Tuesday, 20 April 2010

THREE QUESTIONS: From Mushrooms to the Nature of Religion

Psilocybin, or hallucinogenic mushroom, can give a genuine and life changing religious experience. This article is not all about drug based spirituality, but its thinking develops from the implications of psychedelics.

That psychedelic spirituality is genuine is a startling statement coming from a professional Christian authority. Mark Galli deserves all credit for his integrity in publicising the new interest emerging by science in hallucinogenics.

From there he examines three functions of religion. or as I put it, three useful questions we can ask about any religion, cult or tradition. This powerful triad gives us a definition or profile of the faith under scrutiny, in a nutshell.

Galli summarises the findings of a Johns Hopkins study in which a chronic depressive, at low ebb due to cancer, chemotherapy and other external factors that made life worthless to him, rediscovered a profound sense of meaning after taking a psilocybin mushroom.

Researchers from around the world are gathering this week in San Jose, Calif., for the largest conference on psychedelic science held in the United States in four decades. They plan to discuss studies of psychedelics for treating depression in cancer patients, obsessive-compulsive disorder, end-of-life anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction to drugs or alcohol.

The results so far are encouraging. However the scientists participating make cautious comments, clearly wishing to distance themselves from the uncontrolled personal experimentation of the 60s and 70s. Participants are not only monitored carefully by human observation while placed in peaceful, gentle surroundings, but their brains are also scanned to study effects and alert to warning signs of distress.

Most of the participants report the experience as one of the top most meaningful personal events in their lives. Their reports mirrored closely the accounts of religious mystical experiences: a deep oneness, a lack of ego, a lack of the need to control others, instead an attunement with them. Researchers are reporting some success in using psilocybin to ease the anxiety of patients with terminal illnesses.

This strongly resembles the early work of Dr. Timothy Leary of 60s and 70s fame. It also resembles the teachings of many shamanic traditions, so much so that it is even irritating to see persons in white coats doing a gosh wow! type of research as if they are actually discovering something. But it is nonetheless a sign of progress. As one of the researchers says “Thanks to changes over the last 40 years in the social acceptance of the hospice movement and yoga and meditation, our culture is much more receptive now, and we’re showing that these drugs can provide benefits that current treatments can’t.

So good, great, let’s hope that a saner approach to spirituality and drugs develops, especially as all those working in the field of illegal drugs are virtually unanimous that the so-called “war on drugs” is not only useless but actively damaging to our society. We use drugs to heal our illnesses of body and mind, so why do we divide off some of them and make them illegal? It only creates funding for crime, and contributes mightily to a huge industry of destructive porn and prostitution.

Returning to Galli his courage does not falter in exploring the implications of drug based mysticism for an established religion. As he does so he uses a powerful analysis of what religion is about.

As he says, if mystical experience of the Divine can be gifted by a mushroom, then Christianity, and by implication, no religion, can claim it’s “the one” which can bring us to the Divine. Ecstasy, or the quiet oneness of prayer or meditation, are experiences on offer with or without religious structures like church, temple or ritual. Or as Pagans would put it, the sacred is anywhere and everywhere.

Galli continues by observing that another great teaching of Christianity, to find the Divine in “deeds not creeds” is not unique to his faith. With honourable generosity he recognises that Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and “others” live moral lives. As he puts it “You don't need revelation to figure out that adultery, stealing, and murder are really bad ideas, and that there is something noble about caring for other human beings.” We might add perhaps you don’t need a vision of unity but it certainly helps.

Pagans are not mentioned even though in Britain we number as many as the Hindus he places first on his list. Presumably we come under that blurred “others.” But we shall not pout at being slighted. He is after all an establishment Christian writing within the churches hierarchies. He would have difficulty getting published if he included trance drugs AND Pagans in one article!

What I like very much and find most useful is Galli’s three categories of what religion is about. Firstly the mystical experience of the Divine. Secondly a personal morality which emerges from the mystical experience of unity with others. Pagans would enlarge this to include “all our relations” the tree. stone, star and animal cousins in the great Family of Life, the Web.

Thirdly a mythos, a story, a Way to go into a relationship with the Divine that partners the formless profundity of the direct mystical experience. Once we leave that state we cannot retain its immensity so we need our Stories to companion and support our journeys.

For Galli this is the Story of the Divine Son who came to visit humanity and awaits a visit from us. Pagans would point to other faiths which have given us similar Stories: Inanna, Isis, Cybele, Astarte, Mithras, Odin, Esus, Brighde, Aradia. We also gladly honour other kinds of Stories like Lucifer Lord of Light; Rhiannon Lady of the Sun; Sulis the Healer, all the Ancestors, or the Guardians of Place, and so on.

I might quibble with a detail of Galli’s article here and there. His concept of religious experience is startlingly limited to Sunday worship. He says “If religious experience is something that a drug can induce even more easily than spiritual ritual and disciplines, it may be time, for example, to rethink what many churches are trying to do on Sunday morning: create a memorable "worship experience." “ Again we need to remember that he is speaking from within church hierarchy which needs to assert a need for churches and priests: a lot of salaries depend on it.

It would be well if the emerging Pagan temple building projects were to stay aware of this issue. We must never, never lose the radical understanding that experience of the Divine lies all around us in toilets, rubbish heaps, washing up bowls, babies’ tummy rumbles, tree roots, sunsets and sex. It’s not to be found in any better way through those who hold certificates or in buildings used as ritual spaces over time.

Though that’s a very important quibble I am happy to return to Galli’s three way examination of religion, so Celtic in its triad. In asking what is THIS religion, THIS faith about? we have three useful questions.

How does it help us encounter the Divine as a real Other, a living relationship with the unity of life?

How does it help us grasp a morality to guide us to make that unity more of an everyday reality, living in awareness of others’ needs in relation to ours?

What Stories does it offer us that help us stay in touch with the first two?


“The End of Christianity as We Know It”
Mark Galli | posted 4/15/2010 09:10AM
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of “A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God” (Baker).

Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century. April 15-18, 2010 • San Jose, California


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