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Do They Have Staying Power?
Psychedelic Theophanies and the Religious Life

Huston Smith, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1967 by Christianity and Crisis (26 June 1967)
and © 1970 by the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs (Vol 3. No. 1).
All rights reserved. Used by the Council on Spiritual Practices with permission.

The psychedelic experience can be religious. Subjects often say it is, and their reports can read like accounts of classic theophanies.

What concerns me here is its staying power. No theophany is certain to retain its force: backsliding, falling from grace and the psalmist's "restore unto me the joy of thy salvation" are not inventions of the psychedelic age. And psychedelic theophanies, too, evidence some staying power: in alcoholics (Saskatchewan), lawbreakers (Concord State Reformatory, Massachusetts and Laguna Beach, California), severe neurotics (Spring Grove State Hospital, Maryland) and terminal cancer patients (Chicago and Spring Grove). Nevertheless, I suspect that psychedelic religious experiences are having, and for the foreseeable future will continue to have, less faith-filled carryover than those that occur without drugs.

I say this less for inductive than for deductive reasons. With too little available data at this point for an inductive judgment, my pessimism arises as the conclusion of the following syllogism:

Major premise: Religious history suggests that for theophanies to take hold, certain conditions must pertain.

Minor premise: These conditions are not currently available to the psychedelic movement.

Conclusion: Psychedelic theophanies are not likely at this juncture of history to have substantial staying power.

What conditions are needed for theophanies to take hold? The most important one is conviction, carrying over into the nondrug state, that the insights that emerge in the theophany are true.

That a theophany's disclosures seem true while the theophany is in progress follows by definition: it would not be a theophany but some other kind of experience were it otherwise. As René Daumal says: "At that moment come . . . certainty, speech must now be content to wheel in circles around the bare fact." The experience's content is certain because doubts could be registered only from the perspective of "this world," which world pales in comparison with (if it is not entirely eclipsed by) the new world into which the see-er has stepped.

Except for the psychotic, however, "this world" eventually re-forms, whereupon its claims reassert themselves. And in our culture these claims challenge the validity of pharmacological theophanies. The two leading contemporary Western models of the mind are the computer model and the Freudian model, and both stand ready to explain the conviction one experiences under the psychedelics in ways that explain it away.

THE CYBERNETICIST AND THE FREUDIAN Is one in the course of a psychedelic experience moved to the conviction that everything is perfect just as it is, that everything is intrinsically Buddha-nature? The cyberneticist will tell you why. What essentially happens to produce this effect is that in the neurological reshuffle that LSD occasions, the conviction center of our brain flip-flops to "yes" ("green," "go") while "wired" directly to the euphoria center. Meanwhile all other impressions are short-circuited, shut out. This point is important, for it challenges the too common, too vague, too uncritical claim that psychedelics expand consciousness. The balloon image this phrase suggests is less apposite than the image of the microscope. Does a microscope expand vision? Yes, by enlarging, say, a cell to the point where it fills our visual field. But equally no: it contracts our vision by shutting out everything but the cell we are looking at. So "everything" seems wonderful.

As for the intensity of what is experienced under the psychedelics, including belief, the cyberneticist explains this on the grounds of novelty. New experiences are vivid. Small wonder, then, that what is experienced under the psychedelics strikes us with greater force than what we experience in our normal routinized state.

The Freudian proceeds by a different route, but he too can discredit ego-transcendence, mystic dissolution of the subject/object dichotomy, and the peace that passeth understanding. They are aspects of the "oceanic feeling" induced by psychological regression into the mother's womb.

I make no brief for the adequacy of either of these contemporary models of the mind. I merely note that they infest our contemporary outlook more than any alternative. Our attitudes are influenced by them, on the unconscious if not the conscious level. Consequently, sustained belief in psychedelic truth-claims faces a formidable uphill battle.

But must it be a losing battle? Is not history studded with examples of sects that have managed to endure while holding premises sharply at odds with prevailing ones?

