Much has been made of the religious language that is sprinkled throughout Alcoholics Anonymous, commonly called “The Big Book.” Some conservatives cite this language as evidence that the Twelve Step program is really a Christian program that cannot be fully effective without an active faith in Christ. Others see this same language simply as a product of its time that does not play an important role in Twelve Step spirituality. Still others are threatened by the religious language of the Big Book and disregard the book as a whole because they feel it is aggressively religious.
It is common knowledge that AA (and therefore the entire Twelve Step movement) had its birth within and evangelical Christian movement known as the Oxford Group. AA separated itself from the Oxford Group prior to the publication of the Big Book. The Big Book contains some religious language, but only mentions Jesus once, and then only in passing. This has left historians and AA members divided over some important questions. Just how Christian was early AA? Who is the God of the Big Book? Is this the Christian God, or can we really take this to mean a God of our own understanding?
In its chapter, “We Agnostics,” the Big Book outlines its attitude toward spiritual and religious matters. In doing so, the Big Book also presents a method by which readers can investigate theological questions for themselves. By exploring this method, we should be able to answer some questions about the nature of the Big Book’s ideas about God. There are a few problems with the Big Book’s theological method, and these must be taken seriously. Some help can be provided by William James, whose philosophical method is remarkably similar to the theological method of Alcoholics Anonymous.
“We Agnostics” seems to anticipate and embrace a wide range of approaches to and understandings of God:
|Whether we agree with a particular approach or conception seems to make little difference. Experience has taught us that these are matters about which, for our purpose, we need not be worried.
In fact, “We Agnostics” suggests that one need not begin with any conception of God at all, but merely a bare willingness to believe in the possibility of spiritual power:
|We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commence to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.
Once the alcoholic is expressing willingness to believe, he or she can then begin to test “the God idea” by working the Twelve Steps:
|At the start, this was all we needed to commence spiritual growth, to effect our first conscious relation with God as we understood Him…upon this simple cornerstone a wonderfully effective spiritual structure can be built.
The Big Book encourages its readers to adopt an attitude toward spiritual matters similar to the Wright brothers’ attitude toward flight. The point being that the reader ought not preclude opportunities for spiritual recovery without giving them a fair trial. In an appendix on spiritual experience, the Big Book quotes Herbert Spencer to the effect that one can only be excluded from spiritual growth if one fosters an attitude of “contempt prior to investigation.”
For “We Agnostics,” the spiritual life begins in ignorance. The alcoholic is expected to start without any preconceived ideas about God, but simply a willingness to believe. This willingness allows the alcoholic to experiment with the Twelve Steps. In taking Steps, the alcoholic begins to have spiritual experiences, and these become the basis for a growing faith in spiritual power. The Big Book insists that it is impossible to fully understand or define this power, and so each alcoholic is free to come to their own understanding of God, based on their own spiritual experiences in the Twelve Steps. The Big Book’s theological method begins with willingness, proceeds to action, from action to experience, from experience to faith, and finally conception. One important assumption of this method is that personal experience is a valid way to gain knowledge of spiritual things.
There are at least two obvious problems with this method. First, there is some confusion in the modern Twelve Step movement about what, exactly, the Twelve Steps are, and how one ought to work them. Recovery today is an intellectually diverse environment, and there are hundreds of Twelve Step guides, each with a different approach to the Twelve Step program. Some, like the Big Book, offer a clear program of action, and yet these disagree greatly among themselves about which actions are to be taken, and what the expected results should be. Other Step guides offer not action at all, but treat the Twelve Steps as a set of ideas that can be applied in a variety of ways, or simply used as food for thought. Also, while the Big Book is clear that the Twelve Steps are a means of making contact with God, many other guides see the Steps as a program of personal empowerment or resocialization.
A theological method that bases knowledge of God upon experience, and experience upon a program of action must take into account that different actions will inevitably produce different experiences. This is not to say that a variety of actions—more than twelve, even—couldn’t be included into the basic method of the Big Book. Much confusion results, however, when a term like “Fourth Step” refers not to a clear and agreed upon action, but a vast array of actions and ideas, many of which either contradict each other, or anticipate drastically different experiences. In such an environment, we cannot refer to a coherent “Twelve Step theological method,” we can only refer to a coherent “Big Book theological method,” or its equivalent, based on another approach to the Twelve Steps. In this paper, we are working with the Big Book’s theological method, with the understanding that its actions, and even its theological method, are not shared by most other approaches to the Twelve Steps.
A second problem with this method concerns the question of whether or not experience is a sufficient foundation for theological knowledge. Experience is relative, in that each individual has a unique experience of the same object or action; experience is unstable, in that an individual’s experience of an object or action changes over time, sometimes dramatically; experience is also subjective, and therefore comes with all the conscious and unconscious, genetic and dynamic trappings of the individual psyche.
