The Higher Power of Alcoholics Anonymous as “You” (Part 5 of a Series)

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June 18, 2013 by Dr. Bob Weathers

The Higher Power of Alcoholics Anonymous as “You”

Part 5 of Series on

“Cross-Cultural Integration of Spiritual Resources in Recovery”

Thumb-Nail Review

In Part 1 of this current series we established the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.).  Next we explored A.A.’s cultural embeddedness within a traditionally Christian worldview.  We then identified a serious problem that arises for recovering individuals who need a cross-culturally more sensitive integration, than A.A.’s, of spiritual resources.  In Part 2 we introduced a key distinction between A.A.’s authenticity (ability to transform) and its ongoing legitimacy (ability to translate across time and cultures).  We identified the need for a more experience-near (as opposed to experience-distant) language; one which effectively communicates change across cultures.  In Part 3 we distinguished between two different ways of translating (or communicating).  The first approach focuses on getting the exact, literal form correct; the second, on capturing the essential meaning (or dynamic) underlying any specific, concrete form.  In looking toward spiritual resources in recovery, it is vital that we not mistake the map (or literal form) for the territory (spiritual dynamic); else we risk excluding some individuals sheerly on the basis of poor fit between one language and another culture.  In Part 4 we examined the difference between religion and spirituality, as they pertain specifically to A.A.  We also underscored, once again, the need for cultural diversity in our incorporating spiritual (as opposed to religious) resources into the recovery process; with Eckhart Tolle’s contemporary model as one potentially fruitful source. 

A.A.’s Christian Roots and Impact on Treatment

As previously discussed (in Parts 4 and before): this current blog was birthed as I again and again observed an oftentimes predictable, and highly unfortunate, process unfolding in clinical settings in which I was employed.  I found myself working repeatedly with otherwise well-meaning inpatient rehab clients who had either never formed, or had left behind, any primary identification with conventional Christianity well before embarking into treatment. Yet here they were, being compelled to join now into A.A. meetings and sponsorship. 

They, too, observed that the typical language of the meetings (and accompanying readings from the A.A. Big Book and the “12 and 12”) is conventionally Christian in content (Anonymous, 2005, 2009b).  (For more in-depth discussions of the inseparable Christianity-A.A. link, see Anonymous, 2009a; Dupuy, 2013; Johnson, 2012; Kelly et al., 2011; Robinson et al., 2011.)

What were these clients to do as being no longer anything close to conventional theists (believing in a personal God)?  Yet at the same time they often reported feeling deeply committed to the process of recovery and even those apparent benefits attributable uniquely to A.A.

During the above time of working in rehab settings, I also commenced consulting directly with various A.A. sponsors and “old-timers.” Several of these individuals expressed having a profound sense of resonance with the writings of the contemporary spiritual author, Eckhart Tolle.  Some even held the view that few if any other contemporary commentators had articulated as well as Tolle the core psychological and spiritual dynamics underlying the key, transformative principles of A.A.

Out of those conversations there arose within me a simple desire to integrate the teachings of Tolle with the central texts of A.A. (the Big Book and “12 and 12”).  As I explored much more in-depth what may be at stake in creating such an integration, it became clear that there may be more here than first meets the eye.

For example, it may that be that the above clients’ issue with Christianity, hence the language of A.A., is much more complicated than before realized.  To begin with, Christianity as practiced in modern America characteristically speaks of God in the second-person (Smith, 2012; Wilber, 2006, 2007a, 2007b).  What does this mean? 

Understanding God in the Second-Person

A second-person perspective views God, or Spirit, or one’s Higher Power, in terms of a “you” (as in our daily usage of the second-person in typical language).  Within such a perspective: the Higher Power, or most typically God, is a “you” with whom I am in relationship.  God is a “you” to whom I might personally pray.  God is a “you” who has promised to save my soul.  As in A.A.’s many prayers addressed to a “Thou,” this God is one’s personal ally and friend.  This God — addressed as “Thou” or “you” — has agreed to be one’s personal guide.  Such a God is viewed as responsive to each individual’s life in a one-on-one manner, not unlike what one’s best friend might do.

What further studies have opened up is an awareness that the earlier mentioned clients’ personal problem with Christian language may not primarily have to do with Christian belief per se.  For example, the basic core of Christian beliefs is articulated in the New Testament gospel accounts of the life of Jesus.  Yet these specific beliefs may not be the previous clients’ chief impediment here.  Rather, it could be the fact that far and away the most standard, and oftentimes exclusive, language used in modern American Christianity is in this second-person mode.  As previously illustrated, such a second-person approach to theology places God as a “Thou” or “you” to whom one communicates personally. 

Wilber (2006, 2007a, 2007b), as well as Smith (2012), themselves make very clear a similar point.  To them, the essential problem for individuals like those mentioned may be less about being Christian vs. non-Christian.  Rather, the central issue may instead be in feeling comfortable employing primarily, or even exclusively, second-person religious language.  The culturally sensitive alternative, according to these authors, would be to substitute instead first- and/or third-person approaches to God, or Spirit.  But what would the latter be?


Next Up:

The Higher Power of Alcoholics Anonymous as “Out There” and “In Here”


Anonymous (2005).  Twelve steps and twelve traditions (Electronic .pdf version).  Retrieved from

Anonymous (2009a). Alcoholism and the thought-based self. Freedom from addiction [Blogpost]. Retrieved from

Anonymous (2009b). Alcoholics Anonymous (Kindle edition). Retrieved from

Dupuy, J. (2011). About integral recovery. Retrieved from

Johnson, A. L. (2012). 12-step facilitation of treatment. In Capuzzi, D., & Stauffer, M. (Eds.), Foundations of addictions counseling (2nd ed., pp. 240-259).  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Kelly, J. F., Stout, R. L., Magill, M., Tonigan, J. S., & Pagana, M. E. (2011). Spirituality in recovery: A lagged meditational analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous’ principal theoretical mechanism of behavioral change. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 35(3), 454-463.  Retrieved from

Robinson, E. A. R., Krentzman, A. R., Webb, J. R., & Brower, K. J. (2011). Six-month changes in spirituality and religiousness in alcoholics predict drinking outcomes at nine months. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 72(4), 660-668. Retrieved from

Smith, P. (2012). Integral Christianity. St. Paul, MN: Paragon.

Wilber, K. (2006). The one two three of God [Audio CD recorded by K. Wilber and T. Simon]. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Wilber, K. (2007a). Integral spirituality. Boulder, CO: Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2007b). The integral vision. Boulder, CO: Shambhala.


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