A Higher Power

Thinking theologically about addiction, recovery, and being Not-God

by Katie Givens Kime

Why would anybody make the decision to self-poison? Over and over again?

Most of us agree that addiction (chronic abuse of alcohol or drugs, or compulsive overeating, sex or gambling) is an enormous problem. One recent estimate cited nearly 23 million Americans—9.2 percent of the population age 12 or older—as being hooked on alcohol or drugs. According to the American Medical Association, alcoholism is America’s third largest health problem, following heart disease and cancer. This doesn’t count the vast array of other abused substances.

Addiction is a problem, but what is it exactly? Answers can be complicated. Is addiction a disease? A sin? An inherited vulnerability? A disordered choice (picking short-term goods over long-term goods)? A compulsion or bad habit? Is addiction really a botched attempt at self-medication? Or is it self-destruction?

As you might guess, the answer is “yes.” Researchers use various models to understand addiction: medical, psychological, behavioral, neurological, and social. The best researchers value more than one model. For Christians, theological models of addiction play a fascinating and important role, both for our own understanding of addiction and for how theology is crucial in the wider societal quest to better understand and treat one of the most persistent and difficult of human afflictions.

A Surprising Power

First, a quick theological and biblical primer. Many Christian explorations of addiction start with Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he so famously writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). If we’re honest, who among us can fail to recognize ourselves in that passage? We’ve all watched ourselves do deeds, large or small, that another part of us judges to be a bad, dangerous, silly, or odd choice.  What Paul describes here is the surprising power of his “sinful part.” In biblical scholarship through the decades, Paul has been invoked to describe our wrenching experience of inner division—including addiction—that awful, gnawing, all-consuming desire for an ultimately destructive substance or behavior. But along came theologian Krister Stendahl in 1963, who maintained that Paul, in Romans, isn’t really telling about his plagued conscience or confessing his contrition. Rather, he is confident about his personal strength; it’s just that darned invasive alien force of sin that is giving him fits. This did not suffice for that other “force” of Western Christianity, St. Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine had his own notorious addictions, mostly sexual compulsivity. Yet Augustine was the one rightly credited with realizing that the inner division we feel is between different parts of ourselves. It’s a part of me who makes wrong choices, rather than a not me outside force who makes wrong choices.

This may seem like splitting hairs, but the difference is important. Augustine wanted badly to know why in the world he committed sins he knew were wrong, and he wanted to stop. The answer he kept hearing was “just try harder” or ”educate yourself more” or “try this new diet or technique.” If he did these things, Augustine would be able to “get control of himself.”

Getting total control of himself was exactly what Augustine finally, in an enormous epiphany, realized he could not do. For so long as a young adult, he resisted belief in God. But at “rock bottom,” Augustine realized he was not total master of his destiny and that he needed God.

A Higher Power

From northern Africa in 386, fast-forward to New York City in 1934. Hospitalized for yet another round of detox after running his family, career, life and body into the gutter, Bill Wilson had a similar conversion experience: “[F]inally it seemed to me as though I were at the bottom of the pit. I still gagged badly on the notion of a Power greater than myself, but finally, just for the moment, the last vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed. All at once I found myself crying out, ‘If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!’” Like Augustine, Bill Wilson was smart and well-educated, with most every privilege one could have. Yet he had tried “everything” to control his drinking, and consistently, spectacularly failed.

“Bill W.” rose from his knees and never needed detox again. As eventual founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), he continued to have plenty to say about the alcoholic’s (addict’s) need for God. He once described alcoholism as “a vain attempt to drink God out of a bottle.”

Indeed, Ernest Kurtz’s widely-respected history of AA is appropriately titled Not-God, because “Not-God” and “You are not God” are what Kurtz names as the single most prominent message of the 12-step programs. The core of AA is found in its first two steps: unless alcoholics are willing to admit powerlessness over alcoholism, and that only a Power greater than themselves can restore them to “sanity,” they cannot reach recovery. Any veteran of 12-step groups will recognize the kitschy but enduring 12-step slogans of the same theme:

“E.G.O. is Edging God Out.”

“The only thing that I need to know about God is that I’m not it.”

“If God is your copilot, switch seats.”

“Is your program powered by Will Power or Higher Power?”

Authority is a key concept here. Over what do we have power? “Alcoholism is, among other things, a disease of authority … phantom authority is arrogated to the self, and a potent illusion of control is contrived to maintain the false edifice,” wrote Edmund O’Reilly, one of Wilson’s biographers. Similarly, theologian and recovering alcoholic James B. Nelson wrote, “It is all very contradictory. During much of my active disease, the more I used alcohol, the less free I became, but the freer I thought I was”—until too many crises forced Nelson to admit he was most certainly not in control of his drinking.

“I can stop anytime” is the textbook cliché of any addict in denial. The addict, by definition, must use the substance to perpetuate the feeling of control over any emotional experience he or she might have. Indeed, recent psychoanalytic clinical research has proposed that an inner omnipotence is a universal component of any addiction; the substance being abused is the addict’s way to avoid feeling unbearable feelings.

