Yes, we of agnostic temperament have had these thoughts and experiences. Let us make haste to reassure you. We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him. As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps. We found that God does not make too hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe, to all men.When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you. At the start, this was all we needed to commence spiritual growth, to effect our first conscious relation with God as we understood Him. Afterward, we found ourselves accepting many things which then seemed entirely out of reach. That was growth, but if we wished to grow we had to begin somewhere. So we used our own conception, however limited it was. Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 46-47
The importance of this passage can not be overestimated. In these three paragraphs is encapsulated the single most important part of the AA message: God as we understand Him.
I am of the opinion that the theme of the Second Step is open-mindedness. Many, if not most alcoholics are obstinate, closed-minded bundles of resentment when they get here. I certainly was. This chapter seeks to melt the alcoholic’s icy wall of resistance by exploiting whatever sliver of open-mindedness resulted from his self-imposed crisis. It is an appeal to lay aside prejudice.
To do this, it is first necessary to emphasize the broad, roomy and all inclusive nature of the invitation. As we often say, “You can always tell an alcoholic, you just can’t tell him much.” So we are quick to point out that, even with a limited conception, there are immediate results.
Here I want to spell out in some detail what this passage does and, as importantly, what it does not say.
Roomy and all inclusive
“… we had to begin somewhere.” In order to reach a goal it is first necessary to define that goal. But it is equally important to locate the starting point. For the newcomer that starting point is whatever limited and incomplete conception of a Power greater than himself he might have. There can be no other. But is is vital that the newcomer at the very least define for himself just where that is. It’s an early exercise in humility that would have been impossible for most of us had we not experienced a crushing defeat.
What it clearly does NOT say is that refusing to grow beyond this point is somehow preferable. The passage makes very clear that this is the beginning of growth. I find it disturbing that many members with long term sobriety make a big show of how nebulous and ill-defined their conception remains. And there is a subtle disapproval directed at anyone who dares to talk about how they have begun to accept things which had once seemed entirely out of reach. It wrongly implies that the starting point is the destination.
I like this quote from G. K. Chesterton:
Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.
My spiritual path consisted first of all in examining the premises of the faith I was raised in, namely evangelical protestantism. I laid aside prejudice and tried to define what these things meant to me. I was soon able to accept much of them even though I still struggled with some. But in order to gain full benefit from this I found it useful to immerse myself in that spiritual atmosphere. This I did, resulting in an unnecessary separation from AA for a time. When I returned I had a much, much clearer of what I did and did not believe. I continued on this path and ultimately found myself in the Roman Catholic church. That was certainly acceptance of a slew of things I had considered out of reach at one time. (Yes, it is possible to be a devout Catholic and a member of AA as well. In my opinion, people who describe themselves as “recovering Catholics” over and over again may need to address that institutional resentment. In any case, it stopped being funny a long time ago.)
The “doorknob” god
Like it or not, this Higher Power must possess some attributes of personality if the Steps are going to have any meaning whatsoever. I once sponsored a man who insisted that his Higher Power was a tree. I told him that this was no problem for now, but when he got to the point where he had to begin doing the will of his Higher Power, it was going to be rough going unless that tree had a will. Saying that your Higher Power is a doorknob may elicit a few ego-feeding chuckles at a meeting, but it actually reflects an unwillingness to improve one’s conscious contact.
A “loving God”
The term is used in the Traditions but the concept is present in the Third Step as well when we turn our lives over to the care and protection of a Higher Power. How much does that doorknob care about you? How does that tree protect you from that first drink? Love is an attribute of personhood.
The group as a Higher Power
This concept appears explicitly later, but now is a good time to point out that an AA group (apart from any one member) is a useful and acceptable concept of a Higher Power, one that in many ways should never be abandoned. The groups has personality; the group has a will; the group is loving and protecting; the group has a consciousness of a Power greater than itself. Long before any of us effect a conscious contact with God, the group fills that need perfectly.
God “as I don’t understand Him”
Really? No one should claim to understand God in any complete sense. So what good does it do to emphasize the partial nature of our concept? Yes, it is good and humbling to remind ourselves and those around us that our comprehension will never be complete. But we do the new person a great disservice by obscuring the fact that our understanding must increase. Unless, of course, you discard Step Eleven.
I hope the preceding wasn’t just an exercise in my resentments. I feel a real urgency to get this part of the program right as it relates to carrying the message to the new person. We can fail them and in so doing condemn them to an alcoholic death. When the sufferer reaches out for rescue, I want the hand that he encounters to be the genuine hand of the AA program, not my distorted version.