Ashley Lande and Dr Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes debated on Unbelievable? whether Christians could use psychedelic drugs. Physician Erik Strandness gives his thoughts from listening to their exchange, especially where their paths diverged on questions of purpose and suffering.
Renaissance and Enlightenment
Hallucinogens are enjoying a bit of a renaissance and like the historical renaissance finds itself morphing into an enlightenment materialism. What were once the vehicles of spiritual realization for shamans and mystery cults have now become therapeutic regimens for scientists and medical practitioners. It’s a fascinating subject because while the popular press promotes a war between science and religion, psychedelics have brokered a tentative peace. It was in this spirit of détente that Ashley Lande and Dr Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes met to discuss and debate the place of hallucinogenic drugs in both scientific and religious circles.
Lande was heavily into psychedelics until bad experiences led her to realize that the spiritual truth she had been seeking in drugs was only truly manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. Sjöstedt-Hughes, on the other hand, feels that these transformative drug experiences continue to be of both clinical and spiritual benefit.
Engaging the Interface
There is a great deal of both apprehension and optimism surrounding the relationship between psychedelics and religion. The religious person fears that hallucinogens will reduce their cherished faith to nothing but neurotransmitters, while the non-religious person waxes poetic about a world where spirituality can be chemically accessed without the need of divisive deities. Psychedelics straddle the border between the material and immaterial, the transcendent and immanent, and the natural and supernatural, which is at the very heart of the religion/science debate. Is spirituality ingested or the very air we breathe? Do psychedelics prove that religion is a chemical crack house or a portal to another world?
Dying Before We Die
The psychedelic renaissance has extended past mere nostalgia for the good old days of Timothy Leary, LSD and turning on, tuning in, and dropping out and delved deeper into the past by revisiting the substance induced spiritual experiences of the ancient Greek mystery cults such as the Eleusinian mysteries. Jordan Peterson dug into this topic in more detail on a recent podcast featuring Dr. Brian Muraresku, author of The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name , and Dr Carl Ruck, an authority on the ecstatic rituals of the god Dionysus.
The imputed benefit of the Eleusinian mysteries was to eliminate the fear of death by “dying before (one) dies.” Muraresku described these rituals as, “ceremon(ies) of death and rebirth,” where, “something fundamentally life-altering happens… that convinces these initiates they have transcended their mortality and they are guaranteed an afterlife.” It’s suspected that the psychedelics utilized in these rituals caused the initiate to experience the death of self while simultaneously becoming alive to the ongoing unity of all things. Death no longer had the last word on the matter but instead became the opening sentence to a far more extraordinary spiritual tome. Lande described this drug induced death and rebirth experience in her article Acidhead: God Took Me Higher.
I completely freaked out and asked my friend to call an ambulance. Instead, he set Be Here Now in front of me, and it fell open to a page with repeating phrases boldly printed, flanking a flaming Hindu god astride a warhorse: “YOU MUST DIE—MUST DIE.” My whole being shuddered with the horror of my impending death…And then the sky split open and I was reborn in an explosion of terrifying light. “There’s so much more than I ever thought there was,” I gasped, quivering and heaving, a sluice of tears and snot carrying me up onto the shore of something resembling new life.
Death to Self
This hallucinogen induced “dying before one dies” experience has been academically defined as ego death or ego loss. Sjöstedt-Hughes described it as a two-step process that begins with “losing yourself” followed by “connect(ing) with a greater whole.” He elaborated:
“You lose your sense of self, so you don’t realize who you are, you lose concepts, you lose all modes of thinking, concepts, percepts, memories and so on. You have no awareness, no self-consciousness. You don’t know that you are you, you don’t know anything.”
Ego death becomes the dissolution of the self into a sea of oneness, and while it may give hope that biological death is not the end, it generates a cognitive dissonance when the trip is over and the extinguished ego once again rears its ugly head. Once the drugs wear off, one falls from a divine height and is reduced to one more plebe in the the ranks of the walking dead. While absorption of the self into a larger divine bliss was exhilarating for Lande, she found herself disappointed by the lack of divine attributes she manifested when the psychedelic journey was over.
