Yesterday I reviewed Kent Dunnington’s book Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice. Today he was kind enough to answer 7 questions about his book and his soul.
1. What motivated you to write this book?
Three things motivated me to write the book. First, like most people, I have struggled with addictions. When I recommitted my life to God in graduate school, I was a smoker. I was amazed by how resilient and resistant my addictive desires were. I wanted to understand better what was going on there. Second, I did some work in really impoverished inner-city areas where addictions were just destroying people, families, whole communities. As a Christian I had this profound feeling of powerlessness, and I wanted to better understand and articulate the power of the gospel over against the power of addiction. Finally, I had a dear friend and adviser in graduate school who was a recovering alcoholic (the book is dedicated to him). I often attended AA meetings with him. Although he and many of those who attended were not Christian, I was overwhelmed by the kind of vulnerability and love on display in that fellowship. It is not a new thought, but I realized there how much the church had to learn from groups like that.
2. What is unique about this book, as compared to other books on addiction? And who did you write this book for?
The book is unique in trying to provide a philosophy of action that can ground claims about addiction. There has been a great deal written on the biology, psychology, and sociology of addiction, but many of these treatments lack an adequate philosophy of human action and therefore they end up making seemingly contradictory claims. For instance, the claim that addiction is a disease does not sit easily with the acknowledgment (which is as widespread as the disease concept) that addiction is best treated in nonmedicalized treatment settings like AA. There's something askew here, and I wanted to try to clarify and see if the phenomenon of addiction could be articulated in a noncontradictory way. So the philosophical grounding is what is most unique. And this leads, I think, to a unique theological take. Basically, I argue that addiction is the most powerful and successful alternative to worship available to human persons.
3. In the most basic terms you can offer for my readers how would you define addiction?
In the most basic terms, I'd argue that addiction is any obsessive and all-consuming orientation that leads a person into self-deception. Self-deception is crucial here since Christians aren't by definition opposed to being consumed by some object. Worship is an all-consuming orientation, and the mystics often speak of it in these ways. But because the goods of worship live up to their promises, right worship leads us into truth. Self-deception is what you get when addictive objects lead us away from what we know to be true goods. We must then disavow the addiction as truly part of us. This is denial, and it's why many addicted persons will say that denial is the essence of addiction.
4. There is an idea that I have been working with for a little while now concerning addiction and depression. Given your understanding of addiction do you think it is possible that a person can actually become addicted to depression?
That's an interesting question. It raises a nest of thorny questions about the neurological bases of depression. No doubt, persons can become attached to their depressive tendencies. The Romantics, for instance, thought you weren't a very interesting person unless you were deeply depressed. And I do think that there can be something tempting about depression (or, I might prefer to say, about melancholy) and that, moreover, melancholy can become part of an identity that we are wary of relinquishing. I don't know how helpful it would be to speak of persons becoming addicted to depression, though. Some persons may have dispositions to melancholy, but a disposition is quite different than an addiction.
5. You do not offer many practical suggestions for dealing with addiction; neither for the church to consider or for an addicted person. This does not appear to be your focus, why did you choose to do this? Will there be any sort of follow-up offering advice on ministering to those with addiction?
I just didn't feel all that qualified to make such suggestions. I think good practices flow out of good theology, and I was interested in trying to say something theologically substantive and suggestive about addiction. I don't foresee a follow-up. I suppose if there are a lot of requests for it, I could try. But honestly, I think other people who are more familiar with the current programming available to the church would be better placed to make such suggestions.
6. The chapter that I found most intriguing, and probably most helpful, was your chapter on Addiction and Modernity. Here you note that addicts are “unwitting modern prophets”. I am curious about any research you may have done on third-world countries and addiction. How would you explain addiction in third-world countries where their time is given to survival?
That's a terrific question. Although I did research on minority populations in "developed" countries (such as Native Americans here) I didn't do any work on addiction in the "developing" world. But now that you ask that question, I think I should have!
7. I noticed that you got your M.T.S. from Duke. As a fan of college basketball and one that has a perennial distaste in my mouth of all things Duke, I’ve always been curious about this one…How does it feel to not have a soul?
Oh, that's cold. You know, one of my professors at Duke used to say, if you want to see what worship looks like just go to Cameron Indoor for a Duke game. I'd just rephrase that and say that's what addiction looks like. Now that I'm back in the Midwest, I'm in recovery. But I still have to get my fix from time to time.
Much thanks to Kent for taking the time to answer these questions. I’m glad to hear that he’s recovering from his days at Duke. If you want to purchase Kent’s book, which I’d suggest, you can do so here: Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice