Dick B. discusses A.A.’s higher-powered gods on the July 10, 2013, episode of the “Christian Recovery Radio with Dick B.” show
© 2013 Anonymous. All rights reserved
And You May Hear This Right Now
You may hear Dick B. discuss “A.A.’s higher-powered gods” on the July 10, 2013, episode of the “Christian Recovery Radio with Dick B.” show here:
Episodes of the “Christian Recovery Radio with Dick B.” show are archived at:
When I came into A.A. in April 1986 to get sober for the first and last time, I was sufficiently sick and confused that I don’t think I gave God much of a thought. I saw “God as we understood Him” in the Steps on the wall of the room. I felt I had an understanding of God, and that was that.
Before long, my newly-sober sponsor and his sponsor were talking repeatedly about “higher power” this and “higher power” that; and I think I concluded that I had two higher powers: one was our Creator; the other was the A.A. group. And nobody set me straight on any of this. Unfortunately, it was a long time before I went to a Joe and Charlie Big Book Seminar in Sacramento and learned how much God was embedded in A.A.’s General Service Conference-approved literature.
Furthermore, I learned from DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers that A.A.’s basic ideas came from the Bible–which many AAs–including Dr. Bob–called the Good Book. And there was plenty in A.A.’s Big Book and its Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers that called God the Creator, Maker, Father, Heavenly Father–all biblical descriptions.
But then came the nonsense gods that were flooding meeting sharing. I heard that your higher power–whatever that was–could be a light bulb, a door knob, a radiator, the Big Dipper, a Coke bottle, and Ralph. And I heard it often.
As my A.A. years rolled on, I realized that A.A. newcomers were being short-changed in their knowledge of their history, the Bible, God, and prayer. And that much of the trouble–coupled with frequent relapses–could be identified with those who looked at A.A. as a place to get sober, but learned little about God’s role.
Today and in future shows, I’ll introduce you to what I believe is not typical of early A.A. and not typical in A.A.’s literature today–the so-called higher power craze.
Synopsis of Dick B.’s Radio Presentation
The Nonsense “gods” of Recovery
Let’s Begin with Some Definitions
For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints (1 Corinthians 14:33).
The Pioneer AA’s in Akron Number One were looking for a way to end their drinking problem and the woes that seemed the inevitable result thereof. Their founders (Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob) turned to God for the answer — for the “way out.” But what God? The answer, of course, was the Creator — the Almighty God of whom they spoke, to whom they prayed, and about whom they studied daily in the Bible. Bill Wilson called Him “the God of the Scriptures.” Dr. Bob called God his “Heavenly Father.” Dr. Bob often described the Bible as the “Good Book.” See http://www.dickb.com/goodbook.shtml.
That should have been the end of it. And apparently it was at first. But confusion — neither of, nor from, God or the Bible — has seemed to reign supreme in the recovery “theology” from 1940 on. Long prior to his attaining sobriety in the Oxford Group and AA. Bill Wilson had had a thorough Christian upbringing in Vermont. He received it primarily from his grand-parents, parents, East Dorset Congregational Church, its Sunday school, its confession and creed, its sermons and hymns and prayer meetings and Scripture readings. But Bill turned his back on the Creator just before he was to have graduated from Burr and Burton Seminary in nearby Manchester, Vermont. This happened only after Bill had attended daily chapel at Burr and Burton (with sermons, hymns, Scripture reading, and prayer meetings. It happened only as Bill was completing his four-year Bible study course. It happened after Bill had attended Christian church services at Manchester, Vermont. And it happened after Bill had been serving as President of the Burr and Burton Young Men’s Christian Association, and Bertha Bamford—the lady love of his life—had been serving as President of the Burr and Burton Young Women’s Christian Association.
But that rich Christian training was tabled when Bertha died unexpectedly just before graduation time. Bill was heart-broken. He went into a deep depression. He left the Seminary. And he turned his back on God—a limbo situation that seemed to have been continuous during his drinking years thereafter.
