03/10/17

Let Your Yes Be Yes

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While some oath-breaking leads to serious consequences, oaths just don’t seem to have the same significance in the modern person’s life as they did in biblical times. Most people know oaths occur in legal proceedings, where witnesses swear to tell the truth before giving testimony. Willfully give false testimony in this context is considered to be the crime of perjury. But outside of this sphere, taking an oath in modern times is largely reserved for times of ritual or ceremony.

In American culture, we see a newly appointed or elected government official swear an oath before taking office. Immigrants take an oath of citizenship when they become naturalized citizens of a country. When reciting the American Pledge of Allegiance, citizens pledge or swear loyalty to their country. Doctors and medical personnel take the Hippocratic oath, swearing to practice medicine honestly. So how are we to apply what Jesus says about oaths in the Sermon on the Mount?

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:33-37)

In his commentary on the gospel of Matthew, Leon Morris noted this passage was peculiar to Matthew, who returned to the theme when He confronted the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:16-22. “Clearly he [Jesus] was interested in the fact that people seemed very ready to swear oaths.” Oaths played a significant role in the life and culture of the Jews. The Mishnah, the first written record of the oral law, contains a complete treatise on oaths. In biblical and ancient times, oaths bound the person to his or her word.

According to the Lexham Bible Dictionary, oaths imposed a great sense of obligation on the individual; and breaking an oath was unthinkable. They were used to confirm the truthfulness of a person’s word, bind individuals in a contract, or confirm God’s intent to act according to His word. “Even rash oaths were binding and required confession of sin and sacrificial compensation if broken” (Leviticus 5:4-6). Yahweh served as the guarantor of a person’s oath, and here it had its greatest power. Breaking an oath was tantamount to breaking faith with Yahweh. Doing so took His name in vain (Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12).

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was addressing how a series of quotations from Scripture should be understood. In Matthew 5:33, the Old Testament command to not break an oath (Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2, etc) was paraphrased by Jesus. Then He said his followers should not swear an oath at all! However, sometimes it was necessary—Jesus himself responded when the high priest put him on oath (Matthew 26:63-64). So Jesus is not forbidding Christians from taking an oath, as some individuals apply the restriction today.

Rather, he is saying in the strongest terms possible that his followers must speak the truth. They should never adopt the sense that only when an oath is sworn do they need to be truthful.

The Jews held that unless the name of God was specifically mentioned the oath was not binding; there were lengthy discussions about when an oath is or is not binding, and people would sometimes swear by heaven or earth or a similar oath and later claim that they were not bound by that oath because God was not mentioned. Jesus rejects such casuistry.

This was why Jesus mentioned the forms of oaths used to sidestep telling the truth in Matthew 5:33-37. Remember the Mishnah had an entire treatise on oaths. Heaven, earth, Jerusalem, your head, were all somehow linked to God. You cannot escape the requirement to tell the truth by using these hair-splitting differences.  Keep your pledges without insisting that a certain form of words was necessary to make it binding.  Essentially Jesus is saying: “No oath is necessary for a truthful person.”

The conclusion of the matter is that it is never necessary for Christ’s people to swear an oath before they utter the truth. Their word should always be so reliable that nothing more than a statement is needed from them. God is in all of life, and every statement is made before him.

The importance of honesty in 12 Step Recovery is well known. Self-honesty begins with recognizing whether or not you are an alcoholic. In chapter 3, “More About Alcoholism,” it says A.A. doesn’t like to pronounce anyone as alcoholic. The suggestion is to try some controlled drinking—more than once. “It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with yourself about it.”

The manner of life demanded of the person who admits being an alcoholic is even qualified further as rigorous honesty.  In discussing what to do after making a personal inventory (the Fourth Step) in chapter 6, “Into Action,” of the Big Book it says: “We must be entirely honest with somebody if we expect to live long and happily in this world.”

As Bill Sees It, a collection of thoughts by Bill W. on the A.A. way of life, cites a 1966 letter he wrote. Bill said that only God can fully know what absolute honesty is. The best we can do is to strive for a better quality of honesty. Sometimes we have to place love ahead of indiscriminate ‘factual honesty.’ In the name of ‘perfect honesty’ we can cruelly and unnecessarily hurt others. “Always one must ask, ‘What is the best and most loving thing I can do?’”

In an August 1961 article for the AA Grapevine,  “This Matter of Honesty,” Bill W. observed how the problem of honesty touched nearly every aspect of our lives. While his intended audience was other A.A. members, I think what he said applies to everyone. After commenting on the extremes of self-deception and reckless truth-telling, he noted there were countless situations in life where nothing less than utter honest will do, “no matter how sorely we may be tempted by the fear and pride that would reduce us to half-truths or inexcusable denials.” He concluded the article with:

How truth makes us free is something that we AAs can well understand. It cut the shackles that once bound us to alcohol. It continues to release us from conflicts and miseries beyond reckoning; it banishes fear and isolation. The unity of our Fellowship, the love we cherish for each other, the esteem in which the world holds us–all of these are products of such integrity, as under God, we have been privileged to achieve. May we therefore quicken our search for still more genuine honor, and deepen its practice in all our affairs.

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

02/17/17

The Adultery of Addiction

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In 1948, at the First International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Bob gave his last major talk.  He related for those in attendance his recollections of the beginnings of A.A. He recalled that in the early days they were groping in the dark. The Steps and the Traditions didn’t exist; the A.A. Big Book hadn’t been written yet. But they were convinced the answer to their problems was in the Good Book. And one of the absolutely essential parts of the Bible for them, according to Dr. Bob, was the Sermon on the Mount. But there are two verses in there whose application to 12 Step recovery may seem to be a bit strained.

Matthew 5:31-32, which expresses Jesus’ thoughts on divorce, follows right after he addressed how his followers should understand and apply biblical teaching on adultery and lust. As is typical of his teachings in other areas of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns the Jews understanding of what the Law said about divorce upside down. The passage says:

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Jesus began by referring to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 from the Law of Moses, where if a man wanted to divorce his wife, he was required to give her a formal certificate declaring he was divorcing her. At that time, a man was permitted to divorce his wife, but a wife was not allowed to divorce her husband. She could petition the court, and if her plea was accepted, the court would direct the husband to divorce her. Culturally, to moderns this appears to be an unfair, patriarchal practice. But there was a loose interpretation of that section of the Mosaic Law that made it even more one-sided.

Deuteronomy 24:1 said a man could write his wife a certificate of divorce if she fell out of favor in his eyes “because he found some indecency in her.” The word for “indecency” in Hebrew can have a sexual connotation, but here it referred vaguely to some failing or sin. By the time period in which Jesus lived, the grounds for divorce could be a failing as trivial as a wife burning the food she cooked for her husband. We could almost say this was an ancient sense of a husband-centered “no fault divorce.” This was the interpretation of the followers of Hillel, a rabbi and teacher during the time of Herod the Great. The school of Shammai, a conservative Pharisee from around the same time period, limited the sense of the Hebrew word for “indecency” to its sexual sense and only permitted divorce for adultery.

