Addiction, Religion, And Recovery

Rev. Alexander E. Sharp Clemency, Events, Faith Perspectives

October 7-9, 2021 | Bloomington, MN Attend In-Person or Virtually

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Most church buildings host two kinds of activities: traditional worship in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, and meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in the church basement, usually on weeknights. The twain rarely meet. Drug use and addiction don’t merit prime-time attention. 

There is something profoundly wrong with this picture. AA and other Twelve-Step meetings are, of course, confidential. But what we do and say in church should reflect the reality that addiction exists all around us. If those who suffer from addiction feel not only unwelcome but stigmatized, what is our faith really about? 

That is why almost three years ago I was delighted to learn of a conference on faith and addiction to be held in Minneapolis. I attended that meeting and blogged about it. Since 2019, the small group of volunteers who created that first event have transformed themselves into the organization called the Center of Addiction and Faith (CAF).

Though it is still taking shape, CAF now has a board and executive director.  Its website offers theological reflections on addiction, sample sermons, a bibliography of helpful and inspiring readings, podcasts and webinars from leading authors and practitioners, and a directory of 12-step recovery groups for lay and clergy. This new organization has the potential to transform the way the institutional church, and, indeed, all of us, understand and respond to addiction. 

CAF is holding its third annual conference in person as well as remotely in Minneapolis on October 7-9. Workshop topics will include: how to bring the subject of addiction forward in a congregational setting, and harm reduction as a spiritual response to substance abuse. I will be leading a discussion on the role of churches in ending the War on Drugs. All sessions will be online.

Beyond these workshops, I see a second and possibly overriding reason why the conference is important. In bringing addiction out into the open, CAF may be key to accomplishing something that all of us hope for and few of us know how to do. I speak of revitalizing a progressive Christianity that is clearly in a downward spiral

We normally think of addiction as manifested in those abusing substances or trapped in gambling or pornography. It is important to deal with these afflictions as they affect individuals.

But, at a more profound level, seeking to understand addiction is a way of coming to terms with what might be considered the human condition. It raises profound questions about personal freedom, how we change, and the sources of meaning in our lives. These are religious questions. Yet they are rarely answered in the traditional church.

Even as church attendance declines, we hear increasingly of those who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” They are the “new wine” that the Bible talks about when it says “new wine is put into fresh wineskins.” (Matt. 9:17) They reject the “old wineskin” of organized religion with its outdated theology and empty ritual. 

In my experience, the religious figure today who comes closest to capturing what those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” are reaching for is Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Father and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His spiritual insights have the potential to bring new vitality and meaning to a Christian church that must change to survive.  

If you drop his name in casual conversation, you will be surprised how many people recognize it and smile. How many theologians recently have been the subject of articles in prominent national magazines such as the New Yorker and Harpers?

The language of addiction is central to Rohr’s theological perspective. In one of his books, Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, he makes the case that in a profound sense, we are all addicts. In varying degrees, we pursue false gods. These, in turn, separate us from our “True Self” as the source and expression of authentic joy and meaning.

Although he will not be with us in person, Rohr’s message will be abundantly present throughout the CAF conference.  


Rev. Alexander E. Sharp, 
Executive Director, Clergy for a New Drug Policy