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JULY 10, 1965
JAMES and ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
Robert J. Roth, S.J.
On June 10, Alcoholics Anonymous
celebrated the 30th. Anniversary of its founding. In order
to mark the occasion, an international convention was held
at Toronto, July 2-4, when delegates met to represent some
350,000 members from 12,000 groups in 90 countries throughout
the world. The celebration attracted considerable attention,
for the story of the origin and growth of A.A. has been
told many times. The two best books on the subject are Alcoholics
Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (A.A. World
Services. 1955, 1957).
The Toronto convention included
meetings pertaining to the clergy, the medical profession,
hospitals, educators, public information, the courts, industry,
alcoholic agencies and A.A. itself.
But probably the most important
session was a panel discussion on the question "God
as We Understand Him." This should not surprise those
familiar with the Twelve Steps of the A.A. program. The
first three steps read as follows:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives
had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could
restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to
the care of God as we understood Him.
The central place of God
in Alcoholics Anonymous is, of course, widely known. I was
quite surprised and intrigued, however, to learn recently
that the emphasis given to God is due in large measure to
the direct influence of William James, the father of American
psychology and one of our most important philosophers.
It seems that when Bill
W., a co-founder of A.A. was trying to fight his way back
to sobriety, he happened upon a copy of James' Varieties
of Religious Experiences. He read the book from cover to
cover and was deeply impressed by James' "great wisdom."
It helped Bill to reach the turning point in his career,
and initially to completely arrest his progressive illness
of alcoholism. In subsequent years, the influence of James
came to be felt also in the formulation of A.A.'s basic
could well wonder what this "great wisdom" was
that has been so influential in the development of Alcoholics
Anonymous, especially in its fundamental dependence on God.
It was James, we know, who made pragmatism a byword in American
life and thought - something for which he has been praised
and dammed, depending on the point of view. In its worst
sense, pragmatism has created the stereotype of the typical
American as a time-server who wishes to get a job done by
the most efficient means possible, whose norm of truth is
what works, whose rule of value is what furthers his own
aims. In the minds of many, pragmatism is scarcely distinguishable
from naturalism or irreligion, and both have become synonyms
deal adequately with all the misconceptions in this picture
would require an extended study. What is of primary concern
here is that William James proposed pragmatism precisely
as a means of enabling contemporary man to find God. Varieties
of Religious Experience, published in 1902, was actually
intended as a preliminary step in this direction. In it,
James undertook to examine various types of religious experience
in order to see if they could give evidence for a belief
in the existence of God. So absorbed did he become in describing
and cataloguing experiences that the psychologist in him
completely overshadowed the religious philosopher and the
work became a long - though rich - sourcebook for all kinds
of religious experience. It was only in a hurried chapter
or two at the end that he got around to asking what conclusions
could be drawn regarding God's existence.
In his Pragmatism, published
in 1907, James returned to the investigation of theism.
This work, to be properly understood, must be read as the
biography of a scientific man in search of God. In the late
19th century, America had reached a critical period in its
intellectual development. The new scientific age had burst
upon Americans with startling suddenness, and those with
vision could see that they stood on the threshold of the
greatest period of progress the world had ever known.
Cheering though these prospects
were, there were some thinkers who feared that the coming
of the scientific age would mean the end of religion and
belief in God.
these, William James was one. He pondered deeply the question
how one could be a man of science and still remain a religious
man. It was in attempting to answer this question that he
developed his philosophy, which has since become known as
pragmatism. In the spirit of the scientific age, he proposed
pragmatism as an empirical method of arriving at truth but
in his own mind he was convinced that if it was properly
used it would lead to a belief in the existence of God.
This was a preoccupation with James for many years - briefly
expressed in Varieties of Religious Experience, and sharply
delineated in Pragmatism.
For James, the most convincing
evidence of God's existence "lies primarily in inner
personal experience," and its starting point is the
sense of emptiness and frustration. As a young man, he had
experienced very poor health for about five or six years,
and this caused him frequent periods of depression and discouragement.
About the same time, he seems to have gone through a spiritual
crisis, which manifested itself in a lack of motivation
and purpose. Slowly he began to realize that he needed a
unifying philosophy of life.
All this was brought to
a focus in the sense of incompleteness that James found
in the depths of his being as he looked at the world around
him. In his scientific work, he was in search of a solution
to the mysteries of nature. As a man of science, he was
convinced that the answers were there; otherwise the world
would be irrational. In the light of this conviction, he
could not believe that man was to be frustrated when it
was a question of the deep anguish and longing he experienced
in his search for a final completion to all his hopes and
Here we find a far different
James from the one presented by critics of pragmatism. He
was an American who, even while he upheld the integrity
of the scientist in weighing and judging every last bit
of evidence, was religious to the very core of his being.
Though remaining a scientist, this man could stand before
the world as one who knew human suffering and anguish, as
one whose 'spirit was open to the call from the divine.
