A Philosophical Approach to the Issue of “Spiritual Awakening”

for Secular Members of Alcoholics Anonymous

Secular members of Alcoholics Anonymous are confronted with language and ideology that focuses on “spiritual” aspects of recovery. Very often, A.A. members sharing their experience, strength, and hope emphasize their belief in a “Higher Power” who is a personal supreme being, and stress their reliance on the providence of this “Higher Power” in their “spiritual awakening.” For secular members, this can be confusing or alienating, and could even lead us to abandon A.A., or even our efforts to recover from alcoholism.

            There are secular A.A. meetings in most major cities, and failing that, secular A.A. groups that meet through video chat or other online formats. But those are not options for all secular alcoholics seeking help from others, and they have no choice but to try to fit into a “traditional” A.A. Fellowship where they may be the only secular, agnostic, or atheistic member.

            For all of us, whether or not we have the privilege of face-to-face or online secular meetings, the notion of “spiritual” recovery remains a core element of the ideology underlying A.A. Of course, it is emphasized in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, and those familiar with the history of A.A. are aware of the roots of the movement in a particular kind of Christianity. Rejecting, suspending, or “translating” the specific religious and theological concepts does not do enough to change the meaning-context of recovery. The very idea of “spiritual” needs to be rethought, at least for us secular members.

A Different Concept of Spirit

(Inspired by Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit)

            In 19th Century Germany, Spirit [Geist in German] became significant for conceptualizing forms of knowledge and action, specifically in relation to their cultural, historical development. Unlike the English word spirit, the primary meaning of Geist in German is human, conscious thinking, related to intellect. Broadening and deepening the meaning of Geist, German philosophers related spirit to the full extent of human existence, for instance, using it to distinguish natural sciences [Naturwissenschaften] from what might be called “social” sciences or “human” sciences [Geisteswissenschaften].

            The philosopher who seems to have initiated this expanded use of the term Spirit was G.W.F. Hegel.[1] Communities and nations form a way of life[2], or what we sometimes call ethos. The ethos of a community entails its goals, its values, its ideas about right and wrong conduct, and the establishment of roles played by individuals in pursuit of these ideals. This, in general, is what we mean by the Culture of a people. Culture gives members of the community direction, and gives their individual lives meaning. They live both individually and in the collective whole according to the ideals of their Culture.

            The individuals in the community, and the community itself, become self-conscious, self-reflective, and truly rational as a result of the transition from the life of Culture to the life of Spirit.[3] The crucial difference between the Culture of a people and its Spirit is, according to Hegel, that in the Spirit of a people, there is an explicit recognition and expression of that Culture’s way of life—a critical, rational, reflective expression. Spirit is not the rejection of Culture, but the further development and articulation of Culture, through rational inquiry. Ethos and the ethical values entailed in it are transformed into Morality, expressed in terms of rational laws.[4] Spirit retains with Culture the characteristic of a shared set of goals, values, and ideas about right and wrong conduct that direct the life of the community, but in Spirit, all of this becomes reflective and explicit.

            To summarize, Spirit in this sense is the community, and individuals as members of this community, who critically and rationally articulate a self-understanding of their cultural way of life and ideals. We could say that Spirit has five essential features:

  • A community is fundamentally organized around and by (its) Spirit.
  • The members of this community recognize one another and themselves collectively through this Spirit.
  • Individual members of this community take up Spirit as the core meaning of their lives as this community. [Thus far, these characteristics are shared with Culture.]
  • Individuals, and the community as a collective whole, give explicit expression to their being a community, and to the ideals that direct their lives and give their lives meaning. They express Spirit as both the object to be known and expressed, and the subject who knows and expresses.
  • Through these expressions, Spirit becomes self-conscious, and develops further.

Spiritual Awakening

            What is a “spiritual awakening”? What could it mean to a secular, agnostic, or atheistic member? If spirit is understood through this philosophical approach, a spiritual awakening might have five features, parallel to the five features of Spirit in the exposition above.

  • Joining, identifying and understanding oneself as a member of the recovery community: committing oneself to the community.
  • Mutually recognizing others in that community—i.e., recognizing and being recognized by others as members of that community, and reflectively recognizing oneself through recognizing others.
  • Acknowledging and taking up as one’s own the goals and core values of the community: committing to the ways of life of the recovery community.
  • Critically and rationally reflecting on the community’s goals and core values, and articulating these for oneself and as a member of the community.
  • Actively participating in the development of the community’s self-reflective understanding of its goals and values.

            In practical terms, this kind of spiritual awakening would involve committing to the lifelong project of recovery, through the help and as a member of a community, while rejecting the often-encouraged practice of simply “following the suggestions” of the dominant ideology of A.A. Passively following, and waiting and hoping that a spiritual awakening will befall us, is the approach advocated in the chapter “We Agnostics” in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. For committed atheists, or for anyone—believer or non-believer—for whom passive obedience is unsatisfying, the spiritual awakening articulated here calls for active critique and the free expression of that critique within our recovery communities.

            This spiritual awakening could take the attitude that critical, rational self-reflection deepens and strengthens our commitment to the goal of recovery, and the values of community spiritedness, compassion, tolerance, love, and others prominent in the “traditional” A.A. ideology. Furthermore, this spiritual awakening must take place with our Fellowships and with individuals in our Fellowships. Expressing our questions, doubts, contrary beliefs, suggestions for changes in practices, etc., invites the entire community to join in its spiritual development.

            We would ask individuals and the whole Fellowship for its community spiritedness, compassion, tolerance, and love in the recognition of ourselves and our ideas and beliefs. Indeed, our recovery has always already depended on it. Our spiritual awakening, expressed in our own critical, rational self-reflective understanding and articulation of our community’s Spirit, invites all in our Fellowships to join us, and deepen and strengthen their own commitments, and our commitments to one another.

[1] The details of Hegel’s philosophy are not crucial for the present exposition of Spirit, but it is important to understand the meaning of Spirit in context. In the Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807 [English translation by A.V. Miller, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford University Press, 1977]), Hegel presents the development of “shapes of consciousness” along a trajectory from the most basic “sense-certainty” toward “absolute knowing.” Spirit is the name Hegel gives to the shape of consciousness that has progressed through fundamental perceptual and categorizing kinds of knowing, and from there through cultural forms that depend on the recognition of our fellow humanity and mutual interdependence in communities and nations.

[2] Hegel calls this shape of consciousness Sittlichkeit. Miller translates it as “ethical life,” but it might be better translated as ethos, because it is broader than what we typically mean by ethical. [Sitten in German can mean something as far removed from “ethical” as simple customary ways of doing things.]

[3] In Culture, individuals can conduct themselves according to the ethos of their community or nation without conceptualizing it as ethos or Culture. Individuals can simply adhere to their community’s values, and to their roles, not only unquestioningly, but without understanding them to be their community’s ethos: it is simply the way the world is. What shifts us away from merely conforming to the community ethos, Hegel says, is the Enlightenment ideal of reason. Once the rational basis for our community’s way of life is demanded, the ethos cannot stand on its merely being our Culture.

[4] What had been merely implicit in our community’s values is now explicated and given rational form, by and through the community itself, or, in short, the community becomes a self-conscious moral subject (i.e., autonomous, active moral agent).

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