Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), founded by Bill Wilson, has been in the spotlight this summer, as the organization celebrates its 75th anniversary. An article by David Brooks, “Bill Wilson’s Gospel” (The New York Times, June 29, 2010), stood out for me, because of some surprising similarities between A.A. and Christian Science. I don’t mean to suggest the two are wholly alike, of course, but rather to use Mr. Brooks’ analysis of A.A. as a stepping-off point for sharing some facts about Christian Science, a system intended to meet all human needs.
Mr. Brooks describes the night when Bill Wilson, an alcoholic struggling in a New York City detox facility, cried out to God in desperation and felt God’s presence. “’It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing,’ [Wilson] testified later. ‘And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.’”
Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science, wrote, “Slavery is not the legitimate state of man. God made man free.” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures)
Wilson went on to found Alcoholics Anonymous, and Mr. Brooks uses A.A. as a springboard for examining what we can learn from it, not only about addiction, but, in his words, “about changing behavior more generally.” He enumerates some of the lessons gleaned from A.A.:
“In a culture that generally celebrates empowerment and self-esteem, A.A. begins with disempowerment. The goal is to get people to gain control over their lives, but it all begins with an act of surrender and an admission of weakness.”
This seeming contradiction — i.e., gaining control by surrendering — has a parallel in Christian Science, which involves letting go of the human ego and relinquishing a false sense of personal control by surrendering to the one Ego, God.
“In a culture that thinks of itself as individualistic, A.A. relies on fellowship. The general idea is that people aren’t really captains of their own ship. Successful members become deeply intertwined with one another — learning, sharing, suffering and mentoring one another. Individual repair is a social effort.”
This hearkens to church membership. Christian Scientists join in a worldwide movement, standing shoulder to shoulder with other Christian Scientists, taking a stand for spiritual healing — for salvation through the Christ in our understanding of one infinite, good God and as members of “His universal family, held in the gospel of Love.” (Science and Health) In our branch churches, we strive to learn from one another as we share our experiences of healing, thereby uplifting the community and “elevating the race” (Science and Health) as Mary Baker Eddy defined the spiritual sense of church demonstrated in human experience.
“In a world in which gurus try to carefully design and impose their ideas, Wilson surrendered control. He wrote down the famous steps and foundations, but A.A. allows each local group to form, adapt and innovate…. A.A. is decentralized, innovative and dynamic.”
Mary Baker Eddy specifically and repeatedly endeavored to turn all focus and attention away from herself, personally, alert to the pitfalls of human personality or celebrity. She defined The Mother Church as unique, with branches that operate democratically, giving local members both the responsibility and the privilege of working together harmoniously to keep their hearts and minds — and thereby their church doors — open to the world. I think it is fair to say that Christian Scientists aim for local Sunday Schools, Reading Rooms, and lectures that could be described as “decentralized, innovative and dynamic.”
Mr. Brooks concludes with this remarkable description of Wilson’s goal:
“But instead of addressing that problem [of addiction]…, Wilson set out to change people’s whole identities…. His group would help people achieve broad spiritual awakenings, and abstinence from alcohol would be a byproduct of that larger salvation.”
In answer to the question, “Is healing the sick the whole of Science?” Mary Baker Eddy replied, “Healing physical sickness is the smallest part of Christian Science…. The emphatic purpose of Christian Science is the healing of sin; …to save [mortals] from sin through Christ, spiritual Truth and Love, which redeem them, and become their Saviour, through the flesh, from the flesh, — the material world and evil.” (Rudimental Divine Science)
Mr. Brooks’ column is his response to the needs of his fellowman — those struggling to rise above addiction, illness, sorrow, financial difficulties, and relationship issues. As a Christian Science practitioner, I, too, yearn to help others claim their God-given right to freedom. The editors of The New York Times find this subject worthy of a column, because it suggests they recognize the crying need all around us and want to respond to it.
For 75 years, people in New York and elsewhere have turned to A.A. for answers and found relief from addiction — and maybe more. For over a century, New Yorkers and others have found relief from life’s challenges and improved lives through the system that Mary Baker Eddy founded — Christian Science.