Thursday, September 20, 2018
I’ve shared some of Western Christianity’s weaknesses—for example, how we have over-emphasized separateness, sin, and external religious exercises. But Western Christianity has unique gifts and strengths to offer. The dynamism of Western civilization has led to what I might call the “secularization” of the Gospel message into many side streams and rivulets. A strong example of this might be Twelve-Step programs and many other healing and transformational experiences that have now emerged outside of the formal boundaries of Christianity. You cannot kill the Gospel or true wisdom! Living things keep taking on ever new forms of life.
In creating Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, with typical American pragmatism, designed a program that really worked to change lives. It is the same spirituality of imperfection that Jesus taught, Paul clarified, Francis and Clare of Assisi lived, and Thérèse of Lisieux brought to light for the modern world. Transformation has little to do with intelligence, willpower, or perfection. It has everything to do with honesty, humility, willingness, and surrender.
On the practical (read “transformational”) level, the Gospel message of Jesus and the Twelve-Step message of Bill Wilson are largely the same. Addiction can be a metaphor for what the biblical tradition called sin. It is quite helpful to see sin, like addiction, as a destructive disease instead of something for which we’re culpable or punishable and that “makes God unhappy.” If sin indeed makes God “unhappy,” it is because God loves us, desires nothing more than our happiness, and wills the healing of our disease.
Pope Francis clearly understands sin in this way. Shortly after he proclaimed the Holy Year of Mercy in 2015, he was asked why humanity is so in need of mercy. He replied that in part it’s due to “considering our illness, our sins, to be incurable, things that cannot be healed or forgiven. We lack the actual concrete experience of mercy. The fragility of our era is this, too: we don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet. We need mercy.” 
Much of Jesus’ work was healing, with many of his teachings illustrating the healings. Nine of Jesus’ healing stories are actually exorcisms. While the term may be off-putting, the fact that there are so many exorcisms in the Gospels speaks to their importance. I believe “possession by devils” refers to what we now call addiction. The “possessed” person is in some sense trapped by a larger force and is powerless to do anything about it. The only cure for possession is “repossession” by Something Greater than the disease. This is why Bill Wilson said that a “vital spiritual experience” is necessary for full recovery.
I’m convinced that when the great medieval spiritual teachers talked so much about attachment, they were really talking about addiction. We are all attached and addicted in some way. At the very least, we are addicted to our compulsive dualistic patterns of thinking, to our preferred self-image, and to the usually unworkable programs for happiness we developed in childhood—which then showed themselves to be inadequate or even wrong.
 Pope Francis, The Name of God Is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli (Random House: 2016), 16.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, How Do We Breathe Under Water? The Gospel and 12-Step Spirituality, discs 1 and 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2005), CD, DVD, MP3 download; and
Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Franciscan Media: 2011), xii, xv, back cover.