Regardless of how an individual understood divorce, it was an accepted practice in Judaism for a man to divorce his wife. However, her husband could not put her outside of his home on a whim; he had to formally release her from her marriage vows. The certificate of divorce was a protection for the woman, indicating she could legally marry someone else. Remarriage for a widowed or divorced woman provided security in the culture of her time. Leon Morris observed: “In first-century Jewish society how else could she live?”

But, Jesus said divorce should not be granted at the whim of the husband; it’s not simply the right or privilege of a man to dispose of his wife whenever he tires of her. Such capriciousness was sin. Jesus said not only does this kind of husband force his wife to commit adultery by her remarriage, but also the man she marries. In God’s eyes the indecency to justify a divorce had to be serious to break the covenant bond of marriage. Apathy towards the wife of your youth or the desire for a younger, prettier “trophy wife” were not acceptable reasons for divorce.

Clearly Jesus saw marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman. Addiction can destroy that bond as effectively as adultery. In fact to a spouse, drug and alcohol addiction often feels like the addict or alcoholic is in an adulterous relationship—even when there isn’t another human being involved. There are frequent promises to their partner they are finished with alcohol … cocaine … heroin. Then the partner discovers those were promises without teeth. The addict didn’t follow through with a permanent breakup with their drug/lover.

Farther on in the Sermon on the Mount, in the midst of discussing treasures on earth or in heaven, Jesus tells his audience that whatever they treasure has their heart. Since no one can serve two masters (or lovers), they will be devoted to one or the other, but not both (Matthew 6:19-24). Being with an addict can feel like that. Your partner is in a relationship with something else; and you can’t compete.

In the A.A. Big Book, chapter 8 is “To Wives.” Counter-intuitively, that chapter was written by Bill W.; not his wife, Lois. In Pass It On, Lois said she was hurt Bill insisted on writing it himself. His given reason, so that it would be in the same style as the rest of the book, seems a bit weak. There was, in fact, a section included in the A.A. Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, that was written by another hand. “The Doctor’s Opinion” was written by Dr. Silkworth, the doctor who treated Bill at the end of his drinking. I think it is fair to say Bill W. had a strain of chauvinism in him and it showed up here.

Another way to apply Matthew 5:31-32 to recovery is to reflect on how adultery and divorce were frequently used as metaphors to describe idolatry or unfaithfulness to God in the Old Testament prophetic literature. Here, the adultery would be spiritual adultery; a violation of the individual’s relationship with God.

Ezekiel 16:15-35 frames the unfaithfulness of Jerusalem to God as adultery. Jeremiah 3:1-10 similarly describes how Israel polluted the land with her lovers. Israel and Jerusalem are the unfaithful wives. In Malachi, the priests are described as being faithless to the wife of their youth. Adultery, whether it was literal or a metaphor for spiritual unfaithfulness, violated the individual’s covenant before God.

The Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (Malachi 2:14-16)

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

11/20/15

Powerless Over Lust

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© flairmicro | 123rf.com

Francis Hartigan, a biographer of Bill W., described him as seemingly being unable to control himself sexually. Despite knowing how his philandering was a potential threat to A.A., Bill couldn’t/wouldn’t stop. At times his despair and self loathing over this issue left him feeling unworthy to lead A.A. There was a “Founder’s Watch” committee of friends who would keep track of Bill during the socializing that took place at A.A. functions. When they saw “a certain gleam in his eye,” they would steer Bill off in one direction and the young woman he had been talking to in the other. “Sexual fidelity does not seem to be something Bill was capable of.”

Matthew 5:27-32 in the Sermon on the Mount addresses the issue of adultery. The passage begins rather clearly: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus begins with a repetition of the Seventh Commandment’s restriction against adultery to his largely Jewish audience. The understanding to his audience and to other men in the ancient world was that the commandment forbade having sexual intercourse with a married woman. Leon Morris’s comment on this matter was that: “A married man could have sexual adventures as long as they did not involve a married woman.”

But as was typical of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, he challenges the restricted interpretations of Old Testament commandments given to God’s people. “But I say to you,” even looking lustfully at a woman means you have already committed adultery with her in your heart. Even the great rabbis stopped short of making such an important declaration about the importance of fidelity in marriage. In effect, Jesus was doing away with the old “double standard.” Men and women were equally required to be faithful in their marriages.

Note that Jesus includes matters of the heart—the thoughts, emotions and desires—as equal to overtly sinful behavior. Craig Blomberg said: “Christians must recognize those thoughts and actions which, long before any overt sexual sin, make the possibility of giving in to temptation more likely, and they must take dramatic action to avoid them.” Elaborating on this point, Jesus pointed to two of the primary bodily offenders in sexual sin outside of adultery—eyes and hands. With figurative and hyperbolic language, he said it was better to lose an eye or a hand, “one of your members,” than to end up in hell as a consequence of your sin. The message is to do whatever it takes “to control natural passions that tend to flare out of control.”

Alcoholics Anonymous, the A.A. Big Book, spent a good bit of time talking about sex. Given that Bill wrote the “How It Works” where that the section on sex appears, we may get some insight into his views on his problems with sexual fidelity and why he struggled with depression and self-loathing over his inability to control this compulsion.

Bill began by saying: “Now about sex. Many of us needed an overhauling there.” He then noted the extremes of human opinion between a view of sex being “a lust of our lower nature” and the voices who cry for sex and more sex; those who “bewail the institution of marriage.” And those who see most of human troubles traceable to sexual causes. He said A.A. didn’t want to be the arbiter of anyone’s sexual conduct. “We all have sex problems.” It’s part of being human. But what can we do about it?

The answer begins with an inventory of your sexual conduct. Where were you selfish, dishonest, or inconsiderate? Who have you hurt? Where did you unjustifiably arouse jealousy, suspicion or bitterness? Where were you at fault and what should you have done differently? “We got this all down on paper and looked at it.” The test of each relationship was whether or not it was selfish. “We asked God to mold our ideals and help us live up to them. We remembered always that our sex powers were God-given and therefore good, neither to be used lightly or selfishly not to be despised and loathed.”

Whatever your ideal was, you should be willing to grow toward it. Be willing to make amends, provided that doesn’t bring about more harm than good. God alone can judge your sexual situation. Counsel with others, but avoid hysterical thinking or advice. Suppose you fall short of the chosen ideal and “stumble.” Does that mean you are going to get drunk? Some people say that will happen, but it is only a half-truth. It depends on our motives.

If we are sorry for what we have done, and have the honest desire to let God take us to better things, we believe we will be forgiven and have learned our lesson. If we are not sorry, and our conduct continues to harm others, we are quite sure to drink. We are not theorizing. These are facts out of our experiences.

