining resentments, for example, the inventory-taker looks for ways in which he or she has been selfish, self-seeking, dishonest, and afraid. This is similar to the Four Absolutes, because these four negative qualities roughly match up with the four positive qualities of the Absolutes. However, Big Book inventory is more limited than the Four Absolutes, because it only deals with resentment, fear, and sexual behavior, while the Four Absolutes can be applied much more broadly.
The fourth major difference between the Big Book and the program of the Oxford Group is the substitution of the Eleventh Step for the practice of Guidance. The Big Book describes a practice of meditating in the morning upon the coming day’s events, and then reviewing one’s conduct in the evening. Nowhere is there any mention of Guidance.
The accomplishment of the Big Book is that it codifies Oxford Group techniques, removing elements that would cause undo resistance in the average alcoholic. The program it describes allows for a conversion experience not grounded in the context of an organized religion. The Big Book speaks of this as a “spiritual experience” rather than a conversion experience. All the elements of a conversion experience are present without the necessity of assenting to the doctrines of a specific church. This means that the psychological process of conversion is now available outside of an evangelical Christian context.
However, no one is actually practicing the program outlined in the Big Book. The Big Book does not describe the practice of either the New York or the Akron fellowship; instead, it represents a middle ground between the practices of both groups. At the time of the publication of the Big Book, the balance of power between Akron and New York is even. In the following years, AA headquarters is established in New York and a growing program looks to Bill and to the social program of New York for guidance. Before long, Akron’s becomes a minority viewpoint in AA, and Bill is able to write a new interpretation of the Twelve Steps that is a better expression of the New York program. This new interpretation will take the form of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.
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