The 12 Steps as Myth-Transcending Technology

I can already guess what you may be thinking. “The 12 Steps? Isn’t that for people with problems? You know, like uncontrollable addictions that lead to things like job loss and jail time? What help are the 12 Steps for us ‘regular’ people?”

I was talking about this very question with my brother-in-law a few years back, and he told me, “James, you don’t have an alcohol or drug problem, you have a James problem.” Precisely. And while I am glad they don’t lock people up for too much James-ing, over-identifying with my ego-self has led to suffering for myself and the people around me. I have experienced my share of relationship turmoil over it. And lost at least one job.

Bill W. was introduced Dr. Bob S. in Akron, Ohio in 1935 when Bill W. realized that he could not stay sober himself unless he shared the help he had discovered with another suffering drunk. The relationship that developed between these two alcoholics–one a Wall Street businessman and the other a Midwestern physician–led to the development of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous as a spiritual program for recovery.

Influenced by Carl G. Jung, the group dynamics of the Oxford Group, and the pragmatic philosophy of William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, the following twelve steps have become a practical foundation for recovery helping people address addictions of every kind around substances, behaviors, and relationships.


  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

(Copyright (c) 1952, 1953, 1981 by Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing (now known as Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.) All rights reserved.)

With 8 references to “God” (complete with capital “G’s” and “H’s”) it is not surprising that the 12 Steps of AA arise out of the religious tradition of Christianity. It has been said that the 12 Steps are a modern form of the historic Christian practice of purgation (or purification). In contemplative Christianity purgation is the initial phase of the spiritual journey that goes on toward illumination and union with the divine. (Richard Rohr)

However, neither the god-language nor the particular religious soil from which they have sprung need prevent people of other faiths, including nontheists, from practicing the 12 Steps with benefit. Bill W. always insisted that AA was spiritual, but not religious. He said:

It must never be forgotten that the purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous is to sober up alcoholics. There is no religious or spiritual requirement for membership. No demands are made on anyone. An experience is offered which members may accept or reject. That is up to them.

Bill W., Letter to Father Marcus O’Brien, written in 1943, and quoted in The Soul of Sponsorship by Robert Fitzgerald.

And Dr. Bob S.:

The spiritual life is by no means a Christian monopoly… Consider the eight-part program laid down in Buddhism: Right view, right aim, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindedness and right contemplation. The Buddhist philosophy, as exemplified by these eight points, could be literally adopted by AA as a substitute for or in addition to the Twelve Steps. Generosity, universal love and welfare of others rather than considerations of self are basic to Buddhism.

Akron Pamphlet, “Spiritual Milestones in Alcoholics Anonymous”, edited by Dr. Bob, 1940.

Again, Bill W.:

In Step Two we decided to describe God as a “Power greater than ourselves.” In Steps Three and Eleven we inserted the words “God as we understood Him.” From Step Seven we deleted the expression “on our knees.” And, as a lead-in sentence to all the steps we wrote these words: “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a Program of Recovery.” AA’s Twelve Steps were to be suggestions only.

Such were the final concessions to those of little of [sic] no faith; this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer may pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.”

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of AgePage 167, 1957.

Why even bother with the 12 Steps? Why not just use an alternative “science-based, self-empowered” recovery program such as SMART Recovery? The simple answer is that while the 12 Steps may not be for everyone, they still help people in a way that works. I am suggesting here that this has less to do with unprovable metaphysics and much more to do with the subjective human experience of responding to and interacting with a natural healing process. In other words, the 12 Steps are a myth-transcending technology* that works.

Throughout human history, people have associated transformation with spirituality. I imagine Alan Watts might say, “You only need transformation if you think you do.” Recognizing the insidious game played by our ego-self, Watts definitely observed, “The you that needs to be improved is the one that is doing the improving.” Einstein put it this way, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” This is why any ego-based program of self-improvement is ultimately unsustainable. A power greater than our ego-selves is needed.

The brilliance of 12 Step spirituality is that the Steps lead people through the roadblock of ego-based self-improvement by adopting a rigorously pragmatic, results-oriented approach. “Is it working?” may, in fact, be the only relevant question.

Based on my own extensive research into the history of AA and 12 Step spirituality as well as my own experience as a participant in a 12 Step group for several years, my proposal here is that the 12 Steps work not because there is a being in the sky pulling strings, but because the process of working the 12 Steps actually helps people learn to function in more adaptive ways. The “power greater than ourselves” is our natural human efforts on the spiritual path of learning to see through our ego-games.

