Richard’s blog is really smart, well-written, and thought provoking. I always enjoy his reflections on what he’s reading, even on the occasion I don’t agree with his conclusions. Richard’s blog has introduced me to a lot of books I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of, but Addiction & Virtue is my favorite so far.
In Addiction and Virtue, Dunnington develops a theology of addiction, a complicated undertaking because addiction is a paradox, falling somewhere between choice and disease, and therefore between freedom and compulsion. (Dunnington goes into a lot of detail on this point, which I’m not going to address because it’s off-topic for what I want to discuss, but I do recommend it as a read for anyone interested in a theology of addiction).
Drawing on the virtue traditions of Aquinas and Aristotle, Dunnington identifies habit as the best lens through which to understand addiction. (See my take on virtue and habit here.)
The virtues of the classical world are replaced with the anti-virtue of the modern world, addiction. For Dunnington, addiction is a habit which acts as a prophetic critique of modernity’s failures. Modern man’s life is arbitrary, boring, and lonely.
I think the modern malaise which Dunnington describes is best personified in Binx Bolling of The Moviegoer.
Binx is bored, adrift, and aimless. He’s also desperate for redemption, yet cannot bring himself to believe in it. He uses a string of young women and endless movie-viewing as stand-ins for the meaning and purpose he cannot find.
So what is the appeal of the addictive substance or behavior? (In Binx’s case, women and movies are the addictions. Dunnington is focused more on chemical dependencies.) It is appealing because it creates necessity, purpose, and compulsion in a culture which offers endless, meaningless “choices” and “freedoms.” After all, everyone has their own truth. It follows that you can therefore, change your “truth” at any time. Your “truth” means nothing.
Richard brought up the comparison to Choose-Your-Own Adventure novels. Now I know why I always hated them. Because they aren’t stories. They are a series of meaningless and arbitrary “choices” that result in various meaningless and arbitrary outcomes. This is the anti-story, the antithesis of Aristotle’s understanding of a coherent narrative.
The modern world has lost it’s Story. It no longer knows what it is, where it comes from, why it exists, and where it’s going.
Addiction gives the addict purpose. He has something he needs, something to accomplish, and a reward when it’s done. It doesn’t matter if it’s a heroin high or the dopamine hit of that little notification on the phone. The addict has a telos, which modernity can’t provide. Modernity’s lack of a compelling story leaves us bored, lonely consumers, and therefore vulnerable to addiction.
Man needs a story.
Modernity has left us adrift in this regard. While we can’t, as individuals or even small communities and families, reverse this fact, we can immerse ourselves in the great story told many times over in myriad forms through the canon of great literature.
Anna Karenina teaches us the terrible consequences of abandoning our duties to satisfy our current inclinations.
In Brideshead Revisited, we see the visible effects of the invisible hand of grace.
In Pride and Prejudice, the hazards of parochial bigotries and self-righteous judgment are on display in Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.
The Chronicles of Narnia show us the deadening nature of evil and how sacrificial love is life-giving, if exacting, in its demands.
Kristin Lavransdatter is an embodiment of the truth that even selfish and deeply flawed love can be a force for good, and that mercy and forgiveness are always possible.
Try finding that in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel.
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