Twelve-Step Program, Another View
In my city, there’s a cadre of AAers who treat the program as a ritualized boot camp and see the steps as a military-like list of prescribed mandates, rather than “guides to progress.” Within this model, sponsors tend to see themselves as drill sergeants commanding the uninitiated through the twelve steps.
The Twelve-Steps Sequence, a Natural Order or a Human Construct?
There are also many who believe the sequence of the steps reflects a kind of natural order of events for recovering alcoholics and addicts in the program. Each step is seen as an inevitable awakening-like process, even though the order of the steps reflects a strong theological bias, particularly in the second and third steps—the “came-to-believe-in-a-power-greater-than-myself” steps I call them.
Those specific steps are placed early in the program suggesting that nothing in the program can be accomplished without some kind of “higher power” guiding those in recovery through the process of the program. According to this more traditional view, some recoverers call this higher power “God,” with grace-giving abilities capable of transforming behavior and attitudes.
Top-Down, Caring Male Sky-God or Mystical, Transformative Force From Within?
Placing the “came-to-believe” steps early in the Twelve-Step program strongly suggests that it is that “belief” that guides the rest of the AA twelve-step program. In that sense, the program is often observed as a kind of cover for a grace-driven, theo-centric paradigm.
This would all suggest that traditional twelve-step programs are very, very top-down and that no recovery is possible without a “Higher Power,” which, if we are to believe the number of times “God,” is referred to in the literature, is the ultimate exterior source of transformative behaviors in the program. (It is the same top-down philosophy that is mirrored in the more boot-camp mentality of those who see the steps as rules and sponsorship as exclusively directive)
It is very clear that credal-like language of the AA program is a Judeo-Christian carry-over from centuries of religious tradition, biblical texts, and clerical dominance. Bill and Bob, the founders of AA, were certainly steeped in that tradition and were culture-bound in trying to explain the mystery behind why the program works for so many people.
An “at-the-top-of-the-Chain-of-Being” God and a “from-the-top-of-the-mountain” Higher Power, in a very real sense, comprised the default mode of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy that Bill and Bob infused into the AA program. As a result, they went into that mode of the Western Christian notion of an übermensch God as creator, miracle-worker, a grace-giver, and a nurturer—essentially, an immanant, compassionate deity selectively intervening on behalf of those surrendering to their recovery.
One of the more redeeming aspects of this gentler top-down model is that the AA deity is not a judge or punishment giver seated behind a cosmic control panel but an interventionist advocate, a divine transformational force always in a “care” mode.
AA’s deity, although certainly “male,” is, in my judgment, more in tune with the Judeo-Christian mystical androgynous tradition of God as care-giver, even lover, more specifically, the “Rose-of-Sharon” lover from the Old Testament Psalms.
It is that mystical notion of God that continues to appeal to me in the program. It is not a power-in-the-sky God, but an imminant, transformational force that exists on the horizontal plane of our most loving, compassionate, nurturing selves. And it is a blossoming, creative, and I-am-in-your sorrow-and-joy energy that pulls me into my deepest humanity, my “best self,” mein bessres ich, as the Schuman lieder tells us.
God as Metaphor For Energy Source of “Strength Moments,” Right Action, Right Thinking
God and the Higher Power, to many of us, are also metaphoric expressions that refer to an inexplicable energy that continues to keep spinning what I call “strength-moments.”
These strength-moments often come in the form of awakenings, insights, new perceptions, and a strong sense of being reconnected to the world. Or these moments can be times of knowing how and when to do the next right thing (taking a shower, paying the rent, visiting a relative in the hospital, calling a friend in the program, making payments on a student loan, being present for a parent’s illness, looking for a job, simplifying our life-styles).
Or these moments can take the form of being more open to change, especially change in our attitudes about life and the people in our lives. I have not taken count of how many times I have observed people in the program gradually opening up, becoming more responsible, getting out of their self-centered shells, developing a very evident sense of humility and deference, or giving up a need to control. (Some of these need-to-dominate personalities, I have observed, still manage to assert themselves in group conscience settings and district meetings. But, in general, the groups manage to collectively temper those personalities.)
Energy, the mystery behind the mystery, the vital force that keeps spinning its web of change. That is what I have experienced in the AA twelve-step program. It is that from-below, blossoming, spinning energy that takes me out of the realm of the God of my cultural heritage, the vertical, hierarchical, I-am-at-the-top God (although a much gentler, caring deity) that, in my judgment, gets to hold too much sway in the program.
And it is that God that I have evolved out of. So much so that I have come out in the program as a non-theist, even though I have experienced the transcendent and that mysterious spinning, spiritual energy of connection, awe, the mystical, intimate force of vulnerability, love, compassion, and wonder—the energy that keeps me grounded in what the Buddhists call right action and right thinking.
It is this grounding energy I see as an ever evolving intangible force that acts both as a cause and an effect of self-reflection (the fourth and tenth steps), surrender (first, sixth, seventh), humility (eighth and ninth steps), silence and stillness (the eleventh step), and service (the twelfth step and taking on responsibility roles in the meetings), and connection and relationships (meetings and sponsorship).
And it is this non-hierarchical web of mystical energy, combined with the steps, an active participation in group meetings, and one-on-one sponsorship that all work together to effect the changes that I have seen, first-hand in the sometimes raggedy, but, more often than not, clear-sailing twenty-nine year journey I have had in AA.