This was the sixties, an era of liturgical reform and experimentation. Our worship, I wrote to my superiors, was about as dull as it could get. I had read some scholarly guesses about a mushroom cult in Palestine in the first century in which Jesus must have been involved. I thought it was worth a try. I arranged for the purchase of some mushroom caps, peyote it was, and introduced them at the next celebration of the eucharist. It was the most terrific experience anyone had ever had in worship, absolutely dazzling. But I didn’t want to do anything that was in violation of our church constitution and finding nothing in our Book of Order on this, could they please advise me on whether I was permitted to proceed along these lines. I have since learned that in at least two seminaries during these years, professors of worship and liturgy were conducting just such experiments, using hallucinogenic drugs in eucharistic worship.¹ – Eugene Peterson.
The week that my wife left with the kids, I was deliberately planning on ending my life. As a pastor, I was supposed to be an example for my community, but instead I was drinking myself to death and my wife had finally had enough. So had I.
I was making my last calls when I was urged to consider one last unconventional option. Now, desperation has a way of causing you to reconsider the scope of your beliefs and where lines are drawn. So, with nothing to lose and no hope left, I found myself on the side of a Spokane river consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms and waiting to see how that experience might unfold.
After about an hour, I noticed that my face hurt from smiling. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of creation and I felt a deep peace that calmed my hurried mind. The colors were blasting vibrant (as if I were living in a Pixar movie). The sound of the river was in surround sound encompassing my head, and I could feel the air blowing on every single hair on my arms. I took out my camera in an attempt to document this experience and then I sat for four hours and journaled about my life. The ups. The downs. The confusion. The deep pain. It all came knocking on my door to be dealt with. These were the things I had begged God to heal in me for decades, and it was finally happening in the most unconventional way. In fact, it was happening in a way that was in direct opposition to what I was taught was acceptable in my faith tradition.
I felt as if I must chalk it up to a wild and sinful experience that happened to be really beneficial, but the more that time went on, the more people started noticing how wholly different I was. I was peaceful. I was happy. I stopped drinking immediately. I was full of hope and excitement for the life that was gifted to me. I was born again that day.
You must imagine the predicament that ensued. How was I going to honestly share my experience with those who paid me to lead them in their faith? I knew that very few of them had the capacity to appreciate the story for what it was. Even worse, I knew that I was going to have to make a career change as I crossed a line that is inflexible in Evangelical Christianity.
Since my experience was in such stark contrast to the beliefs of my faith community, I knew I had to research this topic more. In fact, I completed a doctoral thesis on hallucinogens as items of spiritual sacrament. The more research I did, the more I recognized that perhaps my convictions were based on current cultural factors rather than the religious convictions of those who had gone before me. That paired with new medical research that is extremely favorable to the mental health benefits of hallucinogenic mushrooms made me realize that I needed to spend some time seriously contemplating where my convictions on this topic should lie.
In this article, I will suggest that entheogens, as they are called, are not inherently evil and, in fact, have great medical and spiritual benefits. Before I jump in, I would like to state that I am not addressing both sides of the argument in this article; I am simply presenting a perspective that changed my life and that I hope some of you will find fascinating.
Historical Use of Entheogens
Let’s begin with a bit of history. An entheogen is a chemical substance, typically of plant origin, ingested to produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes. “Entheogen” is derived from two Greek words, éntheos and genésthai. The adjective éntheos translates into English as “full of god, inspired, possessed.” These plants were known by names such as “the food of the gods” and “sacred medicines” and have been recorded in the cosmologies of societies worldwide as inspiring the origins of culture and religions before becoming degraded as “hallucinogens” in the modern world.
Considerable primitive artifacts of humanity include descriptions of shamans distributing hallucinogenic materials. The peyote cactus has routinely been consumed for over 2,000 years within Mesoamerica and continues to be used sacramentally by the Huichol Indians of Mexico. Stones depicting hallucinogenic mushrooms in Mexico and Guatemala place mushroom worship as far back as 1,000 BCE.² The Spanish conquerors detailed the consumption of psilocybin mushrooms as a vital part of religious life to indigenous peoples.
Ancient shamans from the Amazon would craft a tea out of a combination of plants, and the bitter result would be ayahuasca. Consumption of ayahuasca led to an intense hallucinogenic experience that would often result in a night of music, contemplation, and spiritual encounters. Cannabis is one of the oldest (and most universally used) plants in the world. In ancient Sufi, Taoist, and Vedic religions, it was often used in conjunction with the spiritual discipline of prayer. Even Christian art in religious locations worldwide has been shown to display curious entheogens in ancient religious artwork, testifying to the long history of hallucinogens in Christianity.³
Some believe it’s possible that religious stories that have perplexed theologians for years may be tied to entheogens. Moses claimed to have seen a burning bush. Paul observed Jesus on the road to Damascus. John accounted for bizarre events that he encountered on the island of Patmos. St. Teresa had ecstatic visions. Is it possible that some of the Christian faith’s most significant role models were more accepting of mind-altering substances than we would typically acknowledge?
To look for corroborating evidence of entheogens in early Christianity, we must turn to the written Word, to the texts of the New Testament, to the gnostic gospels, and also to the commentaries of church fathers and mothers, poets, patricians, and historians.
Since Christianity emerged in a Mediterranean region rife with Egyptian, Greek, Judaic, and Roman mystery cults, many of which possessed a sacred pharmacopeia, there is robust documentation of early entheogen use. Therefore, it is not surprising that “Christianity had psychedelic mystery traditions throughout its history, nearly up to the modern-day.”⁴ Growing evidence confirms that there has been an appreciation and acceptance of the consumption of psychedelic substances (and medicines) by Christians over the last 2,000 years.