Regardless of one’s background, religion, philosophy, education, or particular combination of addictions, a universal experience of every person is that sooner or later in one way or another, life becomes unmanageable. Whether our own maladaptive behaviors (typified in many of the addictions that bring people into the 12 Step rooms) or the forces of life and nature beyond our control, it does not take much for life to feel unmanageable.

From a purely pragmatic point of view the question arises, “If life is unmanageable, how might it become manageable again?” The 12 Steps are one technology that has helped millions of people answer that question. Without the need for dogma, hierarchy, property, money, or paid professionals, the 12 Steps offer a free spiritual practice available to anyone who wishes to try it.

What if when life becomes unmanageable all the higher power we need to restore us to sanity is the gestalt of our human participation in the process of death and rebirth as patterned in the whole of nature and the universe?

The first 3 Steps set the course: 1) Acknowledgement of a problem and life’s resulting unmanageability (helplessness). 2) Awareness that only a power greater than the ego-self can restore one to sanity (help is available); and 3) A surrender of the ego-self (“my life and will”) to the care of the higher power of our own understanding (surrender = removal of the ego’s roadblocks to help).

Our own understanding is the important thing here. For people comfortable in the tradition of the Abrahamic Faiths, it may seem natural for the Higher Power to be God as defined by those religions. For Hindus the higher power is the Universal Self–Brahman. For Buddhists, it is the no-self of anatman. For atheists it might be the group of fellow addicts, or one’s own understanding itself informed by observation and deduction. One’s higher power could be a sense of Love or Justice or a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies shared with another person.

Far less important than who or what the higher power may be, the critical insight of the 12 Steps is that my ego-self is not it. Acknowledging that my own ego is not-god and surrendering to something–anything–greater than my ego is the key.

The experience of “hitting rock-bottom” initiated with the first 3 steps, orients a person seeking manageability in life toward a greater openness to such practices and postures as rigorous honesty (Steps 4-5); accepting responsibility for one’s own shortcomings (Steps 5-6); openness toward their integration (Steps 6-7); amends-making with others who have been harmed (Steps 8-9); continuing to own our own “stuff” (Step 10); and a spiritual practice of seeking guidance through prayer and meditation (ongoing practices of de-centering from the ego-self) (Step 11). The spiritual awakening that results from practicing these Steps inspires one to integrate the practice into “all our affairs” and to share it with others (Step 12).

Such an experience of transformation at the deepest levels of one’s awareness may aptly be called a “spiritual awakening”. The major religions and philosophies, as they are commonly practiced around the world, either lack or have not widely developed technologies for confronting the ego-self or initiating what Bill W. calls, “ego collapse at depth”. Whether Christian or Atheist, Communist or Capitalist, Hindu or Ethicist, the “all or nothing” ego reinforced by religious or philosophical dogma can be every bit as destructive as alcohol or heroin to a user and the people close to them.

Like the practice of Zen, the 12 Steps invite (and force) self-confrontation with one’s problems and through that, the letting go of the ego illusion on the path to more adaptive perspectives and behaviors. It is the process of an instant and of a lifetime.

We human beings tend to use substances, behaviors, stories, and relationships to manage our feelings and sense of well-being in the chaos of life. The 12 steps invite us to practice using awareness through faith in a power greater than ourselves, fellowship with fellow sufferers, and service to others as a helpful way of engaging with life’s unmanageability.

Regardless of whether an actual benevolent power external to the human brain exists, the very process of letting go the ego illusion undertaken with the 12 Steps is, without more, a powerful path toward freedom, integration and restored sanity. The Serenity Prayer is a handy power tool within the 12 Step toolbox that is often collectively voiced at 12 Step meetings:

May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference.

From a Spiritual Naturalist perspective, considering the 12 Steps as a myth-transcending technology for managing life the relevant question is not, “Is it true?” but rather, “Does it work?” The answer of many people in recovery has been, “It works if you work it, and you’re worth it!”

Love One Person

(*”Myth-transcending technology” is my phrase informed and crystalized by some comments by Michael Gungor, co-host of The Liturgists Podcast in this episode.)

