Higher Power: Alcoholics Anonymous Basics

Some of us have spent a lot of time puzzling over the question “What is a Higher Power?”

Sometimes we hear that it is, “Something.” Sometimes, the answer is that it is,”Somebody.” Sometimes the answer is “Anything that keeps me from drinking.” Many have said, “it” is a light bulb, a radiator, a chair, the Big Dipper, a rock, “Her,” a tree, the Big Dipper, Ralph, a rainbow, or “nothing at all.” I have personally read, heard, and recorded all of these strange characterizations. One compilation is in my book, God and Alcoholism. But whatever we hear, such answers have sounded pretty screwy to some of us. And they certainly are.

However, the more the answers, the more the questions because those light bulb and Big Dipper phrases don’t answer questions. They still keep raising the point that if so many are talking about an “higher power,” it must at least have some root, and at some point in time it must have meant something. So, “What is it?”

Historically, the “higher power” phrase comes from New Thought writers like Ralph Waldo Trine, William James, and Emmet Fox. And I have listed the places where you can find the phrase in those and other pre-A.A. writings.

But what is it?

Let me tell you how three old timers approached the answer by defining what a “Higher Power” isn’t:

One old timer – the oldest and who died only recently – was my friend Jim H. from Maryland. He lived to 100 years old and got sober just about the same time that Bill Wilson did. In fact, Jim knew of Rev. Sam Shoemaker and met Bill Wilson at early Oxford Group meetings. In his nineties, Jim became associated with the phrase “back to basics.” Prior to that, he had come to know me, and he endorsed a number of my books. Jim’s answer to the “higher power” nonsense involved s a “takeaway” approach. He said to me and wrote: “If you take God out of the program, you have nothing.” And that powerful observation still holds good for most of us.

Another old timer – the retired archivist at Dr. Bob’s home – is my friend Ray G. Ray takes a large collection of A.A. history materials around the U.S., conducts workshops at conferences, and tells it like it was. Ray’s approach to the nonsense phrase was to “identify” his “highest power.” Ray frequently said: “My higher power isn’t conference approved; but his Father is!”

A third – an old timer from Oregon whose name is Gene – phoned me not long ago to say that he was involved in both A.A. and N.A. and was speaking at a world convention of N.A. He said he was interested in our early A.A. history and my research and wanted to bring his higher power back into the program. He said that Jesus was his higher power, and that he knew the early A.A. program was a Christian program. We got to talking about “singleness of purpose,” about the common features of A.A. and N.A., and about the drift of both away from God. At the end of our conversation, we both agreed that today’s crowds in A.A. and N.A. are really not single anything—not just alcoholics, not just addicts, not just believers, not just unbelievers, but in fact not much of either if they just stayed sick and didn’t get into a fellowship and focus on getting well. Gene said that he no longer introduced himself in speeches by saying “I’m Gene, and I am an alcoholic.” Or, “I’m Gene, and I am an addict.” Today he introduces himself as follows: “I’m Gene, and I am a responsible member of the program.”

So this little article is addressed to those who are or want to be “a responsible member of the program.” And want so to identify themselves. And just who is a responsible member?

Let’s take a cue from the three old timers I just quoted.

A responsible member is one who does not seek to, or want to, take God out of the any recovery fellowship or program. It’s neither his privilege nor his right.

A responsible member is one who makes it clear that the Creator, his Maker, his Father, is “conference approved”—certainly not “conference dis-approved.” He knows that most A.A. General Service “Conference-approved” literature refers to the Bible, Bible phrases, God, establishing a relationship with God, and the early A.A. Christian Fellowship. Early on, even A.A.’s “basic text” only referred to an “higher power” and both times in the context of Almighty God.

A responsible member includes anyone who gets well by turning to “the Lord”—as Bill Wilson and Bill Dotson (A.A. Number Three) said they did (Big Book, p. 191). He’s not required to turn to Jesus Christ, as his A.A. forbears were; but he has that privilege and right.

A responsible member is one who would rather focus on what God has done for him once he sought God, than on sparking conflicts over definitions about who is sick from what, about what a “higher power” is, about what “it” is or isn’t, about what the meaning of “is” is, and or about who satisfies the requirements for “membership” and who doesn’t.

Why? I can speak only as to the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship I joined in 1986. I saw now A.A. Step that referred to some “higher power.” I saw no A.A. Tradition that insisted that God could not be and mean God. I saw no A.A. literature that banned the history that clearly showed early AAs were required to believe in God and to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. In fact, I saw no literature that attempted to tell AAs that their “higher power” was a rock or a chair, was not the Creator, and could mean belief in nothing at all. That’s simply not the A.A. which I joined, and it is not the A.A. in which I have managed to be active to this day and maintain continuous sobriety for almost 24 years.

One of the reasons I enjoyed and still enjoy the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous is that I never tried to substitute any kind of “higher power” for Almighty God. Another is that I never got thrown out when I mentioned God. Or even when I mentioned the Bible. Another is that I used the same terms to describe Almighty God that were used by Dr. Bob, Bill Wilson, and the other pioneers—Creator, Maker, Father, God, Father of lights, Heavenly Father, and Spirit. Another is that I soon gave up thinking I could expect others to stop using the phrase “higher power” to describe their “Something,” or “Somebody,” or “not-god” philosophy. And I am, like Gene, “a responsible member of the program.” At least I think so, and that is what counts for me. My job is to be of maximum service to God and those still suffering from alcoholism. That’s our primary purpose, and it works!

Gloria Deo