Growing public discussion about the decline of religion, and Christianity in particular, highlights to my mind many things that the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous do right.
Most poignant, perhaps, is that no one is left out. There are no excluded or castigated groups. Everyone is accepted as they are. Christians may be thinking, “Gee, that sounds a lot like Jesus,” but serious observers of religion know that every Christian era has had its pariahs. The Twelve Step tradition meets people where they are, no matter how despicable or lowly that place may be. It doesn’t tell anyone what they must believe to be included. Rather, it simply encourages openness to spiritual possibility. It says, “Healing is possible if you’re willing to reach for it. Here are steps that worked for us.”
The huge irony is some of those most in need of saving grace want nothing to do with God. They’re mad. So mad, they ignore his presence whenever possible, and failing that, they face God with seething resentment. “I was an innocent child! How could you unleash unspeakable abuse against an innocent? What kind of almighty monster are you?” The incidence of childhood trauma among substance abusers has tragic proportions. Is it not logical that, if healing proves elusive, one might at least find an anesthetic within reach?
The Alcoholics Anonymous founders were sensitive to this spiritual hostility, namely because they were agnostic at the beginning of their journeys to recovery, and they didn’t want to discourage other alcoholics from beginning the steps. “We find that no one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program. Willingness, honesty and open mindedness are the essentials of recovery. But these are indispensable.” They knew what looks preposterous at the journey’s beginning morphs into profound truth after spiritual awakening. The Twelve Steps don’t foist the unbelievable on the unbelieving.
For the sake of inclusion, most Twelve Step programs recognize God across many faith traditions, and many interpretations of God are respected. The “higher power” can be understood as the consciousness of the fellowship, in that the group consciousness may offer recovery seekers some power to do what they cannot do on their own. Others find the higher power in nature, a la Mother Earth and Father Sky.
Religious traditions coalesce around common experience and belief. Some are rigid about belief, behavior and belonging while a precious few treasure the richness of their diversity. It seems to me that some of the ancient religious institutions experiencing a decline (moral, cultural, financial….pick a category) could learn something from the Twelve Steps. The steps recognize addiction as a spiritual malady at its root, and thus they invite spiritual growth and intimacy with God. Isn’t that also the aim of religion? Or at least, isn’t that what religion purports its aim to be? While the Twelve Step tradition goes to great lengths to avoid dictating beliefs, it goes to equal lengths to encourage people to expose their lives to the transformational power of God, however they might experience that.
Join the conversation. What could your house of worship learn from the Twelve Steps?
Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.