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IN LIFE, Vol. 18(1): 25-33, 1948
GOD CONCEPT IN ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
George A. Little
Anonymous, which now has 1,700 groups with 70,000 members
and an influence far beyond its membership, is a spiritual
movement, a faith cure for alcoholism. Men and women find
that they have been trying to live without God, and they
then discover how to live with God. That gives a different
set to the sails. Or, as one expressed it, the roots of
his mind reached down and grasped a new soil. It is a leap
of faith to be able to believe that there is a God personal
distinctive novelty is that each alcoholic is allowed to
choose his own concept of God. There is full liberty of
belief and no end to the varieties of belief. Therein Alcoholics
Anonymous differs from the churches which require belief
in certain sets of dogma. An alcoholic refuses to accept
these ready-made:,he wants to make his own. In A.A. he is
encouraged to do so, with this rider, that he obey the Higher
Power as he understands it. That is intriguing. That places
the responsibility on the alcoholic. He is on trial, not
an organization, a book, a creed, or a sacrament. Can he
act according to his own faith?
person has some belief, more or less vague, in a creative,
life-giving force, a universal mind or oversoul. Alcoholics
Anonymous begins by thinking of this as a Power rather than
a Person. It works unseen as electricity, may be thought
of as gravitation, evolution, or growth. Thought is a power,
good will is a power, trust is a power. Trying to visualize
the Higher Power is a hinderance rather than a help. Formulas
are of little value. Like the-wind, the spirit can be felt
but not seen. Instead of expecting ecstasies, visions, trances,
one finds God in what is; contact may be made through gratitude.
to the Higher Power is not difficult for alcoholics, because
for years they have surrendered to a lower power. Alcohol
has a power, an intoxicating power. It gives a lift, euphoria,
escape, release, cessation from fear and worry, a lightening
of reality, forgetfulness, stupor, and sleep. In time, however,
there are craving and compulsion, memory blanks, shakes,
sweats, headaches, and hangovers. One man after a bout felt
as though he had seven skulls. In devotion to this autocratic
tyrant alcoholics will surrender thought, time, money, health,
friends, and vocation. To surrender to the Higher Power
involves no more exacting a demand than the surrender they
have made to alcohol, perhaps over a drinking period of
A.A. practitioners, while admitting that they are only amateur
psychologists, are wise enough not to begin by demanding
beliefs. They work on thoughts, desires, attitudes, relationships,
purposes, and habits. They are agreed that the root trouble
is in the thinking, not in the drinking. At one meeting
of a rather intellectual group the drink problem was not
directly mentioned. Half a dozen speakers rang the changes
on freedom from fears, surrender of resentments, cultivation
of good will, positive help to others, building up a sense
of dependence upon the Higher Power. When the inner life
is brought under discipline the outer conduct is largely
program of recovery is absorbed rather than learned, caught
rather than taught. Listening to speakers, private conversations
with alcoholics who are now happily and contentedly sober,
reading the book Alcoholics Anonymous and pamphlet literature,
and picking up fragments of truth will produce a transforming
change. This may be sudden or gradual, and there is little
concern as to which. Often the slow recoveries prove to
be very sure, but the ladder of rehabilitation has these
rungs, not necessarily in this order: honesty, humility,
tolerance, concern for others, inner contentment, radiant
happiness, a new standard of values, faith. Religious people
would describe this as conversion: A.A.'s are content to
speak of a personality change.
one is more surprised at the transformation than the alcoholic
himself. Like the lady in the fairy tale he is inclined
to say "This is none of I." An army man, a heavy
drinker for thirty-five years, had the temperament of a
sergeant-major even after he became a colonel. Now he is
mellow, tender, as sacrificial as once severe. Before a
group of medical men he said, "I have had a personality
change." A psychiatrist checked him by saying, "My
dear fellow, you can't have a personality change."
"Well at least I'm under new management," replied
power is frequently found on the lower levels of mysticism.
The inner voice is really a mentor. An inebriate who had
panhandled all over North America had an obsession against
religion, fearing that it meant letters of fire in the sky,
voices from the clouds, or a dramatic emotional upheaval.
It was suggested to him that he spend five minutes each
morning planning his day with his conscience, how he would
use his time and spend his money, the mood in which he would
meet his family, the sense of responsibility he would have
in his work. He discovered that as soon as he listened,
the inner voice spoke. He found he could be spiritual in
a very practical way without seeing visions or dreaming
high-strung man with perplexing business cares took liquor
to get to sleep at night. In time he would go to sleep with
a full jug of wine at his bedside: later he would waken
with an empty wine jug in bed with him. One morning he passed
out. A friend said, "One tenth the attention you give
to gin, if given to God, could make you happy." The
experiment was tried. Each day he lists the commonplace
things for which he is thankful, the mistake& of yesterday
he wishes to avoid today, the people whose friendship he
ought to keep in repair, the duties which are "musts"
for that day. With a gleeful grin he tells others "give
God the first ten minutes of every day and he will give
you back the whole twenty-four hours all different."
