In the past few posts about the bigger political, technological and cultural shifts that might be going on behind the ‘fake news’ scandal, I’ve proposed how Radical Theology might have in helping people to critique political and religious illusions.
However, I’ve also mooted that Radical Theology could itself become a means by which the hard ground of reality is avoided, another illusion we cast to prevent us from what I describe in Getting High as the horror of our own descent.
Which brings me to alcohol. Theology beer camps. Gin tastings. Craft breweries. Whiskey cafes. And that before we’ve got to the obsession on coffee…
I’m raising this partly with my tongue firmly in my cheek. But I also think there’s a serious point here: I’m intrigued by the central place that alcohol – and other stimulant fetishes – takes on the stage of so many radical theological events. Why is this?
I think my interest was initially piqued by reading Olivia Laing’s excellent book, The Trip To Echo Spring, which examines in beautiful detail the function that heavy drinking played in the lives of some of the greats of American fiction. She quotes John Cheever, a superb writer who was a problem drinker all his adult life:
I must convince myself that writing is not, for a man of my disposition, a self-destructive vocation… The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar.
She goes on to explore Fitzgerald, Carver, Tennessee Williams, Hemingway… all men who, she writes,
‘were suffering, putting their faith in stories, in the capacity of literature to somehow salve a sense of soreness, to make one feel less flinchingly alone. Yet in the end, recovery depends on faith, of one kind or another. Carver once said that he didn’t believe in God, “but I have to believe in miracles and the possibility of resurrection. No question about that. Every day that I wake up, I’m glad to wake up.”‘
And this all makes me wonder if there’s a connection here. Most of these writers are atheists trying to shake off the horror of existential loneliness, a horror they’d tried to fill up with drink, and those who achieve some success in doing this are, Laing proposes, those who find some kind of faith in later life, most likely through Step 2 of AA’s 12:
We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
For many in Radical Theological circles, the putting to death of orthodox belief in a transcendent God, this ‘Power greater than ourselves,’ can tear open a wound, create an abyss of lost meaning, a realisation that we are alone in the universe. And, moving the opposite way down the same road as these great writers, the most obvious place to head to is drink.
Actually, I’ve seen very few problem drinkers in the limited experience I’ve had of Radical Theological events. But what seems definitely the case is that alcohol is elevated. It is performing a larger function than in other arenas. Drinking is central, and to have a deeper interest in some kind of drink is common.
Part of it is a desire for normality. Theology can be weird. Having identified as a Christian people suffered some kind of sense of embarrassment, and alcohol can function as a signifier that we’re now ‘normal’. To drink is an everyday surety, an outgoing, non-strange extraversion.
But beyond that, I think it can be seen to be a kind of fetish, an attribution of special powers to this thing, in order to cover over our anxiety at some loss we carry within us. It is another technology of lift. Understanding that God will not raise us, it is so tempting to turn to other means of flight, other tools by which we might avoid facing full-on the implications of the trauma of the loss of belief – all themes I grapple with in Getting High.
I might be wrong of course. But my hunch is that there is something of interest here, which it may take some courage to admit. So, yes, can we talk about Radical Theology and Alcohol? I may not have got it right here, but I think it’s worth starting a conversation.