The men who created the AA program and the 12 Step Step program realized two things: 1. If people were to truly recover from alcohol abuse, the solution would only work if it was spiritual in some manner; 2. Many alcoholics had had very negative encounters with religious professionals, many of whom passed judgment on alcoholics.
To create a program that was spiritual in nature but flexible, the creators of AA developed the idea of “the God of my understanding”. This definition did not limit recovering alcoholics to a Christian God or a Jewish God or a Muslim God or any other specific definition of God. Rather, recovering alcoholics are invited to develop the God of their understanding, i.e., a spiritual presence in their lives that could be a source of strength and guidance.
This concept was for me quite liberating. I no longer felt confined to a Catholic definition of God but felt free to incorporate a wide range of influences into developing the God of my understanding. That definition of God is still influenced by my Catholicism but also by many other influences from Judaism to Zen Buddhism to art to nature. Thus I can connect with the God of my understanding at Mass but even moreso have felt that connection in Yosemite National Park or while contemplating Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
The God of my understanding is also a God with Whom I can argue. I realized that my relationship with God could not be passive. I realized that I had witnessed too many situations which raised the “why?” question and in some cases made me angry. Thus I argue with God about many things ranging from the deaths of my two sisters to a 12 year-old boy dying of AIDS to senseless deaths in war zones. I need a God with Whom I can rage.
The God of my understanding has grown in other ways. Thanks to a workshop on faith and the stages of life, I found the feminine side of god. Thanks to the writings of Harold Kushner, I have been open to the idea that not all bad things are caused by God. I have come to see that we have a standing invitation to participate in God’s ongoing creation.
Over the years, I have met others who embraced the idea of the God of one’s understanding in creative ways. I was encouraging one man to try the AA program and he initially told me it wouldn’t work because he was an atheist. I encouraged him to read the chapter “We the Agnostics” in the AA book. He came back and said he had figured out a God of his understanding that would work for him. He then explained that he had resolved the God issue while reading A Brief History of Time by Stephan Hawking. To this day, I don’t think I understood what he was talking about but it worked for him which is what mattered.
I think that perhaps our understanding of God is supposed to be dynamic and ever-changing. I think that perhaps if our understanding of God becomes static and we believe we have figured out the mystery of God, then we are in spiritual danger.
I am not a man of simple faith. In many ways, I wish I was. I probably get too analytic about the God of my understanding. I struggle with doubts. Yet my relationship with the God of my understanding is not stagnant and for that I am grateful.
Reflection: How has your understanding of God changed?