Are we all addicts?

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

The entry for Dec. 30 in a daily devotion book I use begins with a quote from Thomas Merton.

When we are reduced to our last extreme, there is no further evasion.  The choice is a terrible one.  It is made in the heart of darkness. . .when we who have been destroyed and seem to be in hell miraculously choose God!

The author goes on to write,

Perhaps none of us could achieve true adult maturity—or a relationship with God—without having the foundations of our lives shaken. . . .When our defiant wills led us to the utter bottom of our despair, we finally turned to a Power greater than ourselves and found a new way to live.

Is hitting bottom really necessary for us to change the direction of our lives?

Almost 400 years ago (1525) Martin Luther published The Bondage of the Will.  The substance of that book is echoed in the opening confession of sin in the Lutheran Book of Worship: "We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves."  That statement doesn't specifically say that we have to hit bottom in order to get turned around.  What it does declare is that there is something about us human beings that doesn't want to admit that we are not God, that God is a Power outside of us, and that submission to that Power is the key to wholeness.

Luther wrote The Bondage of the Will in response to On Free Will, which was written by Erasmus, who was a humanist, ie. someone who is impressed with the ability of human reason to solve almost every problem.  For Erasmus religious doctrine got in the way of a rational approach to life.  For Luther, human reason was both too limited and too corrupted to plumb the deepest mysteries of life.  For Erasmus the key to life was knowledge through education.  For Luther the key was letting go of self-will and submitting to God's will.

The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous seem to come down on Luther's side more than that of Erasmus.  Check out the first three steps:

1)      We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2)      Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3)      Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.              

AA calls alcoholism a spiritual disease.  "Conversion" not medication is what leads to managing the addiction.

Now, you might say that you're not an addict and therefore you don't need such radical actions to be healthy.  That might be true, but Anne Wilson Schaef in When Society Becomes an Addict makes a fairly compelling case that the social/cultural water we are swimming in is in fact an addictive system.  She defines an addiction as

  • any process over which we are powerless.  It takes control over us, causing us to do and think things that are inconsistent with our personal values and leading us to become progressively more compulsive and obsessive.
  • anything we are not willing to give up.
  • a process which is progressive, ie you need more and more.
  • a process which keeps us unaware of what is going on inside us.
  • a system where we blame others for what is not right with our lives.
  • a system which absolves us from having to take responsibility for our lives.

This addictive system, she argues is supported by four myths:

1)      This system is the only thing that exists.

2)      This system is innately superior.

3)      This system knows and understands everything.

4)      It is possible to be totally logical, rational and objective.                                                                                                                                                                                                           

"All four of these myths," she argues, "can be summarized by an overriding myth: that it is possible to be God as defined by the system."

If Schaef is correct in her analysis to any degree, what is needed are not government programs or more knowledge through education as much as a massive cultural awakening to how stuck we are and how much we need conversion on a societal basis.  If she's correct, Luther understood what's really going on better than Erasmus.  Let us pray that our society doesn't have to hit bottom in order for us to read the spiritual memo.

Reader Comments

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A friend of Bill's  

Posted: January 7th, 2014 6:27 PM

Thoughtful piece. AA and other 12-step programs incorporate ideas from religion, philosophy and social sciences. It's no wonder you may see some of Martin Luther's thinking in the steps. The first three may come down on Luther's side, yet we need to be clear that the observation is yours, not AA's. As you may know, AA does not wish to engage in any controversy, and neither supports nor endorses any causes. The program works for many members, and AA's goal is simply to help other alcoholics.

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