Spiritual But Not Religious: Forgiveness

Forgiveness just might be the most difficult spiritual work that we do in life.  There are other spiritually difficult tasks, such as putting our trust in a spiritual reality greater than ourselves.  Letting go of attachments to ideas, habits or people that give us sense of security (often a false sense of security) is another difficult one.  Forgiveness requires both trust and letting go.

Forgiveness is the release of resentment and claim to retribution.  It takes a certain emotional energy to keep tabs on what we resent and why.  Sometimes we release resentment because we just don’t have the energy to keep nursing the resentment.  An offender’s expression of sincere remorse can defuse the resentment, making it easier to justify redirecting energy to other things instead.  Forgiveness gets more difficult in the absence of remorse, like if the offender has died or is emotionally incapable of remorse.  Forgiveness is most difficult when it feels like the subject and predicate have flip-flopped.  We may want to be released (passive voice) from the hold the offense has over our psyche rather than releasing (active voice) resentment for it.  How can we reclaim the active voice?

All religious traditions have teachings of one kind or another on forgiveness.  Some practices such as Jewish atonement celebrated at Yom Kippur and the Christian sacrament of reconciliation focus on seeking God’s forgiveness, for which getting forgiveness from others and forgiving others are, respectively, prerequisites.  In my study of how different spiritual traditions approach confession, I was struck by one difference between these religious traditions and the Twelve Steps.  The Fourth Step searching and fearless moral inventory and the Fifth Step admission of wrongs to God, ourselves and another human being are primarily focused not on getting God’s forgiveness but on getting God’s help to change.  That seems immanently more pragmatic to me.

Ultimately, I believe it is also what allows us to reclaim the active voice.  As long as we focus on our resentment, we keep putting the offender in the middle of the situation.  Our injuries impair the way we treat others, and our impaired responses keep dragging our wounded past into our present circumstances.  When we take the offender out of the center and put God there instead, taking responsibility for how we respond to others becomes more important than what an offender deserves.  When we can honestly say we care more about our relationship with God or the footprint we are leaving in the world than what our offender deserves, we are on the home stretch.  Getting to this stage, though, requires trust in a spiritual reality where each person bears responsibility for his own actions.  The act of forgiveness is a response to that spiritual reality, not a response to what our offender does or does not deserve.

Forgiveness also requires us to let go of several things: what we think our offender deserves, what the offender owes to us, and perhaps the relationship with the offender entirely.  Sometimes we hold onto resentment because it is the only thing connecting us to someone we think we need in our lives.  Letting go of ideas, habits or even people may be our most important step towards healing.

Join the conversation.  What helped you let go of a stubborn case of resentment?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Spiritual But Not Religious: the Way or the Church?

It’s often remarked that any institution is principally concerned with its own survival as an institution.  Perhaps this remark is made concerning religious institutions more than any other.  Mark Twain wrote in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

Concentration of power in a political machine is bad; and an Established Church is only a political machine; it was invented for that; it is nursed, cradled, preserved for that; it is an enemy to human liberty, and does no good which it could not better do in a split-up and scattered condition.

Jews did exactly that – split up and scattered—after the destruction of the first temple.  In making the move to diaspora over edifice, the kitchen table replaced the alter table and Jews looked simply to the Torah as the Way.  The temple was reconstructed, however, and came to represent the institutionalization of authority and codes of conduct that Jesus rebelled against.  Much has changed over the millennia, and it is now Christians who have priests, alters, and lines of institutional authority.  And some things haven’t changed.  Codes of conduct fuel splintering divisiveness in religious communities today.

Standing in contrast to the hierarchical structure of many religious traditions, the Twelve Step tradition is starkly egalitarian in nature.  The enduring success of Twelve Step programs can be attributed not only to steps that capture a spiritual essence shared by many faith traditions but also to organizational philosophy.  A.A. is a self-organized, self-supported “fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”  The A.A. support organization assiduously avoids religious, political or ideological affiliation.  There are no dues or formal membership, so the number of participants isn’t known.  The best estimate is 2 million members.  Its operating structure has been described variously as an “inverted pyramid” with no top-down authority and as “benign anarchy” by one of its founders.  Even in meetings, there are guiding principles but no leaders.  Everyone enters with equal authority.

Theologian and Rabbi Shais Taub writes movingly of the theology reflected in the Twelve Steps.  When asked whether it is in agreement with Jewish theology, he says, “The answer I usually give is not only that is there nothing in the Twelve Steps that is problematic from a Jewish perspective, but also that the Twelve Steps can actually help Jews to better understand their own God.”  I have observed the same to be true for Christians.  There are those who left the church for the Twelve Steps because they just couldn’t get there—to spiritual awakening or profound life change—with what the church offered.  Truly for those, the Twelve Steps were the Way.

The question—the Way or the Church—is particularly germane following yesterday’s announcement of a Vatican crackdown on US nuns.  Along with the recent Catholic involvement in political discourse, the move appears to elevate institutional authority over compassion for the poor and powerless.  Here is the article’s poignant conclusion:

“I don’t know any more holy people,” [canon lawyer and former dean of Duqesne Law School Nick] Cafardi said of American religious sisters. “I see a lot more holiness in the convents than I see in the chancery.”

Join the conversation.  What attachments is your faith community willing to surrender to follow the Way?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Spiritual But Not Religious: Meet Me Where I Am

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.