(For more on the 12 Steps in relation to the world’s great spiritual traditions, see: “The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning” by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum. For more on the 12 Steps from a nontheist perspective, check out: “One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps” by Kevin Griffin. Also, the online community, “AA Agnostica” exists to support nontheist alcoholics in their recovery with AA and the 12 Steps. They have an extensive collection of Relevant Quotes for Secular AA.)

At Last (A Parable)

At Last by Phil Harrison

The other day I had a dream. I dreamt I arrived at the gates of heaven, heavyshut, pure oak, bevelled and crafted, glinting sharp in the sunlight. St Peter stood to greet me; the big man wore brown, smile set deep against his ruddy cheeks.

“You’re here,” he said.

“I am,” I said.

“Great to see you – been expecting you,” he smiled. “Come on in.”

He pushed gently against the huge door; it swung silently, creakless. I took a couple of steps forward until, at the threshold, one more step up and in, I realised I wasn’t alone. My friends had joined me, but they hovered behind, silently, looking on. None spoke. I realized only I could speak. I looked at them; some were Christians, some Hindus, some Buddhists, some Muslims, some Jews, some atheists. Some god knows what. I stopped, paused. A hesitant St Peter looked at me, patiently, expectantly.

“What about these guys?” I asked him. “My friends. Can they come?”

“Well, Phil,” he replied, soft in the still air, “You know the rules. I’m sorry, but that’s the way things are. Only the right ones.”

I looked at him. He seemed genuinely pained by his answer. I stood, considering. What should I do? I thought about my reference points, and thought about Jesus, the bastard, the outsider, the unacceptable, the drunkard, the fool, the heretic, the criminal, and I knew exactly where I belonged.

“I’ll just stay here then too,” I said, taking my one foot out of heaven. And I’ll tell you, I’d swear I saw something like a grin break across St Peter’s face, and a voice from inside whispered, “At last.”

Love One Person


Putting this here so, I can find it easily…

“Spirituality is conceptualized as the gestalt of the total process of human life and development, the central dynamic of which is the person’s search for a sense of meaning and purpose through relationships with other people, the non human environment, and the ultimate reality (variously conceived in ‘theistic’, ‘atheistic’, or ‘spiritist’ terms).

Dr. Edward R. Canda, Professor. Coordinator of KU Spiritual Diversity and Social Work Initiative. University of Kansas, Lawrence KS.

Love One Person


Would it be okay to die today?
It is a day like any other
Someone’s birthday, anniversary, or holy day
I don’t see why not

Sun has risen and will set
Wind blows
Trees stand tall and reach
Leaves fall and rot and decay

Body weakens
Muscles spasm while others go limp
Thoughts are fuzzy
Blood moves slower

I don’t want to leave
Ones I love and who love me
The work I do
People I do it with and for

To see more of life
To help others
To grow along new pathways
All reasons to go on

Life itself will go on
The ones I leave behind will figure out
How to pay bills and to fix things
And to keep on living

The Universe has been me-ing for 45 years
What will happen when this part of me stops?
I don’t know
It will be okay, I trust

I won’t really be gone
I’ll keep doing what I’ve always done
Loving and being loved
Knowing who I Am or not

I think it would be okay
To die today
And until then
To live

Love One Person

A Frog in the Well

Anthony de Mello’s little book The Way to Love has been a jewel of wisdom for me over the past year or so. In one of his meditations he offers this metaphor that resonates with my experience as recounted in my parable of the Tree House and the Boxes.

[T]ruth is essentially mystery. The mind can sense but cannot grasp it, much less formulate it. Our beliefs can point to it but cannot put it into words. In spite of this, people talk glowingly about the value of dialogue which at worst is a camouflaged attempt to convince the other person of the rightness of your position and at best will prevent you from becoming a frog in the well who thinks that his well is the only world there is.

What happens when frogs from different wells assemble to dialogue about their convictions and experiences? Their horizons widen to include the existence of wells other than their own. But they still have no suspicion of the existence of the ocean of truth that cannot be confined within the walls of conceptual wells. And our poor frogs continue to be divided and to speak in terms of yours and mine, your experience, your convictions, your ideology and mine. The sharing of formulas does not enrich the sharers, for formulas like the walls of wells divide; only the unrestricted ocean unites. But to arrive at this ocean of truth that is unbounded by formulas, it is essential to have the gift of clear thinking.

De Mello, Anthony, The Way to Love, Random House, New York (1992), pp. 137-38.

After identifying our need for clear thinking and asking, “What is clear thinking and how does one arrive at it?” de Mello offers some awareness practices around four common obstacles: Prejudices and Beliefs; Desires and Fears.

He invites us to examine our reactions to people and situations to become aware of our prejudices toward them, which are based in our programming rather than in reality. Then to practice childlike unlearning of our programmed perceptions and projections toward people and situations.

He also invites us to “Examine the conclusions you have arrived at and see how they are adulterated by self-interest.” Clear thinking calls for “courage that has successfully coped with fear and with desire, for the moment you desire something or fear something, your heart will consciously or unconsciously get in the way of your thinking.”

Which of my prejudices, beliefs, desires, and fears are getting in the way of my thinking clearly as I interact with people and situations today?

If all human beings were fitted with such hearts [childlike, fearless, and free; ever ready to accept new evidence and change their views in search of truth] people would no longer think of themselves as communists or capitalists, as Christians or Muslims or Buddhists. The very clarity of their thinking would show them that all thinking, all concepts, all beliefs are lamps full of darkness, signs of their ignorance. And in that realization the walls of their separate wells would collapse and they would be invaded by the ocean that unites all peoples in the truth.

Id., pp. 141-42.

What if our beliefs, conclusions, and convictions–useful as we may have found them–may be one of the least important things about us?

Love One Person

The Worm’s Waking

This is how a human being can change:

There’s a worm addicted to eating grape leaves.

Suddenly, he wakes up, call it Grace, whatever, something wakes him, and he’s no longer a worm.

He’s the entire vineyard, and the orchard too, the fruit, the trunks, a growing wisdom and joy that doesn’t need to devour.

Rumi (Mathnawi, IV, 2537-2539).

Love One Person

Embracing Reality: A Parable

***The following is a parable of One Person’s subjective experience of reality. It is not intended as a template for others. However a person comes home to their true self in love is worthy of celebration.***

There once was a child who was born in a box. The box was in a tree house high off the ground. The child grew up in the box feeling safe and loved. One of the reasons for this is that the grownups in the box told the child that it should feel safe and loved because it was with them. In the box.

There was a story in the box that everyone knew. It was the story that defined the people in the box. (There are about two billion people in this particular box.) There are other people who are not in this box. The people in the box talk about themselves as “us” and the people outside the box as “them”. They talk about “us” being “saved” and “them” being “lost” or worse, “damned”.

Some of the people outside of the box live in other boxes. The tree house is filled with boxes. Big boxes and little boxes. Boxes of all shapes and sizes. Actually, inside of every box most of the people think of themselves as “us” and anyone outside of their particular box as “them”. This is how the tree house continues to function throughout the ages from one generation to the next.

The tree house of boxes plays an important role in growing human beings. The box provides parameters for making sense of the world. Language and story. Rules and rituals. Politics and economics. Science and religion. Metaphysics and mystery. Ethics and morality. Terms of group-think and confirmation bias. Lenses for viewing everything inside the box. Blinders for whatever may be outside the box.

Many people are born, live, and die within the confines of the box. To them, the box is reality. It includes life, the world, god, the devil, heaven, hell–everything. (Well, maybe not hell, because hell is for “them” not “us”.) They cannot conceive of anything outside the box. A main use for gods and the supernatural inside the box is to provide explanation and assurance about the unknowns beyond the box.

The box is not reality. Reality is reality. The box exists within reality. And as life goes on, reality has a way of breaking through the walls of the box.

Coming of age inside the box the child went to live inside a tiny-box that was inside the box. The people in the tiny-box thought they were even more “us” than the rest of the “usses” inside the box. They took the rules more seriously, and held themselves to a “higher standard”. In fact, to the people inside the tiny-box inside the box, the rest of the people in the box took on the identity of “them”. They might as well have been outside of the box altogether, for all the people in the tiny-box cared. Because the only people the people in the tiny-box really cared about were themselves.

The child-coming-of-age did its best in the tiny-box. Kept all the rules. Lived by the higher standards. Looked down its nose at outsiders. Felt superior. And had a sense of safety, but knew very little of love.

Over time the cracks in the tiny-box became obvious to the child-coming-of-age. It began to realize that living by sheer effort and force of will was impossible. And exhausting. And according to at least one of the stories in the bigger box, the tiny-box way was not the only way. The child-coming-of-age began to experiment with cutting itself some slack (box-dwellers call it “living by grace”) instead of white-knuckling everything. The child came out of the tiny-box and back into the box. The child was now a young adult. Getting a job. Finding love. Starting a family. All still inside of the box.