This simple plan has freed hundreds.
2:30 A.M. a wise A.A. worker was aroused out of his sleep.
A taxi driver had deposited a chronic at his door. The moment
he was admitted to the hall the chronic shouted out: "I
don't believe in God, or Bible, or church, or prayer. I
am a free thinker." The reply was "O.K., my boy.
Nobody wants you to believe anything if you don't want to.
That's your business." The two went to the kitchen
and had plentiful coffee. Before daybreak the A.A. man said:
"There is no use discussing prayer. The only thing
about prayer that is any good is praying. I am going to
pray for you." Which he did, humbly, trustingly, and
in colloquial terms. Then, the drunk was told he could pray,
too, if he felt like it. His first petition was "O
God, help me to have faith in this guy." He is still
sober, back home again living with his wife.
is this experimental, demonstration offer that is the key
to A.A. Controversy, argument, and dogmatism are avoided.
Everything is on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. "It worked
for me, it might work for you." The goal is far greater
than merely to stop drinking. In itself that may not be
of very much help. To be conscious of not drinking and still
wanting to drink is just about as distracting a state of
mind as being under the influence of alcohol. The big positive
goal is happy and contented sobriety, a rewarding and satisfying
way of living. It is a distinct privilege to be an alcoholic
if it leads to twenty-four hours at a time without fear
and in good will toward people and in humble dependence
upon God. Restoration to sanity is abundant proof of the
working of a Higher Power.
becomes a reality, usually in everyday forms of speech.
Rhetorical demands, purple-patch phrases, snatches of liturgies
are replaced by simple but ernest desires. One man says
each evening, "Thank you, God, for a sober day."
Next morning he prays, "Please God, another day like
yesterday." Even a spot of prayer such as that is an
anchor by which to hold. An A.A. sober for six months went
into a sudden panic. He found himself entering his favorite
bar. Involuntarily he ejaculated, "O God, save me."
In five seconds he was walking down the street cool and
collected, every butterfly gone from his stomach. Another
man hearing his stepdaughter in hysterics cried for help
as to what to do. He was given the right words to say and
soon the child was out skating. His verdict is that "the
Higher Power works fast." To hear the A.A.'s recite
the Lord's Prayer is an experience in worship. "Lead
us not into temptation but deliver us from evil." That
is a life and death matter. Our desires are our real prayers,
not what we say with our lips.
helpful approach is to think of God as the Truth-making
Power. The typical alcoholic insists on making his own interpretation
of the universe and he anticipates the Day of Judgment by
pronouncing condemnation on all and sundry. His dislikes
are stronger than his likes. Criticism is his mental habit
rather than appreciation. It is an initial step in humility
to admit that truth is ordained of God. Mathematicians did
not decree the multiplication table, nor musicians the octave,
astronomers the calendar, orators the alphabet, mariners
the magnetic compass. When truth is accepted as from God,
intellectual conceit begins to vanish. The alcoholic learns
to work with the laws of God instead of against them. Curiously
enough the mind starts to discover new truth and to act
upon it until every day becomes a voyage of discovery into
the many-sided truths of God. Mind and mortality thus have
a constant interplay.
simple, even primitive fashion, members of Alcoholics Anonymous
come to think of the Higher Power as the Hero of Eternity.
Long before we were born the Higher Power was governing
and ordaining: long after we are gone that same Power will
be ruling and overruling. Do not be fussed, little man.
Today is all you need think about. The rhythm of the day
and night becomes a contact with God. Living one day at
a time can be an act of faith, a response of trust. One
man returning from a five-thousand mile selling trip states:
"To travel without fear is a new experience. I cannot
become accustomed to it. I never will become accustomed
to it." On a long, cold bus trip over an icy road,
the one other passenger produced a bottle and offered a
drink which was refused. The ability to refuse a drink offered
in kindness and in the desire to help, to refuse graciously
but finally, was the high light of the whole trip. To him
it was the grace of God. It is in such experiences of protection
and deliverance that A.A.'s become aware of the Living God.
thought of the Higher Power is usually quite individual
and may be decidedly unconventional. One man took his idea
from a picture of flowers and birds. Just as the sun sends
light and warmth, so he conceives of the Higher Power sending
truth and love to him. One man, cursing himself as he shaved,
heard a little bird singing outside his window. The bird
was adjusted to his environment, but he, a university graduate,
was not. Now he is. Another learned faith by seeing an engineer
take five hundred passengers out of a railway station on
one green light. There would be more signals as he went
along. Another saw a bay freeze over. At first the ice was
paper thin, by midwinter it was three feet thick, making
ice from underneath. Could his soul grow imperceptibly like
that? Another was told that big doors swing on little hinges.
