Jeremy Boehm is a lover of music, art, and sports, and loves to spend time with his young family and animals on his hobby farm on Vancouver Island. Jeremy has a BA with theological and youth ministry emphasis from Calgary and furthered his education in counselling with focus on addiction for a second career in supporting those with substance use disorders. Here we talk about the concepts, and evolution of the concepts of God, in the context of recovery.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, here today with Jeremy Boehm, he is the son of Helmut Boehm. He (Helmut) is the founder, or father, of Wagner Hills. This is in Langley, British Columbia. I wrote an article with an addendum two or more years ago. You sent me the longest email I have ever received. A lot of it was quite vulnerable and confessional in a healthy way. I emailed back relatively rapidly within the last week.
So, you agreed to talk, specifically, the concepts of God that arise in the context of recovery for individuals. You come from, not personally but, knowing some of the communal aspects and individuals who have a theist belief; and they find it helpful in their process of recovering from forms of substance use and/or misuse. So, what concepts of God tend to arise? And how do these arise over time?
Jeremy Boehm: The concept of God, I see a lot goes by different names. If a person is comfortable, with religion, faith, Christianity, and comfortable with the particular religion they grew up with, they would call that concept God or the name they had been given for it by their religion. So often, in different places of substance use/abuse, there is a background of trauma. A person from trauma may not want to remember the source of that trauma and in that case may have some real discomfort with the names and the terminology they inherited that remind them of that trauma. Now, the construct, the theistic construct, may be the same. It may even be a good and benevolent construct.
Some who would report that they didn’t believe in God may still have, in the back of their head, a latent, benevolent, theistic construct. They believe in something or someone cares for them, loves them, made the universe a beautiful place, even if that God made the universe a place with both awful and good in it. They feel that there is something out there that’s kind. Some people will name that construct “the Universe.” For example, I often hear the phrase, “The Universe stepped in and intervened.” It really is a kind personification to say that. Some people will use the name “Creator.” Some people “God.” Some people will avoid the issue. I find that the construct is latent, though. What I mean by latent, is that when people are really in trouble, that’s when this construct comes out.
For example, what I’ve heard from some who would identify themselves as atheist, is that when they were in trouble they reached out. I remember someone saying, “I, actually, confessed that I did, in this deep, deep dark place, reach out. I didn’t even know who I was reaching out to.” Or somebody who had a near death experience at my current work, recently said “I didn’t grow up with this. I grew up with a form of First Nations belief. But actually, I had a vision of Jesus, but, I guess, that was the one in my near death experience who I gravitated towards, or reached out to.”
So this way of relating to God, or not, is also a way of dealing with the trauma. The ‘AA’ way to deal with this difficulty in ‘naming’ or identifying God for those who have had a negative experience that taints their view of God, either by their parents, or abuse, or abuse in the church, you name it, and there are so many reasons, to have negative feelings towards religion, whether it be the Residential Schools, yes, there is every conceivable reason to have something against religion, and to have negative feelings toward the people who claim to practice it, who hurt other people. The approach of AA is to allow the individual to give the deity their own name and definition. “You name your higher power. It can be your cat if you want. You can name it whatever you want. You call the shots” and this can disarm the experience of encountering the higher power, AA talks about. This approach, takes the pain and trauma that have been associated with God, and pushes that aside, and allows people to experience the higher power as they feel comfortable with it.
What I witness in the people I work with in my current work place and from before, is that a majority of them are open to pray, and even are very open about their belief in God, and even, to a certain degree, are evangelistic of each other. What I mean by open, is that they will say, “Let me pray for you,” or, “Here, let me tell you what this is about.” They will fight, occasionally, about the character of that God, or who goes to heaven, but the character of the god I mostly hear about, is benevolent. I also witness that over time, the people who had gone through step work, or who had gone through some kind of a healing process, start to lose the negative images, what I mean by that is, that I think there are incredibly negative images of religion out there of, maybe, a divine punisher.
I think this is what I wrote to you about. That as a teenager, I had a very negative of God as a divine punisher. And I don’t think this construct had anything to do with my parents, or anything else, maybe just teenage rebellion contributed to me forming this construct of a divine punisher. The interesting this I’ve witnessed, is, this image of a divine bad guy out to punish us, slowly melts away as people heal, open their hearts, or open their minds, or whatever you call it, in prayer, and they allow this higher power to just reveal Himself or Itself. They find the openness to allow this being to being to reveal the character, apart from all the religion and negative imagery that was attached with that construct.
