Love and addiction: An interview with Dr. Kent Dunnington

February 8th, 2016

Recently I caught up with Dr. Kent Dunnington. Over the course of our conversation, he shared sharp and direct thoughts on faith, love, addiction, the future of Protestant universities, and much else. Kent holds a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University, as well as a Masters in Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School. He is an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Biola University in La Mirada, California.

Clifton Stringer: You grew up in a Wesleyan tradition, the Church of the Nazarene, and have been blessed with two amazing grandfathers. Can you say a word about your grandfathers? And how did you come to accept your family's faith in Jesus Christ as your own?

Kent Dunnington

Kent Dunnington: Both my grandfathers were revivalists — they did most of their preaching in revivals and camp meetings, and they were strongly conversionist in their theology. There are ways in which I would challenge or qualify their approach to God and the Christian life, but on the whole I couldn't be more grateful for their lives and their influence. I took from them and so many others in the church of my youth the conviction that Jesus matters to absolutely everything in our lives. And I believe that's true and salutary!

The story of how I came to be a Christian is circuitous and hard to know how to depict truthfully. I think it is Bernanos who says people don't lose their faith, they just cease to allow their lives to be shaped by it. Sometimes I think that's a nice description of my own "journey." There was a time when I rejected Christian faith as the shape of a good life, but even then the question about the truth of Jesus was the central one in my life, as it still is. For lots of reasons, I came to allow my life to be shaped by the conviction that Jesus, as Peter says, has the words of eternal life.

CS: Your dissertation became your first book: Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice. How did you decide to pursue that project? What is the core argument, and what do you hope to teach the church through this book?

KD: I got interested in addiction as a philosophical and theological topic for a few reasons. First, I'd experienced first-hand the power of addiction. I was a smoker, and I had a hell of a time quitting. I'm a pretty disciplined person, so it was a bit surprising to me to find this domain of my life over which I had less control than it seemed I should. In addition to being an existential challenge, I found it intellectually perplexing. Also during that time I began visiting Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with a grad school mentor who was (and is) a recovering alcoholic. At the time, I was outside of the church, but the love and honesty I saw on display in those meetings moved me deeply and also reminded me how the church functions at its best. So that led me to be interested in the connections between the church and the twelve-step movement. A final propelling force was time I spent working in downtown Jackson, Mississippi in an area devastated by crack cocaine. By then I'd returned to Christian faith and to the church, but I felt hopeless about the power of the gospel to redeem this place. I knew that feeling was one lacking in faith, but there it was. So I wanted to try to think about addiction theologically, too, so I could better understand what such a feeling of hopelessness (and I think it's widespread among American Christians) reveals about the impoverished nature of our discipleship as American Christians.

The main argument of the book is that addiction is neither a disease nor a choice, but a complex habit. It's neither fully determined nor voluntary, but is rather a "second nature" that a person takes on. The power of any habit is correlative to the kinds of things the habit helps an agent achieve, thus a big part of the book is spent showing what it is that addictions help us achieve. Contrary to popular belief, we don't get addicted for pleasure, though pleasure may be an initial hook. We get addicted because addictions help us attain, though only fleetingly, certain moral and intellectual goods that late-modern capitalist culture makes difficult to attain. And this insight led me to the discovery that addiction is really a counterfeit of the theological virtue of charity or love, in that it promises sustained ecstatic existence and an ordering principle for all of life. So — not surprisingly, really — it turns out that addiction has everything to do with God!

CS: Since Addiction and Virtue, you have pursued a number of very interesting articles and projects, and I wish I could talk with you about them all. But I'll just ask about two. You recently edited a collection of essays called, The Uncertain Center: Essays of Arthur C. McGill. McGill had prominence in his life but is not well known today. Could you introduce him briefly? What is one of McGill's insights that you think we need to hear today?

KD: Arthur McGill is the best American theologian no one has heard of. He did theology during the 1960s and 70s when the "Death of God" theology was in its heyday. Several things are fascinating about McGill. First, he engaged the death of God stuff without becoming liberal or reactionary. He thought the gospels were more radical than the death of God theologians. Second, he wasn't an "academic" theologian even though he spent his whole life in the Ivy Leagues and wrote his dissertation on Barth. His writing is full of image and metaphor — he wrote a book on poetry — and he cites the newspapers and Time Magazine more than academic books. He recognized that people think in pictures and the theologian needs to work with those pictures in the light of the story of God. Finally, he lived, taught, and wrote under threat of illness. He was diagnosed at a young age with severe diabetes, was ill throughout his life, and died in 1980 in his early 50s after a failed renal transplant. Everything he wrote is tinged with the sense of urgency, crisis and death-consciousness under which McGill lived. He does not pull punches. He is trying to figure out how one can be a Christian without drifting off into pious sentimentality. He managed to do theology in the face of death and affliction without flinching.

