You Don’t Do God Alone

Ultimate realities, where to seek? Bill McGarvey, in America national Catholic Review, Oct 12 2016 (In the pic: Paul at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting).

(Note: Why are people leaving religions, gurus, swamijis, godmen, mullas, muftis, priests, pontiffs, nay even god and proclaim: “O my God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!?” 

The only thing that will get you tethered to the Be-all and End-all (call it by whatever name you want “God” or anything) is your lived experience different – yes totally different – for every one whether learned or ignorant, rich or poor. Everyone is endowed with a “commanding conscience” which alone each one of us are bound to discover and follow. This may be only dimly seen as in a fire-fly’s light or doubtlessly clear as in bright sun-light. To see it in sunlight is to be dragged into it because truth is a trap. To go near it is to be sucked  into it by its irresistible attraction – too long a subject to discuss here.

What do people know about these ultimate realities? Much or mighty little? What do you know? The enlightened know? The Ignorant know? You know? And I know?  As for me Iong long ago I  wrote in my books: “The only thing I know for certain is that I do not know. And that applies to everything in this world and in the next, if there is a next!” None of you have to buy that view. You have to be tethered to the view you discover, even if it is diametrically opposite to mine because the greatest wonder in this world is that there are no two persons alike in everything in this world and James Kottortherefore bound by any universal law before a  God, if there is a God, who created us this way. Since we have not created each one of us, it is clear someone else or an exterior force hidden outside or hidden inside has done it. But  as Vivekanda once said: “Don’t ever dare to call the crown and glory of creation (human being) a sinner.”  james kottoor, editor)

In the age of Big Data, I am beginning to believe we’ve discovered our own version of Sacred Scripture. It’s not written by “sages” in the traditional sense but by expert social scientists, whose polling and demographic research uncover the attitudes and trends that shape us. In this most bizarre election year, who among us hasn’t been riveted to oracular pollsters with new insights about whether we will be “Stronger Together” or we will “Make America Great Again” on Election Day?

For America readers, this fixation most likely applies to research on religious affiliation and practice. A recent Public Religion Research Institute study, “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back,” contains grim statistics about the ever-growing religiously unaffiliated population. These so-called nones constitute the single largest “religious group” in the country (25 percent); among those 18 to 29, they number nearly 40 percent.

The study included interviews about why respondents left their childhood religion. The top three reasons were: no longer believing in their religion’s teachings (60 percent), lack of family religious practice as children (32 percent) and negative religious teachings about gays and lesbians (29 percent).

This data can be disheartening, and some may even wonder, “How can we reverse this trend?” While those are understandable reactions, perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.

The truth is that institutional affiliation has been in decline across the board for decades. This affects not simply religion; people are also not affiliating with political parties, civic organizations and societal institutions like marriage.  

Are these institutions doomed? Is our communal life irrevocably dead? Has postmodern man/woman transcended the needs once met by these institutions in favor of an atomized existence? I would argue that the relationship to these communities is not dead but changed and that there is insight to be found here by looking at what I believe is our nation’s greatest contribution to religious thought: the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Skeptical readers—not to mention A. A. members—will counter that A.A. is expressly not a religion, and they would be correct. The genius of A.A. is that it is a proto-religious fellowship in which people in desperate need somehow rediscover the fire of a foundational miracle.

A.A.’s meeting rooms are where postmodern men/women gather regularly, not because they are “supposed to” but because it is a matter of survival. The miracle they rediscover there is that by telling their own story of brokenness and listening to others’ stories they are somehow moved toward healing. It is a communion of people who recognize that in moving beyond themselves and serving others they find greater peace and wholeness. Sounds a lot like church to me.

Core to that experience is the fundamental insight underpinning the 12 steps that I believe is best summed up by the realization, “I am not God.” This is the urtext of any authentic adult religious journey because it compels us to ask the questions: Who is God? Where is God? What is God? Is there a God?

One of the co-founders of A.A., Bill Wilson, put it starkly: “We must find some spiritual basis for living, else we die.” His co-founding partner, Dr. Bob, framed it in terms of mutual sharing. “The spiritual approach was as useless as any other if you soaked it up like a sponge and kept it to yourself.”

In other words, you don’t do God alone. The program these two self-described “drunks” founded began with their meeting in Akron, Ohio, one day in May 1935. Since then their fellowship has grown from two active members to 2.1 million today in 181 countries around the world.

In the A.A. -inspired. The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum frame it this way: “Those wrestling with spiritual dilemmas do not need answers but presence—permission to confront the dilemma and struggle with it aloud.”

Sounds a lot like Pope Francis’ vision of “the church as a field hospital after battle.”Bill McGarvey, a musician and writer, is the author of The Freshman Survival Guide and the owner of Twitter: @billmcgarvey.