As a person finds more revelation or experience with God, I find that they’re experience is a lot like my experience was, and they will come to the conclusion that, “Oh, this isn’t a bad guy. This person cares. There’s love. There’s healing. There’s something really good here.” They get more and more comfortable with more of the terminology, which, before, maybe they didn’t like. They might even feel comfortable enough to explore doctrine and theology and other things they avoided at first because of the painful associations.
Jacobsen: I’m seeing two core concepts here of a god, which, on the surface if not at a deeper level, are diametrically opposed. On the one hand, as you phrased it, a “divine punisher,” on the other hand, a god who cares and loves for you, created a world of good and evil, but there’s a certain redemptive quality within that world as well. So, it’s less a divine punisher, and more a divine carer and nurturer.
Boehm: Benevolent, yes, something good.
Jacobsen: Are there any other manifestations, apart from those two, which you have seen arise in others? For instance, you alluded to one individual who comes from a First Nations background with an unnamed band who, in their own experience – religious experience, had Jesus as the imagery and experience. Are there other ones outside of the image of Christ, a sort of First Nations spirituality as a transition into the image of Christ, or the ones mentioned earlier between a malevolent or a benevolent monotheistic god?
Boehm: If I understand what you’re asking here, certainly what I encountered, especially from First Nations people who had been in a recovery centre where I worked experienced spiritual experiences differently than I had. For example, a bald eagle would fly over and they would report that this was a deeply significant and spiritual experience that came from their culture. So the timing of that eagle flying at that particular moment signified something important about that timing. Certainly, the significance of smudges and of ritual, I think ritual plays a very big part in religion and, to a certain degree, spirituality. But I don’t see religion and spirituality as the same thing. I make a divide.
I’m not the one who came up with this definition of the difference. I don’t know if I can put it very clearly at this time of day. But how I would differentiate these two, is that religion is something humans do, as a ritual to influence god or the forces of nature to work to their desired goal, so that might look, for example like the sacrifice of an animal, or a certain kind of dance to influence the gods to bring rain, or something. Whereas, spirituality is connecting in relationship to the deity, and sometimes this is in a posture of powerlessness, but of intimacy. So that’s how I would define Spirituality and religion differently. Spirituality is connecting; religion is practicing a ritual with the motive of trying to achieve something. Yes, I differentiate religion versus spirituality.
I think, getting back to your question, ‘Are there other forms there?’ Yes, I think what we receive as our ‘early programming’, from our parents, creates an image in those early formative years that has a profound impact on the whether we later think of God as benevolent or evil. Maybe, our parents communicate that God is good, while, on the other hand, abusing us. Or, the reverse might be true. To answer your question, there’s all kinds of things that we develop in our brains at an early age, that later form our expectations of what we will find in God. Those early years, build the brain’s framework of what spirituality and religion is, and then we populate that framework through our experiences.
I think this book that I was describing to you, Finding God in the Waves (Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science), really describes that well in terms of the neurology of it. I am really interested in the brain, which I’m sure is obvious, through the correspondence we’ve had so far. But, as is probably also obvious, based on how I have expressed my beliefs to you, I take a step further than the biological formations of frameworks of beliefs that are planted in a child, because I actually believe in a discoverable reality of God. I see a measurable reality in spiritual things, just like I think you can measure the realities of math, physics, and science and so on. In the same way I think you can find ultimate reality about our origin and Creator, and the all the rest. That is if you are, open to the higher power, and warm up to the idea, and let down the guard, set aside the negativity, relax the resolve, or whatever you want to call it, that pushes back against the idea or construct of God. The biggest part of this process is to allow that deity to separate itself from all of the human experiences of evil that have populated our brain with a bad impression or a bad feeling towards that deity, then the deity’s true colours will come through.
