THE BANNER, December 30, 1977
GOD IN A BOTTLE
by William R. Lenters
Dr. Howard Clinebell, author of the classic in the alcoholism field, Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic, defines the alcoholic as anyone “who’s drinking interferes frequently or continuously with any of his important life adjustments and interpersonal relationships.” This will be my working definition in this article.
In my judgement, an alcoholic is not necessarily a person –
who drinks too much
who drinks hard liquor,
who drinks before noon,
who drinks on skid row,
who drinks to drunkenness,
who drinks on the sneak.
All of one of the above may be alcoholics but not necessarily. Irresponsible, perhaps, but not necessarily alcoholic.
In this article, I’m not going to tackle the physiological issues involved in the question of “What is an Alcoholic?” Nor am I going to concern myself with the issue “Is Alcoholism a Sin or a Sickness?” However that question is answered, the person who is alcoholic needs help, whether he is seen as sinful or sick. No, I am more concerned with the personal issues involved in alcoholism.
I have a concern with the church of which I am a member. My concern is its “moistness.” We are neither a dry church in that we preach and practice total abstinence from beverage alcohol, nor are we a “wet” church in that we set up a bar in the church Fellowship Hall. No, our drinking is so very dignified and sophisticated. Our style is so very discreet and tasteful. We are “moist.” We don’t encourage drunkenness, nor do we encourage abstinence. By our silence we encourage “moistness.” We maintain a conspiracy of silence. In this article, I hope to break that silence in regard to social drinking.
As a subject, social drinking is a taboo, whereas social drinking as a practice is an integral part of CRC Tribal Mores. My concern then, is not how devastating chronic alcoholism is – we know that it is. Nor is my concern directed toward the tragedy of seeing families continually breaking up, morally and spiritually, due to alcoholism – it is tragic. Nor is my concern the frightening statistic that approximately one-half of the general hospital beds are occupied by patients whose primary illness is alcoholism. That is frightening. Nor is my concern how unbelievable it is that only 3 percent of all alcoholics are on skid row – unbelievable, but true. Nor is it my concern to say “tsk-tsk” in the face of our well practiced art of social drinking. No, my concern is, “What gap does our drinking fill?” Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the function and tasks we ask beverage alcohol to perform for us.
We run enough “Ain’t it awful” numbers on “the other guy.” Let’s examine our own drinking practices, and more particularly, the motive behind our drinking practices. It is clear that the Scriptures proscribe drunkenness, but prescribe drinking. There is not fault in imbibing, according to the Scriptures. There is in imbibing too much – that is, to the point of drunkenness. When consulting Scriptures, however, it is important to remember that Paul, the writer of Proverbs, et al, were not acquainted with Jim Beam, Johnny Walker and brother Hiram. Those boys make something much more potent than the little old winemakers in Paul’s day. If we are going to actively assess our own drinking practices, it will require a degree of honesty and openness on our part.
We like to drink.
Drinking is fun.
It has become a way of life for us to drink socially.
Booze goes down good.
Booze makes us feel good.
Booze relaxes and frees us.
That’s why we drink. Challenging and questioning our drinking practices presents a threat to our way of life. We don’t like that! I realize that I’m asking us to take a hard look at something we enjoy. This is difficult – even painful, but it is necessary because the people we treat at Calvary Rehab were social drinkers at one time, just as you and I are at this time, but the people we treat at Calvary Rehab have, for the most part, become chronic alcoholics. Chronic alcoholics have a one-in-thirty chance of recovery. That’s frightening!
Why do we drink, really? It’s simplistic to say that it tastes good or that it goes down good, because beverage alcohol tastes terrible. We add the mix, the hops, the fruit juice and/or the gingerale to make it taste good. The mix tastes good – the beverage alcohol makes us feel good. It’s fun to drink because beverage alcohol is a mood changer. It’s a way of life to ingest alcohol because to seek pleasure and avoid pain is our way of life.
Some will say we drink because it enhances social conviviality. It’s the oil that tastefully anoints sophisticated conversation. It certainly is easier to chit-chat when we are chemically innoculated. Alcohol affects our sensory perception, our feeling state, our judgment, our voluntary, semi-voluntary and finally, our involuntary coordinators, in that order. We are not as fearful when we are drunk – not as fearful of recrimination, rejection, reproof, or rebuttal, so we drink to get a “little bit drunk.”
But getting a little bit drunk is like getting a little bit sick. It is somewhat humorous to listen to ourselves minimize this fact. By our terminology, we never say that we get drunk at a party. No, we get “high” or “tipsy” or “mellow” or “good and relaxed” or we become “people aglow.” And getting “high,” et cetra, is the first phase of intoxication (drunkenness). When we are “high” our perceptions are distorted and our inhibitions are reduced. It is the first step towards completely shutting down the central nervous system.
Social drinking has become such a way of life for so many of us that we rarely take a critical look at our drinking and evaluate it for what it really is and does, for as long as we don’t fall down drunk or “get caught” driving while drunk, or drink before noon, or get into a hassle with our spouse because of our drinking, we feel problem-free. This assumption is dangerous.