But its time in the tiny-box inside the box had changed the child-now-young-adult. Something still felt missing. The child was still looking for love.

So the child-now-adult entered seminary in order to become a professional teller of the stories of the box. At some level, the child wanted to become an official representative of the box’s religion, culture, values, and god. The child’s unconscious hope was that if it filled a sacred role in the center of the box, maybe then it would be loved.

Along the way life happened in the ups-and-downs way life always happens. Reality began breaking through the walls of the box. Here and there the child-now-adult glimpsed the world outside of the box. Even so, the box still felt real enough and the child could still make reasonable sense of life in terms of the sacred stories and sacraments of the box and the people in it.

One day in the box, the child-now-adult had a new-child in the box. The new-child was born prematurely and had special needs. At less than a year old, the new-child’s heart stopped; was restarted; and the new-child lived two more years in heart failure. During the new-child’s life, the child-now-adult tried to keep making sense of these new difficult experiences in terms of the stories of the box.

Just before its third birthday (and three weeks after the child-now-adult was ordained as a professional teller of the stories of the box), the new-child died.

And the walls of the box came tumbling down. The stories rang hollow. And they didn’t work anymore. The god and devil, the heaven and hell of the box had proved imaginary. With the death of the new-child, the child-now-adult newly minted as a professional teller of the stories of the box faced a dilemma.

The child-now-adult clung to the bare floorboards of the box for six more years. Going through the motions expected by box-dwellers of other box-dwellers. Observing the feasts, the festivals, the seasons of the box. Telling the stories and celebrating the sacraments of the box. But its experiences with the life and death of the new-child had changed the child-now-adult forever. It had seen the wider world. The world beyond the box. And had discovered that it is filled with people who embodied and practiced the love the child had been looking for all along.

One of the curious features of boxes is that prophets arise within them. Prophets that speak of reality transcending all boxes. Some of the prophets in the child’s box were Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus of Nazareth, and Mother Teresa. Other prophets in other boxes in the tree house included Siddhartha Gautama, Rumi, Ram Dass, Carl Sagan, Hafez, The Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates, Alan Watts, and others.

In order to continue as authentically as possible as a professional teller of the stories of the box, the child experimented clinging to the floorboards of the box by speaking less and less about metaphysics, the supernatural, and a personal deity and speaking more and more about the historical box-prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, his words and actions, and how he treated people.

This experiment worked for awhile. The box-dwellers were comfortable with Jesus. They had made him into a god so they would not feel so bad about not following his example as a human being. As the six years drew to a close, the child’s experiment telling stories about the human Jesus was about to run its course. The matrons and patrons of the box-congregation concluded the child was not aligned with box-priorities, box-culture, box-religion, and box-mores. So they pushed the child out as the professional storyteller of their box-congregation.

And the child experienced sadness and hurt and immense relief. It had been looking for a way out for awhile. The floorboards of the box in the tree house finally fell away and the child landed freely on the ground of the big wide world.

The ground of love. The ground of compassion. The ground of reality. Outside of the box. And the child began to experience more fully the love for which it had been searching its whole life. Many of the people outside the box are naturally welcoming having discovered that real human nature is grounded in love and compassion. They have learned this by embracing themselves as part of the interconnected web of everything. They were not welcome in boxes anyway.

The child didn’t reject the box outright, it just didn’t need it anymore. Whatever was true in the box is true in every other box and is still true in reality. Its just that what the box people think is true about the box are the things that make the box the box. Box truth is circular and designed to keep people imprisoned in the box. This constriction is not in harmony with an expansive reality.

No one really knows if there’s a god or goddesses or what will happen when they die. A personal deity is primarily a psychological device upon which people project their hopes, dreams, anxieties, and fears. Heaven and hell are not geographical locations in an afterlife; they are two ways people experience this life. Reality invites people to live with what is–as it is–recognizing that pain is a given; suffering is a choice.

In reality everything and everyone is sacred. Reality is always changing. Clinging to permanence is a source of suffering. The stories we tell ourselves in our own heads and in our collective boxes are just that: stories. They may be more or less useful as we use them in life-affirming or life-limiting ways.

