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.


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.


Won’t Money Spoil This Thing?

image credit: iStock

image credit: iStock

In November of 1937, Bill Wilson and other early A.A. members were asked this question by Albert Scott when they met with him and others in a meeting held in John D. Rockefeller’s private boardroom. The then unnamed fellowship was looking for financial support from Rockefeller for their idea to develop a small specialized hospital to treat alcoholics. In the end, only $5,000 was approved to pay off the mortgage of Dr. Bob Smith’s home and provide a weekly draw of $30 for both Bill and Dr. Bob. Bill was bitterly disappointed at the time because he had envisioned a chain of treatment hospitals staffed with paid A.A. workers.

That wasn’t the end of Bill’s vision for the professionalism of the A.A. way. In his essay on the Sixth Tradition, Bill said “We tried A.A. hospitals—they all bogged down.” He related other outside attempts of education and reform that ultimately led to the conviction A.A. should not endorse any related enterprise, regardless of how good it seemed. “We of Alcoholics Anonymous could not be all things to all men, nor should we try.”

This “school of hard knocks” resulted in the formal acknowledgement of its non-professionalism within the Twelve Traditions. Tradition Six reads:  “An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.” This primary purpose, embodied in Tradition Five, was “to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” Tradition Seven further voiced what was called A.A.’s “collective poverty” in stating that: “Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.”

The clear language of Tradition Eight states: “Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional.”  Bill began his essay with this paragraph:

Alcoholics Anonymous will never have a professional class. We have gained some understanding of the ancient words, “Freely ye have received, freely give.” We have discovered that at the point of professionalism, money and spirituality do not mix. Almost no recovery from alcoholism has ever been brought about by the world’s best professionals, whether medical or religious. We do not decry professionalism in other fields, but we accept the sober fact that it does not work for us. Every time we have tried to professionalize our Twelfth Step, the result has been exactly the same: Our single purpose has been defeated.

It isn’t too hard to find someone critical of Alcoholics Anonymous or Twelve Step recovery these days. One of these critics is Dr. Lance Dodes, author of The Sober Truth. Dr. Dodes has professional credibility. He is a trained psychoanalyst; a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School; the former director of the substance abuse treatment unit of McLean Hospital and more.

Listening to his interview on NPR, you will here him claim that: “the success rate of AA is between 5 and 10 percent.” And then he stated that the studies that have claimed to show that AA is scientifically useful are “riddled with scientific errors.” Further, A.A. is also “harmful to the 90 percent who don’t do well.” Significantly, he noted where A.A. describes itself as a “brotherhood” (or fellowship) rather than a treatment.

A.A. is not treatment, but often gets lumped in with the Rehab industry, as within the subtitle of Dodes’ book: “Debunking the Bad Science Behind Twelve-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry.” Dr. Dodes is just the newest in a long line of critics of both A.A. and the addiction treatment industry. His dismissed studies supporting the usefulness of A.A. as “riddled with scientific errors,” and declared that: “AA probably has the worst success rate in all of medicine.”

Another long time Twelve Step recovery critic is Stanton Peele. Dr. Peele has been around since 1975, when he was the co-author of Love and Addiction. His latest book is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program. I’ve read several of his other books and found some of his thinking useful. One idea from The Diseasing of America that I’ve used regularly over the years was his distinction between three generations of “disease” (physical ailments, mental disorders, and addictions). You can read his recent thoughts on addiction and recovery in these blog posts on The Fix: “The New Recovery” and “Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate People into AA.”

Because of its traditions, (Tradition Ten: “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversies.”) A.A. will not respond to these criticisms. So if you want more information on A.A., you’ll have to go to some open A.A. meetings and see for yourself what A.A. is all about. They don’t charge admission; it’s free. You can also subscribe to this blog and receive a free copy of my ebook, “The Age of Miracles is Still with Us,” which examines data from periodic membership surveys by A.A.

