Part Three of a Three-Part Series

In an article in Christianity Today, Vol. 44, No. 8, titled “Lessons from Rock Bottom,” Philip Yancey, an editor at large, presents his position regarding alcoholics and the recovery movement. The first two parts of this critique of his article examined his assumptions about what Christians can learn from Alcoholics Anonymous, his assumptions about natural theology, and his assumptions about the spiritual beginnings of AA.

Here we continue with Yancey’s idea of spiritual rebirth. Regarding Wilson’s belief that an alcoholic “has to hit bottom” in order to change, Yancey says:

How privileged we are to understand so well the divine paradox that strength rises from weakness, that humiliation goes before resurrection: that pain is not only the price but the very touchstone of spiritual rebirth. The Apostle Paul could not have phrased it better.

We absolutely disagree! The Apostle Paul would have included Jesus Christ; whereas Wilson rejected the very idea that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father. Furthermore, the insistence on Jesus’ name as man’s only hope is anathema in AA meetings.

Yancey says of alcoholics: “Most battle temptation every day of their lives, experiencing grace not as a magic potion, rather as a balm whose strength is activated daily by conscious dependence on God.” Yancey should more accurately refer to the alcoholic’s strength being “activated by conscious dependence on [any] God [of his own making].” Since AA is admittedly an open doorway to a pantheon of gods or any god of one’s imagination, Yancey’s statement misses the true God of the Bible by light years.

Religions and Spirituality

Yancey includes a long statement from an alcoholic who wrote to him, which ends with the following: “There is a common saying in AA: ‘Religion is for people who believe in Hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.’” Just as the alcoholic’s higher power is anyone and anything he wishes to make it, so also “religion” and “spirituality” are elastic terms to fit the god of the alcoholic’s making. In addition, the word “Hell” as used in the typical AA one-liner may or may not be the same hell to which the Bible refers, depending on whether or not a particular alcoholic’s god is also the God of the Bible. If, indeed, a member of AA believes in Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation, then he would have trouble if he tried to witness his faith to others in an AA meeting. There would at least be censorship and possible expulsion and exclusion.

The Jungian Connection

In reference to a remark made by Carl Jung, Yancey says:

In correspondence with Bill Wilson, the psychiatrist Carl Jung remarked that it may be no accident that we refer to alcoholic drinks as “spirits.” Perhaps, suggested Jung, alcoholics have a greater thirst for the spirit than other people, but it is all too often misdirected.

Correspondence between Wilson and the well-known occult psychiatrist Carl Jung reveals that Wilson was looking for a religious experience as his only hope and that this experience was foundational to the AA movement. In his letter to Jung in 1961, Wilson says:

This letter of great appreciation has been very long overdue. . . . Though you have surely heard of us [AA], I doubt if you are aware that a certain conversation you once had with one of your patients, a Mr. Roland H., back in the early 1930’s did play a critical role in the founding of our fellowship.1

He then reminds Jung of what Jung had “frankly told [Roland H.] of his hopelessness,” that he was beyond medical or psychiatric help. Wilson says: “This candid and humble statement of yours was beyond doubt the first foundation stone upon which our Society has since been built.” Moreover, when Roland H. had asked Jung if there was any hope for him, Jung “told him that there might be, provided he could become the subject of a spiritual or religious experience—in short, a genuine conversion.” Wilson continues: “You recommended that he place himself in a religious atmosphere and hope for the best.”2 As far as Jung was concerned, there was no need for doctrine or creed, only an experience, which is true of AA to this day.

It is important to inject here that Jung could not have meant conversion to Christianity, because as far as Jung was concerned all religion is simply myth—a symbolic way of interpreting the life of the psyche. To Jung, conversion simply meant a totally dramatic experience which would profoundly alter a person’s outlook on life. Jung himself had blatantly rejected Christianity and turned to idolatry. He replaced God with a myriad of mythological archetypes. He delved deeply into the occult, practiced necromancy, and had daily contact with disembodied spirits, which he called archetypes. In fact, much of what he wrote was inspired by such entities. Jung had his own familiar spirit whom he called Philemon. At first he thought Philemon was part of his own psyche. Later on, however, he found that Philemon was more than an expression of his own inner self.3

In his letter to Jung, Wilson describes his own critical point of hopelessness, as far as medical help was concerned, and his spiritual experience which followed. And, he shares his early vision for a society of alcoholics with similar realizations and experiences. His dream for AA was “to lay every newcomer wide open to a transforming spiritual experience.” He declares: “This has made conversion experiences—nearly every variety reported by [psychologist William] James—available on almost wholesale basis.”4 Indeed Alcoholics Anonymous is a religious society, but it is not a biblically based Christian fellowship. It is a counterfeit with whatever god a person concocts, imagines and/or envisions.

