It is often said in AA groups that we need to honor principles before personalities. I think we all understand what the sentiment is behind this statement; in order to curb our egos we need to emphasize the spiritual goals of recovery rather than get caught up with the differing personalities that make up the variety of AA groups. Point taken! But I think it would be a tragic mistake to disregard the incredible personalities that are in recovery. Sober characters are often a joy to behold.
I think there is a backdrop to this statement that pervades AA philosophy, or more importantly the mind-set of Bill Wilson. It seems to be his belief, especially during his early recovery, that without a belief in God or another higher power human beings stumble around in chaos and despair. They are like boats without sails and incapable of any real achievement.
This was a widespread belief in most Christian denominations and other religions, so it is not surprising that it influenced Bill W. It comes back to the saying that “God is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.” It touches on the very nature of grace, which many believe to be the idea that only because of God’s grace can human beings achieve anything.
So we can understand the dumbing down of personalities in order to celebrate a relatively abstract concept like principles. What are the principles anyway? Who decides what they are? Are there a set number like the Ten Commandments? And where do principles exist? Well, right within the human being, within personalities. Spiritual principles are the cognitive development of the human brain, and as the Big Book reminds us, “God gave us brains to use” (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2001, p. 86).
It is anathema to me that we should dumb down the human being, or indeed the human spirit. Whatever it might mean to turn our lives in the direction of a God as we understand Him, it must never mean that we are not involved in the recovery process.
In some ways we have not come far away from the thinking of Augustine and his debate with the more radical Pelagius. Augustine won the debate, but I’ve always been inclined to Pelagius’s arguments. I wrote about how we are to understand the workings of God’s grace in my book The Happy Heretic (2012).
Let’s take a moment to look at what is known about Pelagius. He was born around 354 AD in Wales, Britain. He was educated in both Greek and Latin, a monk but not a cleric; he was never an ordained priest. In his early years, he was admired by no less a person than Augustine of Hippo, who called him “a saintly man.” When he moved to Rome, he became concerned about the moral laxity in the city, believing it was partly the result of Augustine’s teachings concerning divine grace. Pelagius was concerned about the emphasis that Augustine placed upon God’s grace—the idea that since the Fall of Adam, every good thought or action was dependent upon God. We could do nothing on our own. There was no teaching that affirmed the need for our response. There was little teaching concerning human responsibility; that we need to be accountable for our behavior. He was particularly disturbed by a famous quotation from Augustine, “Give me what you command and command what you will.”
Pelagius believed that this saying discounted free will, turning man into a mere automation. He soon became a critic of Augustine, disagreeing with him concerning original sin and the working of God’s grace in perfecting salvation. Pelagius argued that if human beings could discipline themselves in the way exemplified by Jesus, then they could remain perfect. He believed that grace needed to be connected with human choice. Pelagius’s personal discipline made him extremely puritanical, teaching a strict regimen to his disciples in order to ensure moral purity (p. 7–8).
The church hierarchy ultimately supported the theological arguments of Augustine, and Pelagius was denounced as a heretic at the Council of Carthage in 418 AD. It is believed that Pelagius died of natural causes in Palestine around 420 AD (2012, p. 8).
Here is an excerpt from a powerful letter that Pelagius wrote in Defense of Freedom of Will:
That we are able to do good is of God, but that we actually do it is of ourselves. That we are able to make a good use of speech comes from God; but that we do actually make this good use of speech proceeds from ourselves. That we are able to think a good thought comes from God, but that we actually think a good thought proceeds from ourselves (Booth, 2012, p. 51).
I love the AA fellowship. This group of men and women invites me to share my ideas and opinions concerning God, recovery, and spirituality. It is not a cult that restricts thinking or the sharing of ideas. Having said this, there are undoubtedly some who think in order to defend the “purity” of AA—and I’m always suspicious of people who want to defend the “purity” of a cause—we need to resist all change. Such people are the real obstacles of spirituality and recovery.
Bill W., the architect of the AA fellowship, realized the need to change in order to grow. He did not want the fellowship to become rigid. He also came to understand his personal shortcomings and his need to grow up.
In an article in AA Grapevine he wrote:
I think that many oldsters who have put our AA “booze cure” to severe but successful tests still find they often lack emotional sobriety. Perhaps they will be the spearhead for the next major development in AA—the development of much more real maturity and balance (which is to say, humility) in our relations with ourselves, with our fellows, and with God.
Those adolescent urges that so many of us have for top approval, perfect security, and perfect romance—urges quite appropriate to age seventeen—prove to be an impossible way of life when we are at age forty-seven or fifty-seven.
Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops in all these areas because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually. My God, how painful it is to keep demanding the impossible, and how very painful to discover finally, that all along we have had the cart before the horse! Then comes the final agony of seeing how awfully wrong we have been, but still finding ourselves unable to get off the emotional merry-go-round (1958).
What are the spiritual principles? Well, for me, they must involve a willingness to change. Not change for the sake of change, but change when I was clearly wrong or had misspoke.
Possibly prior to this willingness to change comes courage—to have the basic self-confidence to confront myself and others if I feel we are going in the wrong direction or missing a vital ingredient of recovery.
Today I have the awareness of moving beyond being a “mere” human being to being a vital and creative one infused with the spirit of God, with a spark of the divine.
Lastly, I celebrate the principle of imagination that enables me, in sobriety, to see beyond the words into the essence of spirituality. This important principle that enables the personality to become a point of attraction, enabling the newcomer to say, “I want what you have.”
Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (2001). Alcoholics anonymous (4th ed.). New York, NY: Author.
Booth, L. (2012). The happy heretic: Seven spiritual insights for healing religious codependency. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
Wilson, B. (1958). The next frontier: Emotional sobriety. Retrieved from http://silkworth.net/aahistory/emotionalsobriety.html