To sum up about sex: We earnestly pray for the right ideal, for guidance in each questionable situation, for sanity, and for the strength to do the right thing. If sex is very troublesome, we throw ourselves the harder into helping others. We think of their needs and work for them. This takes us out of ourselves. It quiets the imperious urge, when to yield would mean heartache.

Hartigan said a close friend and confidant of Bill’s thought that his guilt over his infidelities was a large part of his struggle with depression. Bill would always agree with the friend that he needed to stop. But just when the friend thought they were getting somewhere, Bill would say he can’t give it up and start rationalizing. “Bill’s behavior caused some of his most ardent admirers to break with him.”

Bill seems to have kept himself on the razor’s edge of not drinking over his sexual conduct. He didn’t drink, but he suffered from depression for a number of years. He also didn’t seem to have true sorrow or repentance for his actions and an honest desire to let God take him to better things sexually. Returning to the Matthew passage, I wonder if Bill never really accepted that he needed to stop lusting after women in his heart (Matthew 5:28). While he practiced and wrote about doing whatever it took to not drink, he failed to apply that principle to his sex life. We could even say, perhaps, he never truly applied the First Step to his sexual conduct.

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

08/14/15

The Imprints of His Glory

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© szefei | stockfresh.com

“I have never met the man I could despair of after discerning what lies in me apart from the grace of God.” (My Utmost for His Highest, June 17th)

Before venturing onto the main highway of the Romans Road of Recovery, we should start our journey by looking at chapter one of Romans and what it says about general revelation, the certainty of God and how it can be applied to addiction. Since belief in Jesus Christ is optional for Twelve Step spirituality, there will be a divergence between the Romans Road and the path of recovery. Yet for an extended part of their journey, Christians along the Romans Road and sojourners along the path of recovery travel in the same direction. The theological explanation for how this is possible is found in Romans 1:20: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” God has made it possible for all people to have some general knowledge of who He is and what He requires of us to live life—including how to live a sober life.

Romans 1:20 sets this ‘general revelation’ of God within an oxymoron: the invisible attributes of God are clearly perceived in the created order. Commenting on this verse, John Murray said: “God has left the imprints of his glory upon his handiwork.” No one who truly looks at the created order around them can deny the reality of God. The A.A. Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, seems to echo this thought: “He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us.” It is in this sense, and this sense only that the path of recovery embodied in the Twelve Steps and the fellowship of self-help groups exists. From a biblical perspective, it is the path to a life aligned with the general revelation of God in the created universe. It provides the way out of the active enslavement for all human beings to drugs and alcohol.

“The Way Out” was originally proposed as the title for the first edition of the Big Book. A search of the Library of Congress showed 25 previously published books titled “The Way Out,” so Alcoholics Anonymous was chosen instead.

Discovering your place in the natural order is a common theme in many non-Christian philosophies and religions. And this idea exists within the recovery literature. Bill Wilson wrote in the “We Agnostics” chapter of the Big Book: “As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe, underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction.” Within Came to Believe, a collection of the diversity of opinions on God as we understood Him, “I believe that the A.A. program is simply the will of God being put to practical, everyday use.” And from the AA Grapevine, the international journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, “I like to think that putting myself in harmony with what seems to be the spirit of the universe is in actuality ‘turning my will and my life over to the care of God as I understand Him.’”

The Introduction to the “Blue Book” of Narcotics Anonymous, a fellowship for drug addicts adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous, states that: “We believe that as a fellowship, we have been guided by a Greater Consciousness, and are grateful for the direction that has enabled us to build upon a proven program of recovery.” In dedicating their book, the writers of the Blue Book said:

God grant us knowledge that we may write according to Your Divine precepts. Instill in us a sense of Your purpose. Make us servants of Your will and grant us a bond of selflessness, that this may truly be your work, not ours–in order that no addict, anywhere need die from the horrors of addiction.

As humans we straddle the border between health and sickness, good and evil, happiness and sadness. We are always trying to gain harmony in life; to preserve beauty and to find order again after balance has been disturbed. All these beliefs have similarities to Stoic philosophy, which was popular during the time when Paul wrote the book of Romans.

Stoicism was founded in the third century BC and remained popular though 529 AD. More than just a philosophical system, it was a way of life. The theologian Paul Tillich said it was “the only real alternative to Christianity in the Western world.” Stoic philosophers said that happiness did not come from the accrual of goods or success, but from virtue. Echoing Twelve Step recovery, they emphasized self-control as the path out of destructive emotions. This self-control was established and maintained through meditation, training, and self-vigilance.

David Davidson said that in meditation the Stoics would visualize their futures. They would imagine the worst possible outcomes as present sufferings—not as distant, unlikely events. “They sought to realize that even the worst misfortunes can be survived and are not worth fearing.” In their training they practiced various physical disciplines from sexual abstinence and vigorous exercise to the avoidance of tempting foods. Their self-vigilance meant they monitored their thoughts and emotions, “seeking to avoid lust, greed, and ambition in favor of reason.” This contemplation, discipline and vigilance have similarities to both Twelve Step recovery and Christian thought.

Stoics applied the imagery of head and body to God and the universe respectively. The universe was the body, and God’s logos or reason was the mind or head that directed it. Stoic ‘salvation’ was then to seek to align your will with the inherent Reason or Logos of the universe. A person was happy when he did not want things to be other than the way they were. He was to strive to know the system of nature and then cultivate an acceptance of it. He was to search for and discover his place within the natural order; and then consciously seek out the things in life that suited his place in that order. It was best to see this life of service as the ‘natural’ life, a life aligned with the logos of the universe.

Although a Christian prayer a written by Reinhold Neibhur, The Serenity Prayer seems to capture this Stoic alignment with logos of the universe. Not surprisingly, the Serenity Prayer holds a special place in A.A. history and Twelve Step Recovery.

The correspondence noted here between Christianity, Stocism and Twelve Step recovery is a product of the general revelation spoken of in Romans 1:20. “God has left the imprints of his glory upon his handiwork.” Part of that handiwork lies within the system of meditation, self-vigilance and training embodied in the Twelve Steps as a way out of the thralldom of active addiction.

For Christians, there is a biblical concern in how we understand general revelation. The theologian G. C. Berkouwer cautioned that while Romans 1 was “good material” for the confession of general revelation, we must be careful of how we apply it. The knowledge of general revelation should never be isolated from the prevailing theme of Romans 1—the wrath of God. Berkouwer said: “The history of theology parades before us numerous attempts to isolate it from the context.” Perhaps the greatest objection of some Christians with Twelve Step recovery lies at this point. If by applying the general revelation of the Twelve Steps, an individual is able to stop the unmanageability in his or her life because of drug or alcohol abuse, they may be aligned with the Logos of the universe in a broad sense, but they will not have reckoned with the wrath of God for their unmanageable, ungodly behavior. They may be sober, but they are not saved from the just spiritual consequences of their unrighteousness.

