Dick B. discusses Recovery’s Higher Power Puzzle on the July 14, 2013, episode of the “Christian Recovery Radio with Dick B.” show
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Hear Dick B. discuss Recovery’s Higher Power Puzzle on the July 14, 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:
What is this “higher power” that so many are talking about these days? Not just in Alcoholics Anonymous, not just in treatment programs, and not just in the endless books of those who write about alcoholism (and occasionally about the solution for alcoholism).
The fact is that this single phrase “higher power”–probably germinated in A.A. four years after its founding–produced a recovery puzzle, but not a recovery solution. This is not to say the phrase is never used in recovery language. Rather that it has been used to the point of obscuring the solution–which is reliance on God.
Early Akron AAs didn’t talk about a higher power. If they were really serious, they trusted God–“the God of the Scriptures,” as he was called by A.A. cofounder Bill W.; and “Heavenly Father,” as he was frequently called by A.A. cofounder Dr. Bob.
But the phrase “higher power” can be poison in the hands of some who are told a “higher power” can be a chair, a light bulb, Santa Claus, or “Somebody.” Yet such is the advice thousands of AAs, and other alcoholics and drug addicts, are given very frequently in their meetings, by their speakers, and through the literature now being pumped their way.
This show will be the first of several to explore the “higher power puzzle.” The series comes because so many have asked me to research and write upon what I often call the “nonsense” gods of recovery, in order to identify what they are and where they came from.
Synopsis of Dick B.’s Talk
If you had entered the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous as a newcomer in early 1986, as I did, I doubt if you would ever have heard the phrase “higher power” before or had the slightest idea what the phrase meant or what it had to do with your liquor problem or A.A. At least I didn’t.
Today, the world is aglow with the expression “higher power.” In my own 27 years of sobriety, I have heard President Obama use the expression. I have heard George W. Bush use the expression. I heard a Roman Catholic priest from his pulpit during a funeral service, talk about a higher power. I’ve heard some, including my grand sponsor, talk about higher power incessantly. And my former wife, an ardent Al-anon, said to me one day after I got sober: “Isn’t this higher power idea interesting?” But it gets more puzzling when you see what a “higher power” has become:
Honestly, I can’ t even begin to tell you how many times, the so-called higher power is—in literature I’ve read and at meetings I’ve attended—described as a table, a chair, a bulldozer, a door knob, a radiator, a goddess, a “something,” “any god you want,” “yourself as not-god,” the Big Dipper, Santa Claus, a Coke bottle and—on Friday nights at our Larkspur Beginner’s Meeting—one speaker regularly said his higher power was “Ralph.”
In his recent book, Christianity & Alcoholics Anonymous: Competing or Compatible, on page 13, author David L. Simmons attempts to expand the alleged sources of A.A. ideas by claiming that the sources included the medical field, psychiatry, the Roman Catholic faith, science, Hinduism, Buddhism, “and other sources.” But I don’t know of any of these that spawned a “higher power.”
This curious, undefined, phrase “higher power” deserves substantial examination. Not because it means something or means anything at all. Not because it is now widely used by recovery folks as a substitute for the early A.A. descriptions of Almighty God—Creator, Maker, God, Father of Lights, Heavenly Father, Father, and God of our fathers. The phrase needs examination because it leaves so many in recovery with a puzzle—a puzzle without power or usefulness.
This first article will therefore tell you about a few of the books that early AAs read or that their cofounders read whose authors used this befuddling phrase often long before there was an A.A. And here they are:
As I’ve said, I don’t know where “higher power” came from. I do know it didn’t come from God or from the Good Book. However, the following, are some of the sources to which a few early AAs were exposed.
Ralph Waldo Trine:
Said the great Hindu sage, Manu, He who in his own soul perceives the Supreme Soul in all beings, and acquires equanimity toward them all, attains the highest bliss. It was Athanasius who said, Even we may become Gods walking about in the flesh. The same great truth we are considering is the one that runs through the life and teachings of Gautama, he who became the Buddha. People are in bondage, said he, because they have not yet removed the idea of I. To do away with all sense of separateness, and to recognize the oneness of the self with the Infinite, is the spirit that breathes through all his teachings. Running through the lives of all the mediaeval mystics was this same great truth. Then, coming near our own time, we find the highly illumined seer, Emanuel Swedenborg. . . . All through the world’s history we find that the men and women who have entered into the realm of true wisdom and power, and hence into the realm of true peace and joy, have lived in harmony with this Higher Power (Ralph Waldo Trine, In Tune with the Infinite: Or Fullness of Peace Power and Plenty. 1933 ed. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1897), pp. 198-99.
