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REVIEW, Vol. 9(4): 28-47, 1989
MUST I BELIEVE TO RECOVER?
THE SPIRITUALITY OF TWELVE STEP PROGRAMS
by Michael Wyatt
a sly wink at the bartender, Bill, a New York
stockbroker, grabs the bottle of bourbon from the bar and
his way through the crowd into the storage closet where
is. It is October, 1929, and things have gone inconceivably
Bill spends the next few hours making deals: to shield his
reputation, to rescue his finances, to hide from his wife,
above all, to have his own way. As he talks, he swallows
with the desperation of a man about to be washed away in
same man, over twenty years later, is not the embittered
wreck one might expect to see. Instead he is instrumental
organizing a vast program to help alcoholics. But for all
activity, and the ceaseless travel it requires, he is unrecognized
among the very groups he helped form, and he does nothing
attention to himself. His gaze on the frightened man sitting
to him is candid and gentle, and he puts aside his own plans
the evening without comment when he realizes the man needs
are scenes from the Hallmark Hall of Fame dramatization
of the life of Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics
Anonymous. Perhaps some of us have seen a similar transformation:
person we once knew as hostile, unreliable, evasive, unsteady,
prone to erratic behavior, and suspected of hiding some
now looks better, smiles, contributes, participates, and
across with rare candor and courage. You may have wondered
happened to bring this change about. One possibility is
person has become involved in a Twelve Step Program. If
we ask what
these programs have that enables these transformations to
learn that they claim to ground recovery in spiritual principles.
For those of us who are tempted to think of "spirituality"
something esoteric, or neurotic, or self-indulgently ineffectual,
these claims can sound nonsensical. For those of us who
spiritual principles as the particular domain of the church,
s a m e ideas can be threatening. These programs counter
with a simple boast: "it works."
questions come up. How does it work? Where did these
programs come from? What do they offer? What are these spiritual
principles? Are these principles in conflict with Christianity
some level? What might these programs need from or offer
church? Or are they somehow in competition with the church?
Did Twelve Step Programs Come From?
Anonymous is the mother of all Twelve Step
Programs. It names two co-founders: Bill Wilson and Dr.
an Ohio surgeon, both natives of Vermont.
United States already had a long history of attempts to
deal with "dipsomania." Bill Wilson's recovery
took place in the
mainstream of that tradition. He was dried out more than
Towns Hospital in New York, which was considered to be on
cutting edge of treatment of alcoholics (or users of barbiturates
and belladonna!). He had come to trust Dr. Silkworth, his
there. He had begun to go to Calvary Episcopal Mission,
connected with the Oxford Group. Their members had also
successful in sobering up drunks. Bill investigated it in
place because he was amazed by the recovery of one of his
drinking buddies, Ebby, who had joined the group.
the 11th of December, 1934, Bill returned to Towns
Hospital, having been drinking for a month. His attempts
had all failed, and he knew his life would end in insanity
alcoholic death. There he had a startling spiritual experience:
a pitch of despair, he cried out for help, and suddenly
himself in an ecstatic blaze of light, surrounded by wind,
heard "You are a free man." After a time, the
and he felt "a great peace" and "a Presence
which seemed like a
veritable sea of living spirit."
Silkworth gave him cautious but sincere encouragement.
Such experiences did occur, he said, and whatever the change
Bill ought to hold on to it, because it was better than
what he had
before. Ebby, though now "religious," was even
stressing moral responsibilities (restitution and working
others) over insights and experiences. He gave Bill a copy
William James' Varieties
of Religious Experience. That book was to
prove seminal, since it gave Bill a philosophical validation
spiritual experience and introduced the idea of gradual
what he was to call the "educational variety."
is of supreme importance that Alcoholics Anonymous does
date its founding from that experience. Bill tried for months
"carry the message" to other alcoholics; none
Eventually he had two insights. One came from Dr. Silkworth:
aggressive preaching, emphasizing his "vision,"
prospects away. Why not start where Bill himself had started,
fearful, entrapping finality of alcoholism? First break
denial of the gravity of their disease, then they will listen.
