There are two pieces of psychedelic literature I have recently read that I see as pointing the way to psychedelic Christianity. They are “A Mescaline Experience,” by H. H. Price and Cleansing the Doors of Perception, by Huston Smith.
What I mean by “psychedelic Christianity” is an understanding of Christianity that acknowledges psychedelic experience as a way of being in the right relationship with God. This does not mean that one can’t be a true Christian without having had a psychedelic experience. Neither does it mean that anyone who has a psychedelic experience is automatically transformed into a Christian. Psychedelic Christianity, as I understand it, is the religion of those who acknowledge that a psychedelic trip can result in the same kind of total transformation of one’s worldview as happened to Paul as a result of his experience on the road to Damascus, and that the deepest truths of the Christian religion are the best way to understand it, as they are the best way to understand the ultimate goal of living, which is for God to be all in all in such a way that every creature that God has created also continues to be there, in his or her or its own uniqueness, enjoying the goodness that God has given. That is, all that is implied by the term “psychedelic Christian” is the acknowledgement that Christianity and psychedelic experience are not in competition with each other but are perfectly compatible.
H. H. Price’s article was originally published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 58:1 (1963), and has recently been republished on Peter Sjostedt-H’s website, at http://www.philosopher.eu/psychoactive-philosophy/h-h-price-a-mescaline-experience-1964/
Price is a philosopher whom I have admired ever since I first came across his work several years before I retired from teaching philosophy at Citrus College. I highly recommend, in particular, his Essays in Philosophy of Religion. In “A Mescaline Experience” he describes his first (and perhaps only) psychedelic trip, which took place in 1952. I will quote from it and then explain how I think it points the way to psychedelic Christianity.
He writes: “To say that what had now happened was from an esthetic point of view a change for the better is to say much too little. To put it quite simply, all the things around me, even the most commonplace and dingy objects, became so utterly beautiful, at once so wonderful and so satisfying, that I felt I should be content to go on gazing at them for the rest of my life….
“It was wonderful, yet tranquil and peaceful, completely satisfying, so that nothing better could be wished for—or so it seemed to me at the time.”
Then he describes going outside: “All I can say is that this outdoor scene was as completely delightful and satisfying as the indoor scene had been, and I well remember thinking at the time that even the Celestial City could not be more beautiful than this.”
But in his general conclusion later in the article he seems to back down from what he had written before: “The very most I will dare to claim for my own experience is this: If there be a place, or rather a state of consciousness, corresponding at all to traditional ideas of Heaven or of Paradise, and if it can be supposed that something analogous to visual experience is possible to persons in that state, then I can believe that the visual world they experience might be something like, but better than, the wonderfully lovely and satisfying visual world which mescaline disclosed to me, though all its contents, in my case, were perfectly ordinary physical objects.”
Why the two “ifs”? What his experience showed, according to his description of it, was that there is a state of consciousness corresponding to traditional ideas of Heaven or of Paradise. He reported that he well remembered thinking “that even the Celestial City could not be more beautiful than this.” And he remembered thinking that the experience was “completely satisfying, so that nothing better could be wished for,” but then he added “or so it seemed at the time.” But he gives no reason to justify the “or so it seemed at the time.” Did he later come to see that there was something illusory about the experience? He gives no indication that that is the case. He objects to William James’s characterization of “our normal waking consciousness” as “rational consciousness” by noting, “I am not prepared to admit that the ‘mescaline’ type of consciousness is irrational. So far as I can see, this drug (unlike some others) does not affect one’s reasoning powers at all.”
Price does give a reason for not using the term “mystical” to describe his mescaline experience. He writes, “In my experience there did not seem to be anything like the ‘dissolution of the ego’ which most mystics have described.” He contrasts his experience of gazing at an armchair with Aldous Huxley’s report of an encounter, while under the influence of mescaline, with the legs of a bamboo chair, in The Doors of Perception.
Price: “I remember being fascinated by a certain armchair a foot or two away from me, which seemed to me the most beautiful sight I had ever seen, so satisfying that one might be content just to gaze at it for ages. (It looked very different when seen with ordinary eyes next morning.) But not only did it seem fascinatingly beautiful; there was a strong impression of being confronted with an independent entity, existing somehow for its own sake, as an end in itself, and a strong impression also of what some philosophers have called haecceitas (literally, ‘thisness’)—an impression of being confronted not merely with some independent entity or other, but with this single individual one, not as a member of any class, but just as the individual entity that it was. And that it should so exist, as the individual entity that it was, appeared to be something intrinsically good.”
