more on step 3: a bit of a theological discussion

this post is in response to scott’s comment on my article on step 3, part of my 12-step discussion.

scott’s last line was, “thoughts”?

oh, scott, i’ll always have thoughts – probably too many of them 🙂

first of all, thanks, scott, for your kind words regarding my attempt to make step three palatable to people who are not religious (or even particularly spiritual).

let me try to reply to some of what you’ve said.

the 12 steps were originally based in christian belief, so i want to speak to the original interpretation of god as it was intended by the founders of aa and your interpretation here.

there is no question that the inspiration for the spiritual foundation of aa is grounded in christian belief. however, throughout the aa literature it says that aa is a spiritual program, not a religious one. christianity is a religion. those interested in learning from aa can, if they so choose, be guided by christian principles but there is absolutely no need to do so.

i have always wondered how people who are not of the abrahamic faiths interpret the 3rd step. as a christian, jew or muslim, i would interpret the third step to encompass the act of a leap of faith. i am placing my fate and my life in the hands of god. this is an act of profound spiritual significance, and aa members who have completed the 3rd step demonstrate incredibly strong faith.

thank you for bringing up the concept of a leap of faith. (i wish i had thought of that in my original post). leaps of faith are important in all spiritual traditions that i know of. going on a vision quest requires a leap of faith; solving a koan requires it; trusting one’s guru does. but so do other things that we normally don’t automatically associate with religion or spirituality: starting a business, getting married, or the rite of passage of many young canadians: going on a long trip to europe.

as someone strongly influenced by buddhism, i would say that just about everything requires a leap of faith, or at least deep trust. i trust that my husband will come home soon; that the sun will rise tomorrow; that you are indeed the friendly person that i am coming to know and not an evil stalker. we’re just not usually aware of this continuously flowing undercurrent of trust and the many leaps of faith that go with it – most people would find that really frightening.

when i read your interpretation of god, i don’t sense the same spiritual strength. this is not a stab at you, because i know that you are a very spiritual person. however, “a power greater than myself” just doesn’t resonate with me the same way that “the unknowable” does.

step 2 reads, “came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could relieve us of our insanity.” i like to take that at face value. that’s all that’s needed. an assumption that something/someone outside of ourselves can help.

what/who is this something/someone? who knows? as you say, he/she/it is unknowable. however, i don’t think that the human mind is able to feel supported, on a day-to-day level, without giving this unknowable he/she/it some shape or name. what i suggest is that for some people, rather than giving this unknowable entity a pre-existing shape or name (“god”, “universe”, “allah”, etc.), it may work better if they give it their own name.

i have been lucky enough to get to know the journey of some people who are or were atheists, or had a very tattered or unworkable concept of god/goodness. to watch them fashion their own image and build a close relationship with it has been fascinating.

i worry that by creating their own god, people will fall short of achieving the same spiritual fulfilment as they would if they were christian, jewish or muslim. how could a single person create and conceive of anything greater than themselves, especially when they are in the despairing depths of alcoholism? won’t any standard of goodness that they create be tainted by their own failing self-esteem or broken self-image?

interesting! my answer to this question is a leap of faith: i trust that the innate goodness is greater than anything else. i trust that the divine spark will always assert itself. i trust that the abrahamic faiths are facets of the immense diamond of goodness, and that there are many more facets to it (one of them, i happen to believe, is atheism).

how could a single person create and conceive of anything greater than themselves? precisely. a single person cannot and will not think of anything. we are all connected. i cannot think any thought without reference to what others have said and done; i cannot do anything without building upon what others have created before me. part of the attraction of 12-step programs is that it makes us supremely aware of that: we cannot live alone.

i am really wondering if it is it even possible to take a humanist interpretation of the 3rd step.

i sure hope so. one of the reasons for that lies, of course, in my own history: i grew up in a culture that is deeply rooted in both humanism and christian – in my case lutheran – tradition, a mixture that is quite wide-spread in central and northern europe. there we have it again: these may be my own thoughts, to a degree, but they build on what others have thought, from dostoevsky to kierkegaard, from leibniz to sartre. these men, too, are part of that mysterious “power greater than myself.”

isabella mori
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13 thoughts on “more on step 3: a bit of a theological discussion

  1. Scott


    Beautifully written. Thank you for replying so eloquently.