was Bill's despair, after all, that led him to call out.
second insight came in Akron, Ohio. In April, 1935, Bill
went there on business, but after setbacks and angry maneuvers,
deal collapsed. On a Saturday night in early May, Bill found
himself in the hotel lobby, alone, depressed, and for the
time in months, wanting a drink. He recalled that he had
to drink while he was trying to sober other alcoholics up,
though he had not yet been successful with any of them.
insight hit him forcefully: he needed another alcoholic
with as much as he had been telling himself they needed
must "work with others." Here is the seed of the
anonymity: hope lies not in the distinction of who I am,
but in the
equality of what we are. Alcoholics need each other as alcoholics.
two insights, the inexorable progression of an actual
disease (resolved by abstinence) and the inescapable obsession
dependency (relieved by surrender to a Higher Power and
with others) are the core of the Twelve Step Programs.
made some phone calls and organized a meeting for the
next day, May 12. Among those who attended was Dr. Bob Smith,
alcoholic surgeon. "Dr. Bob," as he was called
by the early members
of Alcoholics Anonymous, had made his wife promise they
stay fifteen minutes; but they arrived at 5.00 p.m. and
hours later. As he later recalled the meeting, the doctor
difference was made in hearing for the first time someone
what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from actual
experience." He did not stop drinking immediately,
but on June 10,
1935, after a binge that lasted several days, he told Bill
was "going to go through with it." One is not
the core of a group
but two can be. Alcoholics Anonymous dates its founding
and Dr. Bob formed an effective team. Others in Akron
joined quickly. When Bill returned to New York, the program
a firm footing in Akron, and New York soon followed.
a few years, their focus on alcoholism led them to
separate from the Oxford Group and to develop a group on
They kept the principles of surrender, confession, restitution,
work with others. With the help of the Reverend Dr. Samuel
Shoemaker of Calvary Episcopal Church, who was a strong
of the Oxford Group in New York City, they formulated the
which give the program its name.
milestones in the history of Twelve Step Programs are
the extension of Bill's second insight: working with others.
message could be carried in print as well, so Alcoholics
("the Big Book") was published in 1939. It was
by Bill Wilson, though with constant revision and approval
groups in Akron and New York. It was favorably reviewed
Emerson Fosdick and praised though not officially endorsed)
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.
only alcoholics assisted in spreading the word about
recovery. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., bought 400 copies of
which he distributed among friends. Though he stated that
program ought to be financially self-supporting, he hinted
some temporary assistance would help them through their
steps and he set an example with a contribution of $1,000.
"Jack Alexander Article" was published in The
Saturday Evening Post
of March 1, 1941, giving a sympathetic and perceptive description
of the program and the fellowship. These events brough astronomical
increases in both attendance and inquiries, and an office
established in New York City to handle these new demands
meant changes. Through trial and error certain
organizational principles evolved. The first International
convention met in July of 1950 and accepted the Twelve Traditions,
which are the guidelines for the organization of groups,
essential uniformity. Bill Wilson prepared another book,
Steps and Twelve Traditions, published in 1953. The General
Conference, which coordinates the life of A.A., assumed
responsibility at the Second International A.A. convention
of 1955. Bill Wilson's account of that event and the years
up to it is Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.
significant change involved the formation of new groups
based on the same principles. The first of these was the
Family Groups, which began in the late forties. Originally,
alcoholics and their spouses met together, as was customary
Oxford Group, to discuss the application of general spiritual
principles in their lives. As emphasis shifted to the work
alcoholics with other alcoholics, it became apparent that
spouses were being left to one side; but it also became
that certain problems were specifically connected with recovery
from the role of "caretaker' or "martyr,"
which many spouses felt
they had been forced into by the behavior of the alcoholic.
shouldn't they work with each other? Why not have meetings
focused on the spouse's experience both before and in recovery?