If you want to know more about what Drs. Dodes and Peele think about A.A., try their latest books: Recover! for $16.66 or The Sober Truth for $20.50 on Amazon.

Has the professionalization of Twelve Step recovery in the Rehab industry brought unfair criticism onto A.A.?



Judging Others is a Two-Way Street

“To escape looking at the wrongs we have done another, we resentfully focus on the wrong he has done us.” Bill Wilson wrote this in his Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions essay on Step Eight. But the wisdom of these words applies to all of us who resentfully judge others. In the Sermon on the Mount, it seems that Jesus agrees with Bill.

In Matthew 7:1-6, Jesus taught about the consequences of judging others. In essence, he begins by saying in verses one and two: “First you have to realize that if you aren’t judgmental of others, then you won’t be judged harshly yourself.” This discussion seems to be a more narrow application of the golden rule set forth in verse 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Doing to others what you want them to do to you summarizes the spiritual teaching of the Scriptures on how we should relate to others. Another way this is expressed is by the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” originally found in Leviticus 19:9. In Matthew 22:39, Jesus said that loving your neighbor was the second greatest commandment after loving God.

The word translated as “judge” in Matthew 7:1-2, krinõ, is used with the sense that the act of judgment is done in order to somehow influence the life and behavior of another. Judging is then a two-way street. When you judge others, you are saying to God that you also want to be judged or influenced by Him. So be careful in your judgment of others, because you’ll get the same thing back. What goes around, comes around.

In the next three verses Jesus uses hyperbole (the speck and log language) to illustrate what too often happens with judgment aimed at influencing others.  In his commentary on Matthew, Craig Blomberg said we often criticize others when we have much more serious shortcomings in our own lives. Particularly when we treat fellow believers (brothers) that way, we are hypocrites; phonies or pretenders. Nevertheless, we are not off the hook entirely. “Rather, once we have dealt with our own sins, we are then in a position gently and lovingly to confront and try to restore others who have erred.”

In counseling, I simplify this teaching by telling people the following. Whenever you find yourself wanting to point a finger at someone else, stop and look at yourself first. There may be one finger pointing at the other person, but there are three fingers pointing back to you.  What’s going on with you that you want to point a finger at someone else?

Verse six is an odd expression, and perhaps even opposed to what Jesus has just said in verses one through five. It seems that he is addressing the opposite extreme to what came before. In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus addressed the error of being too harsh when judging others. Here he cautions against being too lax. So you can think of what is being said by adding the phrase On the one hand …” before 7:1-5; and then “But on the other hand …”before verse six.

There is a literary structure called a chiasm in verse six, that was used in both biblical Greek and Hebrew to reinforce the message of what was being said. A chiasm (or chiasmus) is a writing style that uses a specific repetitive pattern for emphasis. So the chiastic structure of verse six would be:

“Do not give what is holy to the dogs,

and do not throw your pearls in front of pigs,

lest they trample them with their feet

and [lest they, the dogs] turn and tear you to pieces.”

This then communicates more sensibly that the dogs are doing the turning and tearing, while the pigs are doing the trampling. Craig Blomberg noted how the terms “dogs” and “pigs” were both regularly used as derogatory epithets for Gentiles in ancient Judaism. There is also the possibility that Jesus is quoting or paraphrasing a proverb, much as we hear the saying “don’t cast your pearls before swine” used in modern English. Jesus thus commands us here not to give what is holy, what is from God, to dogs and pigs; they won’t appreciate it.

There seems to be a contrasting parallel here between “brothers” and “dogs,” which is similar to that of the “wise” and “fools” (or scoffers) in Proverbs. So then here Jesus is giving advice similar to that found in Proverbs 13:1 (and other passages): “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.” Then the Matthew passage is saying, don’t be judgmental of others or think of yourself as better than them. Take care of your own faults before trying to point out where someone else has a problem.  You get back what you give to others. On the other hand, be careful to whom you give advice. They may turn on you or totally disregard what you have to say.


Where have you found yourself pointing a finger at someone else and what they did?