Here is what Price writes about the experience reported by Huxley: “In [a] passage about a bamboo chair which he saw, he speaks of ‘not merely gazing at those bamboo legs, but actually being them.’” And he quotes another sentence by Huxley: “In my present state, awareness was not referred to as ego; it was, so to speak, on its own.” Price goes on to say that nothing like that happened to him: “What philosophers have called the subject-object relation did not vanish. It did, however, seem less important and less insistent than it ordinarily does because the visible world, seen in the new way which mescaline induces, was so delightful and so satisfying that in the enjoyment of it one “forgot oneself,’ as we say. But this quite familiar ‘forgetting oneself’ does not amount to anything like the dissolution of the ego which mystics have described. It might have been very nice to be the armchair on which I gazed with such delight and fascination, or at any rate to have the experience in which such paradoxical language seems appropriate. And yet I am not so sure. It was also very nice to be, or seem to be, aware of the armchair in its haecceitas, as just this individual entity existing for its own sake, and as something whose existence was wholly good.”
How does all this point to the view that psychedelic experience and Christianity go hand in hand? Price did not mention Christianity, after all, nor any other religious tradition, except for his observation that his experience did not amount to the kind of transcendence of the ego reported by mystics, as in Huxley’s description of not just seeing, but being, the bamboo chair legs he was looking at. But consider the belief, which Christianity inherited from Judaism, that each thing that God has created is good—not “good for” something, but simply good in itself. The term haecceitas, which Price employed to describe what he saw as the individual uniqueness of the armchair that captured his attention during his mescaline experience, was originated by the medieval Christian philosopher Duns Scotus. Another medieval Christian philosopher, Nicholas of Cusa, also expresses the goodness of the existence of each individual creature and the tranquility and peacefulness experienced by Price:
“God in His infinite goodness gives being to all in the way in which each can receive it. With Him there is no jealousy. He communicates being without distinction; and, since all receive being in accord with the demands of their contingent nature, every creature rests content in its own perfection, which God has freely bestowed upon it. None desires the greater perfection of any other; each loves by preference that perfection which God has given it and strives to develop and preserve it intact.”
And we seem to hear echoes also of Genesis 1:31: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.” Notice that the scripture says “every thing,” not “everything.”
Huxley also used some Christian terminology in The Doors of Perception, and there is a Christian mystical tradition of the annihilation of the self in oneness with God; but Huxley, along with his friends Christopher Isherwood and Gerald Heard, had for years associated with the Vedanta Society of Hollywood. Vedanta, which is the non-dualistic philosophy of the Hindu tradition, teaches that the ego, that part of the self which expresses individuality, eventually realizes that it is one with the Self, which is beyond individuality. There is a clear contrast between Vedanta and the view expressed by the Christian philosopher, Nicholas of Cusa, and experienced by Price on his mescaline trip.
The contrast between Huxley’s and Price’s respective experiences induced by mescaline doesn’t in itself show that psychedelic experience supports Christianity rather than Vedanta. It can be taken instead that one has a choice between the two. But I am satisfied with that. My reason for preferring Christianity over Vedanta is that I want to have everlasting life without ceasing to be the individual person who I am. The reason I believe in God is that I just find myself with the very personal knowledge of which person I am out of all the persons there are. I’m not aware of how that is something that I could have decided, and it doesn’t make sense to me to think that this most personal fact is caused by an impersonal Nature or Brahman or Void, nor am I aware of any reason to doubt that it is a fact and, moreover, one in the absence of which no other fact could be acted upon. The reason I am a Christian is that I believe that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ teachings and Paul’s vision of our being children of God, who die with Christ and are resurrected with Christ, express the deepest truths about the ultimate goal of living.
I am well aware that there are psychedelic people who prefer other religious traditions as well as those who are atheists. My mission is not to try to persuade anyone to take a psychedelic trip or to become a Christian (although it is true that in Psychedelic Christianity I dare any despairing intellectual who professes the belief that life is meaningless to take 250-500 micrograms of LSD). Rather, it is to tell the truth about my experiences and to help people to see that the beauty and truth of the great Christian religion are livable options for those with (spiritual) eyes to see and (spiritual) ears to hear—and those include the physically blind and deaf. After all, the physically afflicted were among the first to recognize Christ.
Huston Smith’s Cleansing the Doors of Perception is a collection of essays on the religious significance of entheogenic plants and chemicals, written over a thirty-nine year period. (https://www.amazon.com/Cleansing-Doors-Perception-Significance-Etheogenic/dp/1591810086/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1548458169&sr=1-1&keywords=cleansing+the+doors+of+perception+by+huston+smith) It begins with an account of his first psychedelic experience—as part of Dr. Timothy Leary’s project at the Center for Personality Research at Harvard University in 1961 and, like Price’s, Huxley’s (and mine, I might add) via mescaline–and it concludes with a summing up of his reflections which he wrote for the first publication of this book in 2000.