The point is well-taken, but it introduces my next reason for doubting the carry-over of psychedelic experiences. Though history shows that minority faiths are viable, it shows that they survive only when shored up by a community of the faithful, sufficiently solid and organized to constitute in essence a church. And to date the psychedelic movement shows no signs of having within it the makings of a viable church. Recent services in New York theaters and a half-dozen lame attempts to institutionalize it support rather than challenge this point.

I say "no signs", but perhaps I should qualify this in one respect. The psychedelic movement has a charismatic leader: a man of intelligence and culture, possessed of great charm, who is completely self-assured and apparently absolutely fearless. When Arthur Kleps, head of a branch of the Neo-American Church, testified before the Special Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Narcotics: "We regard [Dr. Timothy Leary] with the same special love and respect as was reserved by the early Christians for Jesus, by the Muslims for Mohammed or the Buddhists for Gautama," we sensed the presence of charisma, the magnetism of one who is felt by his followers to embody spiritual power.

A charismatic leader is a great asset, but his presence is not sufficient to insure a movement's success. And the psychedelic movement possesses other features that, if religious history provides grounds for prediction, augur against its shaping into a genuine church. It (1) lacks a social philosophy, (2) is antinomian, (3) leaves nothing esoteric.

(1) The movement lacks a social philosophy, a blueprint for relating itself to society.

That it rejects our culture's claims to loyalty seems evident. "You must quit your attachments to American society," wrote Leary in the first installment of his column syndicated by the East Village Other (EVO) and carried by the L.A. Free Press, the Fifth Estate and The Paper.


Many early Christians took a comparable position. The author of the First Letter of John admonishes his readers not to "love the world or the things in the world" (2:15). He condemns the world for "its sensuality, superficiality and pretentiousness, its materialism and its egoism" (C. H. Dodd's summary in The Johannine Epistles). I do not recall hearing psychedelic prophets criticize our present establishment for its sensuality, but otherwise the parallel is exact.

Note the parallel between the following directives of Tertullian (cited from H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture) and the judgement of Dr. Leary in the EVO column previously cited:


Political life is to be shunned		    It is possible to live in this 		

						     planet without joining the 

						     antilife social systems . . .

						     Drop out.

Trade is scarcely "adapted for		American social institutions

a servant of God," for apart		 are lustful of material and

from covetousness . . . there		things.  Quit your job . . .

is no real motive for acquiring		 For good.  


Academicians, typified by the		Present education methods are

philosophers, have nothing		neurologically crippling and

in common with "the			  antagonistic to your cellular

disciples of heaven"; they		 wisdom.  Quit school . . .

corrupt the truth, they seek		 For good.  

their own fame, they are

talkers rather than doers. 

Equally striking is the parallel between the reason Clement gives why Christians should sit loose to their society – they represent a new race of people – and the claims of the psychedelic prophets, now blended with the revolution, that those under 30 represent a new breed, a mutation in human evolution.

The similarities are impressive. But there is also an important difference. Early Christians were apocalyptic; they expected the imminent end of history through divine intervention. Thus, they had a philosophy of history that justified their opposition to a social order that they came close to equating with the source of original sin. The psychedelic movement lacks this.

Of course apocalypticism isn't the only alternative to a prevailing social system; there is also the possibility of a better social system built by human ingenuity. If the psychedelic prophets had such an alternative for society they would be, like Mohammed, not just rebels but revolutionaries. They have no such blueprint.

There is a third possibility. Neither apocalyptic nor revolutionary, the psychedelic movement might be utopian: it might hope to build enclaves of goodness within a society not as a whole redeemable.

The utopian tradition has, in Western civilization, been impressive; the 19th century witnessed more than 200 utopian ventures in the United States alone. But to date the psychedelic movement has failed to create a viable utopian community. Several shortlived attempts have been made.

