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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.



Mysticism After Modernity

Cupitt, Don. (1998)
Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.


ISBN: 0-631-20763-5s

Description: Hardcover, vi + 160 pages

Contents: Introduction, 10 chapters, chapter notes, select bibliography, index.

Excerpt(s): The point being made here applies equally to Protestants, to mystics and to the new "experimental philosophers" (i.e., natural scientists). All of them want to break away from the old social and traditional control of knowledge. All want to claim that the individual alone can in principle attain genuine religious or empirical knowledge, just by assembling elements given within his or her own mental history. Since the presented data are bits of Creation, and already have a bit of intelligible Form printed on them, we can put them together exactly like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and so build up our own mental map of the objective world. We can be sure that it will be objectively True because authority certifies that there is a God, that he has finished and fully Formed the world, that he has made us both to know him and to fit into his world, and therefore that our minds are made by him in the image of his mind - and now we see how the great innovators in religion and natural philosophy were indeed craftily using themes from the tradition to emancipate themselves from tradition. They used tradition against itself, and the new Cartesian and empiricist ideas of the mind as a blank slate, of pure uninterpreted experience, and of the ideal disengaged scientific observer - these ideas, that seem at first sight so innocent, were in fact very cunning and subversive. (pages 18-19)

Religious Experience

One might say that "religious experience" - just that phrase - has a very short past, but behind it there is a very long history. From the earliest times, human beings seem to have valued altered states of consciousness, and to have associated them with religion. The basic techniques were discovered surprisingly early, and are still in use. Music, for example, is everywhere used in religious contexts because of its power to induce a light trance, to precipitate ecstatic states, and to sway communal feelings; and it now appears that even the Neanderthals may already have possessed a simple pentatonic musical instrument, a bone flute. Dancing, like drumming, can make one "high," and the wearing of an animal mask can help to take you out of yourself and into an animal identity. Both are attested in Paleolithic art.

Around the world people pursue intoxication by chewing plant materials, by infusing them in hot water, by fermenting them, and by smoking them. Such practices enter religion when, for example, Buddhists drink tea in meditation and Christians sip wine during worship; but they are also very old, for analysis of chemical residues in early pottery has recently taken the history of fermented liquor back almost to the beginnings of pottery itself.

The link between religion and this little cluster of long-known and much-treasured psychotropic techniques is very strong - so strong that it prompts one to consider a very curious hypo-thesis. Perhaps religion did not and could not exist among human beings until they had reached the point where they could make the distinction between "normal" and "altered" consciousness? That is to say, for there to be religion, three conditions must already have been fulfilled and in place:

  1. Human beings must already have developed the sort of "normal" consciousness that comes with the ability to handle pronouns, personal names, etc.

  2. They must have discovered and "socialized" various techniques for modifying consciousness, such as rhythmic music and dance, dressing up, ritual, and intoxicants.

  3. They must have been able to recognize as different, and have had some special reason for valuing, sundry "altered" states of consciousness. The contrast between "normal" and "altered" consciousness, when recognized, becomes the basis for the contrast between the profane and sacred worlds. (pages 19-20)

In the present state of knowledge it is not possible to take this question much further, beyond observing that language (and therefore "normal" language-dependent subjective conscious-ness), and music (and therefore communal ritual, and "altered" states of consciousness), and therefore also religious ideology, may all have been around for some tens of thousands of years, and may even have belonged to other species of Homo besides our own. That there may have been more than one species of us, capable of language, art, morality, and religion, is an extraordinarily disturbing thought.

All this indicates that in a certain sense the history of mysticism and religious experience may well go back to the very beginnings of humanity. Yet in another and perhaps more important sense they are modern inventions.

The phrase "religious experience" was given its currency above all by William James, whose The Varieties of Religious Experience, subtitled A study in human nature, first appeared in June 1902. ...

