I first went to church when I was a teenager. I went because I was desperate and needed help. I was homeless, deeply depressed, and scared. A kindly priest took me under his wing and, inspired by his example to be like him, I went off to college to study for the priesthood. Unfortunately, I had a different experience there. I rebelled, turned to atheism, and became an alcoholic. For the next 23 years, I would have nothing to do with God and religion. When I finally hit bottom and came to AA, I ran into the deity in the most unlikely of places: a room full of drunks. AA made God accessible and appealing, while the experience of recovery made him meaningful. Like most of us, I gradually came to believe.
The story of losing God in the church and finding him again in the rooms is common at our meetings, especially when we discuss Steps 2 and 3, as we recently did in my home group. Some people identify themselves as “recovering Catholics,” and we identify with that. Even when our experience was with a different tradition, in the end it was still largely negative. Worse, it had the same effect—it drove us away from God.
Many of us are still recovering from that experience. Some of us wouldn’t darken the threshold of a church. Others visit on occasion. Still others who attend regularly struggle. Were it not for the tools we’ve learned in AA, we probably wouldn’t stay.
Talking about these things the last time around reminded me of the “spiritual but not religious” distinction we make in AA, a distinction which grew out of our early experience and which is now part of the cultural mainstream. Some religious people dismiss that distinction, blithely dismissing those who make it. They use such terms of opprobrium as “platitude” and “cliché.” But dismissing people doesn’t help the religious cause. It may even be perceived as being, well, unspiritual. Nor does it help to dismiss facts. We call that denial. And the fact is that increasing numbers of people are opting for “spiritual” over “religious.” We don’t identify ourselves as religious because we don’t identify with the religious. They speak at us, not to us. We need help, spiritual help (for psychology too has failed us), but religion doesn't seem to offer any.
Alcoholics find that help in AA, and countless others in various 12-Step groups. Spirituality of course means different things to different people. This is the case even within the rooms. Yet, when we say that AA is a spiritual but not a religious program, we are not making some vague or spurious claim. AA spirituality grows out of concrete principles and practices which in significant ways set it apart from religion.
One of these is the principle of “attraction rather than promotion.” We generally associate this principle with Tradition 11. But it is also a key underlying principle of Step 12. In both, it governs the way we carry the message: in the sphere of public relations in the one case, and in the sphere of personal relations in the other, starting with the rooms and fellow alcoholics but extending by implication to all of our fellows and to all of our affairs. The principle was arrived at as the result of much painful experience. Most AAs were by temperament “irrepressible promoters” (12&12, p. 91). Many were in fact salesmen, and they naturally came to see “carrying the message” as a sales job. They wanted to sell recovery, and in the process also sell themselves.
Indeed, the principle is one of the distinctive marks of AA spirituality and is closely linked to anonymity and the idea of “principles before personalities” (12&12, Tradition 12, p. 184). When we say that it sets it apart from religion, we mean religion not as expounded by the theologian, but as perceived and experienced by the average person through the medium of organized religion, or religion as an institution. The italics are necessary because, as we explain in PTP, religion emerges out of the spiritual and encompasses the spiritual. We are innately spiritual beings and are naturally attracted to the spiritual, to that which, in the most minimalist of terms, transcends our merely material existence. But we are also innately defective beings, and in our organized pursuit of the spiritual, we end up making it not so attractive anymore. Spiritual need gives way to the needs of the institution, of which the first is its own advancement. That imperative feeds the promotional urge.
C. S. Lewis touches on this problem when he writes: “In every Church, in every institution, there is something which sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence.” That something is of course inside of us. The organization brings it out.
Hence AA’s avoidance of all institutional hierarchies, regulations, and trappings. A program that is spiritual but not religious seeks to build a spiritual fellowship rather than a religious organization. Such a fellowship seeks to nurture our natural attraction to the spiritual while protecting it from the promoter instinct present in all of us. It confirms us in our intuition that there is a Power greater than ourselves, and it creates an environment where we can connect with that Power. Rather than promote that Power, it attracts us to it by letting us alcoholics show each other how it is working in our own individual lives, how it is relieving us of our disease and bringing about a truly miraculous transformation in us. The attraction is to a faith that works, to a distinctively practical spirituality that bears fruit and has concrete results.