[A note on terminology: Smith declares in the Preface that he prefers the terms entheogen(s) and entheogenic (“God-containing” or “God-enabling”) over the term psychedelic (“mind-manifesting”) because he thinks the latter is too bound up with a particular time period, “the psychedelic sixties.” However, he doesn’t replace psychedelic with entheogen or entheogenic in the chapters that are reprints of essays that he wrote during that time period. I don’t share his qualms about psychedelic and will use both it and entheogen interchangeably.]
When I took my first psychedelic trip, in 1968, while I was somewhat apprehensive at first, the experience was otherwise wholly positive and enjoyable. Like Price, I was struck by the deep, never before seen colors. I became aware of rich details of things I saw and heard that must have been there all along but that I wouldn’t have normally noticed. Everything was absolutely new and fresh. I remember saying to my friend, “I didn’t know it would be so much fun!” Smith’s first trip was quite different: “The world into which I was ushered was strange, weird, uncanny, significant, and terrifying beyond belief.” (p. 10) In the front matter of the book he quotes R. Gordon Wasson: “Ecstasy! In common parlance ecstasy is fun. But ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles. After all, who will choose to feel undiluted awe? The unknowing vulgar abuse the word; we must recapture its full and terrifying sense.” (p. viii)
In Smith’s account of his mescaline trip, which took place at Timothy Leary’s home on New Years Day 1961, he also writes, “Later, after the peak had passed and I had walked a few steps, I said to Tim, ‘I hope you know what you’re playing around with here. I realize I’m still under the influence and that things probably look different from your side, but it looks to me like you’re taking an awful chance in these experiments. Objective tests might reveal that my heart had been beating normally this afternoon, but there is such a thing as people being frightened to death. I feel like I’m in an operating room, having barely squeaked through an ordeal in which for two hours my life hung in the balance.” (p. 12)
I later had an experience like that, too. It was the worst trip I ever had. I had a vision of the Devil—but I reminded myself that I didn’t believe that the Devil existed—and immediately after, my heart was beating so fast that I thought it would surely exhaust itself and I would soon die. I think most people with much experience with psychedelics will at some point have undergone the classic “bad trip” or “bummer.” And these colloquialisms don’t do justice to the terror. And this is part of the anti-addictive property of psychedelics. People tend to take them less frequently over time and eventually stop altogether because they feel that they have learned what there is to learn, to the point that trying to repeat the experience isn’t worth hazarding another trial by ordeal. At least that has been my experience. I’m not trying to persuade anyone not to take another trip either. But my experience was also that a bad trip could be as deeply instructive as a more pleasant one, and I went on to have other trips after that one, including a big one during which I felt no resistance at all, and it seemed to me that there was a very real sense in which I died and was instantaneously reborn.
There are some people who have a glimpse of Hell on their first trip, with the result that their first trip is their only trip, and they find it difficult to conceive why anyone who has had such an experience would ever want to take another trip. But despite the terror Smith underwent on his first trip, he also knew that there was something of deep value in it, and it was not his last. He continues, “For several years following my initiation, the entheogens were the center of my reflective and social life. Reflectively, to have become overnight a visionary—one who not merely believes in the existence of a more momentous world than this one but who has actually visited it—was no small matter. How could what felt like an epochal change in my life have been crowded into a few hours and occasioned by a chemical?…if chemistry does not tell the whole story, what is that story? And what part do chemicals, replacing angels as divine intermediaries, play in it?
“Questions like these assaulted me with an urgency that reconstructed my social life. Family and friends remained in place, but beyond those I sought out associates who shared my compulsion to talk about and understand our shared secret. This is the stuff of which churches are made, and with the Harvard Project an ad hoc ‘church’ emerged…. What to make of the entheogens was the question, and we lived for the times when, like Socrates and his friends, we could hang out together to talk.” He reports that once every month or so, they gathered to take their sacrament “in a vaguely ritualistic context—incense, candles, favorite poems, passages from sacred texts, and spontaneous inputs in the style of Quaker meetings.” (pp. 15-16)
The foregoing is from the introduction to Chapter 2, “Do Drugs Have Religious Import?” which consists of an essay that was originally published in the Journal of Philosophy (Oct. 1, 1964). His answer to the question in the title is an unequivocal Yes. He criticizes R. C. Zaehner’s case for a No answer as a refusal to look at the evidence: “What we seem to be witnessing in Zaehner’s Mysticism, Sacred and Profane is a reenactment of the age-old pattern in the conflict between science and religion. Whenever a new controversy arises, religion’s first impulse is to deny the disturbing evidence science has produced…. When the fact that drugs can trigger religious experiences becomes incontrovertible, discussion will move to the more difficult question of how this fact is to be interpreted.” (p. 24)The scientific evidence he has in mind here is the Good Friday Experiment, about which I will say more later.