A.A. is the little hinge on which his future sobriety now
personality change can be sudden, unexpected, and involuntary.
A well-seasoned drinker, after two months of sobriety, was
asked to speak at a meeting. He answered that as yet he
had nothing to say. "Then just say that you have nothing
to say," he was told. When called to speak he announced
that for the sake of politeness he could not refuse but
"actually I have nothing to say, for nothing has happened
to me." Then he paused. After a somewhat painful silence
he said quietly, "Something has happened to me,"
and sat down. Two months later an old friend asked what
did happen. He replied: "As I was saying I had nothing
to say, suddenly I knew that at long last I had surrendered
to goodness. All my life I had been debating and holding
back. I have been different ever since and I have not the
slightest desire for a drink." Without conscious effort
his personality has been unified.
may follow a Christian pattern. One man after thirty years
of hard drinking made an inventory of what drink had cost
him. He became convinced he was a fool, and he did not like
being a fool. In his own words this is his story: "I
decided to investigate religion. I read what the apostles
had to say about Jesus Christ. Christ came into my life
and liquor has stayed out. Nothing goes out until something
else comes in."
spiritual aspect of the program is by no means camouflaged
but it is not made too obvious at first. The big book, Alcoholics
Anonymous, sometimes described as the A.A. bible, has three
hundred references to the Higher Power. One member spent
a Christmas Day counting them. Six of the Twelve Steps refer
to God. The official magazine, The Grapevine, unhesitatingly
refers to the Higher Power as God. With increasing frequency
at group meetings older members say quite openly that they
are staying sober only with the help of God. Surprising
coincidences happen and the explanation naively offered
is "Somebody Upstairs." The intimacy does not
come from irreverence but from trust. However slight and
vague the faith at first, progress is steadily made toward
a more mature and adult thought of God.
social life an alcoholic is regarded as a misfit. Medicine
looks upon him as a non-cooperative patient, very often
poor pay. The law deals with him as a criminal and sends
him to jail. Psychiatry diagnoses him as a mental case and
confines him in an institution. The church tells him that
he is a sinner and must repent. His family has convinced
him that he is hopeless. Against this background of despair,
Alcoholics Anonymous comes along telling him that God is
in him, that God can be in him as much as God can be anywhere,
that if God is not in him God is not everywhere and so cannot
be God. By the witness of another alcoholic, now sober,
the life is breathed into his soul. Without soul and spirit
the body is only an empty shell. A few even go so far as
to say that God himself may draw upon vital strength and
increase of being from their fidelity. If SO, they, each
one of them, may be important in the whole scheme of things.
A surrendered life, they hold, can be of use to God.
enough, no attempt is made to induce conviction of sin,
awaken a sense of guilt, or lead to a period of remorse.
It is quite unnecessary anyway. An alcoholic's conscience
has told him all this a thousand times. Remorse weakens
and is seldom redemptive. The better way is to live today.
Yesterday is past, you cannot do much about it. You cannot
undo what you have done. Waste no time on regret. Tomorrow
is not here yet. Have no fears. The Higher Power has dealt
with far harder cases than yours. A miracle might happen,
if you will just take it easy. Live one day at a time. When
you came into the world there was air for your lung: has
the Higher Power ceased to care for you? Restraint from
condemning increases the chance of cure.
alcoholics are gun shy of religion. They may have tried
it over and over and it has not worked, so they are more
responsive to psychology. Fortunately there is enough psychology
in the A.A. program for beginners to go on with. Some find
that the psychology is sufficient to enable them to achieve
sobriety; others keep seeking more than the laws of the
mind, and by the practice of meditation advance to the laws
of the spirit. It is a mistake to force growth. One man
who has been instrumental in over three hundred recoveries
say's, "1 have learned not to look for results too
soon: I know they will come later." He himself is not
content until he leads his proteges to definite faith, but
he knows that time must be given for a seed of truth to
germinate. If out of the Twelve Steps in the program the
prospect is only ready for one or two, he is urged to work
on these. The others will follow later.
power is discounted in A.A. "Use your will" has
been useless advice to them. They have the will but not
the power. They do not have won't power, let alone will
power. Promises, pledges, prayers have not availed. Then
they are told how to replace their puny wills by the will
of God. The unit actually begins to lean on the strength
of the All. It is found that the imagination governs the
will. As one holds the picture of himself as a capable,
controlled citizen, thoughts are focused in that direction,
desires become conscious, emotions become strong, and the
whole personality goes into action. Instead of trying to
whip up a weak will into doing what it is unable to do,
one finds will power restored by the use of thought, desire,
emotion, creative imagination. In six months the will can
become stronger to say "No" than formerly as routine
it said "Yes." Such restorations of will power
are frequent in A.A.
changed attitude to life is indicated by new reading habits.