If the psychedelic movement were apocalyptic, revolutionary or utopian, it would present an alternative to the status quo. Being none of these, its social message comes down to "Quit school. Quit your job. Drop out." The summons is too negative to make lasting sense.

THE ANTINOMIAN PROBLEM (2) The psychedelic movement is antinomian.

Derived from the Greek word meaning law, antinomianism in theology is the view that it is possible to advance in the religious life to a point where one stands above the law and validly lays aside its commands in the name of a higher morality.

An historical example that sheds light on the movement's antinomian tendencies and attending problems is the Oneida Community, a New York product of the religious revival that swept America in the 1830's.

Its founder, John Humphrey Noyes, became convinced as a result of his religious awakening and subsequent studies that the second coming of Christ did not lie in the future but had already occurred at the close of the Apostolic Age. He found the corollaries of this conclusion momentous. First, original sin having been effectively eradicated by Christ's return, nothing remained in man's nature to keep him from living perfectly right now. Second, once (through understanding and resolve) man does begin to live perfectly, no external guides for living can rival his own intelligence and conscience.

Noyes was absolutely convinced that "salvation . . . without the law . . . presented the central idea of the gospel of Christ." But as his biographer, G. W. Noyes, points out, he found the doctrine "exceedingly liable to be . . . perverted" (p. 185). As a consequence his movement faced three powerful disruptive forces: sexual irresponsibility, anarchy and lethargy. His biographer describes the problem with precision (and with relevance to the psychedelic movement insofar as it would like to become an effective organization). Right action according to Noyes' definition had two essential components, right intent and intelligence. Since these internal monitors might conflict with external law, [right action] without freedom from external law was a contradiction in terms. Hence Noyes and his followers, though brought up in the strictest school of New England morality, declared themselves "free from law." But here a new danger appeared. In escaping from law many of the Perfectionists, like the medieval mystics, fell into antinomianism. Antinomianism . . . takes different forms according to the temperamental susceptibilities of its subjects. In those inclined to sensuality it takes the form of lasciviousness; in those whose leading trait is self-esteem the form of anti-organization; in those of an indolent disposition the form of passivism. During the prevalence of the antinomian aberration in 1835-1836 it seemed as though the cause of [Perfectionism] would be completely given over to anarchy and imbecility . . . The Perfectionists . . . did not abandon the principle of freedom from law. [But they] were brought gradually to the conviction that even the spiritually-minded in the present stage of human development needed to be restrained by moral forces which, though consistent with personal freedom, were nevertheless in effect equivalent to the law. I commend to the psychedelic movement the example of John Humphrey Noyes. Here was a man who, in the name of religious convictions, advocated practices in comparison with drug-taking seems tame. In the interests of spiritual eugenics he advocated what the law defined then and now as adultery and bastardhood.

Yet – and here is the genius of the man – on his socially scandalous platform and in the face of enormous social opposition, he founded a community of several hundred persons that prospered financially (we still use their silverware) and spanned three generations, as against the average three-year life-span for utopian communities. An important factor in his success was his facing up to the tension between freedom and antinomianism in a manner more substantial than I see in his contemporary counterparts.

Comparable lessons come from Asia, the source of much of the psychedelic movement's inspiration. The West is impressed by Zen's regard for freedom and spontaneity. That Zen celebrates these qualities is, of course, true, but careful reading of the record shows that it presents them as the crown of years of arduous discipline. Kenneth Ch'en's Buddhism in China points out that advancement in the hierarchy of Ch'an Buddhism was contingent on a dozen or so years of intensive study of, and discipline in, the vinaya, the first and "moral disciplines" basket of the three-basket Tipitaka, a work so detailed in its moral prescriptions that it would fill about a dozen good-size volumes in a western library.

Despite these detailed regulations, as Suzuki took great pains to point out, Ch'an and Zen still had to exercise great vigilance to keep from degenerating into stultifying passivity, the heresy known as quietism. In the effort to build in a preservative against this dry rot it introduced the requirement that monks work. The first rule of Ch'an monastic life was "A day of no work is a day of no eating."