If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally intended. This article is “03,” the third one. Enjoy.

08/7/15

The Romans Road of Recovery

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© Guido Nardacci | 123rf.com

The Church ceases to be a spiritual society when it is on the look-out for the development of its own organization. The rehabilitation of the human race on Jesus Christ’s plan means the realization of Jesus Christ in corporate life as well as in individual life.  (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, July 12)

I made a public profession of faith in Christ about 1 1/2 years after I first began working as a drug and alcohol counselor. So my personal faith journey has essentially paralleled my experiences as an addictions therapist. In the late 1980s when I read Pass It On, the story of the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and one of its co-founders, Bill Wilson, I was struck by the description of his encounter with the “great beyond.” Bill reported that when he cried out to God in his hospital room, he became aware of a Presence, which seemed like “a veritable sea of living spirit.” He thought it must be the great reality, the God of the Preachers. He felt that God had given him a glimpse of His absolute self. He never again doubted the existence of God. He also never drank again.

At first Bill wasn’t sure what to make of his spiritual experience. He thought he might have been hallucinating. A friend, who was then sober through his own participation in a Christian fellowship movement called the Oxford Group, didn’t know what to think of Bill’s experience. After asking the advice of others, the friend brought Bill a copy of The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James. “James gave Bill the material he needed to understand what had just happened to him.” (Pass it On, pp. 120-125) I wondered as I read this, what would have been different if the friend had brought Bill a copy of the Bible instead. That was the beginning of my own journey along the intersecting paths of Scripture and Twelve Step spirituality.

Regularly in the Bible drunkenness is associated literally and metaphorically with the progressive unmanageability of sin and rebellion that ultimately leads to God’s judgment. Within a judgment oracle, Ezekiel (23:25) said of Judah, “you will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow.” Jeremiah (13:13) said that the Lord will “fill with drunkenness all the inhabitants of this land: the kings who sit on David’s throne, Òthe priests, the prophets, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Isaiah is especially fond of these associations with drunkenness. Addressing the irresponsibility of Israel’s leaders, he said: “‘Come,’ they say, ‘let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.’” (Is 56:12) Within a judgment oracle against the earth, Isaiah (24:20) said, “The earth staggers like a drunken man; it sways like a hut; Òits transgression lies heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again.” Egypt will stagger like a drunkard in all its deeds: “And there will be nothing for Egypt that head or tail, palm branch or reed, may do.” (Is 19:15).

Proverbs 23:29-35 so aptly pictures the downward spiral of sorrow, strife, and “wounds without cause” associated with drunkenness, that it sounds like one of the personal stories in the A.A. Big Book: “‘They struck me,’ you will say, ‘but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another drink.’” And so it is true that “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” (Pr 20:1) There is very little, if any, mention of mind-altering drugs in Scripture. But what is said of drunkenness can be readily applied to drug intoxication. It’s not wise to be led astray by drug intoxication either.

Despite the clear, obvious understanding in Scripture of the progressive unmanageability that comes from alcohol abuse, many members of the self-help groups of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) remain ignorant of the similarities Twelve Step recovery has with what the Bible says about how to live life on life’s terms. Conversely, there are some within Christian circles who almost instinctively recoil from A.A. and N.A. as “unclean” because they permit and at times advocate for their members to formulate a god of their personal understanding; even if that god is a rock, a flagpole, or the fellowship of A.A. or N.A. itself.

Prejudicial wariness on both sides keeps the recovering alcoholic or addict at arms length from the “recovering” sinner who surrenders his or her life to the care of Jesus Christ. I have spent most of my adult life counseling within the Twelve Step recovery model and worshiping within Bible-believing churches, and I have long ago seen how each can learn from the other; how each has similar wisdom to offer us on living life if we are willing to listen.

Twelve Step recovery originated with A.A. and its cofounders readily acknowledged their debt to the Bible and its ministers. In an article published in the AA Grapevine, “After Twenty Five Years,” Bill Wilson said that Sam Shoemaker (an Episcopal minister) was responsible for ten of the Twelve Steps, “the basic ideas on which our recovery program is founded.”

Speaking in 1948 on where A.A. got the ideas for the Twelve Steps, Doctor Bob Smith, the cofounder of A.A. said, “We already had the basic ideas, though not in terse and tangible form. We got them, as I said, as a result of our study of the Good Book.” (“Dr. Bob’s Last Major Talk,” AA Grapevine). Within that “Good Book,” there is no better exposition on living the Christian life than Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

The book of Romans was the first well-developed theology of the Christian faith and it arguably remains the single most important work of Christian theology ever written. It has had an inestimable influence on the formation of Christian theology. One of the many examples of this lies within a selection of verses from the epistle referred to as “The Romans Road,” which is used to present the way to salvation in Jesus Christ. This “road” covers our need for salvation, God’s plan for salvation, how we obtain salvation, and the results of salvation. Typically, the verses addressing each section of the Romans Road for salvation include the following.

  • Our need for salvation: Romans 3:23: (for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God).
  • God’s plan for salvation: Romans 6:23 (For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord).
  • How we obtain salvation: Romans 10:9, 10; (if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved).
  • The results of salvation: Romans 5:1 (Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ).

In a similar manner, we can look for how these verses and others in Romans apply to a lesser route, the path to recovery; the way out of an active addiction to drugs and alcohol. So in imitation of the Romans Road, we can search for the need for recovery, the plan for recovery, how to obtain recovery and the results of recovery.

Let me be clear from the beginning. I am not equating recovery from drug or alcohol addiction (or working the Twelve Steps) with salvation in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, it is striking how rich the parallels are between God’s call to the Christian life in the book of Romans and the program for recovery embodied in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In addition to seeing how the Romans Road of salvation corresponds to the path of recovery in Romans, we can find insight into recovery concepts such as, “surrender,” the “we” of a recovery program (fellowship), walking the talk, and keeping spirituality simple through love, service and tolerance. So we will have to “step” off that Road periodically and walk along the side trails in Romans where these aspects of Twelve Step recovery crisscross Paul’s discussion of the Christian life.

C.S. Lewis famously commented in The Great Divorce that he did not think that all those who chose wrong spiritual roads would perish. But, he added, their rescue consisted in being put back on the right road. It is my hope that it in reading this series, you will discover how to get from the path of recovery to Augustine’s City of God, since the path of recovery veers off in another direction, away from the City of God. If you already walk along the Romans Road of Christian faith, I pray that by reading what follows, when anyone on the path of recovery asks you for directions to the City of God, you will be better equipped to help them find their way. Shall we begin our stroll along the Romans Road?

If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally written. This article is “02,” the second one. Enjoy.