You have to be open to it, and let that experience happen. But in the instance that a person is open, I believe a person can uncover the reality of the true deity, the Truth that I understand. That’s what I see in my experiences of working with those is substance use disorder, in the work place. I see that there are lots of names, and lots of understandings and experiences of God. It’s easy to forget that Jesus is already a name that has been translated to English. The term Christ is a Greek word. All of these names, are names that people adopt from themselves to refer to the deity. The way that I see Jesus, as we have named him in English, is that God came down to help us understand who He really is. Back then, people were incredibly confused about what religion just as they are today. Jesus served people and that confused them. He lived in a culture that expressed racism toward its neighbours. His main opponents were ‘Pharisees’. These were people who held a concept of religious law that raised their own social status and provided them with power. When God presents Himself in the world, He’s not rich. He doesn’t hold the stereotypical kingship that people expected him too, in how they interpreted prophecy. He role-modeled this, this serving, this washing of feet, this dying on a cross, this love.
He says, ‘This is what deity is like. Eventually, all the world will know my name.” They won’t know my name because I had the fastest meme or the most powerful seat of rulership in the world in a major empire. Of course, there are much more powerful kings and famous people. It is because over time, people will come to know that the way Jesus lived was the character of the deity. That character is what, I think, will come out to someone who is searching. And those who are in substance use disorder are often searching very deeply for God and using substances or alcohol to medicate or soothe the pain that they wish God could heal. I think what I’ve said about Jesus isn’t a politically-correct thing to say. When I speak this way, some will only hear it said that everyone else is wrong. It will sound intolerant to say that there is a singular reality in spirituality as there is in chemistry for example. It can be offensive to say that only one thing is true. Could it say that someone’s spirituality isn’t true? It’s much easier politically to be subjective, and even to relegate the whole topic to one that can only be considered subjective. I don’t spend time arguing that one religion is right. I say that religions may point to truth. Instead I look for Spirituality that connects us with God, and the way that I derive the character of that God, is that He visited us and showed us. It may be hard to accept for many people that Jesus was God visiting us. To be fair, there have been many charlatans over time who have made false claims and deceived people. How a person like me, or like a recovering substance user, comes to these conclusions about God, has a lot to do with personal experience, learning history, and taking their time as they ease into the ideas. I don’t assume that everybody will come to the same conclusions that I have because everyone has their own experiences that influence their views. I understand that not all people will find the truth, because their experiences or desires, may not lead them to truth. They may choose to deceive themselves. A refusal to believe in climate change might be a good example of that. It can be comfortable to remain ambiguous about certain realities in an effort to dodge responsibility. Or they may have been deceived on a mass scale, or by simply not having the experience to discover the truth.
Jacobsen: Does anyone come to a recovery program with a sense of a belief in a god, but an indifferent god?
Boehm: I’ve asked people that. I am interested in the character of God people perceive. I am particularly interested in the perception of God people have when they come from abuse. Some of my personal experience in counselling people from abuse is just felt impossibly tragic.
Particularly in some of the most horrific abuse, I was interested in what people’s view of the deity was. Is their view of deity affected? Well of course, yes. But the strange thing was, that for some reason, some of those with the most tragic abuse could still imagine a benevolence creator. I don’t know why. For whatever reason, it seems that tragic abuse from a parent can somehow co-exist with a benevolent view of God. I suppose, in the same way that people believe that good and evil both exist, people can believe in a good god even while their neighbours are burned alive. They are able to see how evil and good can be at war, and can both exist. So yes, some people who come to a recovery centre, and who are deeply wounded from trauma, have a view of a God who doesn’t care. What is so interesting to me, is those who despite their experiences believe in a benevolent one. It’s really puzzling.
Jacobsen: At the outset of the recorded conversation, at least, you mentioned trauma as the foundation for individuals coming to a lot of centres for recovery or programs for recovery? What are the common patterns of trauma experiences and – let’s say – symptomatology around it, even qualitative symptomatology?