Now the child practices living in the world as a beloved adult human being. Not knowing answers to ultimate questions; showing up with other people as they are; and acting with compassion. Being fluent in the language and story of the box it grew up in (as well as knowing some about several other boxes) serves the child well in its work of companioning people during difficult times.

But reality is not reducible to a language or a story or a box. Reality just is. With all its beauty and pain and mystery and uncertainty, reality is whatever happens. Reality is here for the embracing. Jump!

Love One Person

From Survival to Flourishing Through Narrative, Myth, and Story

Today I read a thoughtful article by Gregory Gronbacher on The Spiritual Naturalist Society blog entitled, “Religious Myth in Spiritual Naturalism”. In this post Gronbacher affirms that while observable reality may be best accessed through science and experience,

…humans encapsulate our core truths and find our meaning and place in the world through stories. The human person is a story-telling, metaphor-loving, symbol-making being for whom myth encapsulates information regarding fundamental, existential meaning. The human person relates on a psychological-spiritual level to stories, narratives, icons, and parables.

(I have written about Religion as Language and Story here and here.)

One of the greatest challenges to a widespread reasonable life-saving response during the COVID-19 pandemic has not been a shortage of facts and data about effective infection prevention measures, but rather the absence of a unifying narrative. However clear the science may be, facts and data do not have the power to persuade people like story does. Tragically, way too many people have died and will continue to die because of the unhelpful stories that are promulgated by members the US political right wing (e.g., “Mask ordinances infringe on my freedoms.” No. You are actually not free to kill people. Wearing a mask protects other people from you, not you from them.).

Gronbacher notes that in the absence of a unifying meta-narrative,

Our society is increasingly polarized, fragmented, and breaking into smaller, rival subcultures. * * * Only a story that rises to the level of religious significance, a narrative accompanied by symbol and even ritual participation and enactment has the power to be transformative and unitive.

So, what could it be? Probably not one of the existing religious, political, or philosophical meta-narratives that have dominated Western culture and society for at least the past 2,000 or 3,000 years. This is not because they are not good stories, or that they have lost their relevance completely, but rather they have had their turn as meta-narrative and been found wanting. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Capitalism, Communism, Fascism, Racism, Colonialism… The time for “isms” is over. The time for practicing compassion is now.

The Dalai Lama has been preaching this “gospel” for decades. His book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World articulates an universal ethic of human-kindness grounded in compassion of and for all sentient beings regardless of our “smaller rival subcultures”.

Reality is not only binary. There is not only either/or, right/left, yes/no, absolute/relative. There is another way. There is not only what is/what ought to be (and who gets to decide the “ought” anyway?). There is also the way of compassion.

Many spiritual adepts in both East and West have embodied and followed the way of compassion to a greater or lesser degree. And many common people–whether devout or with little use for organized religion–practice compassion in their ordinary lives every day.

In concert with the Dalai Lama Gronbacher offers “Evolution as Myth” in his article as the potential unifying meta-narrative for humanity in the twenty-first century.

The narrative of evolution explains our common origins, emphasizes interconnectedness, allows for claims of human dignity and the value of all life, and therefore reminds us of our universal responsibilities to each other and the environment which supports our life.

Gronbacher grounds a meaningful, universal ethic and an integrated spirituality of wholeness in the interconnectedness of everything and the inevitability of change concluding,

“Our own well-being ultimately depends on affirming nature and the well-being of others.”

Sounds like as universal an application of The Golden Rule as I’ve ever heard. Again, Gronbacher:

The resulting evolutionary spirituality has the potential to be an integral way of thinking and being in the world rooted in experience of nature, the seasons, and the progression of our own life grounded in the ongoing, unfolding of nature and the cosmos.

Slowing down. Paying attention. Being kind. Practicing compassion. To ourselves, to others, and ultimately to nature itself (After all, who do you think We Are?). This is the way. But what is the story? Who are the prophets, poets, musicians, and storytellers who will proclaim it? Human beings telling our collective–evolving–human story.

Love One Person

Agnostic Faith

I started this post over 2 years ago in May, 2018. A lot has happened since then both personally and globally. Here it is anyway.


Let’s wonder for a moment if there is something More than what is happening inside my brain and the brains of every other human being on the planet? (For an interesting if somewhat unsatisfactory dialog on this point, check out this debate on Intelligence Squared US: The More We Evolve, The Less We Need God.)