What need is so lacking in us that alcohol so easily meets? I contend that there is a basic spiritual problem here. Note: “spiritual” – not moralistic. God’s people are the free-est, self-acceptingest, lovingest, most relaxed peaceful group of people in the world, or could/should be. Instead of all of the above, we are often all or some of the below:
Guilty or guilt-ridden
Fearful and Distrustful
God can help us with that, but so can chemicals. Chemicals modify those feelings and ease the pain. Even Librium, Valium and other Yum-yums (dehydrated and encapsulated booze) as well as beverage alcohol change those feelings – knock them down, supress them. Booze and pills really work – temporarily, superficially, chemically, but they work.
In a success oriented society, chemical mood changers are essential ingredients to its successful plasticity. Our life-style has been modified accordingly. No longer is it the rule to limit our drinking to boerejonges or a glass of wine before dinner. Now it has become a ritual of two shots of hard liquor before dinner and another glass of wine with dinner.
Today, the sweet smell of success is scented with beverage alcohol. We have made a shift – a significant shift – in our use of beverage alcohol. At one time, we would use beverage alcohol to toast a bride and groom, celebrate communion, toast an anniversary couple. Now we use it to kill pain – the pain of shyness or awkward situations or pressure or insomnia or weariness or boredom.
If alcoholism is a “dis-ease” in which a person is so addicted to beverage alcohol that his drinking interferes frequently or continuously with any of his important life adjustments and personal relationships, then social drinking can be the first step toward that addiction. If beverage alcohol is the essential ingredient which is relied upon to enhance psychic/social/spiritual comfort, it will eventually become the ingredient that destroys psychic/social/spiritual comfort. The need for well-being and inner peace is not by way of a bottle, but by way of a decision to surrender our life and our will to God. That’s it! We are getting into the pattern of asking chemically-induced insights to do for us that which only God in Christ can do, which is to grant the peace and joy necessary for wholeness.
I have often seen uninhibited joy (or is it fun) at a social gathering where beverage alcohol is present. Rarely have I seen that in a church service. I have seen honest sharing of feelings, insights, faith at cocktail parties as well as at a Bible study. I’ve seen people shed their masks when they are drinking – something ecclesiastical functions rarely stimulate. Wine has become the serum of conversation for some of us. This is “practical heresy” and it disturbs me that we let ourselves get away with verbalizing the truth, theologizing the truth, analyzing the truth, systematizing the truth, defending the truth and preaching the truth; but in truth, ignoring The Truth by defending ourselves with spirits instead of “The Spirit.”
Chemically affected conversations are inauthentic. A person going under anesthesia quite often makes irresponsible statements for which we do not hold him responsible nor take them seriously. As he goes under his anesthetic his defense mechanisms and inhibitions are reduced. The same thing happens physiologically when we drink the beverage alcohol. Accordingly, we should not take one another seriously when we are drinking because chemically affected conversations are inauthentic regardless of whether or not the chemical is medically prescribed or sold over the counter or the bar.
My purpose is not to communicate a moralistic message such as “Don’t drink.” No, my purpose is to ask, “What does drinking do for you? For me?” If it does more than toast an occasion or quench a thirst on a hot summer day, we may be developing a chemically dependent life-style and that’s a phony, nonauthentic lifestyle.
Carl G. Jung, in a January 30, 1961, letter to Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous writes, “Craving for alcohol is the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness. Expressed in medieval language, Union with God. (‘As the hart pants after the water brook, so pants my soul for thee, oh God.’ – Ps. 42, vs #.)
Jung continues, “You see, alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as the most depraving poison; thus, a helpful formula; spiritus contra spiritus.”
Clinebell, in his book writes, “Because of the intensity of our negative feeling toward drunkenness, many of us tend to overlook the fact that alcohol is an answer to a problem area in life in which religion also gives an answer.” Both religion and alcohol offer an answer to the problem of weariness, boredom, drudgery, rejection and loneliness in a dog-eat-dog society. Alcohol is an answer, then, temporarily and wholly inadequate and illusional. Accordingly, intoxicated behavior and spirit-filled behavior are often confused. But try to convince the friendly social drinker of that! It is interesting to note that the ecstacy expressed by the apostles at Pentecost was mistakenly perceived by the people as evidence of drunkenness – not evidence of the Spirit’s presence.
Tom Wolf describes one of his characters in Look Homeward Angel thusly, “In all the earth there was no other like Him. No other like Him to be so sublimely and majestically drunken. Why, when it was possible to buy God in a bottle and drink Him off and become a God one’s self, were men not forever drunken?”
William James notes in his Varieties of Religious Experience that there is a similarity of function between alcohol and religion. “The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical foundations of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of this sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, disunites, and says ‘No.’ Drunkenness expands, unites and says, ‘Yes.’ The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystical consciousness, but Paul mandates us not to be drunk with wine but to be filled with the Spirit. What is so tragically sad is that so many experience social acceptance, spiritual acceptance and a sense of well-being and security at the price of a God in a bottle.” Jack London, in his autobiography of John Barleycorn describes how accepted he felt at any tavern and how coldly rejected he felt at a church meeting. Jesus, not booze, answers our ultimate questions and our ultimate anxiety; but you and I already know that, don’t we?
Next time you go to a social function where beverage alcohol is being served, find out what you’re up to before you take that first drink, and be full of care for yourself.