Of course I'd like everyone to read my collection of his essays, but the place to really start is with his little book Suffering: A Test of Theological Method. There he locates suffering in the triune life of God, but not in the way made popular (and now looking increasingly passe) by Moltmann et al. No, for McGill the affirmation of suffering in God has nothing to do with a denial of impassibility. Rather the affirmation of suffering in God means that God's triune life is characterized by complete self-donation and self-reception. He contrasts what he calls the way of giving with the way of having, and he shows how death is destructive only if it is true that we live by having, by possessing, by drawing a boundary around what we must have to be ourselves. The Trinity — and the cross — give the lie to this way of living. Trinity and resurrection witness that there is a form of life constituted by self-donation, and therefore by loss, suffering, even death. When we learn to go on loving in the midst of decay, diminishment, destruction and death, then we begin to glimpse what it means to say death has lost its sting.

CS: I'm torn between asking you about your article "The Infinite Horizon of Romance" and about your forthcoming article in the journal Pro Ecclesia on Augustine and humility. Since everyone can read your "Romance" article online at The Other Journal, I think I'll go with Augustine and humility. Recently you were able to spend some time devoted to researching this. As you read Augustine, what about the centrality of humility captured your attention?

KD: What really captured my attention is how Augustine's description of humility doesn't fit contemporary memory about Christian humility. The story is complex, but the argument I make is that Christian humility got repurposed for immanent political use by Hobbes, and most contemporary "memory" of Christian humility is really just dealing with this truncated version. To give an example, most contemporary scholars claim Christian humility was all about having a really low and debased self-estimate, recognizing you're a sinner, a worm, etc. But when you read Augustine, you see that he had all that and still claimed he lacked humility. For Augustine (and Aquinas) humility primarily qualifies our will. Humility is the will to dependence over against the will to independence, which is pride. And for Augustine, this is the heart of the Christian difference. Once he was asked what is the heart of Christian teaching and he said, first, humility, second, humility, and third, humility. In the essay is shown how extreme and uncomfortable Christian humility is. I mean, it was the main thing that made the pagans say, "No thank you!" so you know something has gone wrong when contemporary secularists are championing humility. They're working with a counterfeit.

CS: Recently you started teaching in the Philosophy Department at Biola University, though you've taught in a number of different schools and contexts, even prison. What wisdom have you learned from your experience of teaching? What advice would you give someone who hopes to become a teacher of philosophy or theology in the academy or church?

KD: I'm very thankful to have been able to teach in these places. Even with the current challenges to higher learning in America, it's still a great job. But despite having spent most of my adult life in the academy, I still resonate with Bonhoeffer who said he didn't believe in the academy. I don't either. I don't even believe in the Christian academy except as it is vivified by and held accountable to the church. And I think there are good reasons to think that as we move into a genuinely post-Christian America, the status of Christian higher learning is going to be seriously compromised. So I suppose the advice I would want to give someone is not to believe too much in the academy. What a gift that there are still universities where Christians can learn philosophy and theology and where they can teach it. But those are contingent realities, and they may well pass away. So I think a Christian in the academy really needs to be quite modest — not about the content of his/her study or writing — but about the institutional forms that make that possible. I think we ought to champion such institutions and work for their good, but I grow weary of Christian intellectuals who cannot imagine how they could go on without a university job.

CS: What's on the horizon? What philosophical or theological projects should we look forward to in the future?

KD: I'm working on two books now. One is a book on Christian humility that spends a lot of time on theological anthropology. What kind of creatures must we be if it is really the case, contrary to what all the pagans thought, that we flourish and thrive just the extent that we learn to leave behind the project of fashioning a stable and secure identity that can withstand the slings and arrows of fortune. That sounds like lunacy. We must be very strange creatures if that is true of us.

The second is in fact a book on Christian higher learning. The models we have for Protestant Christian higher learning don't describe any longer what we are in fact doing at most Protestant, confessional colleges and universities. Thus such places feel largely unintelligible to the faculty who teach in them, and to many of the administrators who are paying attention. I'm trying to think through a different model, just in case God would still have a use for the many little Protestant, largely liberal-arts, colleges scattered across this country. For historical reasons, we're really the only country with so many of these little kinds of institutions. But it's hard to account for how they can be sustained in the future. I'm trying to imagine some different ways of thinking about their mission that might make them sustainable.

Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of Christ the Lightgiver in the Converge Bible Studies series.

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