Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and for me, it has also been a formidable challenge to full participation in a 12 step based recovery program. One of the fundamental tenets of AA is that of spiritual inclusivity. Most members would agree that belief in some sort of higher power is essential to working the program and the subsequent recovery from an alcoholic hell. Per careful emphasis on this in the literature, the nature and origin of this power is immaterial, save that is in some vague sense more powerful than oneself.
And while many alcoholics come into the program with negative experiences with and prejudices against traditional religious theologies and deities, some are actually happy to import previously known gods into their recovery. However, some of these deities and belief systems, by design, by definition, stake an exclusive claim on truth and reality. That this god or that is the only real one. Monotheistic religions are, of course, examples of this conviction. So, according to this belief, any other AA’s higher power that is different simply does not exist. Is entirely fictional!
Add to that those newbies who have no established idea of any sort of higher power, those that are often told to simply sit down and write out the characteristics they want theirs to have – to, as it were, create a god ex nihilo from wishful imagination. By implication, then, AA recognizes a whole glut of powers-greater-than-its-members, many of which did not exist before their creation out of the vacuum.
What, then, is one to make of this pseudo-Meinongian pantheon? This twelve step Olympus whose denizen’s are either figments of some drunk’s imagination or heretical false idols? And this is ignoring those who choose to tap into things other than beings (e.g. AA as a whole, the home group, the Good Orderly Direction principle, inanimate objects, etc.) to provide the power necessary to recover.
At this point, I feel compelled to concede that for many people, over a long period of time, this approach has worked. Whatever AA’s actual efficacy rates are (who knows?), it has helped a great number of alcoholics precisely because of this nebulous spirituality. I have heard too many shares testifying to this to assert otherwise. The message has been transmitted successfully among countless alcoholics of wildly divergent theologies and canonically xenophobic higher powers.
But. There are those like myself who came into the program having been raised as, for example, a Christian, having been blessed with an innate sense of belief in and sense of the existence of one all powerful deity. I did not arrive with any sort of resentment against organized religion, like so many have, aside from the belief that some among its various congregations were knuckleheads. Of course, that charge could be leveled against any segment of society whatsoever. Indeed, in meetings, if often seems cool, de rigeur, to have a chip on one’s shoulder against Catholicism or Baptists or whatever. So prevalent is this sentiment among alcoholics that there is an entire chapter of the Big Book (We Agnostics) devoted to it.
So, this set up, from the get-go, a conceptual conflict in my mind between the program’s ultra-inclusive acceptance of all spiritual traditions and the unequivocally monotheistic nature of the Christian belief to which I subscribe. If I am true to my faith, can I, in good conscience, instruct someone (i.e. a sponsee) to turn his will and life over to the care of what I believe to be a phantom? A list of attributes concocted in his mind or an inanimate object? To expect that fiction (fictional according to what I consider to be a sacred text) to contribute the extra power required for recovery would be, essentially, to deny my own beliefs. And the Judeo-Christian world is not the only one that does not want to distribute true divinity among multiple powers. See Islam. See Baha’i. See Sikhism. So how am I to square the various theological commitments required by my faith with, like it or not, what has been a life saving program for many with beliefs at least similar to my own?
The answer at which I have arrived, after much thought and soul searching, is… wait for it… Don’t worry about it! There are many powers in this world greater than any individual. There is, indeed, an entire hierarchy of such forces: groups or mobs of people, legally sanctioned entities (police, courts, military, etc.), and biological imperatives are but a few examples. And if someone chooses to tap one of these powers for the strength necessary to recover, then the goal has been achieved. Embrace the hobgoblin, accept the diminutive mind, and live. At the end of the day, my, and presumably others’ participation in AA has one overarching goal: to be sober and sane and alive. It is not to proselytize or save souls That task belongs elsewhere.
The shift in perception for me is, however profound the above conflict is in my overactive, think-everything-to-a-bloody-pulp mind, so, so simple. As hinted at above, it is simply a matter of case recognition: my God is the Power (capital P), others’ can be found among the many other higher powers (lowercase p) undeniably in the world.
And if the price is being in such a program and having such a life is to slide down the aisle of my faith to accommodate a slight apostasy, AA’s Lego theism, then I consider that a worthwhile bargain.