Because experience is relative, a theological method based on it will not produce consistent results, even if each participant it taking the same actions. Each person will have their own unique experience and will arrive at their own unique understanding of God. This inevitably results in an environment of pluralism, wherein there is little agreement about theological issues.
Because experience is unstable, we should expect a theological method based on it not only to be pluralistic, but constantly problematic for each individual. One can experience God one way today, and a new way tomorrow. If these two experiences contradict each other, or are so dramatically different as to produce confusion, what then are we to make of God? If the divine is as unstable as our experience of it, then we are all in for a bumpy ride.
Because experience is subjective, it can be deceiving. After Freud, we must carry a certain suspicion regarding the origins of experience. There are forces, conscious and unconscious, at work within the psyche that can produce experiences that are expressive but not fully revealing of repressed stimuli. In one’s experience of God, one may simply be acting out repressed trauma, or attempting to resolve unresolved developmental conflicts.
Also because experience is subjective, we must entertain some doubt about its ability to connect us to objective reality, if such a thing even exists. Here is the basic problem: Does the experience of being loved by God mean that God actually exists and loves us, or are we simply having an experience of whose legitimacy we can never be certain?
The Big Book itself does not offer a defense of its own theological method, but one can be found easily enough in the work of AA’s “Third Co-founder,” William James. James’ work was know to Bill Wilson, primary author of the Big Book and Co-founder of AA. Wilson was introduced to James’ Varieties of Religious Experience directly after he had a dramatic “white light” conversion experience while undergoing treatment for alcoholism. Wilson found comfort in James’ work, feeling that it validated and made reasonable an experience, which initially made Wilson worry for his sanity. As a pragmatist, James posited the fundamental value of experience—a thing was true because it worked, it did not work because it was true. Therefore, one need not appeal to anything outside human experience to find truth.
James developed a philosophical method he called “radical empiricism,” wherein one’s concepts arise as a result of one’s experiences, and are tested in further experience. For the radical empiricist, concepts are secondary and tentative, always subject to revision based on new experiential data. James found it inappropriate to begin with a conceptual system and expect reality to fit neatly into it. Rather than a “universe” where all things were organized according to a single principle, James proposed the possibility of a “pluraverse,” which could never be perfectly captured by any single conceptual framework.
|…the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.
Varieties of Religious Experience
James also suggests that religious experiences be evaluated by their “fruits” and not their “roots.” For James, the value and legitimacy of experiences lay in their effects, which are observable to the subject experiencing them. Thus, Wilson ’s experience was religious, and because its results were good—he was miraculously relieved of the desire to drink—the experience was valid and held a claim to truth. James would have encouraged Wilson to hold tentatively any concept of God he may have wanted to construct based upon his experience and to test that concept in light of further experiences.
If James’ definition of religion and his radical empiricism sound remarkably like the Big Book’s attitude toward spiritual matters and theological method, this is undoubtedly due to the influence James had on Wilson before he wrote the Big Book. It is possible to read the Big Book as an “applied” Varieties of Religious Experience. In the Big Book we find a radical empiricism, applied to religion, with a set of actions offered as an entrance into direct spiritual experience. The Big Book offers these actions without predicting the exact spiritual experience that will result for a given individual, nor does it impose any conceptions upon the reader. While the Big Book is thoroughly Jamesian, it also succeeds in being more pragmatic than the great American pragmatist in its presentation of a “how to” version of the Varieties. What James’ work on religious experience lacks is any entry point into these experiences. James is unable to offer any actions that might bring one closer to the experiences he describes, and even feels that he himself is constitutionally incapable of having such experiences. Here, the Big Book closes the gap and offers clear instructions as to how a reader might enter into the world of the Varieties.
The defense James offers the Big Book’s theological method lies primarily in his championing of the value and legitimacy of experience as a basis for knowledge. James does not expect experience to be constant or stable or objective, nor does he understand the relative, unstable, and subjective nature of experience to be any detraction to the utility of experience as a means to knowledge. Rather, the expectation of constancy, stability, objectivity is an inappropriate conceptual imposition upon reality. Because the unity of reality cannot be directly experienced, but only posited by a philosopher and then systematically imposed at the expense of a great deal of experience that cannot be incorporated into the philosopher’s framework, the search for unity is an essentially flawed way to approach truth. Reality is not structured in such a way as to be easily conceptualized; therefore it is more appropriate to approach reality humbly, testing our ideas as we go. The Big Book echoes this sentiment in theological terms in its assertion quoted above that “it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.” God, in the Big Book, is beyond human understanding, but not beyond human experience. Through human experience, some tentative knowledge about God can be acquired and tested. Diverse conceptions of God can exist side-by-side in a context of similar religious experiences based upon a shared program of action without having to agree with one another, and each can still maintain its provisional claim to truth.
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