He goes on to tackle the difficult question of the relation between psychedelic experience and the rest of one’s life, and concludes, “Drugs appear to be able to induce religious experiences; it is less evident that they can produce religious lives.” (p. 30) He criticizes what he calls “the religion of religious experience,” which he characterizes as having as its goal “the acquisition of desired states of experience irrespective of their relation to life’s other demands and components.” He writes, “If the religion of religious experience is a snare and a delusion, it follows that no religion that fixes its faith primarily in substances that induce religious experiences can be expected to come to a good end. What promised to be a shortcut will prove to be a short circuit; what began as a religion will end as a religious surrogate.” (p. 31)
Here we begin to get to the heart of why I think Smith’s book points towards psychedelic Christianity. A lot hinges on what he means by a religion’s “fixing its faith primarily in substances that induce religious experiences.” I think what he means is that what is of supreme importance is not the substances themselves, as if one were to set a pill on an altar and bow down to it, nor is it the religious experiences themselves “irrespective,” as he says, “of their relation to life’s other demands and components,” as if one accrues merit points for each psychedelic trip, with the times in between counted as boring details. Rather it is the difference the religious experiences make in one’s life, including all the times when one is not on a psychedelic trip. Somewhere in his writings, Smith coins (or possibly quotes—I don’t remember which) a slogan: “Altered states should lead to altered traits.” Of course, it isn’t just any alteration either. It should be an alteration for the better. But I can easily see a religion being accused by outsiders of putting its faith primarily in substances that induce religious experiences, when what is really happening is that its adherents emphasize the importance of the substance because they have observed that it tends to produce religious experiences which in turn lead to lives that are changed for the better.
Such is the case of the Native America Church, whose members have had to fight legal battles to establish their right to use peyote, which contains mescaline, for religious purposes. In one of the later chapters of Cleansing the Doors of Perception Smith quotes from a collection of testimonials by members of the Native American Church. Many of these testimonials emphasize the efficacy of peyote, which they call “the Medicine.” Some of the quotations taken in isolation could be misinterpreted as expressing worship of peyote, but when one reads them all, one understands that the reason they believe in the Medicine is not that it enables them to acquire desirable experiences with no connections to the rest of their lives, but rather because it has changed their lives for the better.
It is quite clear in this chapter that Smith does not regard the Native American Church as vulnerable to the criticism of being a religion of religious experience which will end as a religious surrogate rather than a genuine religion. Is this why I say that Smith’s book, like Price’s essay, points the way to psychedelic Christianity? It is part of the reason. The example of the Native American Church shows that the sacramental use of psychedelics in the context of a church is a workable possibility. But Native Americans might not want to characterize their religion as psychedelic Christian. The testimonials in Smith’s book indicate the religion of the Native American Church is theistic and in accord with the spirit of Christianity, but the members don’t appear to be eager to identify their religion as Christian. For example, Albert Hensley, a Winnebago, is quoted as saying, “Our favorite term for Peyote is Medicine. To us it is a portion of the body of Christ, even as the communion bread is believed to be a portion of Christ’s body for Christians. In the Bible, Christ spoke of a comforter who was to come. Sent by God, this comforter came to the Indians in the form of this holy Medicine. We know whereof we speak. We have tasted of God and our eyes have been opened.” (p. 117)
An unidentified Kiowa says this: “In the first creation God himself used to talk to people and tell them what to do. Long after, Christ came along among the white people and told them what to do. Then God gave us Indians Peyote. That’s how we found God.” (p. 118)
Having read the testimonies Smith has collected, I would count members of the Native American Church as psychedelic Christians, but I suspect that a history of being disapproved of by non-psychedelic Christians leads them to contrast their religion with that of Christians who don’t believe in the Medicine.
To complete the picture of why I think Smith’s book poses a problem to which psychedelic Christianity is the solution, we need to consider, first, his criticisms of Leary’s leadership of the psychedelic movement, and then what he writes about his participation in the Good Friday Experiment.