second important change occured in the formation of groups
to deal with problems other than alcohol. After serious
soul-searching, the A.A. groups decided first, that they
be effective with their own kind, and second, that they
exclusive claim to the principles by which they lived. If
wished to form groups along the same lines, they had the
of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first of these was formed in
1953. It dealt, as might be supposed, with the abuse of
substances: Narcotics Anonymous. Others followed, most
significantly applying the principles to non-chemical dependencies
(i.e., Gamblers Anonymous) and to dependencies on substances
which abstinence was difficult or impossible (i.e., Overeaters
Anonymous). The Al-Anon Family Groups evolved in the early
into the groups for the Adult Children of Alcoholics (for
whose childhood was passed in an alcoholic home) in the
the application seems unlimited. For example,
according to the analysis of some theorists, the obsessive
heedlessness of technology and the paranoid willfulness
contemporary corporate business practice are .identical
patterns of addiction. They see the Twelve Step understanding
addiction and recovery as the most incisive way to do social,
institutional, and systemic critique.
Are Twelve Step Programs Needed?
adequate medical definition of addiction has not yet been
formulated. Even when it is admitted as a disease, it is
seen as an
unusually complex one. And throughout the debate, the millennia-old
but often unrecognized prejudice, which claims that addiction
indicates moral laxity and a weak will, continues destructively.
complexity of addiction points to a spectrum of factors,
none of which can be isolated as casual. George Vaillant,
Natural History of Alcoholism, eventually quotes the National
Council on Alcoholism for the best summary definition, in
opinion: "The person with alcoholism cannot consistently
any drinking occasion the duration of the episode or the
that will be consumed" (Vaillant, p.44). Paradoxically,
behavioral definition, what we are to observe is the failure
more recent presentation is that of Gerald May in Addiction
and Grace. May's definition pivots on the word "attachment."
uses it to point to the physical and mental condition of
adaptation to and dependence on a substance, behavior, or
relationship. He also uses that word because of its historic
connections with asceticism: it is pointless, even perverse,
displace our spiritual longing onto the things of this world.
is the first step of idolatry. The world can never satisfy
long ultimately for God. In this, he stands in line with
and Gregory Bateson, both of whom saw addiction, especially
alcoholism, as distorted spirituality.
Step Programs agree with that analysis, and offer three
ways to identify the disease to be treated. None of these
understood as clinical. They are all functional: they provide
addicts with an approach to recovery spiritually.
is the original description of Dr. Silkworth: alcoholism
(that is, addiction) is an allergy manifested by the phenomenon
craving. This allows the essential coupling of a physical
with a mental one. Whether or not alcoholism is technically
allergy, it does involve an abnormal, toxic, irreversible,
eventually life-threatening, physical reaction to a substance.
There is no cure; abstinence is the only hope of arresting
course of the disease. But there is also a craving for the
substance, an obsession that leads to characteristic
self-destructive behavior. Recovery is learning how to deal
the physical craving and mental obsession and how to repair
damage they have caused.
second identification stresses behavior: addiction is a
disease characterized by denial, isolation, and relapse.
allows the obsessive pattern to be examined more closely.
addict routinely denies the existence of the problem, hides
order to continue using the substance, and returns to the
whenever possible. These therefore set the agenda for the
recovery, which becomes focused on learning to live by honesty,
participation, and abstinence.
third identification, building on the previous one,
emphasizes a tripartite schema: addiction is a disease with
physical, mental, and spiritual components. Whether one
the physical dependency or with the spiritual defiance,
eventually issues in the other. As addicts, the need for
(on the physical level) will distort our outlooks and interactions
with others (on the mental level) and set our addiction
up as the
governing principle of our lives (on the spiritual level).
self-centeredness (spiritually) will make us indifferent
and to our own integrity (mentally) in the search for the
of our pain and the gratification of our desires (physically).
examined in the next section, the program addresses all
must not leave this section without looking at a related
issue: codependency. Some years ago this was thought of
addiction as well, but to a person rather than to a drug.
