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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index


About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture

Taylor, Mark C. (1999)
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


ISBN:0-226-79162-9 paperback
0-226-79161-0 hardcover


Description: Hardcover, viii + 292 pages.

Contents: Introduction, 10 chapters, notes, references for illustrations, index.

Excerpt(s): Religion is about a certain about. What religion is about, however, remains obscure for it is never quite there - nor is it exactly not there. Religion is about what is always slipping away. It is, therefore, impossible to grasp what religion is about - unless, perhaps, what we grasp is the impossibility of grasping. Even when we think we have it surrounded, religions eludes us. This strange slipping away is no mere disappearance but a withdrawal that allows appearances to appear. Though never here, what religion is about is not elsewhere. (page 1)

We have barely begun to appreciate the myriad ways in which virtual culture is about religion. If we are not to be misled by the obvious, we will have to learn to think differently about both religion and our current cultural condition. The religion that today calls for reflection does not answer questions or provide meaning but abandons us in, and opens us to, worlds that are ever more complex. Forever turning toward what is always slipping away, we can never be certain what religion is about. (About About, page 6)

The smelting required for purification involves a dissolution of form into prima materia. The process of transformation that the metallurgist seeks to speed up presupposes that all substances are variations of an original Ur-substance. By burning away polluting differences, fire returns the many materials to the one substance from which they all originate. The birth of the one, therefore, presupposes the death of the many. The ritual sacrifice that sanctifies the womb-oven prefigures the sacrifice enacted in the heat of the furnace. According to the cosmology of many ancient metallurgical practices, smelting entails something like a regressus ad uterum that returns matter to its original matrix. Mother, material, and matter meet in mater, which is their common origin. This common origin is more than material; it is also verbal. By digging deep enough, one discovers a point where mother, matrix, material and matter converge. All four words, Joseph Shipley explains, share a common stem: "'amma.' Baby talk, reduplicated form of ma, sound of suckling; mamma. . . . amah: wet-nurse, in India. Gk meter: mother. metropolis: mother city; first, see of a chief bishop of the Mother Church. metropolitan. metronymic. metrorrhagia (Gk metron: womb L and E mater; alma mater; matriculate. maternal, maternity, matron. matroclinous. matrix: first, the uterus. material, matter." (pages 122-123)

Alchemy extends and refines the techniques of metallurgy. No longer satisfied with speeding up nature by generating heat, the alchemist seeks a supplement to the supplement of fire. In alchemy, the religious prosthesis gives way to the chemical prosthesis. The philosophers' stone is the magical substance that is supposed to possess the power to transform base metals into gold. One of the most common forms of this stone was a fine white powder, which in some rituals served as an elixir. The word elixir actually derives from the Greek xenon, which "denotes a dry powder used for medicine and alchemical transmutation." The alchemical elixir descends from yet more ancient hallucinogenic drugs, which once were thought to have curative and restorative powers and, in some cases, were even believed to be "chemical" agents of religious ecstasy.

The association of the philosophers' stone and elixirs with religious rituals points to a persistent motivation for alchemical practice. Far from being driven by so-called materialistic concerns, alchemy is, as Eliade insists, "a spiritual technique and a soteriology." The soteriological technique employed by the alchemist presupposes an isomorphism between the macrocosm and the microcosm. By refining base metals into gold, the alchemist seeks to purify both self and world. The goal of alchemy is to become as good as gold-pure gold. ...

If gold is the purest form of nature, which, in turn, is God, then the alchemist's magic would seem to bestow the elixir of immortality. Over the years, the philosophers' Stone has been transformed from its original white powder into acid, angel dust, ecstasy, and speed. When the dose is right and the charge sufficient, speed breaks the chains of space and time. ...

Though alchemy starts with the metallurgist's effort to assist mother nature by speeding up her labor, the alchemist ends by becoming something like a god. The vision of the alchemist's creative power emerges in the fantasy of his ability to create an homunculus. As we shall see, the homunculus is the distant ancestor of contemporary alchemists' replicants, androids, terminators, and cyborgs. ...

This unexpected genealogy of the cyborg points to the fiber that links the final point in McLuhan's scattered circuit: mining . . . hallucinogenic drugs . . . electronics. When the golem is electrified, the matrix becomes the net, which now is known as "the matrix." The transition from the religious, to the chemical, to the electronic prosthesis extends the process of sublimation in which matter becomes increasingly rarefied or idealized and thus appears ever lighter until it becomes nothing but light. At this point, the thread we have been tracing becomes visible as a fiber optic. (pages 123-125)

The abiding importance of alchemy and the so-called occult sciences for nineteenth-century romanticism and idealism is usually overlooked. Our consideration of the religious dimensions of alchemy implies that it is no accident that "mining and disciplines like geology and mineralogy exerted on the Romantic scientists an almost magical attraction; many of the Romantics (e.g., Novalis, Steffens, von Humboldt, Baader, and Schubert) studied at the famous Mining School at Freiberg." Like their alchemical precursors, the romantics were searching for the philosophers' stone, which would allow them to enjoy the ecstasy of all-at-onceness and all-at-oneness. While for some, like Coleridge, Baudelaire, and De Quincey, the agent remained chemical, for others, like Schelling and Hegel, the drug became philosophical speculation. Hegel freely admits his interest in mysticism and occultism. When expressed in these terms, the goal of Hegel's religio-philosophical system is the unitive ecstasy in which eros and thanatos become One. The Hegelian logos is, in effect, the speculative translation of the generative matrix whose earlier guise was the Earth Mother. The relay that permits this translation is electricity. (page 126)

For Hegel, the philosophers' stone is philosophical knowledge. As the white powder that establishes the unity of differences, this knowledge is the golden light of the world. Speculative reason reveals the individual to be a particular incarnation of the divine Logos, which forms the generative matrix in which all things arise and pass away. To apprehend oneself as a moment in the life of the absolute is to overcome time and space by grasping their eternal essence. Repeating and extending ancient metallurgical and alchemical rituals, Hegel's version of the imitatio christi involves a birth within the divine matrix, which presupposes the death of the individual as such. (page 128)

Looking back on McLuhan's work, it is all too easy to dismiss his vision as a curious variation of the nostalgia that characterized so much of the 1960s counterculture. What makes the association between McLuhan's global village and Haight Ashbury as well as Woodstock so puzzling and yet so suggestive is that the '6os counterculture usually is depicted as technophobic. In tribal rituals that were unabashed reenactments of "primitive" rites, young people in the '60s sought to flee twentieth-century technology, which many people found unbearably repressive. By going back to "Mother" Earth from which everything emerges and to which all returns, personal and social renewal once again seemed possible. For many members of the '6os counterculture, this redemptive experience was impossible without the aid of certain pharmacological supplements. The stone of philosophers and white powder of the alchemist were transformed into the white powder of psychedelics, which held out the promise of religious ecstasy to latter-day initiates.

The distance between Haight Ashbury and Silicon Valley, however, is not as great as it initially appears. The '6os technophobia always harbored a technophilia that promised to transform the chemico-religious prosthesis into the electronic prosthesis. After all, the vibrations that created the feelings of cosmic harmony were more often than not electronically generated. When John Perry Barlow, who is the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, publishes his Internet address in what was for a typically brief time the slickest publication promoting electronic telecommunications technology as the mind-altering agent that will bring the New Age (i.e., Mondo 2000), the circuit joining 1960s drug culture with 1980s-90s technoculture is complete. Stewart Brand, one-time member of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue and author of The Medial Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T., makes the telling point clearly and concisely: "This generation swallowed computers whole, just like dope." (pages 130-131)



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