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Addiction: Science, Faith Communities Must Choose Words Carefully

Is addiction a physiological disease having both a physical cause and cure? Is addiction a spiritual condition having roots in a concept called “sin”? How can science and faith communities best serve the addict when they answer those questions so differently?

The story of the blind men trying to make sense of an elephant is a useful metaphor when exploring differences between science and faith. In the story, going only by the feel of a small portion of the large animal, each person gets a skewed perception of the whole creature.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
Addiction is, indeed, a large and complicated beast. It has many components, each revealing itself to a narrow field of study. Consider the following three examples:   

  • Researchers focusing on neurological processes can explain in remarkable detail a drug’s effects on the brain’s chemistry.
  • Geneticists are making amazing advances in understanding relationships between genes and addictive behaviors.
  • Outside the laboratory, psychologists and sociologists are determining the functional health of social environments and how they contribute to “learned” behaviors which lead to addictive outcomes.

Even as individual elements are revealing their secrets, the complex interplay between them defies scientific scrutiny.
Enter various theological notions of humanity’s relatedness and such research-busting concepts as God.  Faith seeks to understand addiction through broader constructs of the human condition. As important as each piece is to the addiction puzzle, faith holds that the total human experience cannot be revealed in a test-tube. 
Within the theological realm, addiction is not fully understood by examining the chemicals that course through the body, or by understanding the interactions that humans have with one another. Rather, addiction is related to the tension between all of life’s elements, and relies on the premise that every person is more than the sum of his or her constituent parts.
Problems develop when voices from the science and faith communities try to proclaim their perspective as the exclusive conveyor of ultimate truth. Such proclamations create a false dichotomy. It is much like demanding that a person decide which statement is true: rain comes from clouds, or God makes it rain.  Even those with a minimal concept of God will accept both statements at the same time.
The complexity of addiction creates a false perception that one must choose a scientific or spiritual understanding of it. However, as clearly as there are clinical manifestations of addiction, there are profound spiritual insights that give meaning to the physical human condition. Therefore, science and faith are not in a competition for truth, but complement each other’s perspective on reality.
The consequences of addiction on individuals and upon society demand that all those seeking solutions work together for the benefit of all. In order to do this, clear boundaries are needed that define what each discipline does best. Such clarity could provide a means by which all sides can constructively inform the others.
Working together will require some common language. No word reflects the contentious relationship between fields of study more than “sin.” However, there is no concept more crucial in the faith community’s attempt to understand addiction.
Throughout the last century, addiction specialists have attempted to strip sin from the disease model of addiction. Specialists correctly observed that the concept was being used to shame people into sobriety. This model certainly did not work.
The problem with the church’s early work was not that it framed addiction as sin. Difficulty grew out of a very narrow interpretation that sin is only volitional. Paul Tillich’s view that sin is estrangement from God is helpful, for it suggests a spiritual predisposition to addiction. That which makes all of us sinners makes some of us addicts.
The church should certainly stake a claim in the addiction debate with a full and useful concept of sin.  Doing so re-establishes the church’s unique role in understanding addiction.
Can the blind man holding the elephant’s trunk benefit from the one holding the tail? Only if each really listens to the other and respects the fact that a huge and complex beast joins them together.
Steve Sumerel is director of the department of family life and substance abuse, of the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />BaptistState Convention of North Carolina‘s council on Christian life and public affairs.