words, the codependent was unable to let go of a destructive
relationship. Dr. Vaillant's description of the inability
predict quantity or duration as characteristic and the program's
identification of denial, isolation, and relapse, with their
physical, mental, and spiritual components, as distinctive,
have applications here. The lives of codependents become
others. As codependents, we cannot resist their appeals,
nor can we
predict how much we will relinquish to them next. We deny
anything but love is involved, hide bruises and scars (whether
physical or psychological), and return for more. We "actually
when we are apart. We think about them all the time. They
the principal focus of our life, in effect replacing God
the "adult children" of alcoholics, were trained
these destructive relationships during childhoods in dysfunctional
families. The child who learned to survive by playing a
giving the parent what that parent narcissistically demanded,
as an adult, "discover who he or she is" and learn
to become for
themselves the nurturing parent they never had.
recovery views alcoholism as a family disease. One
advantage is that "the addict" is no longer "the
collusion of the family in the disease and the potential
sharing healing is recognized. In many ways, this is more
realistic. However, this appropriation of the Twelve Step
by a therapeutic model has drawbacks. Too often alcohol
become symbols and the Steps become psychologized. To talk
single systemic addiction loosens the two initial moorings
Alcoholics Anonymous had: the inexorable progressive reality
physical disease, and the irreplaceable healing possible
alcoholic works with another. We lose the sharp focus on
physical problem, a situation both humbling and urgent,
unites the group. Ironically, this recalls the early days
program, when all met together as the Oxford Groups, trying
apply the principles in common. Responsible family therapy,
however, will not deny the physical reality of addiction.
Do Twelve Step Programs Work?
Step Programs simply attempt to solve a common problem
in common. A disease shared on a physical level is treated
principles shared on a spiritual level. This commonality
itself in meetings, sponsors, and slogans. The common principles
are arranged in the Twelve Steps.
exist to "share experience, strength and hope."
Though meetings are of various kinds, there is a consistent
framework. A selection of readings is used: a definition
program, the Twelve Steps, other excerpts from program literature.
Either the Serenity Prayer or the Lord's Prayer is used
to open and
close the meetings. Three types of meetings exist: either
discussion of an issue in recovery, usually introduced by
personal account of the discussion leader's experience with
topic; or a personal story recounting the progression of
addiction and one's entry into and experience of recovery;
rarely, a lengthly reading of a chapter from program literature,
followed by discussion. Usually the meetings are highly
participants are neither allowed to speak without being
nor to interrupt. Members customarily identify themselves
alcoholics when they speak and use only first names. Newcomers
recognized and applauded; anniversaries of sober time (30
days, 6 months, 9 months, a year, several years) are acknowledged.
An indispensable aspect of the meetings is the time spent
conversation and fellowship before and after the meeting;
to establish these mutually supportive relationships within
program is a danger sign.
are often the first of these therapeutic
relationships. A sponsor is a person experienced in the
guides a newcomer through the steps and encourages the newcomer
participation and exploration of recovery. Often the newcomer
begins to abandon the denial and isolation characteristic
disease by means of questions and tentative confessions
to the sponsor. Often the sponsor is the first person the
is able to trust as the reconstruction of a life begins.
vary from the empathic to the emphatic; no formula is foolproof.
central importance is the fact that the sponsor has the
disease, though more time in recovery, and that the sponsor
"work with others" as part of his or her own healing.
is not one of "master and pupil," but one of mutual
slogans of the program are trite phrasings of profound
truths: "First things first." "Easy does
it." "Live and let live."
"One day at a time." Their simplicity enables
them to be recalled
in extreme situations. What do these slogans mean? Their
connotations are myriad within the program, though the initial
interpretation usually refers to one's addiction. The first
to remember in a tense situation, for example, is that one
addict and that, just for today, one is intending not to
Once their effectiveness in dealing with situations which
lead to relapse is proven, they can be applied to other
equally successfully. The slogans come to have personal
associations with individuals and situations as well. To
slogan at a critical moment is to draw on a common wealth
support, reassurance, and conviction.
