264: Even If You’re Only 1 or 2, Spiritual Activism Can Change the World

n these deeply troubling times in the U.S., readers keep telling me they wonder if there’s anything they can do to make a difference.
    I speak to a lot of different groups these days and, wherever I go, this question always comes up.
    Well, this week I hope that we’re answering the question loudly and clearly: Yes, there are many things you can do, even if you’re just one or two people!
    One thing you can do right now is to visit www.OurValues.org and share your thoughts with the community of readers thinking this week about the financial crisis we’re facing.
    And, there’s so much more you can do! On Monday, we told you about the amazing “Young@Heart” crew of 80- and 90-somethings.
    On Tuesday, we told you about Patrick Wells’ innovation: a feature-length, animated children’s film showing us God’s compassion for animals. Creating that film was an act of sheer spiritual willpower on his part — and now he’s got something remarkably fresh to offer the world.
    And, on Wednesday, our Conversation With John Dear, SJ, explored one man’s ongoing struggle to build a peaceful world.

    Today, we’re turning to an old friend at ReadTheSpirit. She’s an author beloved by many American readers: Phyllis Tickle. In preparing our Conversation With Phyllis recently, she gave us permission to publish a sample from her new book, “The Great Emergence.” The following is just a brief passage — one powerful example that Phyllis gives readers of two people who changed the world through spiritual connections.
    So, from Phyllis’ new book, “The Great Emergence,” here is her salute to the historical innovation of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith more than 70 years ago:


From Phyllis Tickle’s “The Great Emergence”:

When speaking of which sociocultural events in the twentieth century most affected North American Christianity and its shifting relationships with spirituality, many sociologists of religion will cite the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous as the first in the list of prime movers. AA officially dates itself, as it should, from 1935 when Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith began to formalize a method of addiction recovery.
    In actuality … AA also had its precursors, primarily in parts of early twentieth-century evangelicalism like the Oxford Group or Calvary House. It certainly had its roots, to some extent, in the work of William James, whose “Varieties of Religious Experience,” published in 1902, still stands today as one of the early twentieth century’s most seminal books.
    In any event, by 1935 Wilson and Smith had evolved six “principles” or “steps” toward recovery. Shortly thereafter, Wilson would rework the six into smaller units, the result being the now-familiar Twelve Steps of almost every recovery group since.
    The informing thing about AA, however, was not so much the Steps themselves as their bases and their implementation. The Steps repeatedly make the point that the addict can be helped only by God — not God by the name of Jehovah or El or Adonai or Yahweh or Jesus, but “God as we understand Him.”
    “Choose your own concept of God” was to be one of the early principles that liberated Wilson from his own torment, and he would remain true to it throughout his life. God could even be addressed not as God, but as a/the Higher Power. In fact, health itself seemed to depend upon one’s having the power or facility to make just such a leap from the doctrinal to the experiential, and who could effectively argue with that, especially given the increasingly obvious success rate AA was producing?

    More than the principle of a generic God … AA also assumed from the start that the addicted were better, more effective healers of the addicted than were the non-addicted (or non-confessing) experts and authorities, including most particularly pastors and clerics. Now, help — effective, productive, demonstrable help — was coming from other, equally wounded and empathetic nonprofessionals.
    While the American experience was built from the start on anti-clericalism, AA and its success, however unintentionally, delivered a serious blow to the role and authority of the clergy, especially Protestant clergy, in this country. That professional standing and influence would receive other, debilitating blows over the rest of the twentieth century, especially during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War; but AA was the first to strike a blow right at the Pastor’s Study as the seat of all good advice, holy counsel, wisdom, and amelioration.
    Not only did AA, almost by default, begin to supplant the pastoral authority of the professional clergy and open the door to spirituality in the experiencing of a … Higher Power, but it also revived the small-group dynamic that would come to characterize later twentieth-century Protestantism and, paradoxically, to enable the disintegration of many of its congregations into pieces and parts. …
    AA opened the floodgates to spirituality by removing the confines of organized religion. The great irony in all of this is that many, many AA groups now meet in church buildings and/or are housed in church-owned property.

SO ENDS this excerpt from “The Great Emergence.”
    Please, tell us what you think. Throughout her book, Phyllis describes the many powerful ways that unlikely grassroots movements have reshaped the way that spiritual communities form — and that lives are transformed.

PLEASE, Tell Us What You Think.

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   (Originally published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)


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