With the above, assumption in place, who or what is this More? The Force? God? A Supreme Being? Universal Consciousness? Collective Unconsciousness? The Universe itself?

The religions of the world each have their answers to this question, and their adherents will happily offer various truth claims appealing to sundry authorities. The Internet is rife with theories and opinions attempting to answer that question. You can plumb those depths elsewhere if you want to. My interest here is a pragmatic one. Is it ultimately helpful to have a clear definition of the More or not?

As with most things, the answer is probably, “It depends on who is asking the question.” Who is this person and what are their circumstances? So, let’s take Christianity as a religion and me as the person asking. If yet another white American questioning the religion of their upbringing in a highly nuanced fashion induces nausea, vomiting, or just yawns of boredom, I apologize. I’m writing this more for me than for you.

The Christian religion has specific dogmas about who God is. From the Hebrew Scriptures, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14), and “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) to Jesus in the New Testament who claims equality with Israel’s God in statements like, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:29-30.)

Of course, the recipients and custodians of these revelations went on to explain exactly what these statements mean and developed elaborate teachings to orient the lives of their followers around them. Bishops, priests, and emperors have met, reflected, argued, and debated for centuries over who God is and what this means for the rest of us. Creeds such as the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian codify the majority winning views for Christians in defining who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and what God does as creating, redeeming, sanctifying.

It is unfair to allege that a relationship with a deity is solely based on desire for reward or fear of punishment. The Fathers of the Church have taught that a better way to relate to God is not as a mercenary (desiring reward) nor as a slave (fearing punishment) but as a child (one who loves God and is loved by God). Nevertheless, is it necessary to know exactly who the God is one is loved by? I’m not sure anymore. In fact, I suspect not.

Here’s why. Because of the way people in religion have used God and dogma as means to exercise power over others (both believers and infidels). So, even if one trusts in God as love, one must fear the religious power brokers and the ramifications of dissenting from official teaching: being put out of the group. Branded a heretic. This may enforce conformity of teaching and behavior in the group, but it does not promote human flourishing. It is not freedom to explore the often uncharted territory of loving and being loved wherever that may lead.

That kind of freedom would invite chaos. Letting people experience love and modeling relationships of love for each other and especially for people outside the group. Someone has said, “The church is the only society that exists for those who are not yet members.” (Attr. William Temple.) Two thoughts on this: 1) If this is true, it is most frequently interpreted as a recruitment to come and be like the people already in the church. 2) Many in the church don’t care about people outside the church anyway.

God centered religion leads ironically to people playing God–our problem in the first place–in their attempts to defend God. God-centered religion makes God inhuman and permits humans to behave inhumanely in God’s name (e.g., The Crusades, Westboro Baptist Church, White Supremacy, and the anti LGBTQ lobby).

Human-centered religion embraces God as for humanity. A God becoming a human being. God taking the side of humanity in the person of Jesus. That means human beings are invited to take the side of humanity too. Human freedom and human flourishing. Which leads to chaos and the messiness of relationships and real people in flesh and bones with real problems and needs and beauty and love.

The fundamentalist religion I grew up in was more interested in conformity in doctrine (and often in behavior) than in loving and serving actual human beings. They use an over-explicit definition of who God is and what God wants (or “what is pleasing to God”) to influence their members.

This is not how Jesus of Nazareth behaved. At all.

A fundamental insight of Bill Wilson and those in the 12 Step Movement is the absolute necessity of a Higher Power and the absolute necessity that this Higher Power be defined by each person according to their own understanding (See, Steps 2, 3, and 11). In other words, what is important in helping alcoholics get sober is a spiritual power greater than themselves, but it doesn’t really matter who or what that power is.

The first and foremost admission in the path to sobriety is, “I am not God” (Step 1). Then a coming to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity whoever or whatever that Power may be (Step 2). Next a turning over of our will and life to the care of God as we understood God (Step 3). Whether this is the Deity of the Abrahamic Faiths, the Buddha, Jesus, the Force, Universal Consciousness, Shiva, the Natural Universe, or the gestalt of humanity’s collective goodwill doesn’t actually make that much difference.


Today (June, 2020) I am one person becoming human. While I still draw much inspiration from the words and deeds of human Jesus, I have left organized religion. I embrace an agnostic and nontheistic practice of compassion in loving and serving actual human beings who ever they are and whatever they may believe. Including myself.

Love One Person