Bill once called himself a “conservative atheist.” (See Dick B., New Light on Alcoholism; God, Sam Shoemaker, and AA. 2d ed. (Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 1999]. p. 91.) His had soon married Lois Burnham, who—with her family–belonged to a sect known as Swedenborgians. Lois characterized herself as a “non-Christian.” (See Lois Remembers [NY: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, 1979], pp. 2, 26.) This certainly meant that neither Bill nor Lois was steeped in biblical Christian thinking after the marriage.
Furthermore, before he had met Dr. Bob in Akron, Bill had come under the heavy influence of the Oxford Group, of Rev. Sam Shoemaker, and of the thinking of long-dead Professor William James. This meant that these influences had offered to the newly “non-religious” Bill Wilson a nebulous “Power” to add to his mix. And he did!
This new “Power” which the doubting Wilson was later to embrace and “empower” did not gain ascendency in his life during his Bible study in the home of Dr. Bob and Anne Smith in the summer of 1935. In fact, as Dr. Bob’s son “Smitty” was to write in the Foreword to one of my titles, “Before there was a Big Book — in the period of ‘flying blind,’ God’s Big Book was the reference used in our home. The summer of 1935, when Bill lived with us, Dr. Bob had read the Bible completely three times. And the references that seemed consistent with the program goals were the Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13, and the Book of James. At Anne’s ‘Quiet Time’ — a daily period held with the alcoholics in our home, the Bible was used.” (Dick B., The Good Book and The Big Book: A.A’s Roots in the Bible, 2d ed. [Kihei, HI: Paradise Research Publications, 1997], p. ix.).
Bill’s so-called “Power” was not even of great importance when Bill penned the manuscript that, as frequently revised, became the First Edition of his Big Book in the Spring of 1939. “God” was mentioned dozens of times in that First Edition. The “Power” was listed as a “higher power” twice; and even Bill still called that “power” God: “Its [the Big Book’s] main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem. . . . And it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God. . . . even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., pp. 45-46).
Strange New “gods”
At today’s point in recovery program history, Bill’s “power” has acquired confused, distorted, conflicting, incredible meanings. It has even become a new “god” or “deity.” No less a knowledgeable AA. old-timer and, at times an official AA. historian, than Mel B. has made the statement: “AA members have always issued disclaimers when discussing God: Typical is, ‘Our program is spiritual, not religious.’ If pressed for what the program’s actual definition of spiritual is, however, it is doubtful that many AA. members could explain” (Mel B., New Wine: The Spiritual Roots of the Twelve Step Miracle [MN: Hazelden, 1991], pp. 4-5). While Mel B.’s statement completely ignores the Bible emphasis in early AA.’s “program” (as it was reported by Frank Amos to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1938), it does illustrate Mel’s awareness of the confusion that was set in motion almost as soon as Wilson returned to his New York home from Akron in the summer of 1935. Bill promptly fell back into the arms of his Oxford Group friends in New York, the counsel of Rev. Sam Shoemaker at Calvary Church, and the bizarre “higher powers” mentioned in the writings of Professor William James. (See the discussion below of the James ideas.)
The difficulty is that the AA. and the recovery world of the 1940’s and thereafter were soon at work devising dozens of strange and absurd names for this new god; and they later developed new godless theologies to support the nonsense. While some of her assumptions, descriptions, context, and sources leave much to be desired, I think it helpful to quote the following from Dr. Cathy Burns’s title:
Again, it should be unmistakable that AA’s “Higher Power is definitely not the God of the Bible, but AA literature makes it even plainer that other gods are acceptable. One particular alcoholic couldn’t accept the idea of a “Higher Power.” This is his account of how his AA sponsor explained it to him: THEN HE ASKS ME IF I BELIEVE IN A POWER GREATER THAN MYSELF, WHETHER I CALL THAT POWER GOD, ALLAH, CONFUCIUS, PRIME CAUSE, DIVINE MIND, OR ANY OTHER NAME. I TOLD HIM THAT I believe in electricity and other forces of nature, but as for a God, if there is one, He has never done anything for me. . . .”Then all of your troubles are over,” says the man and leaves the room (Cathy Burns, Alcoholics Anonymous Unmasked, p. 39; emphasis added).
