The founders of AA were wise in avoiding any language that would turn recovery into an exclusive theological debaters club. God is defined as “God, as we understood Him.” There are obvious positives for this move. Let’s just focus on the essential spiritual principles of recovery! What about any negatives?
People have a tendency to feed their resentment against religion (often Christianity), and reject its vision of God for their own personal, privately conceived deity. One imagines thousands and thousands of such ‘gods’ whose existence depends entirely upon the creative thinking of the addicts that conceive of them. But the language of the AA steps and the Big Book seem, actually to speak of God as a singular, universal – and yes male? – being. “God, as we understood Him.” The literature speaks of God as the “One” with all power and authority. It seems that God is being spoken of not as a privately conceived lower-case ‘g’ deity, but as the highest possible, ultimate Creator.
‘Understanding’ a God is not to stand ‘over’ it, in a position of power and dominance (not to mention resentment); fashioning for ourselves a ‘god’ we ‘understand’ to be better than the one I despise. To understand is more to stand ‘under’, in a position of humility and growth, never claiming to have God-like knowledge of God, but eating whatever crumbs we have been given. AA was wise to coach addicts to ‘be quick to see where religious people are right’ (p. 87 of Big Book).
What’s the point here? Simply this. Understanding God is about humility and openness; standing ‘under’ the One who can never be fully ‘understood’, rather than standing ‘over’ a god you create with the fashionable power of your own brain.
Christians who are in or contemplating joining a 12-step programme often wrestle with the tension between the non-specific ‘god’ of the 12 steps and the One who is fully revealed in Christ as we understand through the Gospel. There are two extremes, I believe, to avoid when comparing 12-step spirituality with Christianity.
One extreme is to say that there is no difference, or that working the 12 steps is basically the same as following Jesus. I don’t want to judge or comment on the status or quality of relationship and intimacy that non-Christian 12-steppers experience with the god of their understanding. But the simple reality is that any other god is simply not the same as the God revealed in and through the historical person of Jesus Christ. We may (and rightly can, in my view – see below…) identify valuable and worthwhile spiritual patterns in the experience of non-Christian 12-steppers. But the point here is that with the Gospel, God is not ‘understood’ through experience or reason alone, but supremely through the revelation of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, being a faith that is rooted in Scripture, Christianity incorporates a breathtaking narrative and a robust set of doctrines that are not the same as those of other faiths or personal understandings, even if there may be significant overlap or common ground at various points. All of this is to say that the Christian 12-stepper can continue to deeply value their faith as something unique, and something that we believe – hopefully with deep humility!!! – that is completely true.
And that brings us to the other extreme: to say that there is so much difference that one cannot benefit from the programme. Here is where we Christians often need to learn deep humility – or be deeply humbled! To put it frankly, many of our ‘gospel presentations’ don’t even begin to plumb the depths of the whole Christian faith. They often go far beyond a simple summary of the Gospel, and err on the side of being overly simplistic and therefore a distortion of it. I’m thinking here of presentations of the Gospel where a) God’s ultimate vision for creation centres on two predistined locations, heaven or hell, b) Christian life and discipleship is primarily if not totally focused on getting people to ‘go’ to heaven and not hell. True, as the Apostles Creed has always said, our faith entails a final ‘judgement’ of the ‘living and the dead’. But there are riches that this small distortion of the Gospel screens out: the joy and beauty of creation, real and painful suffering, the role of Israel, the call to live faithfully in the present, etc. More than this, most Christians can learn a great deal from the 12 steps, in their focused programme of specific actions – actions that turn out to be deeply Christian.