Which prompts me to ask, is the corollary of "turn on" and "tune in" really to "drop out"? To appeal to vital Asian traditions – be they Ch'an, Zen or Tibetan Buddhism, or even Tantra in either Hindu or Buddhist versions – in support of antinomianism in any of its three major areas of sex, work and organization is to misread them so radically as to take their names in vain.


(3)The psychedelic movement blurs the distinction between what in religion is appropriately esoteric and exoteric.

To argue that there are things in religion that ought to remain secret and privileged cuts against our democratic grain. Yet religions so argue. There are pearls that, cast before swine, will both endanger the swine and become profaned by the exposure. Recognizing this, India developed the guru system in which the disclosures and permissions to spiritual aspirants are precisely calibrated to the student's capacity to profit from them.

In the Gita, Sri Krishna forbids imparting higher knowledge to those who are not ready for it. The same spirit of appropriate secrecy permeates the Vedas and the Upanishads. In the Katha Upanishad, Yama tests Nachiketa's fitness in various ways before consenting to give him the supreme knowledge. In the Taittiriya Upanishad, Varuna puts off his son Bhrigu four times with instructions to kindle the fire of his soul by aspiration, self-discipline and meditation before imparting to him the knowledge of Brahman. In raja yoga, yama and niyama, preliminary rules of discipline and purification are held to be indispensable prerequisites.

In the Indian tradition nothing stands above higher states of consciousness. But if they are essayed by those who are unprepared for them, one of two things will happen. Either (as we have said) the subject will be damaged, or the significance of the experience will be missed to the progressive erosion of its spiritual power for everyone. Either the subject is damaged or the dharma is damaged, usually both. The psychedelic movement pays lip service to these dangers by advocating screening and preparation, but it treats the esoteric exoteric distinction too casually.

Inability to integrate the psychedelic experience with the daily life is not without precedent. In the Ch'an-Zen tradition early texts (says John Blofeld) tend to cite satori as the goal of training. Later texts do not. The reason seems clear. When satori first breaks in on man's consciousness, its impact is likely to be such as to commend itself as ultimate, the be-all and end-all of existence. As life goes on, however, one recognizes that it is not ultimate. Life continues. The old routine closes in, old problems return and one discovers that even those who had powerful satoris don't live lives that are altogether exemplary.

Enter, then, the further realization that comes to be stressed increasingly in the later texts. Satori in these later texts is not the goal; it is the first major hurdle in the unending endeavor to work that experience into the interstices of one's daily life until one's life itself assumes satori quality. "Hewing wood, drawing water - this is the supernatural power, this the marvelous activity."

Despite the fact that I do not see within the psychedelic movement the makings of a viable church, I hope that (as legal use of the psychedelics seems destined for the immediate future to be restricted to research) "religious research" will not be viewed as a contradiction in terms. If a sincere group wishing to use the psychedelics for religious purposes was permitted to do so while qualified observers kept close check on what happens to the group as a group and to the life-patterns of its individual members, the results could be instructive.

That is my conclusion. Now a short postscript.

Strange things seem to be happening to man's religiousness in our time, especially among the young. On the one hand students are making a left end run around the prophetic (this-worldly) wing of institutional religion to tackle directly such issues as Vietnam, racial justice and the problems of poverty. This has been evident for several years.

The new phase is that they are now making a right end run around the priestly (other-worldly) wing of institutional religion to link up with Zen, Tibet, Meher Baba, parapsychology, macrobiotic diet and pharmacological mysticism via the psychedelics. Theological supernaturalism is being replace by psychological supernaturalism defined as belief in the existence of saving insights accessible only to transnormal states of consciousness.

Whether the current chapter of man's religiousness is being written more in the Church or on the college campus, more in the halls of ecumenical councils or in the amorphous groupings of the youth revolution, is a question whose answer is blowing in the wind.

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