Elizabeth Esther. Spiritual Sobriety: Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad (New York: Convergent Books, 2016). Available April 16.
“Religious addiction” might seem like a contradiction in terms. How can religion be addicting? Isn’t religion what sets the addicts (to more usual things like alcohol or drugs) free? If you’re addicted to religion, what sets you free from that?
Elizabeth Esther addresses these questions in her new book, Spiritual Sobriety: Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad. She tells the story of her own religious addiction created by growing up in a toxic fundamentalist cult and how she is working her way to spiritual sobriety while still holding on to her faith.
While growing up in a fundamentalist cult is extreme, many of the experiences she describes are not. When she asked Jesus into her heart at five years old she felt amazing. So amazing that she describes it as being “high on God.” She chased that feeling by seeking after other religious experiences.
Being religious also gave her a clear-cut, black-and-white way of viewing the world, and a rationale for ignoring her mental illness. There were significant downsides to this way of life. It turns out her black-and-white understanding didn’t match the complexity of reality, she judged other people and lived in fear of them, she was always seeking religious highs and would fall into deep lows when she couldn’t manufacture them, and ignoring mental illness does not make it go away.
She then goes on to explain how she started seeking a more sober faith with fewer highs and lows. She describes the kind of faith that she is after in this way:
Spiritual sobriety is a serene, moderate way of living in which people abstain from treating God, religion, or belief system like a drug; refrain from using religion as a punishment against others or ourselves; seek to be rigorously honest rather than unfailingly good; and retain the best of their spiritual devotion in positive, life-enhancing ways. (9-10)
Practices that help get her there include: accepting help for her struggle with mental illness, checking into rehab, working on being present, accepting that God and his ways are mysterious, speaking kindly to others and herself, taking time for self-care, practicing good relational boundaries, and avoiding churches focused on manufacturing emotional experiences, among others.
It was very helpful to read Elizabeth’s story and the positive changes she is making in her life. While I did not grow up in a fundamentalist cult, my personality tends towards fundamentalism and zealotry, and I have used religion in ways that have been harmful to my relationship with God, myself, and others. This is something I hope to explore in future blog posts, but for now I want to say that it was very encouraging to read about someone who came from a very spiritually addicted place now finding healthy religious practices. It’s possible! Elizabeth talks about religious addiction in an accessible way, with humor and honesty, and this is so important because few people in the church are talking about religious addiction at all.
Her story is invaluable, and it made me want to learn more, particularly about the theology that helps create and sustain religious addiction.
Elizabeth does not talk a lot about theology proper in her book. She instead focuses on the role theology needs to play in recovery. According to her, bad theology contributes very strongly to religious addiction, so for the recovering addict, correct theology becomes whatever theology aids recovery. She quotes Rabbi Rami Shapiro: “If your understanding of God allows you to recover from you addiction and bring some sanity to your life, then your God is as true as God needs to be” (57). She knows this is a radical statement because she follows it up with, “Whoa. Heresy alert, right?” (58).
I completely understand this impulse. When you’ve believed things about God that have made you sick, you want to find new things to believe about God that will make you well. That’s not a bad impulse! But as we rework our theology and understanding of God we need to be careful to ground our understanding of God in Scripture, with the help of a healthy church community that gets the gospel. Otherwise we’re still being run by our emotional needs and still fleeing reality, and we’ll become addicted to a kinder, gentler--but still false--God.
I am so grateful for this book. By telling her story, Elizabeth Esther shines light on the complex topic of religious addiction and provides helpful advice for escaping it. I hope many churches and Christians read this book, and that more attention and resources are devoted to understanding religious addiction. The church would benefit greatly from such an effort.
I received a review copy for free from Elizabeth Esther, for which I am very grateful! All opinions expressed in this review are my own.