If you have listened to the Sam Frost Show on Preterist Radio, you may have heard Mike and I talk about A.A. and such. I was hesitant to write anything on it, basically from fear of what “others” might say or infer. And, so, here goes.
For the Christian, A.A. poses a problem. There are books (Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? Charles Bufe source), and websites (Orange Papers, Worldview, etc) devoted to showing that it is, in fact, a cult. However, there are several Christian organizations and researchers that show that it is not a cult (DickB., Silkworth, etc). My own research (which has resulted in a as-yet published book) comes somewhere in the middle.
I am somewhat involved with A.A. and certainly notice that many within A.A. can take the organization itself religiously. However, I have done considerable research into the history of A.A. (reading all the primary sources of founders Bill Wilson and Bob Smith), and early pioneering members (1935-1939). I have also found a considerable number of Christian counsellors who accept the “disease model” of addiction, over and against the “mental model”. However, recently, I have come across Ed Welch and his book, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001) which, I think, captures the earliest intent of what the founders of A.A. were trying to get at. Disease is a metaphor for the enslaving power of sin. Welch: “…sin feels exactly like a disease. It feels as if something outside ourselves has taken over” (33). “It’s an infection of the human heart” (34).
In the “Big Book” (which A.A ers call the book, Alcoholics Anonymous – 1939, First Edition), which is the “basic text” of A.A., Bill Wilson wrote, “Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body. If you ask him why he started on that last bender, the chances are he will offer you any one of a hundred alibis. Sometimes these excuses have a certain plausibility, but none of them really makes sense in the light of the havoc an alcoholic’s drinking bout creates. They sound like the philosophy of the man who, having a headache, beats himself on the head with a hammer so that he can’t feel the ache. If you draw this fallacious reasoning to the attention of an alcoholic, he will laugh it off, or become irritated and refuse to talk” (23).
In an interview with the National Catholic Council on Alcoholism (1960), Wilson was asked if alcoholism is a “disease”. His answer was clear: “We AAs have never called alcoholism a disease because, technically speaking, it is not a disease entity. For example, there is no such thing as heart disease. Instead there are many separate heart ailments or combinations of them. It is something like that with alcoholism. Therefore, we did not wish to get in wrong with the medical profession by pronouncing alcoholism a disease entity. Hence, we have always called it an illness or a malady — a far safer term for us to use” (source). In the first pages of the Big Book, we find “The Doctor’s Opinion”. The Doctor was Dr. William Duncan Silkworth who had been working with “drunks” for several years in the thirties. It was this Dr. that told Bill of his fatal malady, which theorized that it may be akin to an “allergy” of sorts. This is the language of science-operating-on-a-hypothesis: “may”, “possibly”, “perhaps”, “akin”. Wilson then wrote, “ The doctor’s theory that we have an allergy to alcohol interests us. As a laymen, our opinion as to its soundness may, of course, mean little. But as exproblem drinkers, we can say that his explanation makes good sense. It explains many things for which we cannot otherwise account” (xxiv, Alcoholics Anonymous, Third Edition). Notice the carfeful wording. This is not the language of dogmatism. It’s the language of scientific theory (inductivism – which can never “prove” anything absolutely). Further, though, Wilson wrote, “ Upon therapy for the alcoholic himself, we surely have no monopoly” (Preface to Second Edition, xxi). There are other places where Wilson notes that there are other “spiritual ways” (95), and that the principles of A.A. are, in large part, “Alcoholics Anonymous cannot in the least be regarded as a new religion. Our Twelve Steps have no theological content, except that which speaks of “God as we understand Him.” This means that each individual AA member may define God according to whatever faith or creed he may have. Therefore there isn’t the slightest interference with the religious views of any of our membership. The rest of the Twelve Steps define moral attitudes and helpful practices, all of them precisely Christian in character. Therefore, as far as the steps go, the steps are good Christianity, indeed they are good Catholicism, something which Catholic writers have affirmed more than once” (source).
Now, having said all of that, there is no doubt that A.A., as the movement grew, compromised its early reliance on the God of the Bible by most of its first members (the “hundred men and women” who wrote the Big Book). This compromise is largely due to Bill Wilson himself, who, from what we can tell from those who knew him, and his own writings (which is quite a lot), was a complex individual, good and bad.
Most of the readers of Reign of Christ know who Gary North is. Staunch Calvinist, Reformed, Reconstuctionist, economic guru, intellectualist. Well, North wrote something on A.A. that intrigued me: “Now, it is true that non-Christians can be partially restored externally and visibly to a better outward way of life. Alcoholics Anonymous has proven this. The AA program enables full-time drunks to become full-time sober citizens. But mere sobriety does not bring people permanently into favor with God. For the remainder of their lives, AA members introduce themselves publicly (covenantally) at their meetings, “I’m an alcoholic.” There is no true release from bondage by means of the AA program, though there is valid and desirable day-by-day release. Of course it is better to live next door to a sober honest pagan than a drunk. It is best to live next door to a sober, honest Christian (Healer of the Nations, 7,8). In other words, Christian principles can influence pagans, and even “work” successfully if they attempt to use them on a regular, disciplined basis. For complete “release from bondage”, though, the blood of Jesus Christ is the only remedy.