The problem, again, is the difficult question of how best to integrate one’s psychedelic experiences with the rest of one’s life. The solution to this problem is not made any easier by the answer of the mainstream culture, which is that no one should have any psychedelic experiences in the first place, or, for anyone who has done so, that he or she should stop doing it. But this is nothing new. Christianity itself was illegal for a longer period of time than psychedelics have been illegal.
Timothy Leary’s attempted solution to this part of the problem was to seek publicity in the hope that curiosity would induce enough people to try psychedelics to ensure that the good news would spread by word of mouth so that societal resistance would be overwhelmed. Smith thinks this is where the psychedelic movement “went off the rails,” as he puts it. Smith is not alone in this kind of criticism of Leary. Albert Hoffman, the discover of LSD, says the following in an endorsement printed on the back cover of Smith’s book: “His [Smith’s] views are completely in accord with my own,” and he expresses similar criticisms of Leary in his book, LSD: My Problem Child. And Michael Pollan, in his new book, How to Change Your Mind, similarly blames Leary, whom he calls a “disgraced scientist,” for the backlash that curtailed scientific research into the promise of psychedelics. This is a topic for another day, but I will just say, at this point, that, as someone who would have been unlikely to have been chosen as an experimental subject or as one of the leaders of society to be informed of the secret of LSD, I am grateful to Tim for letting the cat out of the bag.
Smith begins his criticism of Leary’s leadership with a backhanded compliment, as follows:
“History shows that minority faiths are viable, but only when they are cradled in communities that are solid and structured enough to constitute what in effect are churches. To date , the psychedelic movement shows no signs of having within it the makings of such a church . . . but perhaps I should qualify that in one respect. The psychedelic movement does have a charismatic leader: a man of intelligence, culture, and charm who is completely self-assured and apparently fearless. When Arthur Kleps, head of a branch of the short-lived Neo-American Church, testified before the Special Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Narcotics that ‘we regard Dr. Timothy Leary with the same special love and respect as was reserved by the early Christians for Jesus, by Muslims for Mohammed, and by Buddhists for Gautama,’ we sensed the presence of charisma, the magnetism of a person who is regarded by his followers as an embodiment of spiritual power.” (p. 36)
These comments interest me personally because I was a member of the Neo-American Church from 1971-1978 and knew Art Kleps well, years after Smith had called the church “short-lived” in 1967. And you can do an internet search and see for yourself that the church still maintains an active website and accepts members, even though Art Kleps died in 1999. And Art was the founder of the Neo-American Church, not head of a branch of it.
Some nine years after his Senate testimony, Art excommunicated Leary from the Neo-American Church for the occultism evident in his “Starseed Transmission” statement. And three years later I left the Neo-American Church, having doubts about the philosophy of solipsistic nihilism that Art espoused.
My experience supports the statement that Smith makes after acknowledging Leary’s fearlessness and charisma. He says that having a charismatic leader is not enough. Then he goes on to make three principal criticisms of the psychedelic movement (as it was in 1967): that it lacks a social philosophy, that it is antinomian, and that it fails to draw the line between the exoteric and the esoteric. (p. 37)
As for the criticism that the movement lacks a social philosophy, after noting striking parallels between Tertullian’s admonition to the early Christians on how to live in confrontation with the Roman Empire and Leary’s advice to those who had tuned in to psychedelic experience that they should drop out of American social institutions, Smith points out that an important difference is that the early Christians, unlike the psychedelic enthusiasts, expected the imminent end of history through divine intervention. He argues that this apocalypticism gave them a philosophy of history that justified their refusal to take part in politics, trade, or academic philosophy. (pp. 37-38) But is it really so clear that the psychedelic movement, especially in those early years, lacked this element of apocalypticism? I think that many of us regarded the sudden widespread availability and use of LSD as divine intervention that marked, perhaps not the end of history, but the end of it as we had known it up to that point.
Smith continues in his criticism of Leary’s leadership by noting that another possibility, rather than apocalypticism, as an alternative to the shortcomings of the prevailing culture, would have been a revolutionary social program of improvements that the psychedelic counterculture would make. But he doesn’t think Leary or any other psychedelic leaders have put forth any such proposals. (p. 38) In response, I ask that we consider the American, French, and Bolshevik revolutions, and the fact that two of the three resulted in rule by terror. It might have actually been a good thing that Leary didn’t have much in the way of a detailed proposal as to how society should be run and instead advised people not to follow leaders, while at the same time acting as though he thought he was one.
