Many of us are concerned about addiction, but struggle clinically and theologically to understand the phenomenon. To the family member, employer, or friend, it looks perplexing at best, and is often experienced as hurtful betrayal or outright defiance of a covenanted relationship. Civic society and social institutions have similarly wrestled with conceptualizations of addicted behavior as disobedience: legal proceedings have too often labeled sufferers as “criminal”; the pious decry a sufferer’s “sinful” presentation.
Contemporary medical and behavioral health sciences point to neurological and animal studies (sic) which illuminate the peculiar dislocation of compulsory behavior from intellectual control when a use disorder is present. This scientific insight is corroborated in the testimony of many who are addicted. They report knowing that they should not act in a certain way but feeling as if they watch themselves, almost at a distance, nonetheless take the needle and complete the ritual of injection, use, purchase, or other completion. This is explained by experts from the National Institute on Drug Abuse as a “hijacking” of the “choice” mechanism of the brain. They believe that a rupture of healthier intellectual/behavioral coordination is visible on brain scans of persons who are addicted.
Although the Hebrew and Christian canons have little in the way of a theology of addiction per se, these wisdom traditions historically interpreted what today is thought of as illness instead as the influence of demonic presence. The healing of an epileptic, the casting of demons into a herd of animals, the freeing of a paralyzed individual: these familiar gospel miracle stories share a testimony to the power of the divine to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, and evidence God’s power for life over and against sin, sickness, evil, and death.
Having had the privilege of working for over a decade as a clinical spiritual care provider in residential addictions treatment, I have watched addiction and “recovery” through this dual lens: neuroscientific and theological. Rather than seeing these paradigms for addiction and its remission as competitive, I have come to view them as complementary.
Acute withdrawal, while having a biochemical basis, is also experienced as torment. The addicted person who finds themselves experiencing a day without using will often speak about this as an extraordinary or even miraculous event. Words that echo theological themes of bondage-and-release, captivity-and-freedom, and peril-into-rescue are interwoven with descriptions of their symptoms of anxiety, depression, tremors, cravings, compulsions, and their counterparts: serenity, joy, wellness, sobriety, being “clean.”
While ancient practices of exorcism that involved incantation, anointing, laying on of hands, ritual bathing, or other ritual practice may seem “magical” or “hopelessly antiquated” to the present-day clinician, I join with many in the clinical and recovery traditions to place some degree of faith and confidence in the value and effectiveness of spiritual practice and ritual experience as elements which can contribute meaningfully to the healing journey of individuals, families, and social circles infected and affected by addiction.
Carl Jung’s correspondence with AA co-founder Bill Wilson is fascinating in this regard. If one explores the case history of their mutual acquaintance, Rowland H, both Dr. Jung and Mr. Wilson celebrate this individual’s release from active addiction and interpret it to some extent as a victory of “spirit vs. spirits.”
Many ask today what faith communities and persons of faith can do as we observe technology, substances, marketing, and relationships offer individuals countless ways of entering into addictive or quasi-addictive dependence. A theology of takeover and a neuroscience of “hijacking” informs this question. We can seek to leverage the power of spiritual practices and faith communities to provide authentic, loving, and potent presence to persons in their suffering. We can strive to move out of shaming and blaming interpretations of the behavior of those who are truly incapable of exercising the power of reason and “making better choices.” Return to or new establishment of safe, covenanted relationships can be a part of our vision of safe refuge for those whose brains have been taken hostage.
Finally, there can be value found in seeing this challenge as broad and complex – a human individual and social experience allowing multiple interpretive frameworks. Perfection or simple binary thinking is probably short-sighted or the imposition of a wish that distorts reality. The recovery communities and traditions have enlarged the “one day at a time” formula. Today, persons in their healing are learning to celebrate victories one moment, one breath, one “next right thing” at a time.
As beings who cultivate allegiances and thrive only in the context of relationship, recovery from addiction manifests as transferred allegiance and deepened relationship. Loving one another, as God has loved us, is one of the simple formulas of the Christian witness. May we find strength to support one another and move ourselves in that simple direction.
Rev. Jack Abel
Rev. Jack Abel is an ordained UCC chaplain who serves as the “Senior Director of Spiritual Care” for Caron Treatment Centers, headquartered in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. He holds both a Master of Divinity and an MBA, and serves on the board of directors of the UCC Mental Health Network.