Professor William James:
The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers (James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 442.
The whole array of Christian saints and heresiarchs, including the greatest, the Bernards, the Loyolas, the Luthers, the Foxes, the Wesleys, had their visions, voices, rapt conditions, guiding impressions, and ‘openings.’. . . The subjects here actually feel themselves played upon by powers beyond their will. The evidence is dynamic: the God or spirit moves the very organs of their body. The great field for this sense of being the instrument of a higher power is of course ‘inspiration’ (James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 428-29,
Elwood Worcester, Samuel McComb, and Isador H. Coriat
Now among the things which seem to tell against faith in the infinite goodness of the Power which this universe discloses are the facts of pain and disease. . . . But if the order of nature is the expression of the Divine Will it follows that God wills health, that He means his creatures to be healthy, and that He is opposed to pain, disease, abnormality of every kind, just as He is opposed to sin and vice (Elwood Worcester, Samuel McComb, and Isador H. Coriat, Religion and Medicine: The Moral Control of Nervous Disorders (New York: Moffat, Yard & Company, 1908), p. 292.
However man first became aware of a Spirit behind or within this universe, he has been aware of it, and he has felt that in this Infinite Spirit he lives and that on this Spirit his life and salvation depend. Not only has man been conscious of his dependence on a higher Power, but also he has sought to bring himself more and more into harmonious relations with this Power, and his desire goes forth in prayer. In a sense prayer is man’s language with God. Worcester, etc., Religion and Medicine, p. 304.
Victor C. Kitchen
The re-direction of old desires and substitution for old stimuli has extended not only throughout my sensual life, but into my social and intellectual life as well. It enters into all of my thinking and into all of my dealings with other people. When, for instance, I only thought about God — when He existed only in my mind as a belief — I could reach Him only as an intellectual conclusion. I concluded that there must be some Higher Power to account for all the things taking place in space much as scientists concluded that there must be an atom to account for all the things taking place in physics. Victor C. Kitchen, I Was a Pagan (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1934), p. 85.
Victor Kitchen was a good friend of Bill Wilson’s. Kitchen was a member of the same Oxford Group businessman’s team of which Bill was a member around 1935-1936. Kitchen wrote articles for Rev. Sam Shoemaker’s Calvary Evangel. He was a member of the Oxford Group team that brought the Oxford Group to the famous Firestone events of the 1933 period-events that led to the recovery of Dr. Bob in Akron. Kitchen’s I Was a Pagan was a very popular book about the time Bill Wilson was getting sober. It uses many phrases similar to those of Wilson. See Dick B., The Oxford Group and Alcoholics Anonymous, 278-79, 340-364.
Canon L. W. Grenstead, described as “one of the foremost scholars and psychologists in the Church of England, Oriel Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, the Bampton Lecturer of 1930, a member of the Archbishop’s Committee on Doctrine and on Spiritual Healing, and Canon of Liverpool” said:
The Group [Oxford Group] change men. They know that if you try to solve a conflict by effort from within, you never solve it. But if you try to solve it by a higher Power from without you always solve it, though the solution may not necessarily be what you or others expect (pp. 239-40).
Therefore, do you now know what a “higher power” is? Do its sources tell you “it” is the Creator, or a man-made god? Do they tell you “it” is a door knob? Do they tell you—as many recovery people do today—that “it” merely should be “a power greater than yourself?” And do they tell you that this a fictional god to whom you can pray, whom you can worship, whom you can thank, and to whom you may look for healing, forgiveness, and guidance? Or—in the case of the sources above—could “it” possibly have been the “musings” of academia or the last hope of sick alcoholics?
This is not the end of the “higher power” discussion, but it may at least give you some of the probable sources whose ideas you can investigate or debate.