Smith thinks there is one other possible path that could have been followed. Rather than expecting divine intervention or advocating a revolutionary social program to improve society, the psychedelic movement could have established utopian enclaves in which lives could be lived independently of the mores of the mainstream culture. And he recognizes that some attempts were made in this direction, but he observes that none have proved to be viable in the long term. (ibid.)
He concludes that the psychedelic movement, being neither apocalyptic, revolutionary, nor utopian, has failed to produce a social message that is worthy of respect, and this is his first main criticism of it. (p. 39)
His second main criticism comes under the heading of antinomianism, “the belief that it is possible to advance in virtue to a point where one stands above the law and is entitled to lay aside its commands in the name of a higher morality.” (ibid.) He doesn’t explain or give any examples of the ways he thinks Leary or other psychedelic leaders have advocated antinomianism. I assume he has in mind the fact that they continued to use LSD after it was made illegal and encouraged others to do so also. I know that Art Kleps and all members of the Neo-American Church held the position that using psychedelic substances to stimulate visionary experience was protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Smith himself made the same argument in favor of members of the Native American Church being exempt from laws against the possession of peyote. Did he think the Native Americans should have ceased practicing their religion if the U.S. Congress had not effectively agreed by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993? Was the Native American Church guilty of antinomianism before that by insisting on the rights of its members to use peyote as a sacrament?
Again, the force of Smith’s charge of antinomianism against the psychedelic movement circa 1967 comes down to the problem of finding a context of guidance as to how to live one’s life in the light of one or more religious experiences induced by the ingestion of a psychedelic. This problem is especially acute when the powers-that-be regard the use of psychedelics as dangerous and destructive and pass and enforce laws against it. Under such circumstances, defying the law is necessary in order to find out if taking a psychedelic really can produce a religious experience, but finding out that it can doesn’t solve the problem of how to live one’s life accordingly.
Now we come to Smith’s criticism of the psychedelic movement circa 1967 that I find most objectionable: that it fails to observe the esoteric/exoteric divide. He cites Jesus’ admonition not to cast pearls before swine, and writes, “In its early centuries, Christianity reserved a number of its dogmas for those who had undergone probationary instruction and been baptized. The promise that was exacted of them, ‘I will not speak of thy mysteries to thine enemies,’ still appears in orthodox Christian liturgies.” Next, he cites examples from Hinduism and writes, “India honors higher states of consciousness fully as much as today’s psychedelic proponents do, but insists that if they are accessed by persons who are unprepared for them, one of two things will happen. Either (as I have said) the subject will be damaged, or the significance of the experience will be missed and the encounter trivialized. . . . The psychedelic movement pays lip service to these dangers by advising screening and preparing subjects, but on the whole it honors the esoteric/exoteric distinction only perfunctorily.” (p. 42) He then discusses the Ch’an/Zen tradition in Buddhism, which came to emphasize integrating the satori experience into daily life. However, as far as I can see, this fact has nothing to do with the esoteric/exoteric divide, but is a return to the main point about the value of the peak experience being realized in how one lives one’s life.
I object to Smith’s criticism of Leary’s failure to reserve the holy teachings for the select few because I think it is unChristian and unpsychedelic. (It is interesting that Art Kleps criticized Leary from the opposite direction, that is, for the esotericism implied in his latching onto the fad of occultism.) True, Jesus said we shouldn’t cast pearls before swine and distinguished between his followers, to whom had been given the secret of the Kingdom of God, and those outside who look but don’t perceive and listen but don’t understand. (Mk 4:11-12) And he told the twelve when he sent them out that if any place didn‘t welcome them and refused to hear them, “You, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mk 6:7-122) But he never told them to withhold from anyone the message that the Kingdom is near. On the contrary, he said, “There is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” (Mk 4:22) And he said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)
And I say that is unpsychedelic to arrogate to oneself and one’s associates the right to decide who gets to try psychedelics and who doesn’t. The peak psychedelic experience blows away such pretensions.