Far too many AA. critics just mix up their history, their dates, their sources, and their quotes. It is therefore unfair to judge early AA. by their statements. The main reason, of course, is that there is a major difference between the Christian recovery program founded and developed in Akron in 1935, and the “new version” of the program (as Bill called it) that was published in 1939 at the hands of Bill and his partner Henry Parkhurst. It is, however, quite fair to note that critics and researchers alike have an abundance of absurd names and quotes from today’s recovery writings to support their statements that the new “deity” includes just about any god or “not-god” or sacred something one might choose to select and babble about in A.A.’s rooms and elsewhere..
Strange New “Theologies”
What is far more surprising, however, is the new theology that “researchers” are now attributing to AA. itself. Please note the following from Research on Alcoholics Anonymous: Opportunities and Alternatives, edited by Barbara S. McCrady and William R. Miller (NJ: Publications Division of Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, 1993):
Flores (1988) argues that there are a number of common misconceptions regarding A.A Among the most common of these misconceptions are the beliefs that: . . AA. is a religious organization. The term “God” is either used or referred to in five of the 12 steps. However, God is defined as a “higher power” and ostensibly, can be extracted from a religious context and taken to be natural forces other than deity. Flores (1988) points out that it is up to AA members to come to their own personal understanding of the meaning and significance of this higher power (pp. 359-60). [This observation is false! God is not defined as a ‘higher power.’ The term is used only twice in the Big Book and both times in the context making clear that Bill was writing about God—Almighty God]
Spirituality as a term is, however, used in a considerably broader sense than that discussed so far. Spirituality in this sense appears to be referring to people who are concerned with metaphysical issues as well as their own day-to-day lives. It need have no belief in God. . . . But what is this spirituality if it is entirely outside of a traditional religious focus, and does this spirituality relate to Alcoholics Anonymous’ “Higher Power”? Casual conversation suggests that spirituality might mean being thoughtful or engaging in meditation or just a general concern for metaphysical issues. . . . Spirituality can have a clearer definition than those noted above. Berenson (1990) suggests that ‘spirituality, as opposed to religion, connotes a direct, personal experience of the sacred unmediated by particular belief systems prescribed by dogma or by hierarchical structures of priests, ministers, rabbis, or gurus’ (p. 304).
[Once again—a false observation. The word “spirituality” is defined in A.A.’s basic text—the First Edition of the Big Book—as follows: “We never apologize to anyone for depending upon our Creator. We can laugh at those who think spirituality the way of weakness. Paradoxically, it is the way of strength. The verdict of the ages is that faith means courage. All men of faith have courage. They trust their God. We never apologize for God. Instead we let Him demonstrate, through us, what He can do.” Alcohoics Anonymous “The Big Book”: The Original 1939 Edition With A New Introduction by Dick B. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2011
AA. Pioneers seem to have studied, repeated, and believed the following verse from the Bible that appeared in almost every piece of religious literature they read or mentioned:
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me (John 14:6).
See these few, out of many, examples of such literature they read: Samuel M. Shoemaker, Confident Faith (NY: Fleming H. Revell,1932), p. 46; Philip Marshall Brown, The Venture of Belief (NY: Fleming H. Revell, 1935), p. 49; Stephen Foot, Life Began Yesterday (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1935), p. 87; Olive M. Jones, Inspired Children (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1933), p. 50; Norma Smith Holm, The Runner ‘s Bible, p. 21; James Moore Hickson, Heal the Sick (London: Methuen & Co., 1925), p. 266; Oswald Chambers, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Great Britain: Oswald Chambers Publications, 1995), p.1 02; many issues of The Upper Room; and the many highly studied titles of Glenn Clark, E. Stanley Jones, and Harry Emerson Fosdick.
Our exploration here, therefore, concerns the question: How did “recovery” move from the “Way;” [Jesus Christ], to the irreligious “spirituality” of modern A.A. writers found, for example, in Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Modern Wisdom From Classic Stories, pp. 1-5; and then from there to the absurd deities like light bulbs and door knob, and others listed and named on pages. 77-83, 91-105, 107-116, 119-128, 137-140., in Dick B., God and Alcoholism: Our Growing Opportunity in the 21st Century,
And certainly the best answers as to how the corruption occurred will come from a look at the compromise names that became a part of AA.’s history.
