On Good Friday in 1962, 20 divinity students gathered in the basement of Marsh Chapel at Boston University to hear a sermon delivered by Howard Thurman. Ten of them received a dose of psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in “magic mushrooms.” The other ten received a placebo. Of the ten who received psilocybin, most reported having one of the most profound spiritual experiences of their lives. Nine of them became clergy and were still clergy several years later. In the control group, only four did.
Some psychedelics have been called “entheogens,” because they generate an experience of God (theo). In addition to perceptual changes, people often feel a presence or closeness to the divine, or a sense that they perceive ultimate reality. It would be easy to say that this is “all in their head,” except that we can apply the same brain science to people praying or meditating and see similarities. All spiritual experiences are brain experiences.
And there’s good evidence that such substances have had a role in the development of religions for thousands of years. Some indigenous people in the Amazon use ayahuasca, and in North America use peyote, and in Australia use pituri. (It’s important to note that only by seeking institutionalization as a “church” did indigenous people in North America gain protection for their spiritual practices, and religious use of peyote only received federal protection in 1996.)
Recent archeological evidence even suggests that Jews in ancient Israel burned cannabis on the sacrificial altar. For thousands of years, in temples and cathedrals, burning incense even provided a mild psychoactive effect, boosting mood and making humans more open to spiritual experiences. If these substances can aid or create a sense of transcendence, why would we be surprised that they had religious significance? When we open the Bible to Ezekiel and read of visions of wheels full of eyes, it is easy to imagine that some kind of naturally-occurring psychedelic played a role in his visions.
And why shouldn’t they? If, as I said on Monday, the Tacana people of the Amazon are right, and God did indeed provide a cure for every human ailment in the plants among us, why wouldn’t God include a substance that would make us more open to visions and inspiration? Drug policy reformers often point out that “drug” is a pharmacological term, a modern word that implies industrial production (from the words “dry goods”), whereas a more appropriate term that respects indigenous and historical origins is “plant medicine.” These naturally-occurring substances are living beings, part of a sacred web of life which includes human beings.
Two years ago, I was a volunteer in a Johns Hopkins study of entheogens and religious leaders. The study was an exploration of how faith leaders would interpret psilocybin-induced mystical experiences. I had two sessions in a safe, supervised setting, and I was asked to compare these experiences with other spiritual experiences. I have no hesitation saying these were as “genuine” as my encounters with God in my conversion or call to ministry. Moreover, I would say these experiences left me permanently changed, with a deeper appreciation of being fully present and in the moment. I have less anxiety and more confidence that there is life beyond this one. I feel more connected to other human beings, and—I think—I am more loving towards them.
There is a natural tendency for those of us raised in American Christianity to view this kind of spiritual experience as somehow “cheating.” Shouldn’t mystical visions require days of fasting prayer, long pilgrimages, and long dark nights of the soul? But this attitude is what we call “achievement spirituality.” It has its roots in the notion that we have to earn God’s favor, and that mystical fellowship with God simply couldn’t be as simple as opening your hand to receive it. Moreover, plant medicine is not a substitute for those other disciplines and experiences; but it could enhance or supplement them.
We also know that there are certain regions of the brain that relax during intense prayer and meditation, regions responsible for maintaining a distinction between self and the world, what’s “in here” and what is “out there.” This sense of separateness can be overwhelmed in an entheogenic experience. Distinctions between self and universe, or self and God, can fall away. One comes to know in a powerful way that God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
If the church is to have a mature and justice-seeking approach to drug policy, we need to recognize that a) certain plant medicines have sacramental importance to many people, b) even our own Christian traditions in the West may owe more than we suspect to the sacramental use of plant medicines in our ancient history, and c) plant medicine will likely affect religious practice in the future .
Holy Mystery, we see you hidden and revealed in sacraments like baptism and eucharist. Open our eyes to the sacramental around us every day—in food, in neighbors, in plants, in work and play, and in our very breath. Amen.
On Monday, I shared the origins of the War on Drugs, which was weaponized for the sake of white supremacy and imperialism, to attack the “antiwar left” and black communities. Yesterday I shared how the church’s individualistic perspective on drug use and addiction distracts us from looking at systemic solutions. Today, my goal is to describe the importance of plant medicine to religious practice. Tomorrow, I will talk about harm reduction as an important goal for the drug policy of the future.