THE TWELVE STEPS: The Twelve Steps are
characteristic of these recovery programs. They are admittedly
neither new nor unique, but a reformulation of traditional
spiritual wisdom. They outlined the method to be used for
people talk about "taking," "applying,"
or "working" a
step, or "being on" a certain step, a variety
of things is meant.
One is the deliberate study of the step, reading what has
written about it, discussing insights with others in recovery,
writing one's own reflections down. Another is the deliberate
application of it to oneself, a disciplined shift in perspective,
reviewing the facts of one's life in the light of the principles
embodied in it, making connections, sitting with the insights.
first is active and external; the second is reflective and
internal. A third aspect is the "footwork"; the
deliberate behavioral changes and activities, without which
successful application is either blunted or illusory. I
"deliberate" three times deliberately: taking
a step is a conscious
process. If we are not sure which step we are on, we are
it. "If you aren't looking for anything, then this
steps are most effective when taken in sequence. Each
step, when worked well, leads smoothly, almost inexorably,
next. Some are used on a daily basis, some at wider intervals;
the principles are relevant at any point in one's life.
with them enables one to select the most appropriate one
in a given circumstance.
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.
first three steps are thought of as "foundation"
they lay the foundation for the successful working of all
Though powerlessness initally feels like hopelessness, the
possibility of change offered in the Second Step and the
to attempt it transforms hopelessness into hope and strength.
I stop trying, something else has a chance. They can also
on a repeated, even daily, basis, since the principles contained
them summarize a perspective on the world which can be reaffirmed
as a statement of faith. They have been condensed into slogans
("Let go and let God") and quick blunt versions
("I can't; God can;
I think I'll let God").
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being
the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing
to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible,
except when to do so would injure them or others.
Four through Nine are thought of as "action" steps;
are a sequential unit. To many churchgoers, they are familiar
the procedure for confession. They provide a way to come
with one's past, to make restitution, to "sweep off
our side of the
street." Since behavior during substance abuse is invariably
destructive, these steps enable one to repair the damage.
important to keep in mind that, for the addicted person,
motivation for these steps is not so much moral ("I
apologize and make it up") as it is practical ("If
I hold on to
these guilts, I am likely to return to my former behavior").
However, embodied in these steps is the belief that avoidance
evasion, though they may enable us to feel less "guilty"
momentarily, are dead-ends; the only way to relieve guilt
face responsibility. These steps are usually done once,
one's time in the program. Later the sequence can be applied
troubling topics; for example, one might decide to work
around anger or jealousy.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong
promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and mediation to improve our conscious
contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for
knowledhe of His will for us and the power to carry that
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these
steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and
to practice these principles in all our affairs.
last three steps are thought of as "maintenance"
the ongoing security of recovery. They maintain the new
and habits gained by working the other nine. In a sense,
summarizes Four through Nine, Step Eleven summarizes Two
Note that a "spiritual awakening" is not mentioned
point; only after we learn and practice a new.way of life
expect it. No doubt some persons have events similar to
Wilson's vision, and no doubt some change must occur on
level if a person is even to attempt recovery, but the wisdom
the program is that behavioral change precedes (and perhaps
precipitates) the fuller and more stable interior change.
important new ingredient in Step Twelve is the idea of
Carrying the message. This is what is called "Twelfth
In fact, "working with others" is the way Bill
this step. "Practical experience shows that nothing
will so much
insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other
alcoholics" (Alcoholics Anonymous, p.89). Again here,
note that the
motivation is neither moral nor altruistic, but practical.
might seem excessively formal and simpleminded, but it
works. Formality and simplicity facilitate focus. For people
trained in avoidance, as addicts are, the tendency to rationalize
and evade can be snipped at the root in this way. "Read
not the blank spaces between them." However, in another
move, the program presents the steps as "suggested"
and the entire
book as "suggestive only." No one, after all,
can force addicts to
do what they aren't ready to do. For them, "it works"
people enter recovery, though, when one particular force
becomes overwhelming. As one program saying puts it, "I
promises to my intelligence, but I obey my pain." The
between my good intentions and the actual changes I make
the grip of a disease is a vivid one to people in recovery.
them, "it works" is the first turning of hope.