Murder mysteries and sex novels are often replaced by worth-while
magazines, thoughtful books, and devotional manuals. So
eager is the mind for truth that serious reading is done.
There is a special interest in psychology and psychiatry.
Religious classics have a new vogue. Pamphlet literature
is kept in circulation. The leader of a group of two hundred
men and women said to a visitor, "They are a tough-looking
bunch, but you would be surprised to know the amount of
Bible reading and prayer going on." Another evidence
of spiritual experience is the number of newspaper articles
and booklets being produced by members.
and women who have had medical care repeatedly, been sent
to mental hospitals and sanitariums, been given conditioned
reflex treatment, gone to alcoholic farms, or taken Keeley
Cures, ask why these so often fail and Alcoholics Anonymous
is having increasing success. One answer is that these treatments
(for which we are thankful; they are much better than none)
were only body cures; and in some degree fear was the motive
for reform. They were also very expensive. Alcoholics Anonymous
is cheap: there are no membership dues or entrance fees.
Instead of a receding memory, A.A. is a growing experience
of fact, fellowship and faith. It is enlarged opportunity
and cumulative happiness. The old has goner the new has
come and keeps coming. The unhappy past is forgotten in
happiness and hope. "He who rises quickly and continues
his race is as if he has never fallen." There are great
movement is strictly nondenominational. Catholics, Protestants,
and Jews work together as brothers, though very few Jews
are alcoholics. No effort is made to win others to any particular
faith. The organization seeks to be inclusive rather than
exclusive. No one is barred by age, sex, race, or creed.
The one condition is the sincere desire to stop drinking.
Nearly every club has one or two evangelical atheists, usually
born of Christian parents, who strangely have conserved
a Christian spirit. After a few months they usually agree
that they never were atheists and anyway it did not make
much difference. They stood on the same earth, breathed
the same air, and talked the same language as others. Atheism
had never been much help in keeping sober. Atheism, in fine,
requires too much credulity: it is rather difficult to believe
that nothing made everything and is going nowhere.
is it that denominational differences can be so completely
submerged? One reason is that no one is asked to give up
anything but is urged to use what he already has. In time
it is found that the A.A. program of recovery is founded
upon universal spiritual experience. Jesuits affirm that
it is similar to the principles of Ignatius Loyola. Quakers
say that it makes use of meditation and the group conscience.
Moral Rearmament people detect the four absolutes. Salvation
Army officers are reminded of their knee drill. Methodists
say it resembles John Wesley's discipline. Christian Science
says it is closely akin. Unity, New Thought, Mysticism all
think their programs have been adopted and adapted. A.A.
is a synthetic product with a pragmatic test. What does
not work is discarded: what does work is retained.
A.A.'s go back to church? Some do and some don't. Much depends
upon early training. Some have a childhood belief to which
they return with a deeper understanding. As a rule Roman
Catholics resume their religious duties and observances
- to them religion means their church. Some Protestants
become active church workers, others go a time or two and
report that "my minister doesn't know about God."
Quite a few accept A.A. as their church. It gives faith
and fellowship even though lacking much formal worship.
Church relationships, like so much else in A.A., are left
to individual preference and choice, without any overhead
rulings. Those who do attend church find new meaning in
Scripture and sermon, hymns and prayers. A.A.'s become spiritually
sensitive and morally responsive.
church will be wise not to try to control or guide this
movement but to learn from it. Sympathetic co-operation
is being shown by providing church halls as meeting places
and by directing problem parishioners to A.A. The churches
may learn something from the flexibility of A.A. organization,
the power of fellowship, the possibility of lay evangelism,
the transforming power of truth, the influence of common
interest groups and the originality of non technical language
and non dogmatic theology. This movement is of the people,
by the people, for the people. But the new wine cannot be
put into old bottles. It must find its own carriers.
to the reader - In 1940, Dr. George A. Little,
D.D., then a fifty-six year old Minister of the United Church
in Toronto read Dr. Emerson Fosdick's review of the book
Alcoholics Anonymous. He ordered one, then six more. Dr.
Little attended the Yale School of Alcohol Studies in 1941.
In 1942 Dr. Little was granted distribution rights to Alcoholics
Anonymous in Canada.
January 13, 1943 Rev. Little and Rev. Price gathered six
alcoholics at the Little Denmark Restaurant and held an
A.A. meeting. Enough interest was shown and another was
held the next week. On January 28, 1943 the group moved
to the Metropolitan United Church. Thus A.A. was born in