 

07/31/15

A Common Spiritual Path

© Weldon Schloneger | 123RF.com

© Weldon Schloneger | 123RF.com

A self-identification as having no religious affiliation was the big news in a study by the Pew Research Center, the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. “The number of religiously unaffiliated adults has increased by roughly 19 million since 2007.” Those individuals who are religiously unaffiliated generally are less religiously active, but many believe in God and even pray on occasion. According to the Religious Landscape Survey, “Many people who are unaffiliated with a religion believe in God, pray at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people.”

This spiritual, but not religious group of individuals—those indicating that they have no particular religious affiliation, reported as “nothing in particular” in the survey—are the third largest “religious” group in the U.S. behind Evangelical Protestants (25.4%) and Catholics (20.8%); Nothing in particulars (15.8%). So there is a large group of Americans who are not atheists or agnostics; nor are they religious. I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant percentage of this group were active within 12 Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.

For a number of years I have been struck by the fact that there are both religious and nonreligious individuals who are critical of the presumed religiosity of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). Nonreligious critics see it as too religious; religious ones believe it isn’t religious enough. Ironically, A.A. and other Twelve Step recovery programs modeled after it consistently claim they not religious at all.

Historical, religious influences upon A.A. are readily acknowledged by the organization, as are its nonreligious influences. Somewhere in the mix is the claim that it is a spiritual, but not religious program—a claim that is too often dismissed by its critics without an understanding of its origins and meaning. At the center of this debate are the Twelve Steps themselves, whose treatment of God is the flashpoint for both sides.

A.A. was founded in 1935, in the midst of a full social and cultural retreat away from the influence of Christian religious belief on American life. Doctrine, dogma and creeds were found to be increasingly irrelevant after the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In the Scopes Trial, a high school biology teacher named John Scopes was found guilty of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach evolution. The trial pitted modernists, who saw Christian religion as consistent with evolution, against fundamentalists who believed that evolution was contrary to Scripture and Christian belief and therefore should not be taught in public schools.

In many ways, the issues debated in the Scopes trial now haunt the dispute over A.A. and the Twelve Steps. And it seems these concerns can be articulated within three basic questions. First, is there a place for God in the practice of addiction recovery? Second, is Twelve Step recovery consistent with the Christian religion? Third, should Christians holding to the importance of the Bible as the rule for faith and life participate in Twelve Step recovery programs?

Many individuals have answered the first question with a resounding “No!” and organized intentionally nonreligious support groups such as: Rational Recovery, SMART Recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, and Women for Sobriety. On the other hand, many Christians believe there is a place for God in recovery. But they question if Twelve Step recovery is consistent with Scripture and feel that Christians should be cautious about participating in groups that do not explicitly affirm that Jesus is Lord. So they organized faith-based support groups that reach out to the still-suffering addict and alcoholic from a self consciously Christian perspective. Some of these include: Alcoholics for Christ, Alcoholics Victorious, Celebrate Recovery, Christians in Recovery, and Overcomers Outreach. Then there are the Twelve Step-based groups that answer “yes” to all three questions: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Clutterers Anonymous, and many more.

My own answers to these three questions would be nuanced. With regards to the first question, is there a place for God in addiction recovery, I would answer with a resounding “Yes”! I’d also reject the charge that such an affirmation makes Twelve Step addiction recovery inherently religious. The supposed religiosity of the Twelve Steps rests upon the premise that any belief in a Supreme, Transcendent Being is inherently religious. A.A., which originated the Twelve Steps, held that belief in some sort of God was normal. The A.A. Big Book said: “Deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God.” Twelve Step recovery believes that a religion takes this fundamental belief in God and the rituals that accompany it, and then institutionalizes them. See “What Does Religious Mean?,” “Spiritual, Not Religious Experience,”  and “The God of the Preachers” for more on these distinctions.

With regard to the second question, is Christianity consistent with the Twelve Steps, I would say it is and it isn’t. There are many parallels between Christianity and Twelve Step recovery. Yet Biblical Christianity makes an explicit claim that Jesus Christ alone is the way to God: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:7). When Christians hold that these words are infallible, that along with all the remaining words of the Bible they are the very breath of God, then compromising them as A.A. does is considered to be a serious break with orthodox Christian belief.

Lastly, I would say that Bible believing Christians can and should participate in non-Christian Twelve Step groups. But I would add that this participation is not a substitute for their fellowship with other members of the body of Christ. Christian faith matures within the context of fellowship with other Christians. Members of A.A. know this is true for alcoholics as well. Recovery matures within the context of fellowship with other recovering alcoholics. Sadly, Christian fellowship alone is often not vibrant enough for addicts and alcoholics to establish and then maintain their abstinence and sobriety. Their recovery can be strengthened within the fellowship of Twelve Step-based groups.

I plan to use the book of Romans as the anchor point for a series of articles that will illustrate how there is a common spiritual path upon which Christians and individuals can travel together—at least for part of their journeys. So there are two primary audiences to whom this series of articles is written: bible-believing Christians who find participation in Twelve Step groups helpful and even necessary for their recovery, and members of Twelve Step groups who desire to grow spiritually within the context of Christian fellowship.

I hope to demonstrate to both groups that they can do so without fear of compromising either their Christian faith or their recovery. Religious critics of A.A. can also gain an understanding of what is meant by its claim to be a spiritual, but not religious program. And perhaps soften their opposition to Christians participating in Twelve Step recovery. There is a richness and depth to the compatibility of Twelve Step recovery and Scripture that proceeds from the deep structure of Scripture.

But the concerns that will be addressed here are not just those encountered by Christians involved in self-help groups based upon the Twelve Steps. Increasingly, Western culture itself has become “spiritual, but not religious” in a way that builds upon the view of religion and spirituality found in the Twelve Steps. I think the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey illustrates this. Americans in particular have historically had diverse opinions on what it means to be “one nation under God” that fits with the idea being spiritual but not religious. Self-defined higher powers and the subjective experience of transcendence articulated in the writings of William James have become a basis for the spirituality of millions of individuals.

The same religious and theological challenges encountered as we journey along the path of recovery through the book of Romans occur repeatedly when discussing the relevance of Christianity to the lives of the millions of spiritual, not religious individuals who sit beside us on planes and in coffee shops; who live in our neighborhoods; who commute to work with us; and who even sit in the church pews beside us on Sunday.

If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally written. This article is “01,” the first one Enjoy.

06/1/15

The God of the Preachers

© Soul by Lom | stockfresh.com

© Soul by Lom | stockfresh.com

On December 11, 1934, a thirty-nine- year-old man named Bill was admitted to the hospital for the fourth time in fifteen months because of his alcoholism. As the withdrawal effects of alcohol wore away, a former drinking buddy, Ebby, came to visit. At the time, Ebby was in the midst of an extended period of abstinence. He had looked up Bill a month previously to renew their friendship and to tell him about his abstinence. Bill noticed the difference in Ebby immediately because he refused the offer of a drink. When Bill asked him what had happened, Ebby said, “I’ve got religion.”

