I think one of the most remarkable and useful innovations that AA brought into the world of recovery (and beyond) is the way they treat the God concept as that of a “Higher Power.” This inclusive and somewhat benign term takes much of the power out of arguments believers make for their particular flavor of the God concept. I don’t think it can be overstated how vital this concept was to AA’s adoption, growth, and success. The elasticity of this term that can include nearly any belief, including disbelief, has endured for almost a century as a truly distinctive component of AA.
Historically when it comes to belief, believers often focus on differences rather than similarities. These distinctions in mindset become sacred points of contention that lead to heated disagreement, and sadly, division amongst people who should get along. Hence, believers who should come together in a common cause do not. The focus on who is right, rather than on what works, is unproductive in achieving that end.
Philosopher William James was a pioneer in religious study. His work with the ideas of pragmatism and his “instrumental definition of truth” allowed him to step back, and see belief from a more extensive and less subjective lens. James’ book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” published in 1902, was arguably the first academic approach to comparative religion. It became a classic and remained in print for over a century. A difficult read that feel like an assignment, is nevertheless worth the effort because James’ Varieties reads like a novel. And it is full of compelling ideas.
Rather than arguing for the empirical correctness of any one religion or belief, James looked more broadly at what these believers had in common. Ideas he found like “Saintliness” and “Mysticism” are explored. I particularly like his chapters on “healthy mindedness” and the “sick soul.” Both are original and hearty ideas that can be applied broadly to many religions and levels of experience.
Most importantly, James looked deeply into what worked for the believers. When he looked across the global landscape of belief, he found that uniting them together at their core was a general “uneasiness” about life. This discomfort was so persistent that it could only be overcome by connecting with a “higher power” with their particular religion or belief. It is also of note that James believed this connection was possible.
Relevant to this article, it was James who first articulated the idea of the Higher Power. He is cited twice in AA’s original publication of the Big Book.
The Oxford Group
AA founder Bill Wilson came to William James and the “Varieties of Religious Experience” through the Oxford Group. Bill met Ebby T. in NYC in the mid-1930s who suggested Bill read Varieties. Bill reportedly devoured the text cover-to-cover. So significant was James’ influence that Bill said in 1957 he regarded William James as the real founder of AA.
It is well documented that many of AA’s fundamentals derived from Frank Buchman’s Oxford Group organization that stressed ” the four absolutes,” “no hierarchy, no temples, no endowments, its workers no salaries, no plans but God’s plan,” and belief in a “higher power.” So the linage from James to Oxford Group to AA is clear. But, thankfully, Bill pumped the brakes on the Oxford Group’s purpose of establishing “A new world order for Christ, the King!”
That wrinkle, of not mentioning Jesus or Christ became an issue for some with the first 100 of AA. In the first draft of the Big Book, there were many references to God, Christ, and Jesus that were all edited out that to create a broader appeal. In the end, the way the idea of Higher Power was introduced is lovely.
My friend suggested what then seemed a novel idea. He said, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?”
Had AA not gotten this dimension of the program right, I hate to think how many would have never gotten sober.
Today – The Concept Endures
According to the AA program, to get sober, one must find a power greater than oneself. But the minute you mention and try to define this power as God, you polarize folks. This polarization creates the so-called “the God Problem.” Some see this hesitation to embrace the program as an excuse. Whether this is just another way to put off getting sober or a real intellectual issue, it is clear the mention of God is an issue. Turnng the conversation to merely embracing “your own conception” can get everyone past that.
Good thing as the range of beliefs in AA has broadened. In the 1930s, during AA’s founding years, “Catholic, Protestant, or Jew” were the primary religious distinctions. Today there many more faiths in the USA and around the world. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and just about every other belief is found in the rooms of AA. And guess what?
They’re all staying sober.
So, too, are that new breed of citizen – the non-believer. Atheism and Agnosticism have grown over 300% in the past twenty years in the USA. Are they out of luck?
It turns out they aren’t. Many non-believers achieve long-term sobriety with their own comprehensive and idiosyncratic beliefs that don’t include God.
This happens every day.
Where I Stand
So if you think faith or God is your challenge to getting sober in AA, well, you’re fooling yourself. The AA Higher Power concept has you covered, regardless of what you believe or don’t beleive. Much of AA’s effectiveness is due to the Higher Power concept.
As for me, what do I believe?
I believe that is none of your business.
Which by-the-way has worked in keeping people sober for decades!