Spiritual humility and the mysterious wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous

A friend of mine from grad school once told me she was a deep admirer of the Baha’i Faith, but there was one aspect of the Faith’s teachings that she took exception to and couldn’t quite get over. Why was it, she asked, that the prayers and other holy writings seemed to attribute everything to God? She herself was a believer in God, she told me, and she understood the concept of God being the originator of all creation and thus the ultimate cause of everything. It wasn’t that that bugged her. Rather, it was the way that Baha’i scripture seemed to see the human being as helpless without God’s assistance. Couldn’t we just give a bit of credit to the power of humanity itself?

For me, a person who grew up in a Baha’i family and who was exposed to Baha’i prayers from an early age, this was an eye opener, because it had never occurred to me that these prayers sounded like this to others. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt I understood where she was coming from.

To give you an idea of what I mean, just take a look at these two passages from the Baha’i “Long Obligatory Prayer”, which is a prayer that many Baha’i recite daily*:

“Thou seest, O my Lord, this stranger hastening to his most exalted home beneath the canopy of Thy majesty and within the precincts of Thy mercy; and this transgressor seeking the ocean of Thy forgiveness; and this lowly one the court of Thy glory; and this poor creature the orient of Thy wealth. Thine is the authority to command whatsoever Thou willest. I bear witness that Thou art to be praised in Thy doings, and to be obeyed in Thy behests, and to remain unconstrained in Thy bidding.”

“I love in this state, O my Lord, to beg of Thee all that is with Thee, that I may demonstrate my poverty, and magnify Thy bounty and Thy riches, and may declare my powerlessness, and manifest Thy power and Thy might.”

Why does this prayer insist on portraying the individual as someone who is powerless and feeble before God? Why does it ask the believer to keep reminding himself of his meagerness?

To someone unfamiliar with the context of the Faith and its teachings, at best this would seem like an unnecessary “beating down” of the individual’s sense or self worth. At worst, it may seem to the reader a portrayal of God as an egomaniac bent on subjugating His human creation.

Thankfully, that take isn’t consistent with other Baha’i teachings about the nature of God. In countless places in the Baha’i Writings, God is described not only as kind and loving, but also as “the Self-Subsistent”. God does not require nor benefit from our praise, in other words. Rather, He asks us to pray and worship Him for the sake of our own well being.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this recently is because I have a couple of friends who swear by the power of the “12-Step program” for managing addiction and overcoming difficulties, and there are some remarkable parallels between how these programs work and the views about God above. The 12-Step concept arose originally as a critical component of Alcoholics Anonymous, shortly after the group was created in the 1930s. Since then, it has proven mysteriously effective in empowering individuals to deal not only with alcoholism but a range of other issues.

What’s remarkable about the 12-Step program is that it works by putting the concept of God at its center, while asking the individual to acknowledge his or her helplessness over addiction. Among those 12 Steps, as originally formulated, are the following statements made by the group members:

We:

…admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

…came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

…made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

…were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

…humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

…sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

The language above has changed over time (most notably, “a higher power” is now used instead of “God”), but the meaning and essence have stayed intact. And given the incredible success and proliferation of 12-Step programs, it’s hard not to conclude that the basic strategy here — admitting one’s powerlessness, turning humbly towards a Higher Power, and asking for the ability to carry out that Higher Power’s will — somehow allows human beings to accomplish extraordinarily difficult things. Even if we are to assume that there is no God, we must acknowledge the fact that this approach, even for those who are not religious, seems to work.

In any case, I think the 12 Steps help explain the Baha’i concept of a God who vociferously demands that we humbly worship Him, even as He gains no benefit from being worshipped. The answer to this apparent mystery is that the human being gains some sort of spiritual benefit from following this path. Oddly, somehow by reflecting on our weakness and lowliness and asking for God’s assistance, we can become more powerful and more capable as individuals.

