Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Salvation and A.A.

I'm really enjoying talking with Lee and Christopher these days about (big theology word coming!) soteriology and things like that. Lee's latest post is called Participatory Soteriology and the Shape of Christian Life Together.

(The discussion came out of Lee's post about the latest Episcopal adventure, the vote to "rehabilitate" Pelagius in the Diocese of Atlanta.  Listen:  maybe Pelagius really didn't say things attributed to him by Augustine; I have no issue with "correcting the mistakes of written history" - but is this actually the most important possible project for Episcopalians at the present moment?  I can't imagine that it could be.)

Anyway, I'm worrying the subject of "Grace" these days, and what role it plays - or ought to play - in Christian faith, and in particular how we can fix what I see as our huge problem with "content" and the teaching (or, rather, not) of same in the Episcopal Church.

I'm coming to think that Grace is, more than likely, the most important idea in Christianity - and of course, as I always do, I'm tending to view these things through A.A. eyes. And that is perfectly OK, since A.A. descends directly from the 1920s-era Oxford Group, whose founder was a Swiss Lutheran pastor.  Sam Shoemaker, one of the group's leaders in the United States and a very early A.A. supporter (not an alcoholic himself), was the (Episcopal) rector of the parish now known as Calvary-St. George's in Manhattan.

A.A. is the example par excellence of Grace, in fact:  those who recover in the program recognize, sometimes early on and sometimes much, much later, that recovery is solely on account of the utterly unmerited Grace of God.  "The best efforts" of human beings - either the alcoholic or those who'd tried to help her - had no effect on the problem; it's not until people let go - till we surrender all control - that we are able to recover.   It is a left-handed process entirely:  great power unleashed in the midst of - and, in fact, by means of - pain and weakness.

One of the most wonderful things about the blogs, for me, is that these kinds of casual virtual discussions can all of a sudden illuminate a fact or an idea you simply hadn't seen clearly before.  And that's what just happened for me in the discussion at Lee's:  I realized that one of A.A.'s singular features - one of the things that make it different from religion as it's usually practiced - is that it's an open-ended process.  There is no ultimate "goal"; there's no particular endline that, once having crossed it, you can say that you've definitively "arrived."   There aren't any particular "metrics" - which means that there is lots of opportunity for adventure and the chance to continually learn.  There is the priceless opportunity to live one's own life, as it plays out in all its reality, under the Grace of God.

I wrote at Lee's that:
....the theory is – and it does work, I can say, from personal experience! – that once made free through Grace, we become very willing to share this Good News, because …. well, because it's good.

That is the experience of many people – surely those in A.A., but also Christians. Free Grace – the gift of God – is something that wants to share itself through those it's touched. Not for any reason that presents itself as morality, but just because it feels like Salvation, and because you want others to experience it. This is A.A.'s Twelfth Step, exactly: "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles [i.e., the Twelve Steps themselves] in all our affairs." (Note the last clause!)

One of the best things about this is that no particular formula is given; it's rather understood that the "spiritual awakening" will be different for different people, according to their needs and gifts. There is no "blueprint," except for what actually happens in a person's life, and how A.A.'s principles apply to it.

In A.A., of course, the course is made easier: the Twelve Steps are life itself. Without them, the personality will once more decay and shrivel, the alcoholic will likely resume drinking, and all will be lost. So A.A. meetings – which are really just a place to talk about life and death and suffering and spiritual awakenings, and to regain perspective – are necessary. The Steps are necessary. Talking about these things is necessary. Admitting our "character defects" is necessary.

A.A. says that: "Great suffering and great love are A.A.'s disciplinarians; we need no others." And this is surely true for others, too.
I think one of the most important things about all that is contained in this idea:  "There is no 'blueprint,' except for what actually happens in a person's life, and how A.A.'s principles apply to it."  And, believe it or not, I think the key phrase there is "what actually happens"!

A.A. concerns itself primarily with reality.  Reality - "what actually happens" - is the key to everything.  What's true about the human condition as alcoholics live it out.   What's true about my own character defects; what's true about the harm I've caused others.   As I said over there, A.A.'s whole project is about "ego deflation at depth":  the First Step is an (often very hard-won) admission of the reality of one's own personal situation.   But this doesn't ordinarily (if ever) come in the form of a result of personal effort; it arrives instead as a flash of insight - as a "moment of clarity," as I've heard often in the rooms.

And that moment is the embodiment in the world of pure Grace; without it, there's no way forward at all.

More later, surely, as I think these things through further.  

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