It raises the interesting question of why, without drugs, we understand ourselves as unique individuals with egos. If we really are nothing in the face of everything then why are we obsessed with significance, meaning and purpose? Why would we be so ego-centric 24-7 and then think the spiritual realm is ego-less? If being ego-less isn’t our baseline state and can only induced by drugs, then it would seem ego-centrism is our true reality.
I find it interesting that taking hallucinogenic drugs is often a communal affair, yet the end game is death to self. It appears that once the LSD takes effect you essentially have a room full of nobodies. I would argue that it’s difficult to sustain a Summer of Love when there are no objects for one’s affection.
O Death, Where is Your Sting?
Fear of death drove these mysteries but what was it that they were afraid of? Were they afraid of biological death or fearful that they wouldn’t meet the moral height requirement of the afterlife? Did they fear non-existence or remorse for not having lived a better earthly life? If sin is the sting of death then how do you deal with it when you “die before you die.”
Sjöstedt-Hughes made the interesting observation that part of Lande’s journey involved a search for moral clarity. Lande expanded on this struggle when she pointed out that once the exhilaration of the psychedelic experience was over, she found that she “was still this wretched, miserable person.” Psychedelics seem to echo the words of the snake that “You will be like God” but Lande discovered that the god that she had become didn’t behave very god like. The problem is that when human beings are divinized they just end up being holier than thou.
It appears that escaping to an amoral realm is of little benefit when you must return to a place where you obey laws, pay taxes, and wear masks. If the world is so steeped in morality, what is the benefit of amorality?
Most people look forward to an afterlife and believe that being a “good person” is the price of heavenly admission. Religion capitalizes on this by determining the height of the morality bar and helping nudge us over the top. Buddhism offers right action, Hinduism offers karmic regulations, and even atheism offers secular humanism. The problem, as Lande discovered, was that psychedelics offered no help in this regard.
The goal of every religion is to deal with humanities defective moral character and whether you call it bad karma, bad Juju, or just plain bad behavior, every religion offers a remedy. Christians would say that it is unrepentant sin that gives death its sting. Interestingly, psychedelics similar to Christianity, knows of both heavenly and hellish trips, the difference being that one is determined by the flip of a coin while the other is purchased with heavenly treasure
Lande pointed out that our metaphysical quest, whether fueled by drugs or religion, can be reduced to a hunger for grace in the presence of human fallenness. She referenced Christian missiologist Leslie Newbigin who “said that the real mystery at the center of the universe is not a metaphysical mystery, it’s not found in contemplating the vastness of things, although that can be fascinating, it’s in the mystery of how the holy can embrace the unholy, it’s the mystery of grace.”
Sjöstedt-Hughes defended the use of hallucinogens as therapy for PTSD and depression, but it appears that the vast majority of psychedelic experimentation is done by individuals who want to break on through to the other side. The connection between hallucinogens and religious experience would suggest that it is often used as a vehicle to find a cosmological center. Dr. Ruck, from the Peterson podcast, made the link between hallucinogens and religious experience even tighter by coining the term entheogen to describe these mind-altering substances. Lande, however, pointed out is very difficult to create a theological center with psychedelics.
She said that pantheism probably comes the closest to an organized spiritual conclusion but noted that it is manifest in a pot pouri of practices.
“Subjectivity reigns in the world of psychedelia which is why people splinter off in all different kinds of directions when their trying to build a cosmology around the psychedelic experience it just has no center.”
Sjöstedt-Hughes had no interest in psychedelics as tools for finding a cosmological center. The reason he offered, however, was because he wasn’t interested in explanations or certainty, an attitude I find a bit surprising for a philosopher.
“Psychedelics don’t give me a cosmology, I’m not looking for a cosmology, I don’t have a desire for a cosmology. I don’t want all the explanations. I don’t want the certainty.”