Bruce Snowden | 10/20/2016 – 1:37pm

Hi Anne, You win! I feel like an artist commissioned to paint a picture I call, “Sunrise of Faith” but you see only indistinct shadows, unacceptable tones, the yellows not yellow enough or maybe too yellow, the rising sun misplaced on the canvas, indeed the canvas too large, or perhaps too small and topping it off it’s the wrong type of canvas. Nothing just right.

Voltaire once said even if he saw a miracle happen, he would not believe! You are no atheist like Voltaire, but I believe you are a person of some Belief I would say, given to the following prayer, “O my God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!” And that’s O.K. To say any more on the posting subject would make me redundant and I don’t want to be what my wife calls me, “longwinded!” Yes, that's me! It's said, if a husband want's to know his "sins" ask his wife!

So, I feel maxed-out, a good time to shut up, proudly admitting in truth that I’m just an ordinary man who knows a little about many things, but not very much about anything, a good personal snapshot! So, for now “bye” hopefully to have the pleasure of converse in posting on another topic, at another time.

Bill McGarvey 10/25/2016

I have never said that I don't believe. I do believe, but my understanding of faith is different from yours. It is far more expansive and, as you note, far more gray. No black and white.

What I have observed after studying the issue in some depth, and reading countless articles proposing ways to bring the "lost' or the "lapsed" or the "nones" or the "sbnr"s back to the pews is that those who are concerned about this issue never address the hard questions. Christians never seem to reflect on what kind of God would create hundreds of millions of people who will never read a word of the western bible, which you believe would lead people to faith. Yet tens of millions of christians who were raised with the western scriptures, educated in the teachings of scripture, and in the various interpretations their particular denomination has made based on the scriptures (often totally black and white interpretations that are 100% different from the black and white interpretations of a different christian denomination), have chosen to leave their particular denominations – not because they don't recognize that they are on a spiritual journey, not that they don't believe in God, but because they don't believe how these matters of "faith" are taught.

According to the studies, 60% of those who leave no longer believe – not believe in God? No, most do believe in God or in a higher power that most call God. Many pray regularly. What about belief in the doctrines of their religion? For most, it is not, especially when they have studied the problematic teachings, studied the history of the development of the teachings, studies the history of the christian church and its main expressions (Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Protestantism in all of its amazing diversity). The priests do not offer comments, nor do the authors. The questions remain unaddressed. They won't listen to the hard questions, perhaps because they have no answers. Lots and lots and lots of programs. Very few results.Thank you for engaging, Bruce, even if you did not address the questions. At least you were willing to engage. Most are not.

I am shaken out of any false, parochial, subconscious fantasies that God is somehow a Catholic."Yet tens of millions of Christians … have chosen to leave their particular denominations – not because they don't recognize that they are on a spiritual journey, not that they don't believe in God, but because they don't believe how these matters of "faith" are taught." Not all of us suffer from addiction…but, make no mistake, all of us suffer–even if we don't yet recognize it as such. This is where Francis' image of a field hospital after battle is so profound…the question for us then is, how well do our faith communities address the wounded (ie: all of us).Many thanks again for the great conversation you've helped create here. Bill

Anne Chapman | 10/24/201

I am shaken out of any false, parochial, subconscious fantasies that God is somehow a Catholic. When I have said that my understanding of faith is more "expansive" than some, this is what I mean. Seeing the amazing diversity of faith in the world does not weaken my faith in God, it supports it. But I can no longer simply view God exclusively through the prism of christianity alone, much less through the prism of Roman Catholicism alone.

I am still christian, because this is where I was planted, where faith took root. It is the prism I know the best and I am too old to change. But I don't limit my understanding of God and faith to Roman Catholic christianity.I do not believe that God made billions of human beings (in God's image) in order to condemn them to hell if they don't embrace christianity or Jesus. I believe that God has gifted all with glimpses of God's mystery and truth. No single religion, including Christianity, possesses a full understanding or knowledge of who God is, God's nature, or God's "will". God, by definition, is a mystery, far beyond something that can be defined by human minds in spite of the best attempts of theologians.

I do not believe that "faith" in a particular religious creed is the same thing as faith in its true sense. Thus my comment about what the survey shows about the 'nones" – that 60% of those who leave organized religion do so because they no longer "believe". Further questioning shows that the loss of belief is in particular denominational and religious doctrines and dogmas, not in the existence of a "higher power" that most call God. The "nones" very often seek God, seek a spirituality. Increasingly, more and more people of all ages, do not find this in organized religion. Perhaps denominations, including the RCC, need to figure out how to open up a bit, listen more to those who have left, discover whether or not there is a need to drop the rigidities, to lead people to an adult spirituality that might mean "breaking the table". Many nones reject the way religion is "done" by the organized institutions.

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