Many Journeys, Many Paths in Alcoholics Anonymous
Diversity of Spiritual Journeys in AA
Some of us in twelve-step recovery programs have never belonged to a religious institution. Some once belonged but have left. Some are still emotionally connected to their religious heritages, even though they do not practice their religions.
There are a minority in recovery programs who have chosen Buddhism, a non-theistic sect. If they are practicing Buddhists they participate in daily rituals: chanting; silent, sitting meditation; or walking meditation.
Others in twelve-step programs have developed a very eclectic collage of practices, values, and beliefs they have gleaned from Pema Chödrön, Osho, Krishnamurti, Andrew Cohen, Deepak Chopra, Gurdjieff, among others
There is a vast number in recovery programs who remain attached to their Judeo-Christian heritages and continue to practice their faiths of choice.
Theism and Animism
Put any one of these groups into a twelve-step recovery room, however, and they all seem to be able to get along. There may be some under-cover prejudices that, occasionally, surface at times. But most of the meetings I have attended in my home town and in other parts of North America have all been pretty open minded. (Full disclosure: I have not attended meetings in any Bible-belt sections of the United States or Canada.)
To anyone who reads the literature of AA and NA, it is clear that the spiritual language that is most favored is theistic. The words God, creator, ultimate reality, Higher Power—words that are frequently used in the literature—all suggest a power that precedes the world, as we know it. They also suggest a superior animate presence that creates, directs, and controls reality.
Animist religions are known, of course, for their belief in a living spirit or spirits, sometimes in incarnated forms that exist in an exterior world (sky-gods, angels, devils,demons, saints). Animist devotees often believe that these spirits sometimes make themselves known by occasional physical “appearances” in the world (Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Lourdes are the two most notable sky-goddess examples the Catholic Church has enshrined as tourist attractions).
These exterior spirits are often perceived as having supernatural powers to control, guide, or restrain human behavior. Evangelical Christian religions believe that individuals can be “taken over” by the “spirit” of God to be emotionally cleansed, or to be released of suffering, pain, sickness.
There is also tradition within Christianity that believes that individuals can be controlled by the demons or devils to such a degree that a clergyman, specializing in exorcism, needs to be called in.
Grace-Believers and Pantheists
Although the traditional Christians I have met in AA are not, for the most part, a group that adheres to the extremes of exorcism or miraculous appearances of an embodied supernatural entity, it is not unusual for many traditional Christians in AA to talk about “God’s presence” or “God’s will” in their lives.
They speak of that God as a palpable existence in their daily activities, an animist force that extends a certain “grace” to them as “unworthy” individuals (the origin of the word “grace” comes from the ancient Greek meaning “gift to the unworthy”).
This grace many Christian AAers believe, propels them to do good, to “pause” and think before reacting, to have compassion even for those they don’t like, to detach themselves from all the temptations of lust, greed, avarice, gluttony, vanity, among many of the “deadly sins” that can tempt them.
Pantheism is another form of animism. It believes that a living spirit exists in all of nature—trees, water, flowers, animals, the sun, the moon. That living spirit is often used to explain the life-and-death cycles of the seasons and the “life energy” that exists in the natural world in general.
To a classic Pantheist, all nature has a living, breathing, pulse of energy from a deep canyon in the Rockies to a blazing sunset on Cape Cod.
Yes, Virginia, there are Pantheists in AA and NA. They are often undercover. But they love the outdoors. They love the cycles of nature. The love to camp and hike. And they seem to be born travelers, hunters, fishermen, explorers, tourists to exotic places.
Pantheist AAers find solace and peace in nature. They enjoy meditative walks in a park, along a river gorge, on a beach. Nature for pantheists is a living, breathing, energized force in their lives.
So, how does one reconcile all of these diverse spiritual “paths,” even though the AA literature keeps pulling us back to very traditional Christian notions of an exterior, omnipresent, omniscient, all-controlling divinity.
For many of us, this creationist, all knowing, all controlling-divinity and giver-of- grace model that many Christians adhere to is more symbolic than real. It is a metaphorical paradigm that speaks to possibility, mystery, humility, and transcendence.
The model’s literalness, we believe, stems from a very limited repertoire of explanation-models that the founders of AA had available to them at the time. Bill W and Doctor Bob had no other way to explain what they saw as a “miraculous” recovery program, gradual, sometimes instant epiphanies, and new ways so many of us have found to live without a drink.
How Resilient Would Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Be Today?
That is not to say that Bill and Doctor Bob had been hoodwinked or perversely conditioned into their faith of choice. I truly believe that they had “fallen” very gently and wisely into a “received-wisdom” Christian tradition that would later prove to be expansive, resilient, and open to new “paths” (For the cynics, I often return to the 12-step phrase, “We tread many paths”).
And the 12-step book specifically refers to the “educational variety” of changes and attitudes that so many of us have experienced in the program. They are intrinsically evolved changes we experience as a result of some kind of “surrender” to possibilities other than our own often hard-edged will.
These metamorphoses could not be explained by the founders of AA in any other way but through the traditional linguistic paths of Christianity—miracles, a creationist God (the ultimate cause), lightening-bolt epiphanies, prayer, and sin, all the orthodox phrases so many of us grew up believing in.
AA is Not Theology
And, in my judgment, it’s all good. However, the 12-step program is not theology. The program does not say that I will be “rewarded” with an eternal state of bliss if I work the program. Nor does it conversely say that I will be “condemned to Hell” for my failures in the program.
However, the 12 steps are all the ways we use to find some kind of spiritual, psychological, moral, emotional direction and path. For some of us, Steps 2 and 3 are “ways” and “indicators” of our surrender to whatever is not ours to control—sickness, failure, debt, emotional breakdowns, death, all the embodiments of a higher power of reality that my own will cannot conquer.
If I am open and surrender, those realities (the “Way” in Daoism) enter into my world, I internalize them, and they “change” me irrevocably. Nothing fancy. But it is the “Way” I truly “come to believe” is far more transcendent than any act of human will.
So whether you’re a Bible-believing Christian, an eight-fold path follower, a Pantheist, an Osho realist, a Daoist, or an Evolutionary Enlightenment devotee, the AA rooms are very large and very inclusive. You may be sitting next to an old-time-religion evangelist one night, to a quiet Buddhist, another. Or to a woman who who has a brought a book by Osho at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting.
Somebody else’s non-traditional spiritual path may not comfort us or reflect the theology we know. But it is path that comes under the heading of one, among, “many paths” referred to in Step Two of the Twelve and Twelve book.
The trick is to surrender even to spiritual paths that are “foreign” to us. In the end, it’s wonderful Step 2, 3, and 11 practice.