Ebby then told Bill how he’d almost landed in prison, but had his own encounter with a few men from the Oxford Group who became sober by practicing its principles. Ebby said he gave the program a try and it worked for him. He stopped drinking. Bill wanted the sobriety Ebby had, but he couldn’t believe in the God Ebby talked about. After Ebby left his hospital room, Bill fell back into a deep depression. Ahead of him, he saw only madness and death. Science, the only god he had at the time, had declared him hopeless. Without faith or hope, he cried, “If there be a God, let Him show Himself!”

Suddenly his room was filled with a white light. He was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy he had known was pale by comparison. Then, seen in the mind’s eye, there was a mountain. I stood upon its summit, where a great wind blew. A wind, not of air, but of spirit. In great, clean strength, it blew right through me. Then came the blazing thought, “You are a free man.” . . . . “This,” I thought, “must be the great reality, the God of the preachers.” (From the A.A. conference approved book, Pass It On, pp. 111-125)

This man was Bill Wilson, one of the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous. As he retold this spiritual experience in the years to come, he’d add that never again did he doubt the existence of God. He also never took another drink.

When Ebby returned for another visit, he wasn’t sure what to say about Bill’s experience. Ebby himself had neither stood on a mountaintop nor had he seen a bright light when he stopped drinking. But he did give Bill a book that others suggested might help him begin making sense of his encounter with the “God of the preachers.” That book was The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Bill started reading it the moment Ebby left his hospital room.

Bill said he gleaned three principles from reading William James. First, spiritual experiences like his were the product of utter desperation when all human resources have failed to solve the problem. Second, this experience involved the open admission of that defeat. The person admitted his own defeat as utter and absolute. Third, there was an appeal to a “Higher Power” that could take many forms, “and it might or might not be in religious terms.” From his initial reading of James, Bill was exposed to the idea that a spiritual experience was not necessarily a religious one, that spirituality was not necessarily religion, and that a Higher Power did not have to be the God of the preachers. This distinction became a cornerstone expression of what was to become the spiritual (but pointedly not religious) program called Alcoholics Anonymous.

When Alcoholics Anonymous (the “Big Book” from which the movement took its name) was first published in 1939, chapter one told “Bill’s Story” of how he first became sober. Interestingly, he did not retell his so-called “hot flash” encounter with the God of the preachers. Bill related Ebby’s assertion that he was sober through religion, and that he’d come to pass his experience on to Bill—if Bill cared to have it. As Bill recounted his personal struggles with religion in the Big Book he wrote, “I had always believed in a Power greater than myself.” Despite the “living example” of Ebby before him, Bill said, “The word God still aroused a certain antipathy.”

Ebby suggested that Bill choose his own conception of God. The suggestion hit him hard, melting his “icy intellectual mountain” of doubts. “It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning.” This ability to imagine God to be whatever an individual has imagined Him to be has remained a hallmark of the spiritual worldview of A.A. In a 1949 address before the American Psychiatric Association, Bill Wilson explicitly stated that A.A. was not a religious organization because it had no dogma. He also stated that the only theological proposition—of a Power greater than one’s self—would not be forced on anyone.

In 1961, Wilson wrote in the AA Grapevine, “Our concepts of a Higher Power and God—as we understand Him—afford everyone a nearly unlimited choice of spiritual belief and action.” He suggested that this was perhaps the most important expression to be found in the entire vocabulary of A.A. Every kind and degree of faith, together with the assurance that each person could choose his or her own version of it, opened a door “over whose threshold the unbeliever can take his first easy step into the realm of faith.” (“The Dilemma of No Faith,” AA Grapevine, April 1961. The AA Grapevine is the international journal of Alcoholics Anonymous)

This remains true today in AA. The December 2006 edition of the AA Grapevine has an article by a Muslim member of A.A. who was fearful that while sobering up, he would be “transformed into a Christian through osmosis.” He reported that nothing could have been further from the truth. “As a Muslim AA member who received a miraculous spiritual awakening in an Anglican Church basement, I am eternally grateful to the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.” (“Along Spiritual Lines,” AA Grapevine, December 2006).

When I first read of Wilson’s encounter with the “God of the preachers,” I wondered what difference it would have made if Ebby had brought Bill a copy of the Bible instead of The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE). But now it seems to me that it would have made little difference in the eventual formulation of spiritual experience in the Twelve Steps. Although the distinction between ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ found in VRE seems to have been popularized within the Twelve Steps of A.A., non-alcoholics also read VRE, and the ideas they found there resonated with an emerging spiritual, but not religious sense of God and how we relate to Him.

This is the third of three related articles (What Does Religious Mean?, Spiritual not Religious Experience, The God of the Preachers) that more fully describes some of the influences I believe helped to shape the spiritual, but not religious distinction of 12 Step recovery.

05/25/15

Spiritual, Not Religious Experience

© Bruce Rolff | 123RF.com

© Bruce Rolff | 123RF.com

The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE) by William James had an important influence on Bill W. and Alcoholics Anonymous.  There is a free edition of VRE available here. Within VRE are several notions common to the A.A. sense of spiritual, not religious, experience. The first is the distinction between spiritual and religious. William James distinguished between institutional and personal within the broader field of religion. Worship, sacrifice, ritual, theology, ceremony, and ecclesiastical organization were the essentials of what he referred to as institutional religion. Limited to such a view, he said religion could be viewed as an external art of winning the favor of the gods.

James said that within the personal dimension of religion, the inner dispositions of human conscience, helplessness and incompleteness were of central importance. Here the external structures for winning divine favor took a secondary place to a heart-to-heart encounter between the individual and his maker. He proposed to confine himself, as much as possible within VRE, to discuss pure and simple personal religion.

If someone felt that the term religion should be reserved for the fully organized system of feeling, thought, and institution typically called the church, then James was willing to accept almost any name for what he called personal religion. He suggested two: conscience or morality. Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Step recovery have called it spirituality.

Personal religion/spirituality for his purposes was defined as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of [the] individual . . . in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” In the broadest sense possible, this spirituality consisted of the belief that there was an unseen order to existence, and supreme good lay in harmoniously adjusting to that order.

A second notion from VRE important to A.A. was that a higher power could be anything that was other than and larger than the person’s conscious self. Towards that end, James said that spiritual experience could only testify unequivocally to two things: the possible union with something larger than oneself and the great peace that was found within that union. Spiritual encounters could not unconditionally confirm a traditional belief in the one and only infinite God. James suggested that the practical needs and occasions of religion were sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each person, a larger power existed that was friendly to him and his ideals. All that was required was that the power should be both other than and larger than a personal conscious self.

“Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step. It need not be infinite; it need not be solitary. It might conceivably be only a larger and more godlike self.” There was something—a sense of reality or perhaps a feeling of objective presence—that was a deeper and more general perception of actuality than science supposed was possible with any of the particular human senses. This supreme reality was what Christianity called God.

