Review: Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice @ivpress

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A book which looks at addiction theologically? Isn’t addiction just sin? Can’t we look at the alcoholic as a moral failure? Should we change these views?

That’s the author’s purpose, as outlined succinctly in his preface. Why? Because from the start, he argues that the Church may in fact be complicit “in the production of a culture of addiction (p10).” So, then, why shouldn’t the Church talk about it? He suggests that “addiction cannot be adequately appraised until addiction is understood as a misguided enactment of our quest for right relationship with God (p11).” With the discussion of habits and the apartness from God, one should already begin to recognize the use of Aristotle and Aquinas in Dunnington’s work, something he notes as possibly off putting to some readers. It shouldn’t be, considering the foundation which they have given Christian theology and reasoning. His thesis is simple: (T)here is something philosophically and theologically profound about addiction but that standard and entrenched paradigms must be recast or overthrown in order to bring what is at stake into stark relief (p12).” With the course laid out, with a respecification of addiction, we begin the book.

Reason and Action are two things which philosophers struggle to define. It is also something that is worth discussing when speaking about addiction as either a habit or a disease. This first chapter is somewhat technical in the medical and philosophical sense, but worth it as the author is able to poke holes into the disease terminology applied, and as he shows, illogically, to addiction. By the end of it, after he has unsettled the notion that people must be genetically predisposed to addiction, he begins to move to where I have seen him heading before, in using Aristotle’s notion of virtue by enforced habit. There is also, and it shouldn’t be inescapable, but the matter of voluntarism and determination present and this is how chapter two begins.  To be honest, this is where I struggled the most with this book, not to mention my Ethics class in seminary. The two seem so far apart, but Dunnington suggests that it is a false dichotomy, and like some before him, turn to the theory of habit. His points here are made, easily enough. He supposes that we are indeed hypocrites in the way we treat addicts. We call it a disease and then imprison them for what is assumed to be a predisposition. Further, the disease model allows inaction by the addicts and yet, there are groups like AA which show that addicts can re-energize their will. All of this is placed in view of Aristotle with his discussion on agency and habits. As the reader moves into the next two chapters, she should begin to question the miraculous healings of addiction and what it actually means to be addicted. Dunnington takes us through the arguments that addicts aren’t immoral, depraved, individuals, but those who, like us, are seeking the good life. After laying the groundwork, Dunnington moves to tackle Addiction according to certain tenants of Christianity. He includes sin, worship and the Church. These chapters set the praxis of the author’s thesis.

The summation of the book may not always be found in neat reviews; instead, the summation of this book is hope. While my addictions are not as prevalent as the visible condition of a drug user or alcohol user, I have those types of addictions in my family for several generations, and outside what is considered immediate. This book helps to shed light, to perhaps understand them better. They aren’t merely abusive, to themselves and others, depraved people without hope and sense or morality; they are children of God, albeit with a misplaced sense of good. This is where Aristotle and Aquinas come in, where Jung and others come in. Dunnington is able to show that in many ways, addiction has already been covered by a great portion of Christian scholastic theology, that of habit, morality and virtue. Once we get to the root of the matter, and step away from the actions of themselves, we can begin to observe the psychology of addiction and see that often times, the models that we have developed to help us explain away people in spiritual need may instead serve to be corrected by looking backwards to great minds, minds themselves addicted to pursuing the good life. Dunnington shows that we should begin to look at people with unhealthy addictions much like the way we do with ourselves.

This latter idea is where the chapter on worship makes the most profound impact of the entire book, I think. He writes, “Thus, within the Christian worldview, if addiction is conflated with dependence, there is no way to avoid the charge that devotion to God is an addiction. (172)” What if addiction to drugs, alcohol and other forms of risky behavior takes the place of worship? The theologian Dunnington begins to craft a picture that like idol worshipers, addicted people have misplaced the infinite long for God with a happiness that is more proximate. It is as if the academic no longer thinks, but has settled instead on the last piece of information attained which was unknown before. There is no upward movement for people with addictions, because they have settled for what brings them happiness and order for the moment. It is at this point that one must begin to consider, as we might with other worshipers, that these alcoholics and drug users aren’t any less human than we are, but indeed, more. They know about order and happiness, albeit their order and happiness is only a false form. It is in this notion of false and true worship, false and the real good life, that the Church must begin to fulfill her directive. If we view addiction as more of a sin of idolatry then our theological approach to these sisters and brothers will broaden, I suspect.

I wrestled with this book; it is not easy to not condemn addicts or to think that the hurts in our past were caused by the same behaviors which propel us to God. Dunnington humanizes them and calls for the Church to respond as we would to others who haven’t stepped off the path to the good life. This book is the beginning of a return to using theology to examine the world and using the habit of Christian virtue to bring about restoration.

As a final note… this is not a complaint, but a reader not familiar with Aristotelian and Aquinan ethics may have some difficulty in fully grasping, early on, what the author means by a few of his concepts, such as good life. 

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