    I think you have struck on the secret right here:

    “i trust that the innate goodness is greater than anything else.”

    I believe that as well. However, as someone who has gone through the “dark passage of
    the heart” recovering from abuse, I also agree with you that the journey to this level of trust cannot be made alone. I have drawn heavily from my faith community (Roman Catholic) during my healing.

    I was speaking to an abuse survivor a month ago. He was struggling with some addiction/self-esteem issues. His recovery was at a stage analogous to the 3rd step in AA, I.E., he knew that he was on a healing path, but he was having difficulty trying to place his struggle in the context of a larger meaning.

    I said to him, “Go to what you know. Find the faith of your childhood.” (He was Jewish.) This turned out to be very painful for him because he was abused by his mother, and because she represented “Jewishness” in his mind, he had very negative feelings about Judaism. Therefore, he can’t get past his negative feelings about the faith of his childhood. Right now he is trying to find meaning by “channel-surfing” other faiths.

    You said,

    “i trust that the abrahamic faiths are facets of the immense diamond of goodness, and that there are many more facets to it (one of them, i happen to believe, is atheism).”

    I agree. In the words of St. Jerome,

    “They come in throngs and set us examples of every virtue. The languages differ but the religion is the same; as many different choirs chant the psalms as there are nations.”

    Beautiful words, but to someone struggling with the 3rd step I don’t think they offer any solace. How do you reach the point where you can take the leap of faith, when you don’t have a belief structure to fall back on? Like you said,

    “we’re just not usually aware of this continuously flowing undercurrent of trust and the many leaps of faith that go with it – most people would find that really frightening.”

    It is really frightening. In fact it’s terrifying. That’s why religions couch the leap of faith in ritual and symbolic language. They provide strong social reinforcement to the “leaper” to help them overcome their fear.

    Without the supporting framework of ritual and symbolism, how do people overcome their fear and make that leap?

    Does the ritual and symbolism of the AA provide a substitute for a ritual such as a Bar Mitzvah or Holy Confirmation, welcoming the “initiate” into the “undercurrent of trust?”

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  3. isabella mori

    thanks for your thoughtful words, scott.

    the “channel surfing” of other faiths (i like that term) is something that a lot of people go through. it’s useful, i think, if it is done in a spirit of curiosity and information gathering. it can be painful when it is a chase after a spiritual fix: “maybe THIS will cure me.” i wish your friend good luck – should i say, godspeed?

    hopefully he will eventually hear and understand the words by st. jerome that you quoted. however, just hearing them, you suggest, will not be solace to him, and i agree.

    these moments of suspension are important parts of spirituality, in my opinion. “eli, eli, lama sabachthani,” says jesus on the cross: “my god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?” in that moment, he is angry and doubtful in his relationship with god. it seems part of the human experience that we cannot have deep, meaningful relationships if we do not have these moments. it’s the firing of the steel of relationship.

    in buddhism, too, the idea of non-belief and of checking out the veracity and applicability of faith systems is an important aspect.

    what WOULD be solace to your friend, then? loving, open, understanding relationships that help him walk through this dry valley of suspended faith.

    you say that “religions couch the leap of faith in ritual and symbolic language. they provide strong social reinforcement to the “leaper” to help them overcome their fear.”

    in mainstream christian religions, many of these rituals have overtaken; there is a focus on them and there really is not leap of faith. for example, when my daughter, who went through a period of being fundamentalist christian, was immersed in water in her baptism, it was exciting but there was no leap of faith.

    it would be interesting to ask missionaries who are truly leaping into the unknown (for example, people who have worked in latin america during the civil wars there) to what degree rituals have helped them, directly or indirectly.

    you say, “without the supporting framework of ritual and symbolism, how do people overcome their fear and make that leap?”

    from what i have heard, people in 12-step groups often make that leap slowly. there is a lot of wondering, meditating, listening and reading.

    finally, you muse, “does the ritual and symbolism of the AA provide a substitute for a ritual such as a bar mitzvah or holy confirmation, welcoming the “initiate” into the “undercurrent of trust?””

    that is an interesting question. i think i should shut up now and see if i can find someone to illuminate this question … 🙂

  4. wayne corbett

    Being an active member of several different 12 step groups, step three is important to me.