According to James, humanity had an instinctive belief regarding this supreme reality of the universe that could be stated simply as: “God is real since he produces real effects.” Yet most religious/spiritual people spontaneously embraced a wider sphere than this immediate subjective religious episode. Based upon the perception of godly order in existence and the supreme good found in adjusting to that order, they took a further step of faith concerning God. James said religious people formulated a hypothesis that the existence of God was a guarantee that an ideal order would be permanently preserved, even beyond the probable destruction of this world. Only with this further step of faith, in which remote objective consequences were predicted, did religion become free of its immediate subjective experience.

The third place where James influenced AA’s understanding of spiritual experience was in his view of conversion. In VRE, James stated that in general terms, conversion signified the gradual or sudden process by which a person became unified and consciously right, superior, and happy as a result of a firmer hold upon religious/spiritual realities. To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain assurance, all referred to the same process.

Taken at face value, James equated religious or spiritual experience with conversion. Before this “conversion” process, the person was initially divided, consciously wrong, inferior, and unhappy. This was true whether or not the person believed that a direct divine operation was needed to bring about such a moral transformation. After an extensive discussion of the psychology of conversion, James noted that as long as the religious life was spiritual, and not a consequence of outer works, ritual, or sacraments, the self-surrender element of conversion was always the vital turning point of the religious life. The Jamesean conversion and surrender process became formalized in the first three Steps of AA.

In 1949, Bill Wilson said that conversion, as broadly described by James, was the basic process of AA. Everything else was but the foundation to this process. He declared that by 1949, AA spoke little of its recovery process as a conversion because so many people were afraid of being God-bitten. Nonetheless, it was the basic process of AA. One alcoholic working with another could only consolidate that process of conversion, built upon a foundational faith in God as we understand Him. (William Wilson, “The Society of Alcoholics Anonymous,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 106 [Nov. 1949], 370-375)

This is the second of three related articles (What Does Religious Mean?, Spiritual not Religious Experience, The God of the Preachers) that will more fully describe some of the influences I believe helped to shape the spiritual, but not religious distinction of 12 Step recovery.

05/22/15

What Does Religious Mean?

© kuco | 123RF.com

© kuco | 123RF.com

As Terence Gorski has pointed out, A.A. is now legally a “religion” within the US. But I don’t think this really settles the dispute over whether A.A. is or is not religious. Legal rulings can be changed, as they have for many issues such as abortion and marriage. So I’d suggest that A.A. as a “religion” is based upon a particular sense of what “religious” means in modern culture and that could change.  There is at least one other view of religion that would not consider A.A. to be religious.

It seems that there two main starting points to define what being “religious” means in modern culture.  One follows Edmund Tylor and focuses on the belief in the supernatural, while the other emphasizes Emile Durkheim’s notion of the sacred and the profane. Within American culture, Tylor’s understanding seems to have influenced legal decisions on constitutional issues of the separation of church and state as well as legal rulings on the religiousness of A.A. At this point in time, Tylor’s sense of religion rules the day.

Tylor (1832-1917) simply defined religion as “the belief in spiritual beings” and held that this belief existed in all known cultures. He suggested that a belief in spirits and deities grew out of a belief in souls, which itself was a result of attempting to explain phenomena such as dreams, trances, visions and death. An evolving understanding of religious belief, Tylor’s theory said that all religions were based on animism, which had two parts: belief in a human soul that survived bodily death and belief in other spirits or deities. Animism led to fetishism, the veneration of animals, idols trees and so forth.

This belief was extended to the veneration of spirits and gods which were less attached to objects; leading to the concepts of gods, demons, spirits, devils, ghosts, fairies and angels. The next stage was the association of gods with good and evil, leading to belief in very powerful deities. Another pathway to these powerful gods was to seek after “first causes” for reality. The attribution of good and evil or first cause to the idea of gods and spirits then led to the concept of a Supreme Being. “Animism has its distinct and consistent outcome, and Polytheism its distinct and consistent completion, in the doctrine of a Supreme Deity.”

This seems to have built on the thought of Ludwig Feuerbach, who wrote The Essence of Christianity in 1841. Feuerbach argued against both the divinity of Christ and the existence of God, stating that all theology could be resolved into anthropology—with God as the projected essence of Humanity. What ranked second in religion, namely humanity, must be recognized as first:

If the nature of Man is man’s Highest Being, if to be human is his highest existence, then man’s love for Man must in practice become the first and highest law. Homo homini Deus est— man’s God is Man. This is the highest law of ethics. This is the turning point of history.

Tylor’s ‘evolving’ understanding of religion was similar to that of Carl Jung. Jung saw Western religions as unsophisticated. He said there were five main stages in the evolution of the idea of God.

First was the animistic view, where Nature was ruled by an assortment of gods and demons. Second was the Greco-Roman polytheistic notion of a father of Gods ruling in a strict hierarchy. The third stage idea was that God shared human fate, but was betrayed, died and then resurrected. The fourth stage held that God became Man in the flesh and was identified with the idea of the Supreme Good. Christianity conflated the third and fourth stages, according to Jung.

“The fifth and highest stage of belief in God is when the entire world is understood as a projected psychic structure and the only God is the ‘God within’ or the ‘God-image.’” (Frank McLynn Carl Gustav Jung: A Biography, 409-410) The God-image was a special reflection of the Self, the penultimate archetype of the collective unconscious in Jung’s psychology. This Self was not the ‘self’ of everyday language, which Jung typically referred to as the ‘ego.’ Frank McLynn suggested that Jung’s Self was roughly equivalent to the ‘Atman’ of Buddhism.

On the other hand, Emile Durkheim said in The Elementary Form of the Religious Life, (EFRL) that religion was a product of society and not always supernaturally inspired. So religion should not be defined just in terms of the ideas of divinity or spiritual beings: “Religion is more than the idea of gods or spirits, and consequently cannot be defined exclusively in relation to these latter.” (EFRL, p. 35) As a category, Durkheim said the supernatural only made sense when opposed to a modern scientific explanation for natural phenomena. He pointed out that for most of the world’s peoples, including premodern Europeans, religious phenomena were viewed as perfectly natural. For Durkheim, the division into “sacred” and “profane” was a necessary precondition for religious belief:

All known religious beliefs, whether simple or complex, present one common characteristic: they presuppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by two distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred. This division of the world into two domains, the one containing all that is sacred, the other all that is profane, is the distinctive trait of religious thought. (EFRL, p. 37)

Durkheim believed that a belief in the supernatural was not necessary or even common among religions. However, the separation of different aspects of life into the two categories of sacred and profane was common. Objects and behaviors seen as sacred were considered to be part of the spiritual or religious realm. Sacred things for Durkheim were not limited to just gods or spirits. Anything and everything could be sacred: rocks, trees, a spring, a piece of wood, a house. Sacred objects were as varied as the diversity of religions. “Sacred things are simply collective ideals that have fixed themselves on material objects.” Profane things were everything else in the world that did not have a religious function or hold a religious meaning.