Wilson appears to hint at this in the Big Book where he wrote, “There I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood Him, to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction. I admitted for the first time that of myself I was nothing; that without Him I was lost. I ruthlessly faced my sins and became willing to have my new-found Friend take them away, root and branch. I have not had a drink since” (13). Who was the Friend who took away his sins, “root and branch”? Wilson purposely concealed “Jesus” and Bible thumping because he was dealing with Drunks, Agnostics, Atheists. God haters. His approach was loosely based on the evangelistic principle of “first get them in, get them some coffee and a doughnut, and get them clothed and dry”. In other words, the Big Book (drawing heavily from the Oxford Group, and Evangelical restorationist movement, the Reverend Samuel M. Shoemaker, conservative Episcopal priest, and Father Ed Downing, conservative Catholic priest) stresses the fact that it is only a “spiritual kindergarten” (“We are only operating a spiritual kindergarten in which people are enabled to get over drinking and find the grace to go on living to better effect” – As Bill Sees It, 95). Finally, “We have no monopoly on God” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 95), and “We represent no particular faith or denomination. We are dealing only with general principles common to most denominations” (Ibid., 93,94).
Now, since the mid to late 1960′s, A.A. entered into a period of change. The American Medical Association accepted the “disease” entity, and a certain E. Morton Jellinek published a book that A.A.ers took as proof for alcoholism as a legitimate and bona fide disease (source). This changed everything. The “spiritual angle” or “religious angle” as it was called, gave way to the “treatment” and “rehab” angle. The central problem was no longer a “spiritual disease” (as the Big Book called it), but a “physical disease”. Well, who needs the blood of Jesus for that?
Herbert Fingarette has written a powerful book based dismissing the “disease concept”. It’s a scholarly read, heavily footnoted (Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism As A Disease, University of California Press, 1988). Jellines’s material was all but destroyed. However, Fingarette is an Empiricist. Those who “study” alcoholism, or “heavy/chronic drinkers” do so on the basis of observed data. Alcoholics Anonymous, of which we have already seen, did not start out on the basis of observation. Or, rather, they started on the basis of observing the patterns of drunkards, and then inferred an unnecessary, though possible, inference: only a spiritual solution can solve the drunkard’s problem. At this very point, A.A. leaves all “science” behind – and, hence, the controversy between “disease” (the most accepted, and popular theory advocated on television shows) in which the “user” is not really “responsible” in the fullest sense of the word, and “mental model.” The mental model advocates “controlled drinking” or “abstinence”, but does away with the nonsense of “loss of control” and “powerlessness over alcohol”, etc. They come at A.A. (which has, hands down, given birth to the “addiction specialists” of the twentieth and twenty first centuries) with a two pronge attack: statistics and scientific methodology, and a rejection a priori of anything “spiritual” or “invisible”. This rules out, though, any talk about the “power of sin” which is a theological concept rooted in revelation. In short, Christianity’s approach to the “addict” is in the same metaphysical boat. Largely, A.A. has succumb to one part of the attack. They lay less stress on the “spiritual approach” now that the AMA has endorsed the disease model. The public has been filled with Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Drew and Dr. Phil. Television shows like “Intervention” and such all accept the disease model. These people just can’t help themselves, not on the basis of a spiritual problem (estrangement from God), but mainly on an physiological problem (something is wrong with your hardwiring that “reacts” chemically to certain substances that override your “will power” – or, “cause” your “willpower” to override any thought of harmful consequences. The problem with the addict is not that he has no willpower, some say, but that he or she has a tremendusly “iron willpower” that gets what it wants regardless of the known consequences and harm. Paradoxically, this “iron” will power Christians would call “rebellion” which, in turn, is a sign of enslavement and weakness. The flesh is weak.
A.A., today, is largely influenced by the popular media and the “disease model”. This, as we have noted, was not the historical emphasis of the old A.A. If, as North noted, A.A. drew on Christian currency, without giving full disclosure of that fact (“borrowed spirituality”) and has, regardless, some success, imagine what a fully Christian Treatment Center could do on full currency and full disclosure, theologically speaking, of a biblical anthropology of man’s plight? This is what Edward Welch has offered.
Christians who have suffered, for a time, the nightmare of substance abuse and have recovered by the power of the blood of Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit (progressive sanctification) can (and have, as a little research into this area shows) bring a wealth of healing to the world in this area. I see A.A. as a mission field. I know the language. I speak it. God turns our failures into opportunities (which is stated in the Big Book, by the way). However, a made up god won’t work. As North says, the healing is only “partial.” But, it is amazing to watch some A.Aers who, literally, have lived under a bridge, remain sober for 10, 15, 20 years. If this is a “spiritual kindergarten” as Wilson called it, then might not the Church see a ripe harvest here? Many A.A. meetings are held in church cafeterias and basements (that goes back to the very beginning – the church were mainly the only ones who would have these drunks). If you have recovered and been healed of this “illness”, might you not find an A.A. meeting – maybe “sponser” someone and present to them, slowly, in small chunks, the Gospel?
Just some thoughts….