Theology & Other Faith Traditions
If faith is a critical ingredient for the healing of addiction, how do addiction & faith intersect? How does faith help with addiction? How does the Bible view addiction? If faith is critical in the role of healing why do so many afflicted with addiction have to look outside the church for help? Why are so many finding the help they need in 12-Step groups rather than the church? Shouldn’t the church be a primary place of healing for this problem? Is there more the church could and should be doing?
Here we invite your theological questions related to addiction, for example:
“Is addiction a sin?”
“People say they are ‘powerless over their addiction.’ Does this mean they really don’t have a choice?”
Our panel of prominent theologians versed in addiction studies and pastoral care will be invited to respond to your questions.
Other Faith Traditions
Addiction consumes life of the addicted. This disease takes over and produces a feeling of helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces. Because of this the addict is often reduced to ultimately seeking, or at least becoming open to spiritual help. Whether it is prayer directly or just a reliance on the group for support, the very many the struggle over addiction cannot be won without this help.
The program of Alcoholics Anonymous and by extension, other 12 step programs, is based on spiritual principles. Addiction in these models are seen to have both physical and psychological dimensions, but the primary help is realized through spiritual means.
Interestingly this 12 step spirituality is realized through practical “steps,” designed to give practical guidance. And while the steps are essentially very practical, the power derived from them to overcome addiction stems from a willingness to completely surrender to a “higher power.”
The vast appeal and reach of the 12-step approach to addiction comes largely through its non-prescribed theology. The spirituality of the 12-Steps is not defined or articulated specifically. There is no precise meaning or explanation of God that anyone must accept. When members talk about a higher power, they are expressing their own personal idea about just what this means. Each participate is met where they are in their understanding and there is freedom for them to come to their own understanding, or as some might argue, to allow God to be revealed in God’s own way and time.
The key point is there is a willingness to stop relying on their own failed attempts to overcome addiction and recognize their need for help. For those with strong religious convictions, the idea of yielding to an outside authority to help heal is a natural one, but this too can become a stumbling block because some of those strong religious convictions may be misguided or misinformed theologies that prevent them from seeing or understanding their God in new ways. They may get stuck in some old ideas about God. The theological genius of the 12-Step program stems from what gets repeated in many steps, “a God of my own understanding.” Nobody gets to say who God is or how God should work. There is no religious authority in the 12-Step program which helps to create diversity and unity at the same time.
Four of the 12 steps mentions “God,” either directly or indirectly. This sometimes leads to the misunderstanding that the 12-Steps is a religious program. Its important understand the goal of the 12-Steps isn’t for worship or religious instruction, but rather to reach people at an emotional level and offer a path toward healing. The only goal is one of repair of a particular life issue, addiction in whatever form it takes, and offer a guiding and supportive path toward healing.
Typically 12-Step groups avoid particular scriptural text and rely on literature created by the fellowship for guidance and reference. This literature usually does not avoid the mention of God, but mostly articulates this “higher power” at work in their midst through the sharing of the stories of those who were freed from their disease.
We share some reflections from these perspectives
Whether consciously acknowledged or not, we live in an almost constant state of anxiety. We are concerned with what we may lose, or what we may not gain. We also live in grief and regret over what we have left behind or at least feel we may have indeed lost. We thus attach ourselves to the very things that we cannot, ultimately, control; the past and the future. In truth, there is only today, this moment, and this breath with which we are, and can actually be, connected. The past is gone, and the future has not yet happened. We are here, now.
From a Buddhist perspective, addiction might be considered the archetype of attachment. Addiction is, in fact, a collection of attachments. It is attachment to fear, attachment to loss, and attachment to longing, emptiness, and a lack of a sense of purpose. Whether we choose alcohol, drugs, sex, food, pornography, exercise or even shopping, we are simply employing the means serving the compulsion to fill a space and dampen our pain. The means does not matter; that is simply a gesture. The compulsion is the crux of it, and that compulsion is not so much to drink, or do drugs, or to spend; that compulsion, ultimately, is to fill that space.
And just what is that space? We might look upon it as the “God-shaped hole.” The wisdom teachings suggest that in identifying with a self, a “me”, we divorce ourselves from the true nature of our existence. From a psychological perspective, this division presents itself as inauthenticity, and the internal conflict that condition engenders promotes internal strife. In our attempt to reconcile this sense of inauthenticity, we cling even more desperately to establishing a sense of “me-ness” and can, in some cases, become morbidly self-destructive in our attempts to soothe the pain of failure in that reconciliation.