The steps are not
seen as ideals, but as practical functional guides out of
(physical, psychological, or spiritual) that one is in.
At the same
time, people in recovery only claim "progress, not
working them. As the Big Book says, "the spiritual
life is not a
theory. We have to live it" (Alcoholics Anonymous,
steps have "as we understood Him" in italics.
qualification goes back to the earliest days of the program.
Bill Wilson's telling of his story in the Big Book, the
"choose his own conception of God" is stressed
even more than his
vision. That flexibility made the difference to him. In
preparation of the Big Book, the phrase in italics was one
changes the group insisted on. In this way, the door to
was opened as widely as possible, and the group was kept
becoming a theistic debating society. The point is not who
God is, the point is surrender to and reliance on that Power
one understanding of God is not "Him" at all.
Paradoxically, given its creedal "laissez faire,"
Anonymous is cautious about changing the language of the
documents and are reluctant to tamper with it. Newcomers
might be told that a Power truly greater than themselves
depend on their language, and that they are free to interpret
Power as works best for them. All are urged to share their
insights, but to practice tolerance as well. More importantly,
first Tradition is that the unity of the program comes first;
personal reservations must not override the preference of
nor A.A. as a whole. Changes for the good of the program,
by the majority of those in it, can be made. And some discussion
inclusive language is already under way.
Principles: Often when asked how the program works,
members will say, "how it works is H-O-W: Honesty,
and Willingness. These are the foundational spiritual principles.
is the appeal to experience. True to its roots in
pragmatism, the program insists that our starting point
is life as
we know it. Without firm grounding in reality, no meaningful
of spirituality can ever be achieved. However, in order
with a disease characterized by denial, experience seems
point that is oddly vulnerable to self-deception. So the
falls on honesty: not initally as self-conscious "feelings,"
blunt facts. First, the experience of those in recovery
("it works"). Second, the experience of those
needing to recover is
appealed to ("identify, don't compare"). Newcomers
are told to
listen for the ways they identify with what they hear, to
similar events and emotional states in their own lives,
what they recognize in the stories they hear. They are not
their time comparing themselves to others in recovery, singling
what is different; that is merely trying to locate an excuse
is the condensation of the First Step, the admission
of powerlessness. It is associated with recognition of the
damage of the disease and the confession of facts that make
life in disarray. As one progresses in recovery, this rather
extended form of honesty becomes internalized, and one learns
recognize and be honest about emotions and one's inner life
is the appeal to spirituality and hope. In the
Twelve Step Programs, a "Power greater than ourselves"
as indispensable, but this Power is "as you understand
it." It can
be anything that truly works for the person (what William
called a "live hypothesis" in "The Will to
Believe"), from Cosmic
Flow to Christ to a specific Twelve Step group to one's
a lightblub. Through the early literature is definitely
the early members rejected "orthodox" Christian
formulas in an
attempt to open the program to as many as possible. But
this same openmindedness from the person who will attempt
recover by the steps, especially in the area of spirituality.
matters is that you believe that you can change and that
greater than you can help you.
is a condensation of the Second Step, the
belief that a "Power greater than ourselves" can
"restore us to
sanity." The question of "sanity" leads to
the admission of the
mental or psychological damage of the disease. As one progresses
recovery, this rather intangible suspension of disbelief
spiritual matters becomes concrete tolerance of others and
dreadful scandal of their particularity, both inside and
is the appeal to transformation and commitment. If
we truly believe we are powerless, but that a Power greater
ourselves can help us, a decision to engage that help follows
naturally - provided of course that we do want to recover.
worth noting how "late" a decision comes; two
steps must be taken
before this. Of course, if they have been properly worked,
newcomer will sense the third step as practically inevitable.