What if the success of psychedelics in treating depression and PTSD wasn’t due to pharmacology but rather metaphysicality? What if these drugs didn’t provide a chemical cure but rather set them on a journey for cosmological clarity?
License to Ill
We need to be very careful when we promote the use of psychedelics to treat mental disease. I have seen this firsthand with the use of marijuana which began as a street drug then became medicinal and now has expanded to legalized recreational use. Sadly, people confuse legal with safe and what ends up happening is that legal therapy ends up becoming a License to Ill. As a neonatologist, I have seen marijuana use during pregnancy skyrocket and I fear the adverse consequences it will have on the developing fetal brain. I worry that a renaissance in psychedelics will similarly end up being a dark age for our children.
Pharmacological research is only interested in specific medical measures and consistently fails to consider the cultural side-effects. While some drug labels warn of self-harm, they don’t bother to consider the possibility of societal suicidal ideation. We must always be on guard for the possibility that medical therapy will become a social disease.
Interestingly, it was human suffering, something that her drugs were incapable of resolving, that made Lande rethink her use of psychedelics. It was the faith of a childhood friend whose toddler died of leukemia at age 2 that caused her to reevaluate Christianity.
Distorted reality was of no help for Lande once the drugs wore off because she had to confront suffering and death with laser like focus.
Within my new age circles, “The Universe” was spoken of as though it were a sentient being with agency. It was a way of soft-pedaling around the idea of God, of inventing a benign demi-deity that orchestrated synchronicities and bestowed gifts but otherwise remained at a safe, only vaguely personal distance. What kind of perverse calculus of justice was “The Universe” meting out here? “Love and light,” the standard new age salutation went. My belief system didn’t have a category for dead toddlers. (My emphasis)
Lande realized that suffering, rather than a hindrance to faith, was what made Christianity uniquely relevant.
Who could possibly account for, atone for, give any hope of redemption in this roiling crucible of absurdly copious suffering and dead toddlers and terror other than this Jesus, God on the cross? What kind of God does that? I marveled…Tears rolled down my cheeks. Oh dear God. Jesus was the one all along. Kali couldn’t save me. Buddha couldn’t, either. LSD seemed to, for a time, but siphoned my soul in the end.
Psychedelics may result in temporary ego death but once your drug holiday is over you will find yourself once again alive to crying, mourning and suffering. Jesus, however, offers a death to self that results in a permanent resurrection without tears, sorrow, or pain. Lande explains this in her article.
I had to die, yes. But this was a dying-with, a dying with someone who had traversed every dark corner of the cosmos and prevailed, a dying with someone who had already given his life for me.
Tripping on Jesus
Are psychedelics and Christianity compatible? Sjöstedt-Hughes believes that they are and noted that, “psychedelics actually made (him) much more interested in theology, especially mysticism.” He felt that that these drugs could be an adjunct to the religious experience. Lande, however, disagreed because even though psychedelics had been a part of her personal journey, they ultimately resulted in spiritual poverty. LSD had been her fickle friend, but Jesus became her faithful companion.
The psychedelic experience seems uncertain. There is no guarantee that one will encounter inexplicable joy or devastating terror. The uncertainty of the experience makes it an unreliable religious aid since with each hit you don’t know if you will walk with God in the cool of the morning or run with the devil in the heat of the moment. Lande describes this tenuous relationship.
“LSD was my friend. My mercurial, exhilarating, terrifying, abusive friend. Sometimes she brought a party. Sometimes she brought an epiphany punctuated by thunder and shocked through by lightning that seemed to issue from the very finger of God. Sometimes she brought a riveting trauma that ripped away my innocence anew and rent a deep wound in my soul. I loved her. I feared her. But I could never trust her.”
The Good News is that when you partake of the body and blood it will always result in a good trip, and you don’t have to worry about the dose or the frequency because it is impossible to OD on Jesus.
Christianity is always confronted by new challenges and I suspect psychedelics will be no different. Unbelievable? has once again given us a head start on this topic so I encourage you to listen to the podcast and check out the links.
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.