I have great respect for Huston Smith’s life and work. I used his The World’s Religions as a text in the Great Religions of the World class I taught for years. His ability, to present the viewpoint of each of the world’s religious traditions as if looking out from inside that tradition, has no equal that I know of. He is a saint for explaining clearly why religion matters in an era when too many people think “scientific” materialism will do the job, and he is a psychedelic hero for helping Congress to see the light about the religious rights of members of the Native American Church to use peyote. But I think his assessment of the psychedelic movement and his recommendations for the way forward are unworkable and unduly pessimistic. He writes, “Despite the fact that I do not see within the psychedelic movement the makings of a viable church, I hope that (as legal use of the entheogens seems destined for the immediate future to be restricted to research) ‘religious research’ will not be considered a contradiction in terms. If a sincere group wishing to use the entheogens for genuinely religious purposes were permitted to do so while qualified observers kept close check on what happens to the group and in the individual lives of its members, the result would at least be interesting, and might be instructive.” (p. 43)
When Smith says that he doesn’t see within the psychedelic movement the makings of a viable church, he is evidently excluding the Native American Church from what he is calling “the psychedelic movement,” because it clearly is a viable church, as he himself recognizes. More importantly, for everyone who believes that psychedelics can induce genuine religious experiences but who is not a member of the Native American Church, Smith’s conclusion involves an abject surrender of the First Amendment right to freely practice one’s religion. His statements raise a serious question: Who are the ones qualified to permit or to forbid a sincere group to use entheogens for genuinely religious purposes? In regard to his hope that religious research might be permitted, presumably the “qualified observers” who are supposed to keep “close check on what happens to the group and in the individual lives of its members” will not themselves be members of the group or even sympathetic “fellow travelers,” for that would compromise scientific objectivity. But no self-respecting sincere and genuine religious group would consent to having purportedly neutral “researchers” to keep close check on the individual lives of its members in a social and legal context where governmental officials claim the authority to pass judgment on whether or not they should be permitted to continue to practice their religion.
In Smith’s book, there are only two psychedelic trips of his own that he describes in any detail. I have already quoted parts of his description of his first trip in Timothy Leary’s home on New Years Day 1961. You will recall that he found that trip to be terrifying but also productive of an epochal change in his life, and he said to Leary, “I hope you know what you’re playing around with here.”The other trip that he describes in some detail occurred on Good Friday of 1962, during what came to be called the Good Friday Experiment or, sometimes, “the Miracle of Marsh Chapel.” The contrast between Smith’s remarks to and about Leary and his comments about Walter Pahnke, the designer of the Good Friday Experiment, is quite striking. (It is worth noting that Leary was one of the two academic advisors who were responsible for supervising Pahnke’s project.) Of Pahnke he writes that “it is difficult to imagine how the history of the entheogens might have been different had he not died in a scuba-diving accident, for he brought to his serious involvement with mysticism the scientific training of a medical doctor and his intention to devote his career to studying the resources of chemicals for religion.” (p. 16)
Chapter Seven of the book consists of an interview of Smith by Thomas Roberts, Professor of Educational Psychology at Northern Illinois University, about a previously unreported incident that occurred during the Good Friday Experiment. Smith tells about the design of the experiment and the previously unreported incident (one of the members of the experimental group thought he had been chosen by God to announce to the world the dawning of the Messianic Age and had chosen a singularly ineffective method of carrying out his mission), and then Roberts asks him, “Anything else?”
Smith replies, “Only the gratitude I feel toward Wally for having mounted the experiment…. [I]t enlarged my understanding of God by affording me the only powerful experience I have had of his personal nature. I had known and firmly believed that God is love and that none of love’s nuances could be absent from his infinite nature; but that God loves me, and I him, in the concrete way that human beings love individuals, each most wanting from the other what the other most wants to give and with everything that might distract from that holy relationship excluded from view—that relation with God I had never before had. It’s the theistic mode that doesn’t come naturally to me, but I have to say for it that its carryover topped those of my other entheogenic epiphanies. From somewhere between six weeks and three months (I should judge) I really was a better person—even at this remove, I remain confident of that. I slowed down a bit and was somewhat more considerate. I was able to some extent to prolong the realization that life really is a miracle, every moment of it, and that the only appropriate way to respond to this gift that we have been given is to be mindful of that gift at every moment and to be caring toward everyone we meet.” (p. 105)
And what was the design of the experiment? It was elegantly simple. There were twenty volunteer subjects, mostly students from Andover Newton Theological Seminary. There were ten more volunteer guides who had previous experience with entheogens. (Smith was one of the guides.) Fifteen of the thirty would receive a dose of psilocybin, and the other fifteen would receive as a placebo nicotinic acid, which produces a tingling sensation. It was a double-blind experiment. That is, neither the volunteers nor the investigator would be informed, until after the experiment, who had received the psilocybin and who had received the nicotinic acid. The experiment would take place on Good Friday in a small chapel, Marsh Chapel, in the basement of the building at Boston University where the Dean of the Chapel, Howard Thurman, would be conducting the Good Friday service, and the service would be piped into the chapel where the subjects were. The day after the experiment the subjects were to write a report about what they had experienced, and these reports would be scored by independent raters “on a scale of zero to three for the degree to which the subject’s experiences included the seven traits of mystical experience that W.T. Stace lists in his classic study, Mysticism and Philosophy.” The subjects were not told of Stace’s book beforehand nor were they encouraged to read any literature on mysticism they were not already familiar with from their studies. (p. 100)
Smith reports that the results were unambiguous. With the exception of one borderline case, those who had received the psilocybin reported religious experiences that matched the criteria on Stace’s list. Those who had received the placebo did not. Twenty five years later, Rick Doblin of the Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, located the participants and conducted follow-up interviews. The subjects who had received the psilocybin still vividly remembered details of the experiment and regarded it as a life-changing and beneficial event. Members of the control group reported that the experiment had had little impact on their lives, except for two of them who reported to Doblin that the service had had a beneficial effect in that it had inspired each of them to try psychedelics after the experiment. (https://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms.journal2.pdf)
Smith’s book highlights two interrelated problems concerning psychedelics: 1) the problem, for each person, of how to integrate psychedelic experience into his or her life as a whole, and 2) the problem, for society, of how to adjust to the existence of a sizable minority who have experimented with psychedelics and believe their lives have improved as a result. Smith thinks a viable church is the solution and criticizes the psychedelic movement for being unable to produce one, not counting the existence of the Native American Church, which predates what he calls “the psychedelic movement.” My claim is that psychedelic Christianity is the best solution for both of these problems.
