Non-Theists in Alcoholics Anonymous
“God” is mentioned a little over one hundred and thirty times in the AA Twelve-and-Twelve book, a book that lays out all the steps with in-depth commentary about the meaning of those steps.
There can be little doubt that the co-founders of AA, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, were deeply steeped in the 1930s orthodox Christian notion of that God.
In all of the AA literature, God is always male. And “He” is portrayed as an intervener, a grace-giver, a miracle-worker, a creator, and a caring, non-judgmental patriarch. Hell and Heaven may be absent from the literature, but an activist, intervening divinity is vividly present as a kind of divine co-partner and activist healer of the recovering alcoholic and addict.
Although the dyed-in-the-wool AA old-timers would say that the existence of God is not a dogma or a faith requirement of the program, the many God references and the listing of the commonly believed traits of that God, as a patriarchal, activist miracle-worker and giver of grace fits in with the ancient Judeo-Christian belief that God can be a pro-active force in one’s life to bring about miraculous, healing changes (the “imminent” always-available-always-in-contact God as opposed to the aloof and detached transcendent God existing in some cosmic world beyond the grasp of ordinary humans).
There are two exceptions to the orthodox portrayal of God in the AA literature. There is no mention of an eternal reward or punishment. And there is no requirement that you must believe in any one notion of God or the Higher Power.
However, the orthodox God-language would clearly indicate a heavy bias in favor of a traditional interventionist divinity, with all the bells and whistles of a caring, anthropomorphic übermensch patriarch with supernatural powers.
Many of us in the program are not sky-god enthusiasts. We are active participants in the steps, at meetings, and in service work. But we see God more as a metaphor, rather than a theologically certain or even literal reality.
God and/or the Higher Power can be a linguistic way of expressing a cause of the transformations those of us in the program see and experience every day—more humility, an ability to surrender our faults, a willingness to change old behavior and to do service work, a connection to others, and, for many of us, a stronger sense of the ineffable—the mystery behind the mystery of those changes.
Some non-theists see the process of steps one and four through twelve as the sole cause for the many behavioral changes resulting from an active working of those steps.
To many of us who don’t subscribe to any sky-god traditions, steps two and three, the came-to-believe steps, smack too much of the “instant conversion” language of the more evangelical Christian tradition—the St Paul, knock-you-off-your-horse variety. Or those television evangelist moments when a healing minister pushes his palm against the forehead of a surrendering victim who swoons backwards into a crowd of men, their hands and arms gently cushioning the fall of the victim as he/she suddenly feels the rapture of being healed of their blindness, their cancer, their rheumatoid arthitis.
I don’t know of anyone in the program who has been instantly converted to sobriety in steps two or three. Those steps have, no doubt, given many of us the comfort of knowing that “all things are possible.” Or that one’s own unaided will is just not enough to stay sober, in the fullest sense of that term.
However, many of us who live outside the circle of sky-god traditions have certainly experienced “something” larger than ourselves in the rooms of AA.
I heard one woman in the rooms recently refer to that “something” as an energy, what the mystics and non-materialists might call an élan vitale, a vital, living force gently moving the surrendering sober struggler through the steps of the program. And a force that seems to gradually release the core of our connectedness, our compassion, our good will, our faith in possibility, our service, our willingness to surrender, our adult responsibility, and our ability to assimilate and to accommodate all the varieties of changes in our lives—physical, relational, mental, psychological, intellectual, emotional.
Some people call this élan God. This particular God for many in the program may very well be the God of their traditional faiths. But, definitely a more expansive God than they have ever experienced in their faith traditions. In fact, this new God experience seems to become a much more personal God, the God they had ritualized into a Sunday or Saturday service or into a very superficial mantra from an ancient text. But definitely a God they had lost contact with, or even abandoned in their active alcoholism or addiction.
For some non-sky god AA followers, like myself, this vital force is very transformative. And it is definitely beyond the horizon of the physical, although the physical cravings for a drink do, for the most part, diminish over time (Unless, of course, jump-started by a moment of vulnerability, stress, or cocky confidence)
For the non-theists in AA, this élan vitale is definitely not an anthropomorphized übermensch. But it is, without a doubt, something ineffable, a mystery behind the mystery of all the ever evolving changes we experience in the program. And it is definitely transformative—although not instantly, as some might suggest might in referring to the reductionist phrase, “there is a solution.”
As I have said many times before, this vital force behind, within, and activated in us in the program remains a mystery for me. But it is a mystery I see fleshed out in AA through a variety of venues: the literature, the meetings, the journey through the steps, the stories of successes, failures, conflict, struggle, even the drunkalogs at the tables.
On another level, this transformative mystery is always manifested in action, in responsibility, in service, in self-inventory, in amends, in stillness (or meditation and/or prayer), in a desire to make things right, and in those moments of psychological expansiveness when we begin to feel compassion, love, benevolence (what the Buddhists refer to as maitri) or even grief, the grief for ourselves and others that we’ve been holding back in the years of our active drinking and using.