Tuesday, October 09, 2007

AA & Antinomianism:

For a long time I've been wondering if AA's co-founder Bill W. ever addressed the issue of antinomianism (read: spiritual and moral anarchy supposedly caused by the absence of Law) directly. Sure enough, he does, in a rather unpopular portion of the "Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions" known as AA's Twelve Traditions, "Tradition 9" in particular, which states: "AA, as such, ought never be organized: but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve." Here follow some fantastic quotes from the brief four pages written by Bill on "Tradition 9":

"When Tradition Nine was first written, it said that 'Alcoholics Anonymous needs the least possible organization.' In years since then, we have changed our minds about that. Today, we are able to say with assurance that AA should never be organized at all...

"Did anyone ever hear of a nation, a church (!), a political party, even a benevolent association that had no membership rules? Did anyone ever hear of a society which couldn't somehow discipline its members and enforce obedience to necessary rules and regulations? Doesn't nearly every society on earth give authority to some of its members to impose obedience upon the rest and to punish or expel offenders? Power to direct or govern is the essence of organization everywhere.

"Yet AA is an exception. It does not conform to this patter. Neither its General Service Conference, its Foundation Board, nor the humblest group committee can issue a single directive to an AA member and make it stick, let alone mete out any punishment. We've tried it lots of times, but utter failure is always the result.

"At this juncture, we can hear a churchman exclaim, 'they are making disobedience a virtue!' (i.e., read: should we sin more that grace may abound?) He is joined by the psychiatrist who says, 'Defiant brats! They won't grow up and conform to social usage!' The man in the street says, 'I don't understand it. They must be nuts!' But all these observers have overlooked something unique in AA. Unless each AA member follows to the best of his ability our suggested Twelve Steps to recovery (read: acknowledges that he/she is powerless and therefore in need of a saving grace), he almost certainly signs his own death warrant. His drunkenness and dissolution are not penalties inflicted by people in authority; they result from his personal disobedience to spiritual principles (read: his/her sin).

"...So we of AA do obey spiritual principles, first because we must, and ultimately because we love the kind of life such obedience brings. Great suffering and great love are AA's disciplinariean; we need no others.

"...Though Tradition Nine at first seems to deal with a purely practical matter, in its actual operation it discloses a society without organization, in its actual operation it discloses a society without organization, animated only by the spirit of service -- a true fellowship."

Let it be said that, in the face of true sin , God becomes extremely real and the human will becomes utterly insufficient to solve any deep problem. --JAZ


Eve said...

YOU ARE EXACTLY RIGHT in your citation of Tradition 9 addressing antinomianism beautifully.

Like so many wonderful abiding principles of AA, it at first seems counterintuitive; I love the way the founders address all probable arguments right up front, and so kindly in their explanation.

Just more proof that the Big Book and the 12 & 12 were breathed from God's lips into the founders' ears.

Thanks for this great post.

(But uhhh....good thing you're not too bound up in the law. Because that "anonymity" is supposed to be at the level of press, radio, film and NEWS media....)

Do another post about how anonymity plays out in blogs. That would be interesting. [But try to be more artful than, say, the Bible revisionists, when you speak to the matter of there being no internet at the time these guys wrote their stuff!]

John Zahl said...

Who says I'm in AA? ...anonymity as a theological idea is a somewhat more questionable than the matters dealt with in Tradition 9.

David said...


Drake said...

What a post!!

Mattie said...

john - this is fascinating stuff. i thought of you (and this topic) recently. you may know i teach high school theology now. one of the courses i teach is church history. there is a half page "sidebar" in our textbook (used with sophomore guys) in the section on ambrose, augustine, donatism, and pelagianism on nothing other than AA and how it has augustinian influences. i don't have the text at home with me, but i'll scan it as a .pdf and e-mail it to you tomorrow...

as an aside, i hope you are doing well! i love teaching theology at the high school level. scripture with 14 year old boys is a total trip. they love it! i think many of these guys have never really had someone dive into the bible with them. we're doing the patriarchs now and you should hear the insights they have on things like sodom and hagar and isaac. brilliant in a faith like a child kind of way. anyway... i'll send the AA thing tomorrow.

alexnemily said...

This is great! Thanks for posting this.

Anonymous said...

Amen. When I first attended an AA meeting some 25 years ago I realized that I had found CHURCH as it is meant to be. That was also when I began to learn about Grace....and about the time that "Who will deliver us" by PZ was written. You can imagine my deep joy at learning Grace in practice while attending AA and learning Grace in my head while reading of the "Life and Times" of the saints and sinners at Grace Church on Broadway.
Peter P

stealing for love said...

this is exactly what is wrong with AA that you have to subscribe to an idea of sin, that your environmental problems can be solved/assuaged through offering/trusting in a higher being as someone to aspire to

i have no doubt that AA has done lots of good but encasing it in religious ideas means that it does not help a huge swathe of western non religious people with drink problems

love the mix