America is a culture supportive of addictions, and not just to drugs and alcohol.

Dr. Gerald May, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Shalem Institute, told the Desert News in a recent interview that Americans need to recognize a mysterious co-mingling of human will and divine grace that can offer real help in overcoming addictions."People can become addicted not only to substances but also to certain relationships, to certain repeated behaviors, to anything you can call habit," said May.

His Shalem Institute is an eccumenical Christian organization for spiritual growth offering a number of workshops, retreats and training programs for people who act as spiritual guides for others. May holds a medical degree from Wayne State University and is certified with the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. He is also on the staff of Wesley Theological Seminary.

May was recently in Utah as part of the Western Institute of Neuropsychiatry's "Celebrated Speakers Series" where he spoke on the subject of "Addiction and Grace."

The propensity for addictive behavior is part of human nature, said May, who believes local cultures can either overly support that behavior or offer freedoms to help overcome addictions.

"I think the American culture supports these addictive behaviors," May said. "Even in the way we promote education, health, physical fitness and other things that should be good. We promote them in a way that says, `come get addicted to me."'

May said it is good that America is beginning to see the need for and to promote programs dealing with specific major addictions such as drugs, alcohol, food disorders and sexual relationships. He said these kinds of therapeutic programs are needed, but most deal with "picking up the pieces" rather than providing cultural awareness.

May said many organizations, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other such anonymous groups, have discovered there is real success in teaching people to surrender themselves to this co-mixture of human will and divine grace. He said it is only after people realize that they need this spiritual assistance they they are able to change the addictive behavior.

"Human experience has shown both psychologically and spiritually that with real addictive behavior, will power alone does not work," May said. "Where there is real addiction, you can't just autonomously overcome it."

It is not an "either/or" situation, said May. It must be a joint approach in which the person hits "rock bottom" and is persuaded that there is a need to surrender his will power to divine intervention. He said this co-mingling of human will and divine grace is what becomes the foundation for curing the addiction.

"It doesn't necessarily have to be devastating, just something that will take the person beyond his own ego and limited understanding."

The major Christian religions have done a good job of telling the public that there is a divine grace available to them, and that this loving power wants to be involved in human life, he said. How people accept that message and integrate it into their lives varies.

Because of these variances, members of all churches - not just the clergy - must be available as companions for others when they have hit "rock bottom" or are looking for divine intervention, said May.

The cultural changes needed to remove addiction from American society will come subtly, May said, adding that huge political movements, crusades or power groups will not bring the needed change. Instead, a grassroots movement that encourages small groups to look at their spiritual sensitivities will be the key.

"The more that happens, the more we will see the ripple effect that tends to change things gently over time," said May. "Our greatest hope is for people to look to their own houses, and then trust that by attending to their own spiritual values, they can have an impact on others."