I recently read Richard Rohr’s “Breathing Underwater” – a 2011 book (based on a 1989 audio) which seeks to demonstrate a relationship between Christianity and the Twelve Steps. I was curious about Rohr and I know a bit about the Twelve Steps so I thought I would give the book a try.
According to Rohr, the connections between the gospel and the Twelve Steps are so obvious that he is surprised that “this (is) not equally obvious to everybody…” A humbler person might have stopped right there and wondered why only he had received this revelation. Not Rohr. He presses on, confident that his reading of the Twelve Steps will work for everyone (he says we are all addicted) as well as for “institutions, cultures and nations.” He finds addiction to be a good metaphor “for what the biblical tradition called ‘sin.’” So much for the medical model.
In fact, there is not much in the book about the Twelve Steps. Rohr uses them as chapter titles and conversation starters introducing one or more of his many complaints about “most Christians,” “most Catholics,” “the Roman Catholic church,” and a few sober alcoholics who seem to him to be insufficiently “spiritual.” Chapters are exercises in stream of consciousness: one word reminds him of another, which reminds him of some related or unrelated grievance. There are no arguments to follow. In the few instances he does focus on the substance of a Step, it is often so that he can reinterpret it.
In my experience, the Steps are not easy to do, but they are pretty straightforward and easy to understand. They need little, if any interpretation beyond what is readily available in the Big Book.
I did not like watching Rohr reinterpret and otherwise mess with the Steps. They don’t need fixing. They work as they are. They help alcoholics achieve and keep their sobriety. Rohr’s commentary does not improve them. If anything, it misrepresents them.
The book’s premise is not wrong: There IS a strong connection between the Twelve Steps and Christianity. The Steps are rooted in the principles and practices of an early 20th century evangelical Christian group (the Oxford Group) started by a Lutheran minister named Frank Buchman. Buchman believed that to change the world, we first needed to learn how to change ourselves. Towards that end, the Oxford Groups had a set of principles which sound very much like some of AA’s steps.
But early on the founders of AA decided to de-emphasize its Christian origins so that the Twelve Steps and the Fellowship of AA would be available to non-Christians. In other words, Rohr’s enterprise of demonstrating the Christian-ness of the Steps is not news to anyone who can do a little bit of research, and more importantly, it is not helpful!
For anyone who is actually interested in how the Twelve Steps came to be, there are a few oft’ mentioned books: AA Comes of Age, Bill W. (1957), Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, Ernest Kurtz (1979) and Turning Point: A History of AA’s Spiritual Roots and Successes, Dick B. (1997.) Some of these books rely heavily on eye-witness memory and/or AA tradition and lore.
But there is a new book I can heartily recommend: Writing the Big Book: The Creation of A.A., William H. Schaberg, 2019. It tells the cherished stories and then checks their likely veracity using the materials available in AA archives and other records producing what may be the best history of early AA and the Twelve Steps to date. The title and subject made me think it would be a dry and dusty read, but it is not. It is a fascinating story with well-developed characters, a coherent plot and fascinating detail all told in a compelling, readable narrative.
Schaberg’s book was not available to Rohr when he wrote his book, but others were. It’s hard to imagine why he missed the mark on the meaning and purpose of the Twelve Steps by such a wide margin.