Fourth and Fifth Step Healing

“The First Step was easy.  If I’ve gotta do all twelve, then the Second and Third can go pretty quick too, whatever they mean.  But Step Four, that’s where the real work starts.”  The Fourth Step is a searching and fearless moral inventory, and the Fifth Step is admitting aloud the exact nature of one’s wrongs to another human being and to God.

I asked one recovery seeker about his biggest obstacle starting the Fourth Step, and he laughed, “The Fourth Step dread that formed instantaneously the very first time I laid eyes on the Twelve Steps!”  Another recovery seeker, focusing on the quickest possible cure, bought one Twelve Step guide and did the first three steps, but the guide didn’t provide a simple prescription for the Fourth Step.  He bought a second book and did the same.  Disappointed in how the second book approached the Fourth Step, he got a third book.  After repeated disappointment, he realized there was no quick Fourth Step answer.  It had to come from within himself, not from a guide.

Both responses are utterly human.  This blog’s regulars will recall the fable of Sufi Mullah Nasruddin and his house key.  Nasruddin searches frantically for the key to his house outside under a lamp post.  His neighbors come to his aid, and after hours of searching, one asks where he was when he lost the key.  Nasruddin replies he lost it in his house. The neighbor asks, “Why are you looking outside?” Nasruddin responds, “Because the light is better out here under the lamp.”

Like Nasruddin, we find it infinitely easier to analyze external conditions than to take a candid look inward.  Healing, however, requires us to leave the light of the lamp post and to go deep into the darkness of our own houses.  What impedes our journey is less fear of what anyone else will think of us than fear of what introspection will bring to light for ourselves.  As we embark on introspection, the prospect of facing our less than best moments is uncomfortable.  For those who suspect that they won’t like (or can’t live with) the person they find, it is terrifying.  If I have negotiated an uneasy peace with my past, introspection might feel like opening Pandora’s box.

Some report the work of introspection, although painful and exhausting, to be cathartic.  They want to get the ugly secrets they have been hiding exposed to the light of day.  Where the Fourth Step can feel cathartic, the Fifth Step can be intensely emotional.  “Acknowledged in AA literature as one of the most difficult steps to take (and one often avoided), the Fifth Step is also one of the most necessary to long term sobriety and genuine peace of mind,” observes one Twelve Step guide. The guide quotes a life-long Roman Catholic, a priest who had experienced the religious sacrament of confession innumerable times, about his experience of confession in the Fifth Step:

In retrospect, I associate it with a turning point in my life: an experience of inner healing, an event that revealed to me a loving God who had always been so near and yet so far.

Join the Conversation.  Which of the Twelve Steps do you think is hardest?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

3 Pieces of Twelve Step Wisdom for Anyone Seeking Healing

When I started researching the role confession plays on the road to healing, I was intrigued by how Twelve Step addiction recovery programs approach confession.  Every year, millions of recovery seekers in the Twelve Step tradition embark on “a searching and fearless moral inventory” and “admit wrongdoing aloud to God and another human being,” the Fourth and Fifth Steps.  What do these recovery seekers know about confession that millions from religious traditions don’t?  A lot, as it turns out. 

First is that the journey starts with recognizing the limits of our own power.  Consider the difference between a religious seeker who approaches confession believing he had the power to make better choices but chose not to and a Twelve Step seeker who acknowledges that his defects of character took away his power to make better choices.  We cling to a pleasing self-image even when the facts of our lives cease to agree with it.  The discrepancy between image and reality draws us into conflict, igniting disharmony within ourselves, with others and with the world.  Acknowledging this disconnect, or brokenness, is like finding a door labeled “healing.”  Acknowledging that we are powerless to make the reality match the image is like opening the door.  

The second thing Twelve Step recovery seekers know is that only by acknowledging a power outside ourselves and stronger than ourselves can we be reconciled to the self-image we desire.  That higher power can restore us to the image, or conversely, once the higher power is acknowledged, the image we desire might be transformed.   A religious seeker who approaches confession believing she had the power to make better choices in her past runs the risk of walking away from confession unchanged.  She might walk away feeling obligated to make better choices in the future without availing herself of God’s power to help her make them.  Acknowledging that God has this power, that we don’t have to change through sheer force of will alone, is the kernel of hope for healing. 

The third thing recovery seekers know is that we have to create a power vacuum in order to make space for God’s power to enter, and that actually relying on God’s power instead of our own will power is incredibly difficult.  Relying on one’s own will is easy.  I want what I want, after all.  Being demanding or strong-willed about what I want takes little strength of any kind.  Laying down my will, conversely, takes enormous spiritual strength.  Religious seekers might approach God in search of a little auxiliary power without taking the difficult step of creating the power vacuum.  When talking about turning over our own will to make space for God’s power and care, recovery seekers invariably talk of “taking it back” at some point in the journey.  As difficult as creating a power vacuum is, relying on God’s power is more effective than will power.  Despite the immense difficulty of this action, recovery seekers know it’s not enough to think God cares.  They have to trust God’s care. 

These three truths align to the first three of the Twelve Steps.  Like the first three, the remaining nine steps outline a path of spiritual growth and healing that is much more specific and instructive than what most religious doctrine offers.  I’ve been moved by testimony of people who considered themselves religious but could not find the healing they so desperately sought within their faith traditions.  It was the Twelve Steps that got them there. 

Join the conversation.  How does the wisdom in these steps speak to your spiritual journey?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.acrosstraditions.com/.