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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

Sacred Games: A History of Christian Worship

Lang, Bernhard (1997)
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

ISBN: 0-300-06932-4

Description: Hardcover, xiv + 527 pages.

Contents: Preface, introduction, 26 chapters divided into 6 parts: 1. The First Game: Praise, 2. The Second Game: Prayer, 3. The Third Game: Sermon, 4. The Fourth Game: Sacrifice, 5. The Fifth Game: Sacrament, 6. Sixth Game: Spiritual Ecstasy, Epilogue: Divine Meekness, divine Mystery, abbreviations, notes, illustration credits, bibliography, index.


Plato and his school distinguished two kinds of behavior that neglected or violated generally accepted norms. One kind of madness or ecstasy could be a sure sign of disorder, mental derangement, and illness: it is "filled with foolishness and delirium." The other kind, by contrast, is "a divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention." It shows the soul in contact with the divine realm and therefore, "imparts goods more honorable than human wisdom." Indeed, "humankind's greatest blessings come by way of madness." People all over the world and throughout history have felt the same way. Many have sought to gain a particular religious experience by stimulating their bodies. In the state of ecstasy, or so they believe, they feel the presence of the divine power within themselves as an overwhelming, tangible, and pleasant reality. Typical means of stimulation include dancing, as used by the whirling dervishes, a Muslim sect; the making of or listening to the rhythms of music, as in certain ancient Israelite prophetic groups; and the use of certain drugs such as peyote, among Mexican Indians and in some modern experimental cults. Historians of religion have pointed out that as an experience, ecstasy is universal, coextensive with human nature and history Only the religious interpretations and ritual elaborations vary, and the techniques designed to facilitate it are historically conditioned. Its universality has been underlined by the English writer Aldous Huxley. Even before his own experimentation with drugs, Huxley made ecstatic trances, induced by a mild stimulant, a regular feature of the ritual celebrated by men and women in his futuristic novel Brave New World. (1932).

The present chapter explores ecstatic religion as it was practiced in the world in which Christianity originated. As a matter of fact, ecstatic rituals flourished throughout antiquity, and their legacy can be seen in both early Christianity and modern Pentecostalism. (page 363)

In ancient Greece, female participants dominated in the cult of Dionysos, the god of wine and vitality, in whose honor "orgies" were held. Specialists tell us that in the case of the Dionysian associations, the members called "maenads" actually came from the upper classes, for only these could afford to go to the mountains for a couple of days, leaving their children at home with their slaves. The ecstatic celebration offered them a respite from daily routine, domestic confinement, and isolation. When the dances and trances were over, they returned home to resume their dull and isolated existence, which the maenadic ritual helped them to endure.

While Greek maenadism was of course a female affair, ecstatic behavior may also occur irrespective of gender, social class, and ethnic origin. Whatever their social or ethnic background, in the state of ecstasy, all men and women are equal and discover their shared humanity. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you all are one," explains Paul referring to those who are possessed by Christ (Gal. 3:28). One who utters prophetic oracles, receives and exercises the power of healing, or overwhelms others with glossolalic speech, may also acquire an acknowledged social status within the ritual community. (page 370)

Enthusiastic cults provide a cathartic experience, sobering one's mind and leading it to tranquility and balance. Like psychotherapy, the intense experience of the spirit can give one s life new joy, a new meaning and direction. Christian believers themselves often resort to expressions like "therapeutically liberating" or call their church a "hospital for the soul." According to one anthropological theory, trance is a necessary precondition not only of psychological reorientation but also of many kinds of physical healing. Trance helps the brain to overcome our status quo and to reorganize vital functions of our body. Whether one agrees with such strong claims or not, one can at least assert its therapeutic value. . . . . .

In addition to explaining ecstatic ritual as congenial to the oppressed, as a means of creating elementary solidarity, and as producing therapeutic trances, one can also ponder the merits of a fourth theory. People seem to be hungry for religious experience, and ecstatic rituals, like mysticism, promise that experience. During an altered state of consciousness, the "possessed" person experiences something extraordinary, something different, something to be identified with the divine reality. The new experience, however, tends to be short-lived. People lose the ability to get into trances. As the effervescence ends, ecstatic sects assume church like features and the spirit wanes. Unlike non-Western cultures, traditional Christianity seems to include a strong mechanism that serves to suppress ecstatic disorder. Some day, though, the cycle will begin again: people rediscover the sweetness of ecstasy and their enthusiasm draws others into the experience and its ritual repetition.

In Christianity, ecstatic worship is more firmly rooted than mainstream Protestantism with its calm, intellectual worship might lead us to expect. If mainstream worship represents the Apollonian side of Christianity, ecstatic cults reveal its Dionysian aspects. Christian ecstatic worship has a long history as well as a noble, biblical pedigree. While the following sections will recall only parts of that history, its New Testament beginning must be analyzed in detail. (page 371)

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