The modern world has generated no end of addicts: those of us who come to recognize ourselves to be unable to stop some kind of compulsive, destructive behavior no matter what we do, what books we read, or what promises we make to ourselves or others. It seems most likely that this was always the case, and whether it is worse in the modern world or not is an interesting question to ponder but an impossible one to answer. In any case, in the twentieth century a remarkably countercultural movement began with a few handfuls of drunks in the eastern United States: the phenomenon of Twelve Step programs. I say countercultural because the Twelve Steps put God quite squarely before the addict as his or her only hope of transitioning away from the lifestyle of active addiction:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- 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.
In the early twentieth century, this was quite contrary to the trend of psychology at the time, enamored of Freud and Jung and their ideas of occult but certainly not divine forces at work in the human mind, and about to embark on the dehumanizing experiment of behaviorism. The Alcoholics Anonymous book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions opens its commentary on Step 2 with the following summary bleat from the atheists and agnostics with which the world was already replete in the 1930s:
THE moment they read Step Two, most A.A. newcomers are confronted with a dilemma, sometimes a serious one. How often have we heard them cry out, “Look what you people have done to us! You have convinced us that we are alcoholics and that our lives are unmanageable. Having reduced us to a state of absolute helplessness, you now declare that none but a Higher Power can remove our obsession. Some of us won’t believe in God, others can’t, and still others who do believe that God exists have no faith whatever He will perform this miracle. Yes, you’ve got us over the barrel, all right—but where do we go from here?”
In order to “be all things to all men, to save at least some,” it was not at all surprising that Alcoholics Anonymous chose to make the bar to entry as small as possible. Hence those phrases in Step 3 and Step 11, “God as we understood Him.” In extreme circumstances, from atheists absolutely ready to die on their hills, “God” could and can be reduced to “Group of Drunks [who are somehow getting sober]” who are, to be sure, a Higher Power than the individual addict coming to a Twelve Step group admitting total human bankruptcy.
Inevitably, people have become doctrinaire about the very non-doctrinaire-ness of the Twelve Steps. I don’t know to what degree Twelve Step programs have played into the modern phenomenon of saying “I’m spiritual but not religious,” but the Venn diagram of recovering addicts and people with that motto has a lot of overlap. People in Twelve Step programs can sometimes even speak as though it’s a positive command from the Steps to freeze in whatever state of spiritual and religious belief they first took the Steps in.
Obviously, I disagree.
Now, I have it easy, or at least it seems to me that I have it easy. As a practicing Catholic, I have always seen the Steps as basically a distillation of Catholic spirituality honed and sharpened for my particular state as an addict. Fourth and Fifth Step? Hey, I have admitted all my humiliating secrets before. The Ninth Step was more intimidating than all the penances I have ever been issued in all the confessionals I have ever entered, but it was still an extension of something with which I was familiar and, in fact, a step toward perfection of them that I had always longed for without always being able to name it. I sometimes now joke with my sponsor when I attend a penance service that I’m going to a “Tenth Step workshop.”
What’s really interesting is that the phrase, “God as we understood Him” does not come up until the Third Step. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The biggest foulup in my whole spiritual works was the fact that I was in perpetual conflict between thinking God loved me and thinking God was perpetually angry at me, disappointed with me, waiting for me to make a mistake, and ready to pounce on me and ram me into the ground.
The Second Step is there, in my case, to correct that situation and resolve that conflict. God loves me, knows my limitations, made me with limitations, and always intended for me to run off of His grace.
With my understanding of God thus rectified, it’s then safe for me to take the Third Step and commit myself to this Being who loves me and wants the best for me.
And I rather think that the Second Step is there to serve a similar purpose for everyone. Further, if you work the Twelfth Step and “practice these principles in all our affairs,” that Second Step spirit keeps working in you.
Like so many things in life, it’s an iterative process. Life is multiaxial, and progress on one axis depends on progress along other axes. A bit of reshaping my understanding of God is necessary for me to act on that understanding and work the next Steps. Once I’ve worked the Steps, though, and get in touch with God, I’ll find that God is telling me more about Himself and also about myself. Resting and pondering those new and deeper truths then lets me commit myself to something better and work that for a time, when I will be ready for still more insight.
The Post Christian meditations address the larger question, “Why do people believe science and the Catholic, Christian faith are mutually contradictory?” by considering the background reasons why people in the modern West desire to punish the faith of their ancestors and deny it credibility, apart from any cogent reasons to reject its actual dogmas and teachings.