Boehm: That’s a good question, Scott. I don’t feel qualified to answer it, to tell you the truth. I think my experience is too limited. I could tell you what I saw, but I feel like that is much too big a question – as are all of these questions really. I’d be arrogant [Laughing] to say I am qualified to answer anything your asking, other than to speak from my experiences. I feel like my counselling and my clinical experiences were much too brief to say what the common experience is for trauma. Only that, “Yes,” trauma was present in so many cases and was a root pain that was medicated through substances and through other behaviours too. It feels like just about every story included trauma. Here is an interesting part of the symptomatology. The consequences of using substances and alcohol to numb the pain, is that the use of these substances and the behaviour and consequences from the use create more consequences. So over time, the consequences of the medicating behaviour may be much greater than that of the trauma that lead to the behaviour. And in a few exceptions, I’ve heard that the addiction was the main problem-causer … in this person’s recollection, they didn’t have a painful beginning, but simply started drinking a lot at a very young age with their siblings and friends. Now of course, the neglect that could allow that to happen is a sort of abuse in itself, but this person perceived that they hadn’t begun to drink to cover pain, but that it was the alcohol from an early age that caused so many problems and so much pain. As I heard them, I wondered if it wasn’t both. A lot of people have a hard time remembering memories of trauma. They might blank out whole years or sections of life in their memory. But using alcohol and substances to numb pain is a very common means of dealing with pain, and in the perceived experience of a substance user, it is reported as a very effective way. There are other ways of course too.
The trauma story occurs generationally. The substance-use provides enough consequences in the family to cause disturbance, I think, in the oxytocin systems in a baby’s developing brain, so that rather than developing a sense of safety, of being soothed by the parent, the baby adapts with the instinct to self-soothe when the cycles of attachment with the parent are interrupted. Those basic cycles in the first 7 months, as I understand it, are so disturbed when a mother and father, are involved in substance use disorder. And this has the effect of passing this trauma from generation to generation. I think I am repeating myself, so I think I should finish with that.
Jacobsen: When an individual has an indifferentist experience of a god or a malevolent experience of a god, both grounded in a sense of trauma in personal history, or collective, how are they making that spirituality, as defined before as connecting to something, rather than human beings trying to get something, manifest itself in a recovery setting? How are they making that connection when it happens in their own words?
Boehm: Yeah! I think it’s a brilliant question. I think it starts with, “What do I got to do? How do I have to bargain to get out of here, out of trouble, out of my addiction, out of whatever? I’ll do whatever to get out of this misery.” It almost always starts with “Help. How can I bargain?” That might progress to “I don’t have anything to bargain with. I don’t have any currency that God or the deity needs. There’s nothing I can bargain with. Why should He be particularly put out, if I hurt myself, or if I do what he wants or not, or anything? Is there anything I can do that would effect the deity anyway? There’s nothing I can do, or not do, that is bargaining material.”
Once they realize their “bankruptcy,” I think, this is the AA term for this, where they might express, “I don’t have anything I can manipulate or control God with. I am not an equal player in this relationship.” Then when they come to this conclusion, there are a lot of uncomfortable feelings that go on. I think the discovery of benevolence happens in that moment. And it feels like being wrapped up in your parents loving arms, and forgiven [Laughing]. You’ve done something really naughty and can’t undo it. They forgive you and love you, only because you’re you and because they’re them, and because of love, not because you are able to fix the situation, or make it up to them, or do anything to bargain with them for forgiveness. You can’t argue your way into being forgiven.
I think the transition from the religious side of it – “I am doing this to get something” – to the spiritual connection side occurs when the person hits that point of bankruptcy or surrender where they admit “I am hopeless. I can’t do this. I have no traction.” Following this, they arrive at, as I described in my letter to you, the identity of considering themselves as a “child of God”. They gain the sense that they are worth something, simply because God made them and loves them, and not because they do anything, or perform anything, or become moral, or have the ability to flawlessly follow all the religious rules. They transition from wondering, “Am I moral enough?” to recognizing, “I am loved.” At that point, they experience the benevolence of God and I think, they make a deep connection.
Some people hear the voice of God or have visions, and gain a sense of communion, and connection with God, just like people might do with their closest human lovers or family. They’re like, “Wow, I am present with God. I feel His presence.”
Jacobsen: Is this transition from malevolence or indifference to benevolence a fulcrum grounded on, basically, conditionality to unconditionality of a sense of love?
Boehm: Yes, I think that’s it, Scott. That’s exactly what I was trying to say. When you find out, you can’t meet the conditions. What could you do anyway? Especially, you feel helpless with substance abuse disorder and the hopelessness of being unable to change. There is such a vivid picture of helplessness, especially there. I believe that the transition to a belief in God’s malevolence occurs just at that point when a person realizes that God’s love is unconditional, it’s the love, that’s the ticket. Well put.
Photo by David Monje on Unsplash