God is "as you understand Him," this decision
can be made in a
variety of ways; all are legitimate if they promote recovery.
point is commitment, willingness to "let go absolutely"
of our old
ideas. Experienced members will say "This is a program
is obviously a condensation of the Third Step, the
decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care
This leads to the recognition of the spiritual damage of
disease: the profound self-centeredness of the addicted
unable to consider anything except in relation to oneself,
to perform an equal partnership with another human being.
progresses in recovery, willingness becomes outgoing, self-giving
service, the ability to "work with others" freely
single reading cannot exhaust the interconnections between
the first three steps and the foundational spiritual principles
the program. In the same way, the steps are never worked
new areas of powerlessness are discovered whenever the ego
new claims, whenever it is fanned into new obsessions. The
true expression of powerlessness is surrender, either to
one cannot control, which is to choose death, or to the
restores and cares for all, which is to choose life.
Can Twelve Step Programs
Interact With The Church?
simple way of beginning to address this question is to
raise the distinction between form and content. We can think
form as the common or generic aspect of a thing and of content
its particular expression in a given instance. Form and
influence each other deeply; they are inseparable.
can be examined this way. There are elements common
to all religions: ritual, ethical codes, some sense of a
transmitted teaching and those who mediate it, common stories
sense of ultimacy. There are also particular expressions:
liturgies, explicit beliefs, articulated theologies, identified
institutions, and recognizable hierarchies.
Step Programs can be seen, from this angle, to have the
form of a religion, but to firmly avoid corporate articulation
content. Because of this, they are neither in competition
alliance with any existing religions. When members explain
renunciatory position, they usually indicate the phrase
"God as you
understand Him," and point out that the Program firmly
establish any content for that phase. Instead it returns
theological responsibility to the addict, to encourage the
seriousness of the addict's own spiritual effort. The form
theological statement is there, a reference to God, but
is strictly "fill in the blank." Given this, there
can be no creed
and no ritual. In a sense, God remains anonymous.
roots of that position can be found in the origins of A.A.
Bill Wilson's preaching did not sober anyone up. The exodus
the Oxford Group had largely to do with the Oxford Group's
expectation that recovery was a prelude to, or even ought
indistinguishable from, conversion to Christianity. The
members of A.A. found this expectation stiffling and detrimental
their work with alcoholics, their Twelfth Step work, which
to continue for their own sobriety.
members will explain the program's disavowal of itself
as a religion by showing that it has no professionals and
property, both characteristics of the content of established
religion as this country knows it. All space is rented,
functionaries are elected for specific periods of time as
servants." In this way, the membership of the program
anonymous as well.
is hopefully apparent from this that what Twelve Step
Programs provide is not religion in the traditional sense.
not typically religious in content. That is, they have no
of belief, no theology or official understanding of God,
of worship, no institution, no functionaries, no central
primordial myths or symbols. However, a careful reading
have shown that the programs are quite religious in form.
they have a ritual, a simple but stern ethical code, a sense
transmission of a teaching through both texts and the lived
of people who have accepted the program's spiritual discipline
advanced in it, an emphasis on shared fundamental spiritual
principles, and, of course, the sense that one is dealing
satisfies many members. The programs give them a
religious form that provides both a communal and personal
and that serves to energize and validate their lives. For
want a religious content that is corporately articulated
celebrated, some connection with institutional religion
the programs need the Church? The individuals within them
often do. Some of their reasons are part of the essential
recovery, which cannot be neglected. The foremost of these
search for a place to do a Fifth Step. A formal confession
absolution, is one interpretation of this step. Another
is the use
of a minister as a pastoral counselor with whom one can
course of one's life and assess what needs to be done. Some
for a place to share spiritual journeys or to learn the
of prayer, as part of their Eleventh Step. Still others
look for a
context or vehicle for "working with others,"
an application of the
Twelfth Step; they look for those congregations with outreach
service programs that need volunteers.
course, other reasons are more personal. Some individuals
look for a way to become reconciled to the religion of their
For others, going to church is a symbolic way of "returning
society." Others simply want an appropriate and explicit
worship of the God that they understand is supporting them
is important to realize, however, that for many of the
radical codependents and Adult Children of Alcoholics in
the church perpetuates the worst features of a sick family.