Addiction generally begins as an interest in something that feels good. As soon as we express an interest in something, we are expressing a preference. In expressing a preference, we are dividing our attention and creating an attachment to something in the world around us. As that interest turns into a fascination, our attachment deepens. Our attention becomes more and more exclusive, and we become increasingly imbalanced; emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.
Fascination may then flower into obsession, and we become a slave to our attachment. We are no longer ourselves, and, rather than ‘losing our mind’, which would be the skillful means by which to escape our attachment, we are trapped inside the mind.
With obsession, our attachment becomes even more intensified, and our exclusion even more narrow. As we become slaves to our attachment, our mind, and our behavior, we lose the ability to exercise free will and, in that light, move from obsession to compulsion; from place of being driven, to a place of need.
At this point we fail the First Noble Truth; our attachment has become so involved that we have invited suffering. We are no longer willful, but, rather, subject to and at the sufferance of the will of our attachments. When we find ourselves in a place that we cannot live without exercising this attachment, whatever it may be, we have fallen into a state of addiction.
Within the context of addiction, people often feel that they do not have a choice. Nothing could be further from the truth. We always have a choice. When confronting someone who themselves is confronting an addiction, saying to them, “Stopping your behavior is your choice.” is, however, often met with profound resistance for their failure to see that choice.
The key to getting a grasp on this is recognizing that choice is a constant state; it is not a single moment in time. If the choice not to be addicted were a single choice point, then all we would ultimately do is move our attachment from something socially defined as negative (say, drinking or being promiscuous) to something that is socially defined as positive (not drinking or being chaste). In point of fact, we would become addicted, or at the very least attached, to not being addicted.
Buddha spoke of the Middle Way. Within the context of choice that suggests that if we are present in the moment, our choices are constant. We do not, then, go right or left, say yes or no, think good or bad, or see black or white; rather, we are aware that both opportunities are presenting themselves, we recognize this and acknowledge it, then choose neither.
When we lose the Middle Way and fall off our balancing point, we create our pain. We create our sense of emptiness, and our anxiety around loss. We deceive ourselves into believing that we are less than whom and what we are by virtue of attaching ourselves to things, objects, situations, emotions, and anxieties that take us away from ourselves. This is the engine of addiction.
—Michael J. Formica MS, MA, EdM, Pyschology Today, May 02, 2008
We invite Hindu theologians to help us understand how addiction is understood theologically from a Hindu perspective.
We invite Jewish theologians to help us understand how addiction is understood theologically from a Jewish spirituality.
We invite Islamic theologians to help us understand how addiction is understood theologically from an Islamic understanding.
It is impossible to define one overarching Native American theology as spiritual understandings will vary from tribe and region. Spirituality however, is deeply rooted in the psyche of every Native American regardless of tribe or region.
The essence of Native American spirituality is wholeness, the viewing of the disparate elements of the world as part of one interwoven whole that connects the natural world to the spiritual world. It is a kind of animism, a seeing that all things alive with a distinct spiritual essence–animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork and sometimes even words—as actually animated and alive in a spiritual way.
Native American spirituality seeks harmony and balance as essential to the linking of oneself to the circle of the community and the cosmos. This harmonious linking leads to hope and meaning and a sense of completeness within the comforting family of the circle.
Addiction, where drugs and emptiness reign supreme causes imbalance and a broken circle of harmony. Attention to the ancient traditions and practices are needed to restore balance and harmony.
Sweat Lodge, for example, is a traditional ceremony that reminds the individual of their connectivity to every living entity and takes place in total darkness, representing a return to the womb and a rebirth of one’s spirituality. Along with detoxifying and purification rituals, song and dance and other rituals are used as part of the healing journey and restorative process of the body and spirit.
Reminding oneself of cultural roots and beginnings the Native American spiritual pathway to rediscovering who you are. Traditionally, native diets, harvest ceremonies, and the use of native herbs and plants have been used to contribute to the health and well-being of native communities.
Younger generations have largely abandoned these traditions and have consequently experienced increasing rates of diabetes and other forms of poor health. Others, however, are learning to connect with these healthy life alterations, including running each day at dawn, taking time with ceremony and prayer, and telling stories that reinforce positive behaviors and warn about going up against the laws of nature.
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