This is the second piece in the blog series, “Spirituality Within Addiction & Recovery.” As the title implies, I believe addiction is inherently spiritual in nature and is a peculiar quest for wholeness. The “spirituality” referred to in the title may or may not include religion. And the “addiction” referred to in the title is not confined to alcoholism. On the day I write this, Friday, August 10, 2018 New York Newsday had an article banner stating, “more drivers in fatal crashes had drugs, not alcohol, in system, study shows…” We all know that alcohol is a drug yet people differentiate it from “dry goods” ~ but the point remains that it is of little consequence to the person, and their loved ones, whether it was alcohol or other drugs that were in the driver’s blood.

Addiction manifests in many ways (food, sex, alcohol, opioids, work, shopping, gambling, etc.). But addiction is a way of our body, mind and spirit relating to life itself, as much as it is a way that our body, mind and spirit relate to a substance. Even churches and other institutions can manifest similar symptoms of addiction (denial, shame, blame, compulsion, hitting-bottom, etc.) as the individuals and families within them.

The focus of this blog, once again, is spirituality because spirituality is the bedrock of recovery. Last week, I stated that, in 1932, an American alcoholic wrote a letter to the world-renowned and non-religiously aligned psychiatrist, Carl G. Jung, asking if there “was no hope” for an alcoholic. Jung wrote back, “No, there is none [hope] ~ except that some people with your problem have recovered if they have had a transforming experience of the spirit.” The 12th of the 12 Steps begins, “having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps…”

This week, let us look a little closer at a little of the history of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12 Step groups that meet in churches that 12 Step group members, by and large, don’t attend.

The earliest of two groups I wish to acknowledge is the Washingtonians, a group that was founded in 1840 and was concerned with alcohol abuse and other issues. It essentially folded in 1848 for several reasons, including coming into conflict with the beliefs of religious entities. The other group, the Oxford Group, was founded by a Lutheran minister, Rev. Buchman, who had a religious conversion experience in 1908. The group was named the Oxford Group in 1931. The cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson and Robert (Bob) Smith, met in the Oxford Group; but found it lacking in many respects.

I wrote my Master of Divinity thesis at Union Theological Seminary in New York City on AA co-founder Bill Wilson; the apostle Paul; and Carl G. Jung. Allow me to embellish my academic studies with my experience and insights as both a 12 Step fellowship member and as a pastor for the past twenty years.

I believe the Christian churches “blew-it” when struggling alcoholics (many of whom were also dependent on other drugs) turned to the church for help in finding and maintaining sobriety and were relegated to the basement of the church in the mistaken assumption that they were weak-willed lowlifes and sinners who were, at best, to be pitied and, at most, to be feared for their moral insufficiency and social incompetence.

Churches believed it was appropriate for alcoholics to be ministered to and even loved as “the least of these” ~ but from a position of physical distance and moral superiority. That said, there was a time when churches tried to accommodate and rehabilitate addicts and did not always turn their backs to them.

There are, of course, nuances within any category. Generalizations are, well, general; but it seems that churches feared alcoholics, and not without some justification. After all, why would someone choose to drink and allow their personal, family, and spiritual health to disintegrate in a flurry of dangerous and inappropriate behavior? They must have known what fate awaited them if they drank again, especially since each previous drinking bout was disastrous ~ and yet drink again they usually did.

Many church folk feared the forces that seized addicts and twisted their lives and the lives of those around them. One day they were fine and the next day “all hell broke loose.” It was as if Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were in every bottle and you never knew who would come out first. Some churches wondered if it was Satan himself who waited patiently to be emptied into the body and soul of an otherwise decent person.

As the saying goes, “God loves drunks and fools.” Christians most certainly were expected to love the “drunks.” But that did not mean that drunks ~ sober or not ~ would be welcome to take a seat in the pews with the “decent folk” upstairs, let alone be allowed to be around children. The church people in the sanctuary and the recovery people in the basement were like two different worlds coexisting in the same space.

God, apparently, viewed alcoholics differently than did many Christians. Bill Wilson and others came to see addiction not as a symptom of being weak-willed or a bad person; but they saw the addict as a sick person engaged in a quest for wholeness, albeit a futile one. Many began to wonder if those who drank a bottle of “spirits” ~ were actually seeking to assimilate the Spirit.

Many such progressive thinkers began to wonder if it might be possible to find a way to re-direct the time and energy alcoholics spent trying to find God in a bottle ~ and find God, instead, in a faith community and/or in being of use to others ~ then addiction could actually prove to be a spiritual gift. Imagine that: blessed with addiction because it set you on a spiritual path!

  • But did that spiritual path have to be a religious one?
  • Must the God of a Christian’s understanding be the same God of an alcoholic’s understanding?
  • Are God and the Higher Power on speaking terms?
  • Must a spiritual gift ~ perhaps the greatest gift of one’s lifetime ~ remain anonymous?
  • Is it possible for the church and the recovery group to change from judgment, stigma and fear into a mutual recognition of equality, purpose and service to others?
  • Are there ways for churchgoers and recovery members to learn from each other?
  • Are churches “bottoming-out” as they are emptying-out?

Do you wish to continue? See you next week as we contemplate some of the above questions. Please ask your friends and colleagues to subscribe to this blog by entering their email address in the upper right corner of this blog. Your comments and suggestions will be considered for incorporation into future posts.



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  • Tom Goodhue

    Great new blog, Dwight! I agree with you that the church (and many other faith communities) blow it whenever we trying to distance ourselves from those in recovery. Though not a friend of Bill myself, I have learned much from friends and parishioners who are. The 12 Steps work pretty well for all of us recovering sinners, and also help us reclaim something that the Oxford movement and the Wesleyans taught originally, that we are all sinners and will have many slips in our journey of recovery–and need the support of other recovering sinners.

  • Dwight Wolter

    Thanks, Tom. One of the many gifts of the 12 Step programs is the shift from right & wrong; sin & salvation; good & bad; sinner & saint to recovery & not-yet; health & not-quite. Also the lack of judgment of those who relapse who are welcomed back into the rooms with love and acceptance. Lots to learn in this… which will be discussed as this blog series continues.

  • Elephile

    Thank you, Dwight. Jesus was, and is, known most of all as the Healer. He was not known as someone who chided or punished anyone who slipped up, but as one who freed others from their demons (no matter how you understand that word).

    Wycliffe was probably the first person to translate the bible into English, and he renders “healing” and “health” where “salvation” is chosen by the royal committee (KJV). Here are some examples: https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?qs_version=WYC&quicksearch=heal&startnumber=26&begin=47&end=73&limit=500 . “Health” fits very much better into what Jesus was like, and is related to reality.

    For example:
    As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias, the prophet, The voice of a crier in desert [The voice of one crying in desert], Make ye ready the way of the Lord, make ye his paths right. Each valley shall be full-filled, and every hill and little hill shall be made low; and depraved things shall be into dressed things, and sharp things into plain ways; [Each valley shall be filled, and each mountain and little hill shall be made low; and shrewd things shall be into dressed things, and sharp things into plain ways;] and every flesh [and each flesh] shall see the health of God.
    (Luke 3:4-6)