There was a radical separation between the sacred and profane, so that the two could not approach each and still retain their essence. The sacred was not the profane and the profane was not sacred; they were “more or less incompatible with each other.” (EFRL, p. 40) And yet, they interact with one another and depend upon each other for survival.

Durkheim believed that religious belief was built upon this fundamental distinction. When a number of sacred things were organized within a belief system that can be distinguished from other similar types of systems, “the totality of these beliefs and their corresponding rites constitutes a religion.” (EFRL, p. 41)

There were two essential criteria for religious belief, according to Durkheim. First, there was a division of the entire universe into the sacred and the profane; which embraced all that exists, but which radically excluded each other. Second, religions formed a Church: “In all history, we do not find a single religion without a Church.”

So then Durkheim defined religion as: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (EFRL, p. 47)

The spiritual, religious distinction made by William James and embedded in Twelve Step spirituality, seems to be the most widely accepted sense of generic spirituality in American culture today. It embraces Durkheim’s thought on religion and rejects Tylor’s understanding. It does this by self-consciously refusing to formulate a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things and also accepts the naturalness of believing in some type of transcendence. The very heart of Twelve Step spirituality is the permissibility of the individual to formulate a personal understanding of their “god.” So what unites members of Twelve Step groups like A.A. is the diversity of religious and spiritual belief permitted—even to the acceptance of the lack of such a belief.

This is the first of three related articles (What Does Religious Mean?, Spiritual not Religious Experience, The God of the Preachers) that will more fully describe some of the influences I believe helped to shape the spiritual, but not religious distinction of 12 Step recovery.

05/8/15

The Deep Desire of True Ambition

© Balefire9 | stockfresh.com

© Balefire9 | stockfresh.com

Recently I watched the 1947 movie, Gentleman’s Agreement for the first time. Starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire, it told the story of a reporter, Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who poses as a Jew to uncover anti-Semitism in post World War II America. In a climatic scene, Phil’s fiancée, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), realizes it’s not enough to privately abhor prejudice; you have to do something about it. In the context of Matthew 5:13-16, you have to be salt and light.

Further developing what he’d been teaching his disciples, Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world.”  In verses 5:3-10, he described the blessings available to those who were his disciples. He warned them in 5:11-12 of the persecution they would face simply because they wanted to live righteous lives on his account. Here he said you can’t fly under the radar and avoid persecution. Theirs was not to be a life of quietism and retreat from the world. Rather, as Craig Blomberg said, they “must permeate society as agents of redemption.”

The first metaphor was a statement of fact—you are salt of the earth. In our time we think of salt as something that adds flavor—as a supplement—to what we eat. But up until the invention of refrigeration, salt was an essential preservative. That is the meaning of the salt metaphor here. Jesus is saying his disciples are to be a preserving influence on earth. According to Sinclair Ferguson in The Sermon on the Mount, “Christians whose lives exhibit the qualities of the ‘blessed’ will have a preserving impact” upon society.

Salt losing its taste is another saying that makes no sense to moderns, who get pure granulated salt from a Morton’s salt container at the grocery. But the salt used in first-century Palestine was most likely taken from the Dead Sea, where it would have been mixed with other minerals. If the sodium chloride somehow dissolved out of the mixture, it would leave “salt” that had lost its “saltiness” (sodium chloride).  Good for nothing, it was tossed into the street, which was the garbage can of ancient cities.

Once again in Matthew 5:14 Jesus directly addresses the disciples, now saying they are (factually) the light of the world. It’s the same message as in the previous verse, but with a different image. In each case the target is broadly described—the earth and the world. It’s like saying, if you didn’t get it the first time, I’ll tell you again another way: “you are the light of the world.” You can’t hide; and you shouldn’t hide.

© Suzanne Tucker | 123RF.com

© Suzanne Tucker | 123RF.com

We lose some of the power of the metaphor today as we live with electricity in huge cities, where darkness is typically an annoyance or inconvenience, not something that stops human work and activity until the sun comes up the next day. Rural living or wilderness vacations get moderns closer to an understanding of the image. Until the widespread use of electricity, nightfall was DARK. A city on a hill, with its cooking fires and torches would have been an incredible contrast to the surrounding darkness. You could not hide it.

Conversely, it makes no sense to light an oil lamp and then put a basket over it. You put it on a lamp stand where it can illuminate the entire room. Now the light from an oil lamp doesn’t compete well with that from even a forty-watt light bulb. But recall how grateful you were to get that one candle lit when your electricity went out and the batteries in your flashlight were dead.

Notice also the contrast between the light of a city on a hill that can’t be hidden and that of an oil lamp that could be hidden. The disparity of the two images suggests that, whether your “light” is big or small, you shouldn’t try to hide it. It makes no sense and ultimately can’t be done. Rather, let it shine so others can see it.

The “light” is the light of righteousness in verse 5:10 that is ultimately from Jesus Christ. He is the great light who has dawned upon those dwelling in darkness (Matthew 4:16). He is the light of the world (John 8:12). His disciples, those who have been brought out of the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of light (Colossians 1:12-13), are to now live as children of the light (Ephesians 5:8). Again turning to Sinclair Ferguson:

Jesus is underlining the challenge, which is stated so clearly in his Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20): the whole world is to be our sphere of influence. To reduce it to anything less would be tantamount to restricting the power, authority, and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is not a Christianized “jihad,” calling for forced conversion or subjection. The light of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount is seen in his disciples as they are poor in spirit, mourning for sin, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers in their daily lives with other “earth” people living in this world. “In the same way, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mathew 5:16).

Parallel to the followers of Jesus living out the beatitudes as they are salt and light to the world, members of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) put their program into action as well. Bill W. said repeatedly that “A.A. is more than a set of principles; it is a Society of alcoholics in action. We must carry the message, else we ourselves can wither and those who haven’t been given the truth will die.” You can find this statement in The Language of the Heart (p. 160), Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (p. 139), and the pamphlet, A.A.’s Legacy of Service.

In A.A. Comes of Age, Bill added that action was the magic word. “Action to carry A.A.’s message is therefore the heart of our Third Legacy of Service.” He defined A.A.  service as “anything whatever that helps us to reach a fellow sufferer—ranging from the Twelfth Step itself to a ten-cent phone call and a cup of coffee. . . .  The sum total of all these services is our Third Legacy of Service.” The Twelfth Step reads: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and practice these principles in all our affairs.” The linked pamphlet, A.A.’s Legacy of Service, goes on to tell some of the early history of A.A. More detail of that history, focusing on the Three Legacies, can be found in The Language of the Heart and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.

The life of service and recovery within A.A. is not identical to that described by Jesus within the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples. But I suspect they would all agree with this statement from Bill W.’s “Step Twelve” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: “True ambition in not what we thought it was. True ambition is the deep desire to live usefully and walk humbly under the grace of God.”

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”