Baha’u’llah himself explains this concept succinctly and poetically in a verse from the Hidden Words, where he writes as if conveying the voice of God:

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting. (Hidden Words, v. A14)

This concept applies to much more than defeating addiction, of course. And I believe it has a lot of relevance to our economic lives in particular, especially in helping us all to control our impulsive desires and make sound decisions with how we buy, borrow, and work. I’ve already written about some examples here on this site (one of my first ever posts was called “The macroeconomics of Christmas” and dealt with the immense pressure to buy useless junk during the holidays and how spirituality might help fight that pressure). But I’m hoping to write about some more examples, so stay tuned.

———-

*Similar to the concept of “namaz” in Islam. Baha’is recite these types of prayers daily, with some freedom to choose how many times per day, and between shorter or longer prayers.

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7 thoughts on “Spiritual humility and the mysterious wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous

  1. As an atheist and non-practicing alcoholic, I feel compelled to comment. At the same time, I should acknowledge that I’ve been sober over seven years and quit attending AA meetings within the first 90 days. Even in the rooms, adherents advocate a “take what works and leave what doesn’t” approach to their system.

    I don’t directly disagree with your reading here. The more humanist take I’ve observed in discussion with — shall we say — both professionals and amateurs in the field is that chemical dependence often correlates with a desire for a level of control that exceeds one’s grasp. For some people, this state can be ameliorated by belief in an omnipotent entity onto whom obligations of control can be discharged. For others, like myself, it’s enough to take a stochastic view, accepting our own actions and intent as adequate, rather than requiring specific outcomes of life.

    In that context, I suppose your comparison here is quite illuminating. If the fealty of your Long Obligatory Prayer is a more formal way of me saying that “I do what I can do when I can do it,” then we’re pretty much on the same page. Just don’t get too dismissive about that revision from God to “higher power.” A higher power can be any intervening circumstance, from insurmountable corporate lobbyists to Andre the Giant; ascribing such phenomena to an at least quasi-anthropomorphized cosmic overseer requires another leap entirely.

    • C-Funk, as usual your comment was excellent. I wish I had 100 readers like you.

      The post was mostly intended to focus on the theme of giving up one’s will, humbling oneself, and admitting one’s helplessness, and how this approach doesn’t make us pathetic and weak, but rather can give us greater power over our lives. On the “higher power” topic, you make an important point. I have a friend who attends Al-Anon, and he was telling me that for some individuals the “higher power” means simply the spirit of the group itself. The fact that many atheists and agnostics benefit from AA and other 12-step programs I think even further validates the idea that this humble submission to the “higher power” is legit.

      Does it matter what our personal ideas about the “higher power” are? Not really, and believe it or not I think the Baha’i writings actually make this point in one particular sense. The writings in countless places teach that God is unknowable; human beings can never understand the concept of something so immense and beyond human experience.

      Here is yet another passage from a Baha’i prayer that explains this better than I can:

      “How then can I sing and tell of Thine Essence, which the wisdom of the wise and the learning of the learned have failed to comprehend, inasmuch as no man can sing that which he understandeth not, nor recount that unto which he cannot attain, whilst Thou hast been from everlasting the Inaccessible, the Unsearchable. Powerless though I be to rise to the heavens of Thy glory and soar in the realms of Thy knowledge, I can but recount Thy tokens that tell of Thy glorious handiwork.”

      The point is that this deep sense of humility before the “higher power” even applies to one’s own certainty about what that higher power is. In that sense, what difference does it make how we define the “higher power”? If we are truly humble and eager to become spiritually and physically healthy, then we also need to humbly acknowledge that every one of us is doing our best while searching in the dark.

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  4. You’re only presenting one side of the coin. What you say is accurate, but is not everything.
    Many Baha’i prayers, particularly the healing prayers, are written in the form of commanding God.
    Take the long healing prayer. Skip all the salutations. The end of it does start it the form of beseeching.And later transitions to ‘whereby Thou didst respond, in thine own Self with Thy word “Yea!”’. Not could you respond, didst respond. Then it goes back to beseechment. But later there is a fresh sentence:
    “Heal Thou, then, by it every sick, diseased and poor one, from every tribulation and distress, from every loathsome affliction and sorrow, and guide Thou by it whosoever desireth to enter upon the paths of Thy guidance, and the ways of Thy forgiveness and grace.”
    “Heal thou…” not “Could you heal thou…” or “Would you please heal thou…”
    It’s a command.

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