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CHRISTIAN CENTURY, Vol. 61: 301-302, March 8, 1944
CHURCH AND THE ALCOHOLIC
Alson J. Smith
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.
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:
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
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
CAN THE CHURCH HELP?
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?
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.
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:
Jung: You are suffering from a loss of faith in God and
in a future life.
But, Dr. Jung, do you believe those doctrines are true?
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.
for the alcoholic, faith is the victory that overcomes.
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.
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
it goes without saying that the church can continue the
kind of educational and legislative program now promoted
by its official temperance organization.
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