Can We Talk About Radical Theology and Alcohol?

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.


12 responses to “Can We Talk About Radical Theology and Alcohol?”

  1. Having grown up in a teetotaling US context, I can’t help but wonder how much of the interest in alcohol (on this side of the pond, at least) is an expression of revolt that parallels the theological one. It’s a sort of visible sign, (a sacrament, maybe?) of the work we’re doing to push past old constraints. And especially when paired with good food (as is often the case) an embrace of the earthy goodness of this life.

  2. I agree that there’s a really healthy element, especially as a push-back on a very tea-total culture. But I think that there’s something beyond that that’s going on. Something that does move into fetish, which means it’s potentially far less healthy.

  3. The fetish extends to pipe smoking as well, like we’re all a bunch of hobbits or something. Can we bring back the fasting and silence retreats.

  4. Excellent correspondence between Bill W (founder of AA) and Carl Jung, here

    “You see, alcohol in Latin is ‘spiritus,’ and we give the same name to the highest religious experience as well as the most depraving poison…”

  5. I’ve often wondered about the coffee issue. Alcohol has had it’s abolition, abuse etc, but coffee is nowadays considered good, necessary. The first coffee houses were considered dens of some sorts of iniquity. I suggested to the kitchen staff at the college I studied at, to substitute the regular coffee with decaf, and then see exactly how spiritual we all were!

  6. The Monkey

    Lovely post Kester! As a sommelier, a professional in not only wine but all things drinkable and someone who came from a tee-totaling background; I am constantly defining and re-defining what a healthy relationship to liquid depressants and stimulants is for me. I am, and have been in the past, very close to many people who struggle with the polarity of addictive personalities and have observed in myself and in others the need to fill (or, at least numb) that existential hole that exists in all of us, a hole that I believe is a huge aspect of what makes us human. We can try to numb or fill that hole with almost anything – religion, shopping, coffee, alcohol, work, food, you name it. There is no shame in wanting to comfort that part of ourselves that sometimes feels so dark and empty. The danger comes in allowing ourselves to believe that we can find something “safe” that we can blithely slather that hole with without repercussions. So, as with almost all things in life, it requires diligent awareness and hopefully, a healthy dose of levity 🙂

  7. Well…as a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for exactly 369 days, this post is interestingly timed.

    My story is too long to post in this comment, but hopefully I can summarize enough to provide some value in my $.02.

    I definitely relate to “alcohol can function as a signifier that we’re now ‘normal’”. In the early ’00’s I very intentionally introduced alcohol into my religious contexts for this very purpose.

    Not long after, I _absolutely_ attributed “special powers to this thing, in order to cover over our anxiety at some loss we carry within us.” I was never as self-aware about it as The Monkey, however, and my disease progressed so slowly, almost strategically, over the years until I was powerless over it.

    AA has reintroduced a long-dormant spirituality back into my life. I find the acceptance of ambiguity, lack of judgement and flexibility in practice well aligned with my own spiritual inclinations. Ironically, I have returned to the church of my youth–Episcopal–although I attend more for the spectacle and ritual and avoid the theology for now. Alcohol is of course a small part of every service; now I must refuse the wine. 🙂

    I need to prioritize reading _Getting High_. I suspect I will love it.

  8. Good to hear from you Monkey. And you’re right – levity and awareness are always important. As you well know, I do drink, and enjoy doing so… but am more and more aware of those around me who don’t, and don’t for good reason. It’s vital to be sensitive to that, and empathetic. Daniel – that’s so interesting about AA and the context it provides, which I know so many people find far more helpful than church ever was.
    The key thing for me though has been watching how drink has become a fetishised object for so many. It’s not that they are problem drinkers, it’s that drink – even in moderation – signifies something bigger. One commenter on Facebook explained how doing theology with beer was part of the ‘dude-bro’ culture, and I think the way in which people have become attached to it as craft is interesting, and for those who have switched from pastoring to being a drink connoisseur, there’s an element of power and privilege there that I think is worth interrogating.

  9. Kester – thank you so much for ALL of your writing. And I really think you are on to something in your post. I posted on instagram the following thoughts — but found your comments here to obviously be a better way to engage a conversation.

    I see the connection you are making – and appreciate you starting the conversation. I also wonder if the road to radical theology is also a road toward a newfound freedom. In many cases (as in my own life) there is a movement from an evangelical narrowness that made no room for alcohol much less for doubt, uncertainty, and failure of faith. I wonder if part of the connection IS very much an avoidance of deeply haunting things but I also wonder if part of it is this sense of freedom from a narrow way of thinking & believing (or not believing) that spills over into the enjoyment of ?

    Also – love your words here Monkey,
    “There is no shame in wanting to comfort that part of ourselves that sometimes feels so dark and empty. ” – I agree that the self-awareness must be apart of the process as well.

    And yeah – Daniel – “Getting High” is such a great read.

  10. Three glasses of brandy in… and my thoughts are this;
    For a, when i turned 18, (no id cards in those days!), i actually stopped drinking and spent about three yrs teetotal.
    During my abstinent 3years or so, I became very conscious of the way that people spoke of alcohol, drunkenness and a kind of valorisation of the inebriated state… i heard the way others would laugh and sound impressed – in awe – by someones tales of being totally out of it, no idea what was going on.. and drinking to dangerous hospital admitting levels.
    It sounded stragnely familiar to language i was also reading about shamans and the intoxicated hallucinogenic state. Kind of like journeying out into the lands of the gods, taking a risk of totally separating mind and body – and a real risk of death. It was the refrain ‘i was totally out of it’ which intrigued me….
    In a time beyond gods, are wall-pissing-heroes of friday night wetherspoons intoxication the real shamans? Except we dont know what to do with them or how to interpret their journeys to other worlds… except to farcically laugh and smile and say, “fancy another?”

    (I get knocked down, but i get up again.)

  11. “an element of power and privilege”… that’s haunting. I’m taking my time with that phrase, but I think you’re on to something really important (and likely more than a little convicting.) Ouch.

  12. Ironic that this article is written by someone named Brewin, just sayin…