under-standing God

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.

God of whose understanding?

A perennial problem Christians often have with twelve step programmes is the vagueness of the ‘God of your own understanding’.  What’s the fuss about?  Should Christians avoid 12-step groups, and form their own ‘Christian’ version of them?

I’m not going to beat around the bush here.  My view is that, as much as possible, Christians should not create their own 12-step groups, but should patiently, humbly and graciously work their programme of recovery as a Christian in existing 12-step fellowships.  Here’s why I think this way.

First, and possibly the most important reason, the Bible seems to consistently witness to the reality of God’s activity in and among people who are not the ‘chosen’ people.  Melchizedek, in the Old Testament, was the high priest of Salem, and was not blessed by Abram, but rather was the agent of blessing for Abram!  That’s not an Abraham-centered moment, and not really a Melchizedek-centered one either, but a God-centered one.  Likewise, the first sermon of Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue refers to two instances of God’s action outside of God’s chosen people.  The God we know and believe in through Scripture, and not merely due to our ability to conceive great godly ideas, is the sort of God who works outside the boundaries, even the ones he allows to be definitive.

Second, we can leave ultimate judgment to God.  The stark reality is that people just plain get better and enter into a new kind of life and spirituality in 12-step programmes.  And by contrast, many people with really sound Christian theology have, like I had for years, terrible hidden behaviour and feeble self-control.  I don’t think that believing in a generalized deity is an automatic ticket to the Age to Come.  All I’m saying is that God uses 12-step programmes.  Not necessarily to bring Resurrection hope for Everlasting Life to people (though some find it as a later result), but certainly to bring a real and worthwhile level of peace, fruitfulness and health.  Theologically, this is called the ‘common grace’ of God.  And thank God for it.

Third, it is a valuable thing to be able to get to know and learn from people of differing religions.  It is a healthy thing to learn how to be with them, and relate to them, without having to pounce on every difference of belief they have.  Sure, Western Christians perhaps have erred on the side of almost never sharing their beliefs, or the content of their faith with others.  Sure, we need to be more attentive to opportunities to do just that. But using a 12-step programme as an opportunity for ad-hoc evangelism will not only be bad evangelism, but is also bad 12 step spirituality.  Far better to take the long, hard road of actually journeying with them together.

Fourth, is the phrase “as we understood God” really so bad?  After all, who has known the mind of the Lord, or been his counsellor?  Yes, we know God through Christ.  But this does not mean that we suddenly have perfect, infallible understanding of God.  Rather than see understanding of God as a binary switch that is off or on, why not see it as a dimmer switch, which burns brightly and brilliantly in the shape of Jesus Christ the Lord when fully lit?  Why not see non-Christian ‘god’ beliefs as ‘on their way’ to the truth revealed in Christ?