However, you need not look long or hard to find an addict resistant to the “God thing” in 12-step programs. Arguably the biggest obstacle to conventional study of 12-step programs is also the component that most distinguishes them from other recovery methods: without exception, such programs are considered spiritual fellowships, not self-help groups, nor mutual-help groups, nor even treatment methods. Though firmly disassociated with any religious tradition, denomination or sect, 12-step programs bear the imprint of Christian theology, and demand a profession of faith in a Higher Power of the addict’s choosing and understanding. The central role of this metaphysical claim of theism, and an understanding that healing from the ravages of addiction comes only through and in participation with a Higher Power, makes 12-step programs untenable for many chronic substance abusers, and even many therapists and treatment providers.

Faced with the now conclusive and empirical research of 12-step programs’ overwhelming success, critics say that it is despite the “religion” and “forced confession of powerlessness” and “breaking of self-esteem” that 12-step programs work.  These critics point to the enormous impact of social support, building of coping skills, and, ironically, increased sense of self-efficacy as reasons for 12-step success. As any recovering addict will attest, all of these are important components. But these critiques miss the significant theological nuance of 12-step: paradox. Some scholars who overall applaud and appreciate 12-step programs also criticize how the principles and philosophies are oversimplified, when actually they are quite elegantly nuanced and complex.

I once had the unexpected task of explaining, to a renowned neurophilosopher, how 12-step programs strike a balance between human agency and the omnipotence of God. He was perplexed, and asked politely, “Well, do these people in recovery think they are in control of anything? That God magically floated them to the door of the meeting?” What a great question, one over which Christians (and certainly theologians) have wrestled for centuries! The 12-step approach seeks to hold the paradox of “will power” and “Higher Power,” a spiritually, philosophically, and cognitively difficult task for any of us. Paradoxically, admitting my powerlessness is the first step in my assumption of my own responsibility.  Psychologist Stephanie Brown explains, “AA members … had to lose in order to win; they had to admit defeat and then surrender in order to win … It is this very notion, the essential step in moving into recovery, that is foreign or distasteful to most individuals who value control.” And who doesn’t value some control?

One 12-step mantra is “my disease is not my fault, but it’s my fault if I don’t take care of myself.” In addiction, the critical but maybe subtle difference is understanding the difference between some degree of (probably unconscious) omnipotence—“I’ve totally got myself under control”—and taking responsibility for myself, which includes knowing what I can and cannot pretend to manage. I take responsibility for my disease (alcoholism, addiction, and so on), which includes lack of control over the abused substance.

A Healing Power

The “disease” concept in 12-step models is not without problems, though. Critics are scathing about its non-medical foundation, and how it is one more way in which 12-step promotes a victim mentality. Real and important advances in neuroscientific research on addiction, including new pharmacological treatment options, make it even easier for an addict to say, “I can’t help it; it’s my neurology.” However, this is what AA veterans call “stinking thinking,” and a majority of reputable neuroscientists would agree.

Besides neuroscience, there are other newly emerging cultural trends that can be twisted into the “stinking thinking” of addiction. As a term, “addiction” seemingly means both everything and nothing in modern usage. Popular culture mediums tell us we are addicted to gluten, work, power, and our smartphones. But as clinician David E. Schoen points out, “If everything is an addiction, then nothing is an addiction, and the term becomes so overused, generalized and watered down it becomes meaningless and of no use in a clinical sense to help describe and understand the phenomenon.”

Again, theological notions helpfully contribute. Addiction physician Dr. Gerald May saw the conceptual broadening of addiction as a good thing. In his landmark book, Addiction and Grace, May wrote that addiction is “any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire,” and his solution is unabashedly theological: “Understanding will not deliver us from addiction, but it will, I hope, help us appreciate grace. Grace is the most powerful force in the universe. It can transcend repression, addiction and every other internal or external power that seeks to oppress the freedom of the human heart.” Amen!

Addiction is so pervasive and seemingly intractable a public health problem, destroying so many lives, both of the addicts and those who love them. In a time when it is increasingly easier to talk about therapy rather than theology, 12-step programs bridge an important gap. Christian ethicist William McDonough proposes that the theological “rediscovery” that AA brings to modern discourse is the ability to engage in “sin-talk”: that indeed, “to be cut off from God in mortal sin is to have become powerless over parts of our lives … AA has bridged the divide about sin-talk, giving us an approach to human failure and its healing that is both therapeutic and theological.”

Indeed, every one of us, whether actively abusing a substance or not, can receive immense spiritual and theological gifts from “working the steps” of 12-step spiritual fellowships. At the very least, we can take seriously the power of addiction to hold people captive and, as psychiatrist and priest Christopher Cook puts it, recognize the extent to which we ourselves are held captive by similar powers. In doing so, we reduce the stigma of those struggling with addiction. And, as “not-God,” we do a little better job of giving grateful glory to the One who is.

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