What I mean by saying that psychedelic Christianity is the solution is that we don’t need a new church, we just need a deeper understanding of the one we already have. The worship service that was piped into the chapel where the Good Friday Experiment took place did not use some special “psychedelic” liturgy, nor was it the ritual of an exotic religion borrowed from someone else’s culture. Rather it was the product of centuries of organic development of rituals and language that evoke the sacred and connect our modern world with ancient truths.
The great Christian themes are forgiveness, love, and victory over death. One must take up one’s cross, that is, recognize that life involves one’s own personal suffering as well as joy and that one does have to die one’s own death from this life, while at the same time one is saved from eternal death and separation from the people one loves. Psychedelic experience has no truths truer than these to teach, but it can intensify one’s gratitude for them, making it easier to fulfill the greatest commandment.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:36-40)
I’m not saying it is easy except during rare moments, but integrating one’s psychedelic experience into the rest of one’s life, turning altered states into altered traits, is no different from one’s goal as a Christian to live one’s life, day by day and moment by moment, in accord with the good news that the Kingdom of God is near. In the Kingdom of God everyone fulfills those two commandments.
Of course, there are those who think that Christianity doesn’t make sense and so won’t be persuaded that psychedelic Christianity is the solution to anything. Up until eight or nine years ago, I would have been one of them. My psychedelic experiences convinced me that religion is important, but not that there is a personal God. That has come after a long time of reflecting on philosophical questions, especially the question of personal identity, as I already mentioned.
There are some people who understand Christianity in a way that doesn’t make sense to me. For example, I think people are right to be cautious about all drugs—legal, illegal, psychedelic or not—and that some people would be better off never taking any drug than risking addiction to a bad drug. But I also think some drugs can save lives and some can save souls. Drugs can be used to commit suicide. On the other hand, I have heard of more than one case in which someone who was suicidal was persuaded by a friend to try taking a psychedelic and came to love life again. So, it isn’t wise to take either of the positions “Drugs are good!” or “Drugs are bad!” But several people on separate occasions independently of one another (but not independently of a source who came up with it, I imagine) have argued that since the Greek word pharmakeia means “sorcery,” and the Bible condemns sorcery, it follows that the Bible condemns the use of psychedelic drugs (pharmaceuticals). Of course, it would equally follow from those premises that the Bible condemns the use of aspirin, insulin, blood pressure- and cholesterol-lowering drugs, and everything else one can buy at a pharmacy. But that doesn’t seem to bother them, and they go ahead and warn others that I am a false prophet leading people astray, and so is anyone else who says psychedelics and Christianity are compatible. Such people are no doubt sincere and mean well, but I think they resemble the scribes and Pharisees who condemned Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath and charged that his healing must be by the power of Beelzebub.
And, of course, there are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Neo-Pagans, and followers of other religious traditions, who do not accept Christianity, psychedelic or not. I would be willing to engage any such person in a mutually respectful conversation in which I would learn about his or her worldview and would try to explain why Christianity makes sense to me. In this essay I have just wanted to explain how I think both Price’s account of his mescaline experience and Smith’s book about the religious significance of psychedelics can be taken to support the view that the truths learned through psychedelic experience and the truths that Christianity teaches are the same, and, as I said, that we don’t need a new church but rather a deeper understanding of the one we already have.