Some “Higher Power” Homework for You: What Is This New “god”?
My Own Early Experiences
In grammar school, I said the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag. It talked of “one nation under God.” Then I got hold of some coins and bills. And they all said “In God we trust.” I joined the Boy Scouts, and I pledged that I would do my best to do my duty to God and my country. And, in the Army and when I was admitted to law practice, I must have sworn to uphold, protect, and defend the Constitution — knowing that one of our founding documents talked about our being “endowed by our Creator” with certain inalienable rights. Endowed by our Creator!
I never had any trouble knowing Who God was. And is! Actually, until I came to A.A., I never really met anyone else who had that trouble. That’s not to say I didn’t know what an atheist is: He or she is someone who doesn’t believe in God. I also acquired some knowledge about what an agnostic is: He or she is someone who just plain doesn’t know whether or not there is a God. Finally, I was the attorney for several Humanist groups in the course of my legal work; and I learned they didn’t think there was a God at all. One Humanist client came bounding into my office when the Dead Sea Scrolls came to the fore; and he said: “Now they’ve got God on the run. I also learned that, despite the Humanists’ non-belief, the courts have specifically ruled and held the Humanists themselves are a “religion” (just as the courts have now frequently ruled that AA. itself is a “religion”).
When I came to Alcoholics Anonymous, I attended thousands of meetings and participated in hundreds of Big Book studies, Step Studies, Conferences, Conventions, and Groups. And I was sufficiently sick that I didn’t give much thought to the frequent mention of “higher power” in meetings where I was present. The “higher power” stuff was (for me) just a phantom ship passing a sick drunk in the night. True, in the Big Book’s 3rd edition that I owned and studied, “higher power” was mentioned — but only twice — in its basic text (on page 43 and page 100). In both cases, the usage was clearly in the context of “God.” Bill said so on pages 45 and 46 as well as page 100.
Besides, I was told, that when you get to the Third Step and are still talking about a light bulb or a doorknob as your “higher power,” you will be baffled with a Third Step that says you are to turn your will and your life over to the care of God — a God it says you understand. In fact, that most of us very definitely understand to one degree or another. I certainly understood that this loving God is neither a light bulb nor a doorknob. Nor Ralph!
Then I began to listen to the persistent talk in the fellowship about “higher power.” Then to do some reading in AA’s later publications about this “higher power.” Bill Wilson wrote in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions that you could make the AA. “group” your higher power. My treatment center facilitators told me your higher power could be “good orderly direction.” Speakers sometimes said at meetings that “it” could be “group of drunks.” Therapists said, “Fake it till you make it” and “Act as if.” Fake what, I thought! “Act as if what,” I again thought! And the more I listened, the more absurd the higher powers became in the language of “recovery.”
Honestly: the higher powers were tables, bulldozers, radiators, goddesses, “somethings,” “any god you want,” “yourself as not-god,” the Big Dipper, Santa Claus, and — on Friday Nights, at our Larkspur Beginner’s Meeting – “it” was regularly called “Ralph.” Honest! It was! Sadly, today you can find all of these gods, not-gods, idols, and “somethings” in AA.’s own “Conference Approved” literature and in many “scholarly” writings about the recovery field. You can find the weird names and descriptions specifically documented in many of my books, particularly The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous (http://www.dickb.com/Oxford.shtml) and The Good Book and The Big Book (http://www.dickb.com/goodbook.shtml).
But if your life depended upon help from such a “higher power,” wouldn’t you want to know what that “higher power” was! Wouldn’t you rather believe that God is and that He is a rewarder of those that diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). Wouldn’t you rather seek, believe, and ask for healing from God [Yahweh] who is quoted as saying: I am the LORD [Yahweh] that healeth thee?
I did. And He did.
So I’ve been searching for about 20 years, not only to find out where AA. came from, particularly in the Bible, but also how in the world someone threw Ralph into the mix as a purported idol to whom sick alcoholics might pray. The longer I remained sober, the more ridiculous the Ralphs and the radiators seemed.