Jung’s response to Wilson’s letter is confirming. In it he says the following about Roland H.:

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness; expressed in medieval language: the union with God.5

Jung notes that in Latin the same word is used for alcohol as for “the highest religious experience.” Even in English, alcohol is referred to as spirits. But, knowing Jung’s theology and privy counsel with a familiar spirit, one must conclude that the spirit he is referring to is not the Holy Spirit, and the god he is talking about is not the God of the Bible, but rather a counterfeit spirit posing as an angel of light and leading many to destruction. Could it be that through AA people are substituting one form of sorcery (pharmakia) with another (a false god and occult experiences)?

The Oxford Group

Yancey compares the Oxford Group and AA and mentions an offshoot of the Oxford Group requiring “its members to commit to a strict Christian creed.” However, Yancey confuses this perfectionist-based offshoot group with the whole Oxford Group and concludes, “Over time, the perfectionist Oxford Group shriveled up and disappeared; grace-based AA has never stopped growing.”

Both Wilson and AA cofounder Dr. Bob Smith were members of the Oxford Group and did their early work within that movement. Wilson’s group, later called Alcoholics Anonymous, separated from the Oxford Group because of disagreements over Wilson holding his own meetings. However, one can see the influence of the Oxford Group on the development of AA. Wilson describes the Oxford Group this way:

The Oxford Group was a nondenominational evangelical movement, streamlined for the modern world and then at the height of its very considerable success. . . . They would deal in simple common denominators of all religions which would be potent enough to change the lives of men and women.6 (Emphasis added.)

Thus it was an ecumenical movement which used the “common denominators of all religions” rather than the exclusive way of the cross of Christ.

Rather than denying or denouncing biblical doctrines, the Oxford Group Movement cleverly avoided and evaded doctrinal issues. For instance, the group neither denied nor asserted such essential doctrines as the blood atonement of Jesus Christ. Instead of biblical doctrine, the Oxford Group Movement majored in personal experience, group sharing, channeled guidance, and testimonies. Rather than evaluating subjective experience with biblical doctrine, the Group developed its own subjective teachings. Under the guise of “confession,” Oxford Group participants graphically shared their sexual exploits and received absolution and affirmation from the group. One can see the influence of the Oxford Group on the central place of “sharing” during AA and other Twelve-Step meetings today. The Oxford Group, which was later named Moral Re-Armament, did not offer salvation through faith, because there was no creed. Instead members engaged in religious works so that God could “enter and direct their lives.”

Besides the emphasis on subjective sharing, the Oxford Group’s manner of prayer and guidance influenced Wilson. Rather than using the Bible as a standard and guide for living, members of the Oxford Group practiced a “quiet time” during which they would write down whatever came into their minds.7 Members of the Oxford Group primarily found their guidance from within rather than from a creed or the Bible.

Changes in people’s lives were based on the works of men undergirded by so-called spiritual experiences and group involvement, but they were not based upon faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. While their lives may have been different and even exciting, they had no biblical confession. Their doctrine did not include this essential truth:

That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Romans 10:9-10).

Wilson’s group separated from the Oxford Group to become a religion of its own. However, many of the features of the Oxford Group live on today in Alcoholics Anonymous and cloned Twelve-Step programs.

The Church and the Recovery Movement

The words directly beneath the title of Yancey’s article are: “The church can learn about grace from the recovery movement.” Grace is defined as “the unmerited love and favor of God toward man.” The God referred to is the God of the Bible, who “gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). There is no biblical grace in the recovery movement described in Yancey’s article, because the God of the Bible is absent and Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father is entirely avoided. Contrary to what Yancey says, the church should not learn about grace from the recovery movement. The couple of alcoholics who founded AA were given many opportunities to accept biblical grace and to believe in God the Father and in His only begotten Son, but they refused to do so.

Yancey’s final remark begins with the following words: “We in the church have as much to learn from people in the recovery movement as we have to offer them.” If Yancey had written this article based on full knowledge that the founders were very unlikely Christians, that the higher power can be anyone and anything the alcoholic would want, that there is a gulf between biblical doctrines and AA doctrines and between biblical vocabulary and AA vocabulary, that Jesus Christ is not a welcome guest at AA meetings, and that the very mention of his name could be reason for one to be expelled from the group, one would have to question Yancy’s faith. Let’s be generous and say his article was written with a great deal of misinformation, little knowledge of the facts, and little research effort, but that’s one of the results of writing on a variety of subjects with a press deadline.

1 “Spiritus contra Spiritum: The Bill Wilson/C.G. Jung Letters: The roots of the Society of Alcoholics Anonymous.” Parabola, Vol. XII, No. 2, May 1987, p. 68.
Ibid., p. 69.
3 Carl Jung. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Edited by Aniela Jaffe; translated by Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Pantheon, 1963, p. 183. (See also pp. 170-199.)
4 “Spiritus contra Spiritum,” op. cit., p. 70.
Ibid., p. 71.
6 Wilson quoted in Pass It On. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1952, 1953, 1981, pp. 127-128.
Ibid., p. 128.

PAL V9N5 (September-October 2001)