In 2010 the Philadelphia Weekly gave a shout out to the NA group that meets in our building. The headline: Best Place to Embrace Punch-Drunk Love.
The shout out: “We can’t think of many Narcotics Anonymous meetings that are more enjoyable to hang out at on a Friday night than the neighborhood bar. The Eleventh Hour, however, which convenes at the South Philly Circle of Hope church, is just that. Every Friday at about 10:45 p.m., the same sort of tattooed and bike-obsessed hipsters you may have gotten drunk with congregate outside the church’s front door. The meeting itself happens in a wide-open gallery-like space that’s illuminated by dozens of flickering votive candles, and after most meetings a small group retires to the nearby Melrose Diner [now they can go to Broad St. which is run by the Melrose people]. The Eleventh Hour, by the way, is known in N.A. parlance as an “open meeting,” which means that even non-addicts are welcome to attend. It might be something to consider when you’re making your wild-night weekend plans.”
I had no wild-night plans one Friday so I finally got to a meeting. I was impressed. I was moved. I want to be friends.
It seemed like a very large attendance for Friday night at 11pm: about seventy people! As soon as I walked in two of them hugged me. Many others entered to the same unfettered affection. The chairperson was orderly and friendly. All the basic NA statements were laminated and various people read the 12 Traditions, How it Works (the 12 steps) and other material. A woman made a rather long, articulate speech to tell her story. People were moved by what she said and responded enthusiastically with their own stories. There was lots of honesty and vulnerability. The love, generosity, affirmation and openness in the room was impressive. The fact that they have home groups, took an offering and called for commitment was also impressive. I was impressed that we were having church without Jesus! – at least Circle of Hopish church.
For some reason I thought the AA, NA, Al-Anon, OA, etc. groups were trying to not be too religious. I was not paying attention. While I was planting a church, they were planting a church, too. They were planting a spiritual movement! Not long ago a convict went to court to prove that NA was religious. A circuit court judge reversed a lower court ruling and said, “The state has impermissibly coerced inmates to participate in a religious program” by forcing drug addicts to attend NA meetings in prison. The court says they are religious — must be true, right?
I love how the NA people act and I love the results of their religious movement, but I am not sure I like what they think (at least what people say they think). I recently caught up on the development of AA spirituality by reading a book called The Spirituality of Imperfection. The good thing about this spirituality is that it faces up to everyone’s inability to live up to the societal image of the perfect person who is self-controlled, self-sufficient, and a paragon of physical and emotional health. They have unmasked the demand that everyone be a person who can rapidly accumulate material possessions while simultaneously increasing mastery of the world around him or her. They rightly say that such people try to “play God.” The authors say that “trying to be perfect is the most tragic human mistake.” That sounds like a sound bite from a few many of my speeches, doesn’t it? Maybe we should call the PM the “Seventh Hour.”
Accepting imperfection is possibly the greatest truth behind NA spirituality. We need a “higher power.” But postmodern philosophy, like that behind AA and NA, often seems to unwittingly substitute something like “imperfection” and the philosophy of it as a new anti-coercive coercion. They put it down in twelve steps and convince you to “follow them or you’ll relapse!” (and they were just trying to get away from “don’t sin or you’ll go to hell!”). Their depersonalization of spirituality (“God” is a “higher power;” everything is in quotation marks waiting for you to decide what the words really mean to you) turns “spirituality” into another modernistic ideology without admitting it.
Besides, how did someone miss that accepting one’s imperfection was basic to Christianity? It’s not like this is a new spirituality. What’s more, Anabaptist groups from the 1500s could be considered early adopters of what NA calls the “spirituality of imperfection,” rejecting the proto-modernism of the reformation, living in what amounts to 12-step groups, and forming a theology complete with an emphasis on what amounts to steps three (We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him) , seven (We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings), and eight (We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all). It looks like NA finally caught up with the Anabaptist reaction against European Christianity, which became as controlling as the empire it replaced. I’m not trying to do the book justice, but that’s some of why I can’t say I altogether like what’s going on.
That being quibbled, the point about imperfection remains a good one and seemed useful to the participants. They could tell stories about how releasing control was a daily, good struggle. The meeting I attended reflected much of the best of what NA spirituality is all about. It was emotional, relational and openly spiritual without being oppressive. There was a recognition, it seemed, that there would be no “magic,” but that there was the potential for “miracle.” There was potential, as Jung wrote to Bill W. that “Spirit could overcome spirits” (that is, alcohol). The miracle was happening in all those stories they told. The NA meeting focuses on “story” just like our cells do (and just like the Bible does!). The storytelling creates community, builds mentalizing and gives a context for experiencing recovery, just like it makes a place for us to grow up in Christ. Our transformation point is coming to know Jesus, theirs is entering a commitment to sobriety. But we are all talking about what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.
I love that, as the authors of the book say, “the language of recovery that is storytelling involves not dogma, or commandment, not things to be done or truths to be believed, not theory, conjecture, argument, analysis, or explanation, but a way of conversation shared by those who identify with their own imperfection.” That is very Christian. And it is very Circle of Hope. We are always bent on conveying an experience rather than merely teaching concepts. I think the risen Lord is very interested in filling us with the Spirit so we are experiencing the grace of God expressed to us in Jesus. Lots of people in our NA group seem to be right there, too. I love that. I am not sure I like the movement’s attempts to muddy that up and leave Jesus out. But let’s be friends.