This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary 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.”


They Tried to Make Me Go to Rehab

Amy Winehouse famously opened her hit song Rehab with the line: “They tried to make me go to rehab but I said, ‘No, no, no.’” The song’s mind-set is the attitude of many who have had to go to “rehab.” Sometimes people just don’t want to stop using drugs or drinking alcohol. And they REALLY don’t like hearing from someone else that they should stop. I work part time as a therapist for a drug and alcohol partial hospitalization program and could see Rehab being the treatment program’s theme song if we ever became a reality TV show.

A yearly survey done by the federal government, The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) estimated in 2007 that of the 19.3 million people who needed treatment for an alcohol use problem, 17.7 million (92%) did not receive it. I’m simply noting here that the vast majority of people who would say “No, no, no” to a rehab recommendation can and do avoid it.  But what about that 8%, those 1.6 million individuals who get to “go, go, go” to rehab?

Reluctant rehabbers through the legal system can be quite resentful when they are court ordered to attend A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings. One such person who had a bad experience is Juliet Abram, writing in The Fix’s blog section. Her post has the provocative title: “Activists or AA Bashers?” She has her own blog, A.A.R.M.E.D. with Facts (Against Abuse in Recovery Meetings & Eliminating the Danger) and a Facebook page. Clearly, she doesn’t like A.A. and seems to have made her critique of it part of her lifestyle changes (I don’t know if she’d want the term “recovery” used). I want to share some of my thoughts on her post, “Activists or AA Bashers?” here.

She objected to the spirituality of A.A., saying it made her uncomfortable to talk about it. With a year left on probation, she started an S.O.S. (Secular Organization for Sobriety) meeting and was told by her probation officer that refusing to go to A.A. could lead to jail time. She also said: “I believe it is beyond the government’s scope of power to prescribe prayer under threat of imprisonment.”

First, it appears she was “court ordered” to 12-Step meetings for the third time, meaning three OVIs (operating a vehicle under the influence). DrivingLaws.org indicated that in Ohio, with a 3rd offense, she faced 30 days to 1 year in jail, a 1 to 10 year license suspension, and $350 to $1,500 in fines and penalties. The higher the BAC level and the more frequent the OVI offenses, the greater the consequences. I’d be mad too. But was going to A.A. meetings and probation initially offered to her instead of jail time? If it was, that’s not a bad deal, even for an atheist.

The threat by her probation officer doesn’t sit right with me unless part of her probation requirements was that she had to attend A.A. or other 12 Step meetings. Then she could potentially face jail time for a probation violation. Her S.O.S. meeting should count for at least one weekly meeting. Maybe she was expected to go to more and didn’t have easy access to alternatives to the A.A. meetings she despised. She also could have had a “hard ass” probation officer. She could have been resistant and challenging to him, which drew the threat of jail time.

Her rhetoric about the government proscribing prayer under threat of imprisonment is over the top. I’ve not heard of forced prayer at A.A. meetings; even those in the Cleveland area. The Cleveland area is historically “hard core.” Dr. Bob lived just south in Akron. But forced prayer is not what happens at an A.A. meeting.

In the A.A. published book, Pass It On, is the story of how the A.A. message reached the world. There, Bill Wilson described how changes like the phrase “God as we understand Him” in the Third Step were suggested as a concession “to those of little or no faith.” These changes were “the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.” (emphasis in the original)

In 1961, Bill 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 in 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 spiritual aspects of A.A. aren’t forced upon anyone. And if there are individuals or a group who sees it as their mission for a newcomer to “get the spiritual angle,” there are plenty of others who aren’t like that. Try an experiment. Pay for access to the A.A. journal, The Grapevine. Then do a search on atheist or atheism and read some of the articles that go back to the 1940s. They seemed to have worked through the spiritual angle to be able to take what they needed for recovery, despite the “God stuff.”


Do you think that mandated attendance to A.A. meetings is akin to “the government proscribing prayer”?