Because it is by nature proselytizing, religion in its organized form tends toward promotion. Using AA terminology, we may say that its “primary purpose” is to win adherents to its institutional creed. Its primary message is that if you believe X, Y, and Z, you will have a “spiritual awakening” (find salvation, enlightenment, Nirvana). Its primary means of carrying this message is to preach, a mode of address which is generally characterized by proclamation, injunction, and exhortation and which seeks to convince and convert.
By contrast, AA’s primary purpose is to maintain a condition (sobriety) we have already attained and to help others do the same. Its primary message is that we had a spiritual awakening (and became sober) as the result of having done certain things. Its primary means of carrying that message is to tell our story of what we were like, what happened, and what we are like now, a mode of address which is characterized by the sharing of our experience, strength, and hope and which seeks mutual recognition and identification.
The accent in religion is on belief; the accent in spirituality on action. One stresses ideas and tries to advance those ideas; the other stresses experience and tries to share that experience. One presents arguments; the other tells a story. One seeks agreement; the other seeks empathy. One draws differences; the other finds commonality. One speaks of “you;” the other speaks of “we.” One says “this is what you must do;” the other says “this is what we did.”
One promotes through words, the other attracts through deeds. Not that religion is not interested in attraction, but that its main thrust is toward promotion. That this is the case, and that the thrust ought to be in the opposite direction, is apparently what lies behind a saying attributed to a man who was as spiritual as he was religious. “Preach all the time,” St. Francis is reported to have told his fellow monks, “when necessary, use words.” Some dispute the attribution to Francis, finding that it diminishes the value of preaching. But of course what Francis was saying was to put first things first, a key spiritual principle of his faith and one which not incidentally AA shares with him. Show, he was saying, show through what you do and how you live, and then tell. What diminishes the value of words is to tell and not show. It’s what turns religion into a primarily promotional enterprise.
Of course, preaching is sometimes accompanied by exhortations to apply the lessons being taught, and chapter and verse are cited to this effect. And that’s very good. But to cite and exhort still is not to show. It is still promotion, not attraction. It pushes; it doesn’t pull.
Because it must proselytize, religion must promote. That is its job. It must tell us who and what: who God is as it understands God, and what we must do in light of that understanding. But if it is to attract, it must also show us how, and it must do so not only by precept, but by example: personal example, the immediate and living example of the preacher (by which we mean anybody trying to carry the religious message) and not only that of the historical and distant religious exemplar. And that, in the view of many who consider ourselves spiritual but not religious, is where religion falls short.
In the worst of cases, this disconnect between word and deed results in hypocrisy, the bane of religion and certainly one of its most aversive features. Less obviously but equally fatally, this disconnect produces a sense of irrelevancy in some of us. What goes on in church just doesn’t seem to connect very much with what’s going on in our lives out in the real world. This is in sharp contrast with what goes on at meetings, where we can speak from the heart and share our struggles honestly, openly, and safely with each other; where we can help each other understand and practice the spiritual principles than can help us with those struggles; where we can bear witness to the transformative power of God’s grace in our lives, concretely, on the basis of our daily experience.
The spiritual life is not a theory, we say in the rooms, we have to live it. We go to those rooms to learn how to do that. That practical, real-life spirituality is what attracts us to AA. It’s one of the reasons why some of us identify ourselves as spiritual but not religious.
Some of us go back to church at some point in our recovery because we need more spiritual help and we hope to find it there. We often don’t and we become disillusioned. Yet we are called to practice the spiritual principles of the program in all our affairs, and that includes church. For me that means first of all surrender and acceptance: the church is what the church is and I’m not going to change it. It means practicing the principle of attraction rather than promotion: sharing rather than preaching, showing how I’m living out my faith rather than telling others how to live theirs. It means trying to help rather than trying to convert. It means connecting with other AAs in church and being supportive of them. It means bringing theory and theology down to earth and making it practical. It means above all practicing the principles of love and service in Step 12 and seeing the church experience as an opportunity to give more than to receive. That's how we can "bring new purpose and devotion to the religion of our choice" (12&12, Step 12, p. 112).
AA spirituality doesn’t conflict with religion. Instead, it can help us return to the origins of religion in the spiritual and restore the spirituality which much of religion has lost and which sometimes may seem so lacking in church. Seeing church through the principles of the program can help us to make spiritual sense of it. It can help us to make it relevant to our life. That in turn can help us to practice those principles better.
[Posted 01/28/16. Image: AA meeting in the 1950's.]