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12-Step as Coded Gospel

12-Step as Coded Gospel
posted June 3rd, 2006 in Saturdays

By Richard Rohr

God seems to be the one obvious and essential person in attendance at most AA meetings I have ever attended, yet there are no icons, candlesticks, vestments, stained-glass windows, or pipe organs in sight. How can this be? Is this perhaps what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant by the "religionless Christianity" that he saw as the future?

For most of Christianity's history, we have seen the Gospel message taking on certain structural forms, which invariably reflected the culture and period of history in which they began. Our own little definition of God had to be proven and defended, our groups were defined by various worship styles which became the only way to make God happy, and we almost always had an official leadership structure of experts - but their expertise did not necessarily come from having gone through a transformational process, but precisely in defending all of the above.

The pre-occupations of religion have become largely self-promotional and defensive rather than "healing the sick," which was almost the whole of Jesus' ministry! The agreeing upon "creed, code, and cult," became the very definition of religion, as we understood it. Protecting and proving "our container" became much more important than the contents.

Ironically, Jesus' metaphor for his new approach was an alcoholic one: "new wine demands new wineskins too" (Mark 2:22). I believe that Alcoholics Anonymous has many elements of those new wineskins, along with the new wine of truly transformative religion. It does not use our vocabulary, however, so it is outside of our control - or interest….

I'm sure you have been in many gilded churches filled with haloed statues, Bible readings, lovely music, and proper ceremony, and have wondered if God was not bored with the whole thing. I know I usually am.

No transformed lives, little joy, no compassion for the larger world, no vulnerability, only the repeating of old and tired formulas by people who do not like to be surprised or unsettled. Least of all, by the "ever newness" that we call grace, or the utter freedom that we call God. As Cardinal Newman put it, he was convinced that the one thing that characterized his Catholic congregation in England was that "they wanted to be left alone."

So whenever any church stops believing its own gospel, God has to come in through the air ducts. God has to find a shrouded identity, code words to say the same thing, new ways to open the human heart, and catch people with the truth when their guard is down. Jesus went "fishing" for souls. We put up a corporate sign and ask them to come to us.

The genius of Bill Wilson is that he was a "fisherman" too. The 12-Step Wisdom is, without doubt, a work of the Holy Spirit, and will go down in the history of spirituality as the specifically American contribution to spirituality.

Of course, we are all addicts in one way or another, either by reason of some substance abuse, or addiction to a certain order, way of thinking, way of relating, or to structures of religion and government itself. You know that addiction is at work whenever people are closed to self-criticism and to their own deeper feelings, thus our reticence to talk in polite company about "politics and religion," our two major addictive systems.

When religion itself becomes another way to avoid depth, you know it is another addiction and not the real search for God. We live, as Anne Wilson Schaef said, in an "addictive society" today. Both churches and cultures seem to be in massive denial about anything except their own preferred reality.

Father Richard Rohr is a Franciscan of the New Mexico province. He is the founder and animator of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM [www.cacradicalgrace.org].

This is from Inward/Outward, The Church of the Saviour, Wash., D.C.

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