Transcendence, the “God of My Understanding”
Theism as a Cultural Heirloom
As a non-theist, it is often difficult to talk about the God of Western culture without offending someone. Even if individuals aren’t theologians, there is a tendency to fall back into a default mode with any discussion about God.
In that mode, some go on the defensive trying to protect what is considered sacred and allegedly timeless, not because they are necessarily connected to a specific sky-god theology, but because the culture has committed itself to a belief in an exterior anthropomorphic deity.
Inside of this mind-set, any discussion of God can descend into a defense of a Western cultural norm, a societal commitment that must be protected because traditionalists often believe that a culture will lose its integrity if it gives up its theocentric beliefs.
For many, protecting the cultural territory of theocentrism as a national or familial heirloom, begins to become a form of secularized theology. Many of these secular God-believers do not belong to any institutional religion but will always say they “believe in God,” even though they often pride themselves on not being a Bible thumper or a rabid church-goer.
In some way it’s comparable to protecting a family name from scandal because of the fear that a family’s very name runs the risk of anonymity. And there is nothing worse for a family’s legend than invisibility.
Practicing Christians, of course, do believe in the existence of an exterior divinity. However, the linguistic scaffolding that has been built to support that belief goes beyond just a church service, a sacred text, like the Bible, or a Christian motivational gathering. It exists in countless informal expressions—“God Bless You”; “God forbid”; “God knows why”; or “There but for the grace of God”—expressions that still connect Western society to some form of linguistic mode that continues to pay homage to a Christian, theocentric heritage.
It is that same heritage that exists in one of the central books of Alcoholics Anonymous—the Twelve and Twelve.
The Theocentrism of Alcoholics Anonymous
Although AA claims not to support any particular theology, the language of AA often belies that disclaimer. When the word “God” is referred to close to one hundred forty times in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, it is difficult to justify AA’s theocentric neutrality.
God does not just “exist” in the Twelve and Twelve. He exists in an exclusively male form. He is portrayed as having a “Will” and as a being capable of “restoring” alcoholics and addicts “to sanity.” He is referred as the “God of our fathers”; that he will “intercede” or “guide”; that He will “help”; that He “knows all about us”; and that He will dispense “grace” and perform “miracles.”
I, obviously, cannot speak for other non-theists in AA, like myself, who continue to go to meetings. But I have made my peace with the theocentric language of the Twelve and Twelve and the other literature of AA. I may occasionally lapse into my disgruntled mode because of Christianity’s terrible track record of intolerance over the centuries. (“Intolerance” doesn’t quite match up with the atrocities of the Inquisition, the many heresy trials, and the Crusades. Nor does the word accurately reflect the centuries of enforced celibacy of the Catholic clergy and the self-flagellating rituals of the medieval monks and nuns.)
Although I don’t subscribe to an exterior, first-cause anthropomorphic divinity, I have experienced the transcendent and I have experienced, for lack of a better term, miracles on my recovery journey.
Transcendence: Connections and the Generative Power
For me, the divinity I have experienced in recovery continues to occur in those moments of transcendence and in events that I cannot explain as just coincidence.
As I began to gain more years on my recovery journey, I could actually feel myself opening up and energized by some hidden power that emotionally, even viscerally, connected to me to an event, a person, a circumstance, an image, a sound, even a memory. These connections were my moments of transcendence that continue to take me beyond the more mundane events of my daily life like filling up the gas tank or paying the rent.
These transcendent moments have a wide range–a spontaneous image of my father in his garden; a photograph of my step-mother; my son walking across a motel balcony; my daughter justifying her negative reaction to a film; a Bach sonata; a newspaper photo of two young Iraq children holding on to each other as they look at the body of their father; a granddaughter rushing up to me after a recital.
The transcendence does not exist in the image or event itself. It is in the emotional reaction I have to those images and events. I literally feel the visceral connection to them in the form of grief, serenity, or joy. The emotional reaction I have becomes a transcendent experience underscoring the psychic change I can feel going on inside of me.
I also experience transcendence in the form of what I am going to call the “generative power,” the opening up of my psyche to new perceptions, insights, and even a new way of informing those perceptions and insights through language and imagination.
There are many in the AA program who would attribute these transcendent, generative-power moments to an anthropomorphic God infusing me with some kind of new intimacy just because I chose a program of sobriety to get on with my life.
Grace Versus the Divine Core Within
In this sense, traditionalists portray psychic changes as a form of God-given “grace.” Grace, however, is a word that refers to a “gift from God” to the “unworthy.” Within this grace model, God is a supernatural gift-giver arbitrarily dispensing motivational responses strong enough to “overcome” all obstacles, including addiction, alcoholism, resentments, fear, and, of course, all the other Seven Deadly Sins.
Within this model, of course, we are all “unworthy”–a concept constantly reaffirmed with expressions like “Lord, I am not worthy” and “Of myself, I am nothing.” And being undeserving, Christian traditionalists continue to defer to the arbitrariness of a God who may or may not choose to inculcate positive motivational responses into humans’ behaviors, responses that will overcome, either immediately, or in the long run, our many flaws.
That grace-giving model, of course, I do not accept. For I believe that, except for the few who come into this world with pathological circuity, we are all born with a divinity-within core of generativity, spontaneity, and positive instinctive emotional responses, the aspects of our psyches that allow us to open up to the world in very transcendent, spiritual ways—the divinity-within, if you will.
Over time, many, if not most of us, have that generative core covered over with societal demands, manufactured social roles, and all forms of addictions and obsessions—the negative realities that manage to suffocate the innocent core we came into the world with when we were born.
So, if there is no exterior God responsible for my connecting to the world on an intimate level, how do I discover the lost core of my innocense, intuitiveness, spontaneity what can be the cause for my evolving internalizations of all kinds of generative emotions?
Surrender, Self-Examination, Service: A Path to Transcendence
Well, I believe, that practicing some kind of recovery program to train ourselves into being an internal part of our worlds is a good way to start. The program I have chosen is AA. It is one that, through surrender, self-examination, service, connecting with people who have an honest program themselves, and through serene moments away from the frantic rush of my daily life, I believe it is possible to experience transcendent moments, moments that would have been frozen out of my life with booze.
Over my many years in the program, I have discovered that God, for me, is not an Übermensch. God is not a person. God does not have a race, ethnicity, or sexuality. God does not wear a crown or sport a manicured beard. God is not an invisible divine force guiding or changing me through any gift of “grace.” God does not take responsibility for me as a hovering force watching and judging my every action or thought. And God is not the Grand Overseer of infinity. Nor does God require venues of eternal reward and punishment.
But the “God of my understanding” is the Grand Reality of transcendence, taking me out of myself while, at the same time, engaging me, in a very transformative way, to the generative realities of love, grief, and joy, among other internalized reactions.
These reactions were denied me in my alcoholic-driven chronic depressions. They were the dark states preventing me from any kind of emotional surrender and transparency. In my active alcoholism, my depressive psyche was the hidden hand inside the glove of confidence and stability that everyone saw on the surface of my life.
Once I began to get sober and once I surrendered to honest self-examination and service, among the other steps of the AA program, I began to open up and to discover my own internalized moments of transcendence that are all the reifications of the “God of my understanding.”
Steps two, three, six, seven, and eleven—the God steps I call them—became much easier for me, over time, because I “came to believe” in the power of a transcendence that actively changed my life.
That belief is not a dogma that has been handed down to me. It is not embodied in a table of Commandments. And it is not determined by a church hierarchy.
It is a belief in the Higher Power of transcendence that comes from the experience of surrender. I rest my case.