Monthly Archives: August 2014

How do “we” understand “Him?”

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.


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What kind of God?

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Fill in the blanks

We looked upon this world of warring individuals, warring theological systems, and inexplicable calamity, with deep skepticism. We looked askance at many individuals who claimed to be godly. How could a Supreme Being have anything to do with it all? And who could comprehend a Supreme Being anyhow? Yet, in other moments, we found ourselves thinking, when enchanted by a starlit night, “Who, then, made all this?” There was a feeling of awe and wonder, but it was fleeting and soon lost. Alcoholics Anonymous, p.46

Sorry to get so “Carl Sagan” on you last time but I had just been outside looking at the stars. I had intended to discuss the first part of this passage but I had been looking at the stars and just felt like making some feeble attempt to convey my own personal awe and wonder.

So what about the first part? This is the old “How could a loving God (fill in the blank). The answer to that is that God has no intention of filling in any blanks. We’re not the ones making the rules. In fact, were not sure what the rules are, or even if there are rules. There is such a thing as mystery and in my opinion people of good spiritual development ponder the mysteries, they don’t try to solve them.

The fact is that we came into the spiritual life looking for a fight. We already had our minds made up and all that had to be done was find enough evidence to support our resentment. And so the God idea was neatly tucked away. If we are going to make any progress in reaching agnostics there has to be a willingness to meet them on their terms, on their own turf. Having been one of these dreary antagonists I think I am somewhat qualified to take on the task.

It helps to break the argument down into its sub-arguments.

Argument one: people do bad things.

This one’s a paper tiger. People do bad things because (here it comes) people are not as good as we expect them to be. The problem is not God, it’s our assumption that God has it in His power to suspend free will and for some malevolent reason He isn’t doing it. The argument is actually turned on its head. People have the power to do evil, God has it within His power to stop them, He doesn’t, ergo He does not exist. The fundamental flaw in this argument is in not realizing that our free will is part of the way God created us. If He didn’t intend for us to have free will we wouldn’t have gotten it in the first place. And if was right in the first place, why would He change it?

This is truly a mystery, but there is a least one way to approach it. If love is not freely given is it actually love? Can a creature devoid of free will love God in any meaningful way? I believe with all my heart that God loves me so much that he given me the power to reject Him. And if I have the power to reject Him, then and only then do I have the power to love Him. This is what the story of the Garden tells us.

Argument two: God allows terrible things to happen to innocent people. Natural disasters, disease, anything not the result of human evil.

I read a story the other day where a man gave God the credit for saving him when he fell over a waterfall. That’s nice. But do we ever hear from the people whom God doesn’t save? No, because they aren’t around to tell us about it. I would be very cautious about giving God credit for things going my way.

The case is often made that God permits suffering in our lives because He wants us to mature spiritually. All well and good, but try telling that to a parent whose child is suffering through no fault of his own. What insane spiritual maturity is He trying to achieve? It’s true that we can use the hardships in our live to grow closer to Him, but it seems like there ought to be a better way. Again, a mystery.

I don’t claim to have an easy answer to this. But I was once approached by a member of AA who threw that argument in my face. At first I was at a loss for words (it happens). Then I said something that I will always remember. I said,” Assuming that suffering is a given, would you rather suffer through life without God or with Him?” I don’t understand why there is suffering, but I’m not willing to go it alone. If it’s raining, why do you curse the umbrella you refuse to use?

Argument three: people with one belief system disagree with people who have an opposite one. They can’t both be right therefore they are both wrong.

I agree. They’re both wrong. Or to put it another way, claims of absolute truth are not faith, they are hubris. I have no truck with “true believers.” Scott Peck (rest his two-faced souls) had a pretty good analysis of this. Stage one is the skeptic, the non-believer. We already know him. Sage two is the true believer. Faith covers his doubt. He has seen the light and nothing will shake his conviction. Or at least he won’t let anyone shake it. Stage three is the person who has outgrown this certainty is is undergoing a crisis of faith. His doubt covers his faith which was covering his skepticism. They are usually assaulted by stage three people who see them as going backward (they’re not of course). They may give up the whole thing in disgust and return to stage one. But there are those who one day realize that doubt is part of faith. They develop a faith that encompasses the doubt that covers shallow faith that covers skepticism. Got that? If you think about it, the people we most admire spiritually are those who are able to remain humble in the face of their unknowing.

I took me a long time to say what Bill said more succinctly. The take-away from all this is that we must never forget that we are variously at all these stages at any given time. That’s why it’s called “We Agnostics” not “You Agnostics.”

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Starry night

We looked upon this world of warring individuals, warring theological systems, and inexplicable calamity, with deep skepticism. We looked askance at many individuals who claimed to be godly. How could a Supreme Being have anything to do with it all? And who could comprehend a Supreme Being anyhow? Yet, in other moments, we found ourselves thinking, when enchanted by a starlit night, “Who, then, made all this?” There was a feeling of awe and wonder, but it was fleeting and soon lost. Alcoholics Anonymous, p.46

I got pretty upset when I heard someone say that the Sun would burn itself out in five million years. Then I realized they had said “five billion.” What a relief. – Wanda W.

[First, let me apologize for waiting so long to post. Sometimes other things vie for my attention and I just started some online training in graphic design that has become quite an obsession. All or nothing, as Bill used to put it. Anyway, on with the post.]

This is the time of year when the Milky Way is bright in the evening sky. I’m fortunate enough to live in an area with low humidity and clear skies, so I can go out and look up at that amazing haze of light and force myself to realize that I am looking at the light from literally billions of stars.

I walk outside just in time to see light that left a star the day Jesus Christ gave His Sermon on the mount. My eye intercepts other light that began its journey when Michigan was still under three thousand feet of glacial ice.  And I see light from countless other stars that began speeding toward an empty spot in space where this planet would not yet emerge for millions of years, light from stars that themselves ceased to exists millions of years ago.

Of course no light arrives to mark my birth. Nothing I can see is that close.

In spite of all this, the moment I turn away, all I can think of is myself.

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