Episode 273: Higher and Friendly Powers

Is it possible that the “higher power” concept that animates Bill W.’s framework for Alcoholics Anonymous is based on an overly narrow reading of William James, a preeminent psychologist and intellectual giant of the early 20th century? On this episode of The Beyond Belief Sobriety Podcast, author Peg O’Connor unpacks a compelling theory as well as insights from her new book, “Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering.”

Many people don’t naturally resonate with the Christian-centric God at the heart of AA and enshrined in the 12 steps. Although William James used “higher power” language, his writings actually reflect a broader, more inclusive and nuanced view of spirituality. He may have deployed the term “reborn” in the context of addiction, but Peg believes it was meant to describe joyful, transformational recovery – not a specific or confining religious experience.

A professor of philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College, Peg offers an alternative view for those who have struggled with the concept of powerlessness as a first step towards recovery. If you yearn for healing and community but feel uncomfortable with – or even alienated by – mandates to surrender, this is a thought-provoking invitation to reframe every step towards sobriety as an expansive process of engagement and self-discovery. 

Key Takeaways

  • How the “higher power” concept, with its echoes of her Catholic upbringing, kept Peg from participating in AA when she initially sought help as a 19-year-old college student. 
  • Twenty years into her sobriety, Peg decided to try AA again in the interest of staying engaged with her recovery and enjoyed opening up new conversations, even though she still found the concept of powerlessness unsettling.
  • John shares his own experience with AA’s more spiritual elements and the ways in which he has processed it through the years.
  • Peg shares context for her forthcoming book about William James (“Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering”) and the formative role James played in Bill W.’s conversion experience, and conception of AA.
  • Key facts about William James:
    • William was the brother of the eminent 19th century author Henry James as well as Alice James, a well-known feminist thinker.
    • All the James siblings suffered from a nervous temperament.
    • William was a trained psychologist, physician and philosopher who felt helpless in the face of a younger brother’s severe alcoholism.
    • William grew up with an expansive sense of religion and looked upon faith as intrinsic to life and not attributable to an external force. Actions mattered.
  • Peg reflects on a potential AA paradigm shift away from religious practice to a broader faith-based centering that embraces strengths as well as moral defects.
  • There can be a certain element of passivity in active alcoholism that Peg feels is mirrored in some of the AA tenets that focus definitively on a surrender to God.
  • For women in particular the notion of surrender can be freighted with disempowering social and historical forces against which the fight is ongoing.
  • Peg offers an alternative framework to surrender and powerlessness, substituting instead a self-proclaimed renouncement that offers more agency.
  • Faith in free will opens up space for individuals to flourish, moving from merely surviving to shifting the terms on which we live life.
  • William James used the term “reborn” but within the context of joyful, transformational recovery, not religious experience.
  • Peg teases out human nature’s impulse towards spirituality, a sense of something universal beyond ourselves that for many transcends Christianity.
  • Why Bill Wilson’s story very likely reflected some “over-belief” in standard Christian assumptions that came to underpin his 12 steps.
  • William James was ahead of his time in his understanding of just how expansive a “higher power” can be, far beyond limited Christian narratives.
  • “Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering” is written especially for addicts (and others) who struggle with the notion of God as a providential being without whose intercession we cannot recover.
  • Self-knowledge forms the basis for the true stability of character, freedom from old grievances and abiding gratitude to which William James (and Bill W.) aspired.

Memorable Quotes

 “I believe I make my own character, so it isn’t for some providential God to change my character. I’m responsible.” (Peg)

“When people feel they have reasons not to belong (in the AA program), that’s a problem.” (Peg)

“Physics traffics in faith as much as any discipline. So physicists makes hypotheses about things that can’t yet be proved. They become foundational and only later do they prove it.” (Peg)

“Faith (for William James) is a kind of working hypothesis. That’s all it is. There’s no special kind of religious faith. Faith is just that willingness to live on a maybe or possibility.” (Peg)

“(The idea that) my powerlessness over alcohol extends to everything else in my life, that’s the leap I couldn’t make. The language of surrender … always has negative connotations. When you surrender you’re forced to give up something.” (Peg)

“Renouncing is a very active thing to do and it’s proactive. It looks forward and says, ‘I don’t want to be that kind of person anymore.’ It opens up possibility.” (Peg)

“It’s a kind of violence to try to make someone else’s spiritual beliefs fit into your own framework or deny spiritual experiences because they don’t fit your framework.” (Peg)

“Self-knowledge is one of the most important things we need to have in life. You better know yourself because if you don’t, people will tell you who you are and how you should be.” (Peg)

Further Resources

About Our Guest

Peg O’Connor is a Professor of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN, recovering alcoholic of 34 years, and author of “Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering” (Wildhouse Publications, 2022) and Life on the Rocks: Finding Meaning in Addiction and Recovery (Central Recovery Press, 2016). She writes the column “Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken” for psychologytoday.com.

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