The Theology of Alcoholics Anonymous

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Some outstanding points of the theology of AA are:

127 Alcoholics Anonymous, op. cit., p. 43.

128 Bateson, et al., "Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia," Behavioral Science, 1956, 1: 251-64.

(1) There is a Power greater than the self. Cybernetics would go somewhat further and recognize that the "self" as ordinarily understood is only a small part of a much larger trial-and-error system which does the thinking, acting, and deciding. This system includes all the informational path-ways which are relevant at any given moment to any given decision. The "self" is a false reification of an improperly delimited part of this much larger field of interlocking processes. Cybernetics also recognizes that two or more persons —any group of persons—may together form such a thinkingand-acting system.

(2) This Power is felt to be personal and to be intimately linked with each person. It is "God as you understand him to be."

Cybernetically speaking, "my" relation to any larger system around me and including other things and persons will be different from "your" relation to some similar system around you. The relation "part of" must necessarily and logically always be complementary but the meaning of the phrase "part of" will be different for every person.131 This difference will be especially important in systems containing more than one person. The system or "power" must necessarily appear different from where each person sits. Moreover, it is expect-able that such systems, when they encounter each other, will recognize each other as systems in this sense. The "beauty" of the woods through which I walk is my recognition both of the individual trees and of the total ecology of the woods as systems. A similar esthetic recognition is still more striking when I talk with another person.

(3) A favorable relationship with this Power is discovered through "hitting bottom" and "surrender."

(4) By resisting this Power, men and especially alcoholics bring disaster upon themselves. The materialistic philosophy which sees "man" as pitted against his environment is rapidly breaking down as technological man becomes more and more able to oppose the largest systems. Every battle that he wins brings a threat of disaster. The unit of survival—either in ethics or in evolution—is not the organism or the species but the largest system or "power" within which the creature lives. If the creature destroys its environment, it destroys it-self.

(5) But—and this is important — the Power does not re-ward and punish. It does not have "power" in that sense. In the biblical phrase, "All things work together for good to them that love God." And, conversely, to them that do not. The idea of power in the sense of unilateral control is foreign to AA. Their organization is strictly "democratic" (their word), and even their deity is still bound by what we might call a systemic determinism. The same limitation applies both to the relationship between the AA sponsor and the drunk whom he hopes to help and to the relationship between AA central office and every local group.

(6) The first two "steps" of Alcoholics Anonymous taken together identify the addiction as a manifestation of this Power.

(7) The healthy relation between each person and this Power is complementary. It is in precise contrast to the "pride" of the alcoholic, which is predicated upon a

131 This diversity in styles of integration could account for the fact that some persons become alcoholic while others do not.

symmetrical relationship to an imagined "other." The schismogenesis is always more powerful than the participants in it.

(8) The quality and content of each person's relation to the Power is indicated or reflected in the social structure of AA. The secular aspect of this system—its governance — is delineated in "Twelve Traditions"132 which supplement the "Twelve Steps," the latter developing man's relationship to the Power. The two documents overlap in the Twelfth Step, which enjoins aid to other alcoholics as a necessary spiritual exercise without which the member is likely to relapse. The total system is a Durkheimian religion in the sense that the relationship between man and his community parallels the relationship between man and God. "AA is a power greater than any of us."133

In sum, the relationship of each individual to the "Power" is best defined in the words is part of."

(9) Anonymity. It must be understood that anonymity means much more in AA thinking and theology than the mere protection of members from exposure and shame. With increasing fame and success of the organization as a whole, it has become a temptation for members to use the fact of their membership as a positive asset in public relations, politics, education, and many other fields. Bill W., the co-founder of the organization, was himself caught by this temptation in early days and has discussed the matter in a published article.134 He sees first that any grabbing of the spotlight must be a personal and spiritual danger to the member, who cannot affort such self-seeking; and beyond this that it would be fatal for the organization as a whole to become involved in politics, religious controversy, and social reform. He states clearly that the errors of the alcoholic are the same as the "forces which are today ripping the world apart at its seams," but that it is not the business of AA to save the world. Their single purpose is "to carry the AA message to the sick alcoholic who wants it."135 He concludes that anonymity is "the greatest symbol of self-sacrifice that we know." Elsewhere the twelfth of the "Twelve Traditions" states that "anonymity is the spiritual foundation of our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities."

To this we may add that anonymity is also a profound statement of the systemic relation, part-to-whole. Some systems theorists would go even further, because a major temptation for systems theory lies in the reification of theoretical concepts. Anatol Holt says he wants a bumper sticker which would (paradoxically) say, "Stamp out nouns."136

(10) Prayer. The AA use of prayer similarly affirms the complementarity of part-whole relationship by the very simple technique of asking for that relationship. They ask for those-personal characteristics, such as humility, which are in fact-exercised in the very act of prayer. If the act of prayer be sincere (which is not so easy), God cannot but grant the request. And this is peculiarly true of "God, as you understand

132 AA Comes of Age, op. cit. 24 Ibid., p. 288. 25 Ibid., pp. 286-94.

134 Ibid, pp.286-294

135 Ibid.

136 M. C. Bateson, ed., Out Own Metaphor, Wenner-Gren Foundation, Conference on the Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation, 1968; New York, Knopf, in press.

him." This self-affirming tautology, which contains its own beauty, is precisely the balm required after the anguish of the double binds which went with hitting bottom.

Somewhat more complex is the famous "Serenity Prayer": "God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference."137

If double binds cause anguish and despair and destroy personal epistemological premises at some deep level, then it follows, conversely, that for the healing of these wounds and the growth of a new epistemology, some converse of the double bind will be appropriate. The double bind leads The Serenity Prayer explicitly frees the worshipper from these maddening bonds.

to the conclusion of despair, "There are no alternatives."

In this connection it is worth mentioning that the great schizophrenic, John Perceval, observed a change in his "voices." In the beginning of his psychosis they bullied him with "contradictory commands" (or as I would say, double binds), but later he began to recover when they offered him choice of clearly defined alternatives. 138

(11) In one characteristic, AA differs profoundly from such natural mental systems as the family or the redwood forest. It has a single purpose — "to carry the AA message to the sick alcoholic who wants it" — and the organization is dedicated to the maximization of that purpose. In this respect, AA is no more sophisticated than General Motors or an Occidental nation. But biological systems, other than those premised upon Occidental ideas (and especially money), are multipurposed. There is no single variable in the red-wood forest of which we can say that the whole system is oriented to maximizing that variable and all other variables are subsidiary to it; and, indeed, the redwood forest works toward optima, not maxima. Its needs are satiable, and too much of anything is toxic.

There is, however, this: that the single purpose of AA is directed outward and is aimed at a noncompetitve relationship to the larger world. The variable to be maximized is a complementarity and is of the nature of "service" rather than dominance.

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