Deepening the Discussion on Addiction

By Kent Dunnington

Recent years have witnessed a massive growth of research on addiction. When the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies was moved to Rutgers University in 1962, it was the only research institution of its kind. Today, approximately one hundred addiction research centers are housed at major universities across the United States. Most of the work is being done by natural and social scientists. Theologians have written comparatively little on addiction, philosophers even less.

In short, efforts to understand and ameliorate addictive behavior have been unnecessarily limited by scientific accounts of addiction. In particular, because so much of the public discourse on addiction is conducted in scientifically reductive terms, many Christians who rightly sense the spiritual significance of addiction are unable to articulate this significance in theologically substantive ways. Such a theological articulation can be provided by attending to three broad theses.

First, that philosophical analysis of human action is required to clear up many of the conceptual confusions that plague the discourse of addiction studies. Within that discourse, addiction is construed as either a disease or a type of willful choice. Neither of those categories is adequate to the phenomenon of addiction. For instance, the disease concept obscures the extent to which persons may be expected to take responsibility for their addictions, and the choice concept obscures the distinctiveness of the addictive experience. Alternatively, the category of “habit” is indispensable for charting an intelligible path between the muddled polarities of “disease” and “choice,” permitting us to describe addiction in a non-contradictory way, without doing violence to the testimonies of persons with addictions.

Human persons develop habits in order to facilitate the pursuit of specific human goods. Thus, if addiction is appropriately characterized as a type of human habit, we may ask about the specific kinds of goods that draw human persons into habits of addiction. This is a strange way of speaking; we are so gripped by the destructive effects of addiction that we are not accustomed to considering its constructive appeal.

Secondly, I think that the prevalence and power of addiction indicates the extent to which a society fails to provide non-addictive modes of acquiring certain kinds of goods necessary to human welfare. Addiction is therefore an embodied critique of the culture which sustains it, and is therefore a peculiarly modern habit that can be viewed as a mirror reflecting back to us aspects of modern culture that we tend to overlook or suppress. Persons with severe addictions are in a sense contemporary prophets that we ignore to our own demise, for they show us who we truly are.

Christians must heed prophets. Christians, therefore, are called to appropriately describe the addictive experience and to consider how the church may be complicit in the production of a culture of addiction.

Finally, the theological category of sin is an inextricable element of addiction, and can only deepen and extend our understanding of addiction. Addiction is not identical to sin, but neither can it be separated from sin. The power of addiction cannot be adequately appraised until addiction is understood as a misguided enactment of our quest for right relationship with God. Thus, although it is true that the church has much to learn from “recovery groups” such as Alcoholics Anonymous, it is also true that the church has much to offer to the recovery movement and indeed to all of us who struggle with addiction.

Therefore, I believe that any theological treatment of sin must contain these three elements if we are to both help those who struggle with addiction, even these prophets both remind us of the vast areas of darkness within the deepest dimensions of our own souls, and serve as agents of warning to a culture that in many respects continues to spiral out of control.

written by Kent Dunnington, Assistant Professor, Greenville College