The Church and the Alcoholic

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-009 The Church and the Alcoholic, by Alson J. Smith THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, Vol. 61: 301-302, March 8, 1944

THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, Vol. 61: 301-302, March 8, 1944

By Alson J. Smith

Neither liquor nor the liquor business is new. In fact, they are probably as old as man. One of the keenest insights into the whole alcohol problem - an insight just now receiving due appreciation - comes to us from a sixteenth century reformer named Sebastian Franck.

Franck lived in a small Bavarian town. He was a historian, a philosopher, a folklorist, a minister and a religious writer. And since none of these occupations provided much in the way of worldly income, he was also a soap maker. He know his people. In 1531 he published a book entitled The Horrible Vice of Drunkenness. Although he expressed the opinion that "Bacchus has killed more men than Mars" and that "more men get drowned in the glass than in the sea," he was not as concerned as most temperance advocates of that day with the bodily effects of drinking. He deplored the physical effects of intemperance, but he realized that the real significance of drinking lay elsewhere. He concluded:

"Much has been tried against drinking among Germans, but nothing much has been achieved. The legislators have failed, although they have made promises ... It (drinking) is too deeply rooted and sin has become a habit. All would have to be reborn and receive new heads. Yes, a new world would have to come."

"All would have to be reborn and receive new heads." Although it was written more than three hundred years ago, this is true in the best modern scientific sense. For today doctors and psychiatrists alike agree that the only salvation for the alcoholic is to be reborn - to "receive a new head." There is little or nothing that medicine can do for him - a new world will have to come! We are not going to make much progress against the Fortress Bacchus until we realize this and reorient our temperance education to take account of it. Fortunately, there are abundant signs that we are doing this.


We are beginning to see more clearly than ever that the problem of the alcoholic is a religious problem, that is, a problem of the whole personality. And we are beginning to see, too, that our approach to the problem of the alcoholic has not been as Christlike as it might have been. Our greatest mistake has been in condemning the alcoholic as a sinner and treating him as an outcast. The truth, as Dwight Anderson has said in the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, is that alcoholism is a result "not of sin but of sickness...not a sign of moral degradation but the pathological expression of an inner need, a deeper lying mental trouble which requires professional treatment like any physical disease."

Alcoholism is not a sin, for the essence of morality is choice and the alcoholic has no choice in the matter. He has to drink. It is a psychological necessity. He cannot be healed by treating him as an outcast, for what he most needs is to feel himself a part of the community. Would we throw a diabetic or a tubercular person into jail? Of course not. Instead of treating the alcoholic as an outcast and differentiating between him and other people, we should identify ourselves with him in the realization that we and all men bear some measure of responsibility for the maladjustment of which his condition is so appalling a symptom.


It has remained for an organization quite outside the church to hold out to the wretched alcoholic the hand of fellowship and to recall him to the faith in God that alone can give him what old Sebastian Franck called a "new head." Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization of ex-alcoholics, has put faith at the very center of its program of rehabilitation. Over the fireplace of the Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse in New York is an inscription expressing what ought to be at the very center of the church's attitude toward the alcoholic: "There, but for the grace of God."

As Franck realized, the effect of alcohol on the body is not nearly so important as the motive for drinking. It is why a man drinks that matters, not how or what or how much. In other words, the drinking is a symptom of some kind of personality trouble, some kind of inner inadequacy. "Most men," says Thoreau, "live lives of quiet desperation." That is true, as every minister knows, and as long as it is there will be an alcohol problem with which the church, as well as other social agencies, must reckon.

In his classic Varieties of Religious Experience, William James puts it this way: "Not through mere perversity do men run after it (liquor). To the poor and unlettered it stands in the place of symphony concerts and literature; and it is a part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning. The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness, and our total opinion of it must find its place in our opinion of that larger whole."

"Not through mere perversity do men run after it!" If we have fallen down in our temperance program in the past, it is at this point. We have not tried to understand why people drink or what liquor does for them to make them keep on drinking. We have not realized that drinking is a symptom.


So we see that religion really has more to do with the alcohol problem than science, for religion deals with motive. Just how can religion - the church - help the alcoholic? Remember, I have been talking here not about the so-called "moderate" drinker, nor about the unprincipled liquor business, but about the alcoholic, the drunk. The "moderate" drinker and the liquor business constitute related, but distinct, problems. How can the church help the man who has gone so far in drink that he has lost the power of choice?

First, it seems to me, the church can exert itself to the utmost to end the fatal tensions in modern society, tensions which are at the bottom of much of the maladjustment of which alcoholism is the symptom. "A new world would have to come," says Franck. We help the new world to come when we fight injustice, unemployment, poverty, war, racism. The church helps the alcoholic when it seeks first the Kingdom of God on earth.

Second, the church can give men faith in God. "God" says Tolstoy, "is he without whom we cannot live." This is true for all men, but it is especially true for the alcoholic. He cannot win his fight without God. Medicine has about given up on him. God never gives up on anybody. The church can show the alcoholic the "expulsive power of a new affection." Here is a conversation between Dr. Jung, the famous psychiatrist, and an alcoholic patient, which E. Stanley Jones quotes in his Abundant Living:

Dr. Jung: You are suffering from a loss of faith in God and in a future life.

Patient: But, Dr. Jung, do you believe those doctrines are true?

Dr. Jung: That is no business of mine. I am a doctor, not a priest. I can only tell you that if you recover your faith you will get well. If you don't , you won't.

Truly, for the alcoholic, faith is the victory that overcomes.

Third, the church can help in a practical way by setting up body, mind and soul clinics for as many churches as can be staffed with trained psychiatric-ministerial personnel. Church-related hospitals can set up alcoholic clinics, working closely with the Research Council on Problems of Alcohol of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Church-related colleges and universities can follow the example of Yale and set up schools of alcohol studies, and perhaps clinics in conjunction with them, as is now being done at Yale.

Fourth, the church can build the inner disciplines that hold a life together and keep it from flying apart beneath the centrifugal pressure of the modern world. Here is where religion is vital.


And it goes without saying that the church can continue the kind of educational and legislative program now promoted by its official temperance organization.

The alcohol problem will not be solved easily or by superficial methods. It will not be solved by hysteria, either wet or dry, by deceptive advertising, by quack "cures" or by legal fiat. It can and will be solved by men of good will working together in laboratory, classroom, clinic and church, not only to cure the symptom but to show the alcoholic a better way of life, and to find a better way of life for all mankind.


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