How a seemingly innocent wording change undermines the point of having a Higher Power.
In at least half of the 12-step meetings I attend at some point I hear some say something about “the God of my understanding” or “the Higher Power of my understanding.” Non-theists in general and Buddhist non-theists in particular often want to focus or debate on whether there is a theistic or even Christian bias of 12-step programs. However, to focus only on the “God-language” of such statements misses what I believe is a more important and meaningful problem in the use of such language. Namely, the “of my” of “of my understanding.”
The off-stated reason people use the phrase “the God of my understanding” is that it seems to avoid sectarianism. One uses the phrase “the God of my understanding” to denote that it is ones own God, but that you need not accept him (her? it?). Essentially, I may be referring to the Protestant god, but you’re free to substitute the Jewish god, Muslim god, or anyone of the 330 million Hindu gods.
At best, this “invitation to substitution” connotes a commonality or even universality amongst us. Essentially, while we all have different gods, my god and your god play the same role. Further, it enables participants to share elements of their own spirituality with each other without the appearance of proselytizing.
On a personal and individual level, however, it encourages and instills a narcissistic and stunted spirituality. To understand this point it is useful to recall the language that the “Big Book” of AA uses to achieve this commonality. Nowhere in the “Big Book” do they use the phrase “of my understanding.” Instead, the phrase is “as we understand him.” Comparing the two phrases side by side, one can readily see a difference in emphasis. In the AA phrase “god” or “higher power” is central. Essentially, god or the higher power is what he or she is, independent of my thoughts about him or her, and when I use the phrase “god as I understand him” I am acknowledging both that my understanding is likely limited and may in fact be imperfect or flawed. Thus, importantly, when I use that phrase I am really talking about myself, my understanding.
In contrast, the commonly used phrase places god or the higher power in a subservient position to the speaker. When on says “the god of my understanding” the source of god or the higher power is seen as within the speaker. Note that commonality is not actually achieved by this wording. You have the god of YOUR understanding and I have the god of MY understanding and the twain shall never meet.
Further, because the god “of my understanding” originates in me, I am not possibly incorrect. Just as MY idea of a perfect day is MY idea, as an idea it is complete and beyond critique. I have a perfect understanding of MY idea. Thus, further growth is bot impossible and unnecessary.
This stands in stark contrast to the AA formula which begins with implied recognition that this is ONLY my understanding and the truth stands apart from it. This isn’t to say that my understanding is necessarily wrong, simply that it may be wrong. Of even more value, it implies that while this is how I understand god now, I am open to growth. In essence, this is god as I understand him or her NOW.
One may argue that I am nit-picking. That I know what they meant even if they said it unartfully. While I agree that one should alway listen to others with a principle of charity, understanding them in the best light possible, words do matter. When one repeatedly talks of spirituality in these self-focused terms I don’t think that it is a true spirituality. If “god” (be it him, her or it) is merely OF ME, then I truly am the actual higher power. Further, if my knowledge is complete and unassailable, no one else has anything real to offer.
Finally, the use of the common phrase creates a problem of habituation. If one continuously uses certain language to describe something then that description becomes one’s reality. Thus, if I always describe god as having a white beard, I habituate myself to that conception til no other image makes sense. We do this all the time. For instance, I liked Daniel Craig in the latest James Bond films, but frankly he isn’t Sean Connery and thus to me, he isn’t really Bond. So, if one habituates oneself, through language, to god (or whatever) being of me, then in time no other god feels right, and no other conception or understanding is acceptable.
However, when one habituates oneself to spiritual language that always carries with it the implication that ones understanding is incomplete one develops an openness to further learning and growth. After all, isn’t that what walking a spiritual path is really all about.