Richard Rohr on Alcoholics Anonymous and The Twelve Steps

The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For and Believe

Wholeness for Jung was about harmony and balancing, a holding operation more than an expelling operation. But he recognized that such consciousness was costly, because humans prefer to deal with the tensions of life by various forms of denial, moralizing, addiction, or projection.

Spiritual satisfactions feed on themselves, grow by themselves, create wholeness, and are finally their own reward. Material satisfactions, while surely not bad, have a tendency to be- come addictive, because instead of making you whole, they repeatedly remind you of how incomplete, needy, and empty you are. As alcoholics often say, your “addiction makes you need more and more of what is not working.”


A Spring Within Us: A Year of Daily Meditations

Until people have had some level of inner religious experience, there is no point in asking them to follow the ethical ideals of Jesus or to really understand Christian doctrines beyond the formulaic level. At most, formulaic moral ideals and doctrinal affirmations are only the source of deeper anxiety! Furthermore, that anxiety will often take the form of denial, pretension, and projection of our evil elsewhere. You quite simply don’t have the power to obey the law, or any ideal—such as forgiveness of enemies, nonviolence, or humble use of power—or achieve any satisfaction with sim- plicity and “enoughness,” except in and through union with God. Nor do doctrines like the Trinity, the Real Presence, salvation, or the mystery of incarnation have any meaning that actually changes your life. Without some inner experience of the Divine, what Bill Wilson of Alcoholics Anonymous called “a vital spiritual experience,” nothing authentically new or life-giving ever lasts long or goes very far. Gateway to Silence: We are one in Love.

Stage Six: I Am Empty and Powerless. Alcoholics Anonymous would call Stage Six the First Step! At Stage Six, you realize: I am empty and powerless. Almost any attempt to save yourself by any superior behaviour, technique, belonging system, morality, role, strong ideological belief, or religious devotion will not work. It will actually lead to regression. What the saints and mystics say is that some event, struggle, relationship, or suffering in your life has to lead you to the edge of your own resources. There has to be something that you, by yourself, cannot understand, fix, control, change, or even begin to address. It is the raw experience of “I cannot do this.” All you can do at this point is wait and ask and trust. This is surely what the Nicene Creed means when it says that “Jesus descended into hell.” He went the full distance, he hit the bottom, he learned how to survive at the bottom—which is precisely resurrection, but it takes you a while to recognize such new freedom.

Until we are led to the limits of our present game plan, and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find the real source, the deep well, or the constantly flowing stream. Alcoholics Anonymous calls it the Higher Power. Jesus calls this Ultimate Source the “living water” at the bottom of the well (see John 4:10–14).

I am convinced that the spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous, as it was first called, is going to go down as the significant and authentic American contribution to the history of spirituality. With inspiration from the Holy Spirit, Bill Wilson and all the other founders rediscovered the core teachings of Jesus and formed them into a program that could really change lives. It is a spirituality of imperfection, in contrast to Western Christianity’s emphasis on perfection, performance, and willpower.

The absolute genius of the Twelve Steps is that it refuses to bless and reward any moral worthiness game or heroic willpower. With Gospel brilliance and insight, Alcoholics Anonymous says that the starting point and, in fact, the continuing point, is not any kind of worthiness at all but, in fact, unworthiness! (“Hi! I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.”)

Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi

What the crucified has revealed to the world is that the real authority that “authors” people and changes the world is an inner authority that comes from people who have lost, let go, and are refound on a new level. Twelve-step programs have come to much the same conclusion in our time.

Unless a bishop, teacher, or minister has on some level walked through suffering, failure, or humiliation, his or her words will tend to be fine but superficial, OK but harmless, heard by the ears but unable to touch the soul. It is interesting to me that twelve-step programs have come to be called the “Recovery” movement. They are onto something!

Immortal Diamond: The search for our true self

The good, the true, and the beautiful are always their own best argument for them- selves— by themselves – and in themselves. Such beauty, or inner coherence, is a deep inner knowing that both evokes the soul and even pulls the soul into its oneness. Incarnation is beauty, and beauty always needs to be incarnate. Anything downright “good,” anything that shakes you with its “trueness,” and anything that sucks you into its beauty does not just educate you; it transforms you. True religion proceeds like the twelve-step program – “by attraction and not promotion.” Simone Weil said it so well: “There is only one fault, only one: our inability to feed upon light.”

Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality

The bottom, the edge, the outsider, as we will see in the Bible, is the privileged spiritual position. In a word, that is why the biblical revelation is revolutionary and even subversive. It is clearly disestablishment literature yet has largely been used by establishments, which is at the heart of our interpretative problem. The so-called “little ones” (Matthew 18:6) or the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), as Jesus calls them, are the only teachable and “growable” ones according to him. It seems to be God’s starting place, sort of like the Twelve-Step programs, because until we admit “that we are powerless,” the Real Power will not be recognized, accepted or even sought.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil: What Do We Do With Evil?

These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. —José Ortega y Gasset.

Isn’t it ironic and interesting that Paul was literally shipwrecked three times (2 Corinthians 11:25)? And isn’t it more than interesting that the Twelve Step Program makes the first step on the journey to recovery the experience of absolute powerlessness? Apparently, there is something spiritually essential that we do not know until we hit rock bottom or face life’s injustice and absurdity in a quite personal way. Life is not fair at all!

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