Religion, Spirituality, and Obedience

Reflections in Recovery

Bill W. visiting AA prospect in hospital
Today’s entry in Twenty-Four Hours a Day (“the Little Black Book”) brings to mind one of the ways in which religion and spirituality differ. As we know, the LBB was put together by a member of the Oxford Group in Daytona Beach, FL. It was the first book ever published by Hazelden (in 1954), and its format (daily thought, meditation, prayer) initiated what would become a cottage industry in recovery, self-help, and New Age literature.

The LBB illustrates the transition between the Oxford Group and AA. It still uses the language of religion, but it starts to veer away from it and toward an idiom of spirituality. The day’s meditation says that if we are going to change, we must have two things. One is faith. The other is obedience. Now, “must” is not the language of recovery, as we have observed in Practice These Principles. But what we wish to reflect on here is another term of command and compulsion: “obedience.”

In AA, we don’t talk about obedience. To us, that’s religious talk. It smacks of dry duty and onerous obligation. The alcoholic tends to recoil from it, if no longer to rebel once sober. We do talk about doing God’s will, and specifically his moral will for us. Though still using the word, however, the LBB passage moves toward this kind of understanding when it reframes obedience in terms of "living each day as we believe God wants us to live, with gratitude, humility, honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love."

Now, that speaks to us. To us, “obedience” is turning our will and our lives over to the care of God, and the surrender of our own will is the first step. We “obey” by practicing the spiritual principles in the Steps in daily life and in ordinary everyday relations. We do it because it works, and, because it works, we want to do it.

The 12&12 (the Big Book doesn’t use the word) is very clear about  this. It makes 6 references to obedience, all in connection with the Traditions. Of these, 3 have to do with the conventional understanding of obedience as having to do with compulsion, with the enforcement and imposition of rules and regulations (T2, p. 132; T9, p.172, twice). The book underscores that's foreign to our fellowship. The other 3 specifically talk about obedience to spiritual principles (T1, pp. 9, 130; T9, p. 174).

In the absence of the spiritual disciplines and virtues, “obedience” can, and typically does, become a theological abstraction that finds no concrete expression in how we live our lives, no matter how often and how urgent the call to “obey.” The term invites the question: exactly how? 

In AA we are given an answer. It is unmistakably spiritual, even as it is totally practicable. 

[Posted 03/28/12. Image: Bill W. visiting AA prospect in hospital. For a related post, see "The Little Black Book," Ray's review of Twenty-Four Hours a Day, written a few years after this reflection. ]

To return to Reflections, please click on link.