Thirst: God and the Alcoholic Experience

Interview with Author James B. Nelson

Special from Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association (PHEWA). (See also http://www.phewacommunity.org/)

Read interviewer Rev. Chuck Booker’s own reflections on addiction in his article Spiritus Contra Spiritum!

Thirst CoverA renowned Christian ethicist who spent most of his career at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, Dr. James B. Nelson may be best known for his works Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology (1979) and Between Two Gardens: Reflections on Sexuality and Religious Experience (1983). These books and others by him eloquently outline the need for reclaiming the importance of the body in Christian theology. And yet, lurking in the shadows of his late midlife, Nelson guarded his own terrible body-soul dichotomy: he was descending into chronic alcoholism.

In 2004, Westminster John Knox Press published Nelson’s book, Thirst: God and the Alcoholic Experience. In it, he theologically chronicles and processes his recovery experiences and understandings with great insight, compassion, and wit. Presbyterians for Addiction Action (PAA – at that time, a network of the Presbyterian Health, Education & Welfare Association, PHEWA) was honored to welcome Jim, now retired in Tucson, as the featured speaker at its network meeting during the PHEWA Biennial celebration.

Later, Charles Booker caught up with Dr. Nelson and conducted the following interview.

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Charles: You state at the outset of Thirst, “For those of us who wonder about and struggle with the faith questions underlying [recovery from addictions], we also need more theology, and there is surprisingly little in print.” Why do you think this is so?

Author Dr. James B. Nelson
Author Dr. James B. Nelson

James: While non-addicted theologians have done a bit of theologizing, I am aware of precious little theological reflection “from the inside” – from addicted theologians. I don’t think it is because alcoholism or other drug addiction is absent among theologians. Rather, I believe it is because of the stigma and shame that continue to surround the disease, and no one likes their life work undercut by damaging labels. So, it is all the more important that those of us who can speak out publicly do so – with as much theological reflection as we can share.

Charles: In the very first chapter you state the reasons you move beyond Alcoholics Anonymous’ treasured 11th Tradition, which includes the phrase, “we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.” Have you received negative feedback from going public with your alcoholism and recovery in print? If so, how so?

James: No, I have not. Though I have not tried to be secretive about my book in AA, I have kept a low profile about it simply because there is such a range of differing interpretations of anonymity. I’m not interested in courting controversy on that issue within the groups on which I depend regularly in my recovery. So I’ve also turned down opportunities for book signings, because that too readily can be interpreted as self-promotion. On the other hand, in other contexts (churches, conferences, retreats, and workshops) I have spoken publicly about Thirst – locally as well as in other parts of the country. These occasions have seemed to serve AA’s 12th step: reaching out.

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The church is a spiritual community that Christian alcoholics need, and in recovery, Christian alcoholics can be a powerful presence that the church sorely needs.
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Charles: In Thirst you touched on the fact that, in his theological arguments with Augustine, the British monk Pelagius would not distinguish between moral ability and moral responsibility. Hence, Pelagius omitted the necessity for God’s grace. How have you experienced grace stepping in as the vital “missing link” between moral ability and moral responsibility in your recovery from alcoholism?

AA Chips CroppedJames: Though I had long believed that Augustine had it all over Pelagius, I actually entered treatment as a real Pelagian when it came to my alcoholism. I thought what I needed was more strength, more control, more willpower to overcome my obsessive drinking – and that is what God’s gracious help would be all about. Pelagius pure and simple. In treatment, and continuing in A.A. afterward, I have learned that what I need is to surrender, to give up, to admit defeat, and to turn it all over to the loving God. And to do this daily. Then comes that extraordinary paradox expressed in the old hymn: “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free; force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqueror be.” That’s grace. And, paradoxically, it empowers one to take responsibility in recovery.

Charles: After asserting that alcoholism first and foremost is a disease, you then carefully examine alcoholism as both disease and sin. As you know, sin has received such bad press in the 20th century. It holds so many negative connotations for so many that some say let’s use different phrases – e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous’ language of “shortcomings” and “character defects”. How do you deem the term sin as redeemable? Why can’t the terms shortcomings and character defects suffice?

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The real problem about “sin talk” is bad theology. It is the superficial, judgmental, and moralizing images of sin that turn alcoholics off — not the probing classic understandings of alienation.
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James: For me, “shortcomings” and “character defects” are real — but these notions simply don’t go deeply enough. They don’t express the profound, painful alienation from God, from others, from the world, and from oneself that alcoholism brings. But it is precisely that kind of alienation that any adequate theology about sin is trying to convey. The real problem about “sin talk” is bad theology. It is the superficial, judgmental, and moralizing images of sin that turn alcoholics off — not the probing classic understandings of alienation. In my active alcoholism, I knew what Paul was talking about: “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” That is more than shortcomings and character defects.

afrik crossCharles: Share a few words, if you would, why the phenomenon of attachment describes addiction so well for you.

James: Attachment in a psychological sense is clinging to, dependence upon anything that I deem essential to my well-being. In a theological sense it is idolatry, when what I deem essential is other than God. I find it a central clue to addiction.

Charles: I found “Body and Spirit” and “Power and Powerlessness” among the most moving chapters in your book. This should not be surprising, considering your lengthy and celebrated work in male sexual theology prior to the onslaught of your disease. Could you share the most important things your alcoholism taught you about your vulnerabilities as a white American male and, out of those vulnerabilities, how your understanding of God has changed?

James: In recovery I realized that regarding my masculinity, my drinking had two sides. Alcohol both helped me feel more masculine (drinking is manly, and a real man can hold his liquor), and it eased some of the heavy pressures of masculine achievement (it relaxed me in the face of  the endless demands for masculine achievement, the sense that I always needed to prove myself as a man). My understanding of God, better, my experience of God, has been profoundly marked by my sense of powerlessness and vulnerability in addiction and recovery – and by the realization of the profound paradox that we meet the gracious healing One in God’s own powerlessness and vulnerability. It seems to me that the cross is saying those things.

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My experience of God, has been profoundly marked by my sense of powerlessness and vulnerability in addiction and recovery – and by the profound paradox that we meet the gracious healing One in God’s own powerlessness and vulnerability.
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Charles: It is evident in reading your book that, through your addiction and recovery, you have grown into deeper understandings of several biblical texts in your faith journey. Could you share a couple or three of those that hold particularly powerful meaning for you?

praying-silhouette-e1337438917248James: There are many texts, but here are a few: Psalm 30 is a powerful addiction/recovery psalm if I ever saw one. Then there is Jacob’s wrestling with the powers in the darkness, his wounding, his limping into the sunrise with a new identity (Genesis 32:22-32). And the many stories of Jesus’ healing speak to me. In John 5, for example, the man has been lying for a long time by the Jerusalem healing pool but has never been able to get to its waters until Jesus addresses him: “Do you want to be made well?” What marvelous texts for an alcoholic!

Charles: What would be the two or three most important things you would like the average Presbyterian in the pew to understand about alcoholism vis a vis the Christian faith experience?

James: Three things: (1) alcoholism is a spiritual phenomenon; (2) recovery is a spiritual phenomenon; (3) the church is a spiritual community that Christian alcoholics need, and in recovery, Christian alcoholics can be a powerful presence that the church sorely needs.

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AUTHOR BIO: Dr. James B. Nelson is Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, Minnesota. He is the author of numerous books, including Body Theology and The Intimate Connection: Male Sexuality, Masculine Spirituality, both published by Westminster John Knox.

Read interviewer Rev. Chuck Booker’s own reflections on addiction in his article Spiritus Contra Spiritum!

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