A Book Recommendation: Addiction and Virtue by Kent Dunnington

Some books I read and think, ‘this is a game changer,’ and this is one of them. The language of addiction permeates our culture. I’ve found the concepts and ideas around addiction, and the 12 step program to be powerful and helpful. But I’ve also felt some intellectual and theological dissonance about addiction. Kent Dunnington deals with addiction from a theological and philosophical posture and offers Christian pastors, theologians, and counselors a much-needed book on what addiction is and how the Church should respond. 

Kent Dunnington, in his book Addiction and Virtue, holds that addiction and its pervasive presence in modern culture is neither a result of disease or choice, but arises because addiction is a habit of desire (61) that orients humans towards a perceived good.  To argue that disease and choice are actually contradictory metaphors that do not adequately describe the addicts’ experience (Chapter 1-2). He offers the notion of Habit, as explicated by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas as a way of understanding addiction in a “noncontradictory” way. Habit is defined as “a relatively permanent acquired modification of a person that enables that person when provoked by a relevant stimulus, to act consistently, successfully and with ease with respect to some objective” (62). He extends this general definition of habit to addiction by arguing that addiction is a complex habit (the cooperation of two or more habituated powers) that has specifically perceived intellectual and moral goods in mind. In the modern era, Dunnington contends, addiction is more pervasive because humanity has lost a sense of end goal (telos), they are bored, and they are lonely (chapter 5). People respond to these stimuli by trying to gain an end goal, distraction and community through specific means (the addictive substance). He expands his argument by considering the connection between sin and the habit of addiction (Chapter 6), and Addiction and the church (Chapter 7-8). The goal of this book, on one level, is to create a language that makes more sense of the addict’s experience. On another level it is to show how addiction reveals something about our culture, that we are created with an end goal, and we’ve lost sight of that goal, and offers a clarion call to the church to respond – above all he calls the church to be a community of transparency, hospitality, and redemption. 

I think the most helpful sections were his analysis of modern culture’s loss of a telos, which results in arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness, and his discussion of the Church’s response to addiction. This book is philosophically rigorous but worth the effort. 

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