staked everything on maintaining an illusion; it demands
commitment and submission. It is authoritarian, dishonest,
manipulative, defensive, and avoidant. They reject it and
others away from it as well. For them, the program replaces
church with a healthy secular form. The church has nothing
the church need the program? I believe so. Individual
congregations can be revitalized by people intentional about
spiritual program for living, who see gratitude and service
central to their lives.
phrase "if you want what we have" is used as part
introduction of most meetings. In early recovery, the addict's
impression is that the Twelve Step Program, the groups,
sponsor, all have something unidentified that the addict
wants. As recovery progresses, what the addict wants becomes
clearer, as does the addict's responsibility to help the
what the addict needs for recovery. The search for a spiritual
awakening is appropriated as one's own inner growth, for
has responsibility. It is no longer seen as something owned
those around us, which we might expect to eventually receive
in recovery will approach religion in a similar way.
Initally, the congregation has an indistinct something the
recovering addict wants, but participation clarifies what
desire actually is and raises the duty of the participant
contribute to the realization of those hopes. As I said
usually this is some aspect of explicit religious content,
satisfied by ritual, creedal affirmations, or some form
or apostolate, either social service or social action.
this religious content must not violate the common
form of the same programs which empowered the person to
the church. Some content is significant enough to shape
and this is particularly true of the foundational principles
recovery which cannot be repudiated: honesty, openmindedness,
willingness to change. The difficulty is the uneasiness
congregations with those principles. Many churches, in order
survive, become dishonest, closed, and unwilling to change.
live by denial, isolation, and relapse. They are not at
all make mistakes when survival is our ultimate goal, and
is not a mistake. These cramped values are antithetical
people do not talk about the facts of their lives, or if
the budget never seems to be discussed openly, it becomes
that honesty is not prized, denial is. If the sermons prove
example that an unexamined life is not worth living, certainly
worth listening to, or if theological speculation by the
frowned on or mocked, it becomes clear that openmindedness
prized, isolation is. If the liturgy is corseted so tightly
cannot breathe, or if suggestions for new projects are dismissed
the outset, whether with sneers or sighs, it becomes clear
willingness to change is not prized, relapse is. Those in
will quickly realize they cannot survive under those conditions.
Addiction and Grace, Dr. May states that no addiction is
ever good. All attachments have an addictive side, even
life and to God. For this reason God deliberatly remains
from us. With luminous insight, Dr. May adds, "I think
to be an object for attachment because God desires full
addiction. Love born of true freedom, love free from attachment,
requires that we search for a deepening awareness of God,
God freely reaches out to us"(May, p.94). This is the
behind the "God, as you understand Him" clause.
The secret is not
that God is ever to be understood, but that the attempt
understanding is personal, and therefore involves personal
surrender to the exploration of spirituality. As Dr. May
goes on to
say, the desert of detachment (or withdrawal) is fearful.
Hosea proclaimed, the desert is also the place of wooing
betrothal, and as Isaiah promised, one day it will blossom
three principles of recovery grow from the recognition of
two facts: one has a deadly disease and that one must be
mutual relationships to arrest it. Perhaps the greatest
Twelve Step Programs offer the church, then, is the opportunity
ask certain questions: what is the disorder over which we
powerless and what is the work we do with others? Is it
disorder of sin and the work of forgiveness, or social oppression
and empowerment; lies and truth? What is the life we cannot
and what is the message we carry? Is it spiritual torpor
message of awakening; estrangement and reconciliation? We
address liturgical self-indulgence on the part of the ministers
work for true disciplined common worship by a whole congregation.
What is the death we are fleeing and what do we truly need
of us in the church are accustomed to rhetoric about
ultimate concerns - I indulge in some of it above. But those
brought to maturity in Twelve Step Programs ask the church
reality is with which the church deals. And they bring to
church some experience in facing that question fearlessly
supporting each other as the answers are explored.