    My first sponsor was an atheist.

    I am deeply grateful for the man who in the early years of AA often stated that he did not believe in God. He was quite vocal and persistent about his disagreement with the believers in God and the Christians.

    Many of these recovering AA members believed that AA had saved their lives and restored them to a sane and joyous life.

    These members absolutely believed that God was the inseparable power that made recovery possible.

    These believers were adamantly opposed to the non-believer’s ideas.

    As a group, without the atheist, they voted to exclude or “kick-out” the atheist. They reasoned that God had saved their lives through a miracle and that without the continued presence of God they would lose recovery and die from alcoholism.

    When the group informed the atheist that he had been voted out, he refused to leave. He said to the dismayed members that the only requirement for membership was a desire to not drink alcohol. He went on to say that he had that desire and therefore was fully qualified to be a member.

    The group went into a huddle for discussion and decided that he was correct.

    The group then changed the wording of the 12 steps to included “higher power” and “God as each person understands God”.

    If it had not been for that brave man I would have never been open to the 12 steps.

    He saved my life.


  5. wayne corbett

    Of great importance to me accepting the third step is realizing that I am not turning my life and will over to God or to anyone.

    I am turning my life and will over to the C*A*R*E of God.

    I was not cared for as a child I was brutalized.

    It is sort of nice to imagine and to open up to receiving care.


  6. Samsara

    …made a decision to turn my will and life over to the care of god as i understand god.

    …made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of god as i don’t understand god.

    atheists, agnostics, anti-religious. irrespective of the christian roots of our aa literature [even our beloved jesus of nazareth was influenced by buddhist teachings] as with many things, the beginning intent can often leave a more “palatable” impression [as you inferenced isabella] in the end.

    after all, inspiration from the Divine truly is non-exclusive & all inclusive. [christians one side, jews to the other and you atheists can go to hell. 🙂 Nah.]

    For the agnostic/atheist [of which i am 40% buddhist, 40% gnostic, 20% vehement anti-religion and 100% spiritual, i see no problem with this step.]

    i made plenty of decisions to turn my will and life over to alcohol as i understood it. oh yes! i understood it would cause me more remorse, grief and pain yet i understood it would also relieve the whirling derbishes, the angst, and my pain – ANY pain in immediate need of going away. it certainly helped.

    so step 2 was…well it was the beginning point. then the beloved step 3. would i make this decision? how could i take #2 without following up with #3? if i undertstood and BELIEVED [if i had that faith of a mustard seed jesus parabalizes] that a power greater then me could restore me to sanity why would i not be kicking the door down to get to that decision?

    Well i kicked that door down. Although it required letting go of some old ideas and actually trying new ways to deal…that was the only promise i ever made myself.

    i would make this decision and if i got let down after giving it my all on any given day i would drink again. since i took that step it’s been over 4 years and, though my best wanes on any day, it’s still my 100%…and i haven’t needed to make a different decision to turn my will and life back over to alcohol.

  7. Barbara

    Hello Ms Mori,

    I am new to 12 steps. At my therapist’s urging. I recently (maybe 8 or 9 weeks?) started attending an ACA meeting. Honestly, I have little understanding and the fact that religious abuse was a part of my past, part of my reason for needing therapy, makes it all the more confusing.

    Suffice it to say I’m still trying to make way for step one, higher powers, God, care, leaps of faith etc.

    Probably the only thing I can attest to is the unmanageable life part and that isn’t pretty. All the while fighting all the rest of the ideas/concessions tooth and nail.

    I do think I am just learning to connect what seems like random dots. So thanks for posting on these steps giving those of us another place to look for information.

  8. isabella mori

    hi barbara, great to meet you here.

    i hope you will find a way of looking at this that works for you. in my experience, most people who stick around and take this approach seriously tend to eventually fashion for themselves something that works well.

    i have been seriously amiss in writing about this, and want to thank you for reminding me to come back to it!

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