... By thus naturalizing religious experience, James hopes to make of it the starting-point for a new science of religion, and perhaps even one day for a new line of religious apologetics. The hope persisted until very recently in the publications of Alistair Hardy's Religious Experience Research Unit, established at Manchester College, Oxford.

"Religious experience" then, in the sense of a particular way of understanding that specific English phrase, was born in about 1900 and died in about 1978, when the old liberal religious humanism was finally drowned by the rising tide of postmodern culturalism. After the publication of Stephen Katz' symposium, people quickly acknowledged that religious experiences are everywhere couched in the locally avail-able symbolic vocabulary. Every religious experience is a datable human cultural expression. (pages 20-21)

Here we come across a most important point. Following Augustine, Calvin summed up the whole of human knowledge and everything that is really important to us under two heads: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. The physical world of Nature and even the social world were by Calvin drastically secularized. So was reason, with the effect that there was no way to God either through the public world of empirical fact or by philosophy. The only way to God was through the impact of Scripture, God's self-revelation, within and upon the individual soul. The only true Church was not the public institution, but the Invisible Church of the elect, who are all those who have truly and inwardly "experienced religion." ...

Against this background one can see both why Calvinism and the Protestant type of appeal to religious experience once seemed so strong, and also why they have now collapsed so ignominiously. Since Darwin, modern scientific psychology has suddenly and violently secularized the soul, making psychology the most "unbelieving" of all academic disciplines. In addition, great (though as yet little-understood) changes in philosophy have led us increasingly to put language before experience, Culture before Nature, and the public realm before the private. There are no prelinguistic yet cognitively privileged events in the soul. Everything in the soul is secondary, and there can be no question of having within it an access to the supernatural world that we cannot get through the public world. (pages 22-23)

Thereafter the classic and still-remembered books about "Christian Mysticism" were almost all written in the period 1890-1979. They quickly led to a public demand for the identification of a mystical tradition and a canon of writers in each of the other major religious traditions, and this was soon done for Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, and at least attempted in the more difficult case of Buddhism.

So "mysticism," as a concept, a literary genre, and a canon of writers within each major religious tradition, and therefore as also a possibly universal essence of religion, is late-Modern. So very late-Modern as to be more-or-less datable to the period 1890-1970, which makes it coincide with the heroic age of psychology, the main period of activity of James, Freud, Jung, and their leading associates and followers. During that period there was a considerable elaboration of discourses about subjectivity, both by the introspective and literary psychologists and also by novelists and other imaginative writers. (page 26)

The reason why mysticism not only is but has to be a kind of writing is that only in writing, only in secondariness, can one thus do several things at once in such a sweet and disarming way. Do we make the point successfully, here? Secondariness is much more complex and powerful than the old appeal to a primary and founding experience. Mysticism is protest, female eroticism, and piety, all at once, in writing. Writing, I say, and not "immediate experience," that Modern fiction. Many or most mystics have been persecuted by the orthodox, but whoever heard of someone being persecuted for having heretical experiences? To get yourself persecuted, you have to publish heretical views: and at your trial for them your judges will need evidence of them in writing. Indeed, unless mysticism were a literary tradition of veiled protest, we'd never have heard of it. (page 62-63)

The theory of mysticism that I am proposing should now be clearly in view. According to the Modern view of mysticism, as we have seen, the mystics first had great and ineffable experiences, in states of consciousness that were prior to and out-side language, and then they subsequently tried to put into inadequate words what they had experienced.

I reject that theory. There is no such thing as "experience," outside of and prior to language. The Modern idea of the mind as an inner theatre, and of experience as a show seen by an audience of one, is itself a secondary cultural and literary creation. It doesn't exist! Language goes all the way down. Language doesn't copy or convey experience; language determines or forms experience as such. Language "forms" certain events, and thereby makes them into conscious experiences. Language is mind: I mean, what we call "the mind" is secondary; it is an effect of language. St John of the Cross did not first have a language-transcending experience and then subsequently try to put it into words. On the contrary, the very composition of the poem was itself the mystical experience. (page 74)



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