James believed in a God who was "cosmic and tragic"
a God in contact with the needs and the deeply human problems
of mankind. With his flair for the dramatic, he pictured
God as walking through the world, suffering with those in
pain and weeping with those who were reduced to tears. It
is small wonder, then, that an alcoholic, face to face with
despair, found kinship with James as he read in Varieties
of Religious Experience the account of human suffering.
Sorrow, disappointment, failure, physical pain, all led
James to the conclusion that "natural goods perish;
riches take wings; fame is a breath; love is a cheat; youth
and health and pleasure vanish."
For James, human existence,
even at its best, is left with an "irremediable sense
of precariousness"; it is a "bell with a crack."
Perhaps more than most others,
Bill W. felt the frustration and anguish consequent upon
human weakness and misery. Hence he took seriously James'
observation that truly transforming spiritual experiences
are nearly always founded on calamity and collapse. Following
through on this lesson learned from Varieties of Religious
Experience, Bill W. writes:
and deflation at depth were almost always required to make
the recipient of spiritual experiences ready. The significance
of all this burst upon me. Deflation at depth, yes, that
was it. Exactly that had happened to me."
For Bill W. and others like
him, alcoholism was the starting point on the way to God
and to sobriety. Their affliction was not so much the cause
of their turn to God as its occasion. For the possibility
that the divine existed had occurred to them before, but
now they felt they could no longer postpone or evade the
question. Bill states: "We had to fearlessly face the
proposition that either God is everything or else He is
nothing. God either is, or He isn't. What was our choice
Faced with this issue, alcoholics
such as these come to the conviction that the world is not
a cipher, aimlessly rushing nowhere, that human existence
at its roots is not meaningless or absurd. They echo James'
statement that sadness lies at the heart of every philosophy
that tries to exclude God. If human life is to have any
meaning at all, they can only conceive it as completed by
a God who has in His hands the direction of the universe
and the final destiny of mankind.
For an alcoholic, the move
toward God is not an escape from responsibility, a concession
to weakness, an excuse for laziness.
According to Bill: "We
can laugh at those who think spirituality the way of weakness.
Paradoxically, it is the way of strength. The verdict of
the ages is that faith means courage. And men of faith have
courage. They trust their God. We never apologize for God.
Instead we let Him demonstrate, through us, what He can
The moment the alcoholic
turns to God, he engages in the life-and-death struggle
back to sobriety, which will mean daily sacrifice and self-denial.
It will bring a change not only in his whole way of thinking
but also in many aspects of his daily life.
He will have to take up
again his personal and family obligations. More than that,
it will mean assuming a special responsibility for his fellow
man, for an important part of the A.A. program is Step Twelve,
which is "to carry this message to alcoholics."
Each member becomes an apostle in the original meaning of
the word: one sent to others on a mission of salvation.
this sense, the acceptance of God is, for an alcoholic,
only the beginning. And yet it is everything, for it is
God who integrates every aspect of his life - his joys and
sorrows, hopes and ambitions - and gives them meaning and
direction. And this is authentically Jamesian. In the words
of Ralph Barton Perry, James' faith is both a "comforting
faith" and a "fighting faith."
The first rises out of weakness
and gives refuge and security.
The second springs from
strength and enables the religious man to fight on with
courage, hope and joy even in the face of danger and uncertainty.
This is the way such an
alcoholic seeks to solve the burden of misery and sorrow
that his addiction brings. He proposes it not as the way,
but as a way to God. In fact, A.A. does not even require
its members to accept theism if they do not wish to do so.
This point had to be carefully hammered out in the early
stages of the A.A. program. There were some who objected
to making the acceptance of a personal God an essential
condition for membership. It was finally agreed that the
members could choose a "power greater than ourselves,"
even if A.A. itself was this "higher power."
alcoholics, however, come to believe in and depend on a
Higher Power, which they call God, even though each one
is free to decide for himself what God will mean to him.
In almost every case, full recovery from alcoholism has
depended on this all-important faith. God "as we understood
Him" has become the cornerstone of the whole movement.
Usually the alcoholic comes to believe in a personal God
who is deeply concerned with the needs and the aspirations
At the 30th anniversary
celebration in Toronto this July, a panel discussed the
question of "God as We Understand Him," to show
once again that belief in a Higher Power is essential to
the program. Represented in the audience were a variety
of experiences, many of which were probably never envisioned
and certainly not discussed by William James in his account
of religious experience.
Yet James would have felt
at home there, for he would have understood and appreciated
those experiences as well as the problems they raised. He
would certainly have recognized as his own the solution
of the problems, for it finds expression in his belief that
"where God is, tragedy is only provisional and partial,
and shipwreck and dissolution are not the absolutely final
Both William James and Alcoholics
Anonymous are convinced that this fact is due not to God
alone, but also to what God can do through us.