Entheogens and Christian Morality
As the medical and recreational uses of cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms expand across the United States, this is a prime (and necessary) opportunity for followers of Jesus to consider intellectually engaging this topic, as well as the many complexities associated with it. Marijuana use is growing among Christians in North America as legislation loosens on both medical and recreational fronts.⁵ Psilocybin mushrooms are being used for significant research in caring for individuals with crippling mental health diagnoses. Alcohol has found a significant resurgence in acceptance among Christians since prohibition. Therefore, might entheogens hold a similar future?
Each of us has convictions that act as personal lines in the sand, helping us determine what is morally or spiritually acceptable and what is not. These are often based on cultural assumptions. However, determining what defines our personal convictions is far trickier. While there are many different convictions about what makes something spiritual or not, there is no generic one-size-fits-all approach to this topic. To prove my point, last year I spoke to a group of Christian college students who held no convictions regarding the overconsumption of alcohol on weekends but were deeply religiously convicted about eating meat. This demonstrates that what we believe is acceptable or not varies greatly from person to person, community to community. Though many would argue that scripture is clear on specific topics, when human convictions are involved, few things are as black and white as we might think they should be.
Indeed, some individuals enjoy consuming hallucinogens for recreational purposes. While I do not have the time to argue the pros and cons of recreational use of hallucinogens in this article, I do believe this to be a worthwhile conversation to pursue. What I will point out is that there are groups of people who purposefully use hallucinogens and other substances to engage in spiritual pursuits. People drink a beer recreationally during a sports game on a Sunday afternoon after having consumed eucharistic wine for spiritual purposes a few hours earlier. The substance is alcohol in both cases, but the intent of use and personal motives vary.
While the topic of hallucinogens is an easy target, we must determine a baseline of what makes something inherently wrong, dangerous, or sinful. Is it the object, the motive, or the distortion of intended use that creates the consideration of deeming something as “sinful”? For instance, a new set of lingerie and overnight accommodations at a hotel would be fitting for a married couple celebrating the anniversary of their marriage. However, those same accommodations for an unfaithful spouse on a business trip would not be received with welcome acceptance. The lingerie or the hotel room are not inherently sinful. Sin has far more to do with the variables of the situation, such as intent and the motivations of individuals involved. Or perhaps it is more about the outcome of an action, as many biblical morals are based on outcomes. For Instance, “don’t kill,” because that deprives someone of life.
The Benefits of Entheogens
Throughout history, Christians have often led the way in medical benefits and healthcare for everyone. Furthermore, the philanthropy among Christians in the early life of the church was quite astounding. Rather than viewing illness as punishment for sins, early Christians believed that the sick deserved both medical assistance and compassion.⁶ Early Christians caring for those who were suffering desired their health at all costs. So, why is there a reluctance to hallucinogens, even as they gain popularity in the medical community for treating life-long psychological issues? Perhaps the notion that we have moved away from this level of compassion to accommodate what we believe to be acceptable and non-acceptable medicines exposes the prejudices of our particular interpretations of scripture or of our tribe.
To demonstrate how we are cultured over time: We have all viewed videos of teenagers slurring their words and acting out of their minds after being administered nitrous oxide during dental surgery. However, the typical response to those videos is laughter, not condemnation. So, why are specific consumptions more culturally acceptable than others? Is it because of the cultural conditioning that has happened slowly over time? Or does it have more to do with the credentials of the individual administering a specific medicine? What about when natural substances could save people from severe addictions? Is it the role of a follower of Jesus to determine how a person is healed?
Medical studies continue to show the positive results of the moderated use of entheogens and, in return, medical professionals are administering these substances to patients as positive results continue to trend upward. In fact, these substances have proven spiritual, as well as medicinal, benefits. In a clinical research project at the University of Auckland, an exciting finding was detected among the participants in a psychedelic study. Most of those who identified their religious affiliation as atheist before the experience no longer identified as atheist after the encounter. The difference was significant in all groups. This outcome is consistent with sudden religious conversion experiences that are well described in psychology of religion literature, with Paul’s experience of encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus as the prototype.⁷
These findings led the researchers to suggest future research on psychedelic drug-occasioned experiences to assess possible religious orientation changes or affiliations, including identification as atheist.⁸
If there are studies documenting the reversal of atheism from the consumption of these medicines, can we truly write them off as being “sinful”? This is a serious point that must be considered.
It could be that we are still too early in the conversation and that it will just be a matter of time until religious leaders turn their interest to the medical and spiritual benefits of psychedelics, as we have with many other substances such as pain relievers, birth control, etc.
My experience and what I have learned in the years since that experience allow me to find co-existence between spirituality and entheogens with no problems. From my perspective, one of the most significant ways to honor the Divine is to hold the two in tension and to give thanks to the Divine for the medicines that have been freely placed in nature around us. By focusing on a sacramental approach to hallucinogens, perhaps the negative drug culture stigmas can be dissolved, as hallucinogens are appreciated as gifts that the Divine has provided for all people.
I am encouraged that my experience is not completely rogue. Many people throughout history have found beautiful experiences through entheogenic consumption, and I trust that we will uncover more, as our minds are opened to the endless possibilities of where we might find the limitless Divine.
¹ Eugene Peterson, Under The Unpredictable Plant (Mount Pocono, PA: Gracewing, 1993), 78-79.
² It is not clear if these effigies refer specifically to the psilocybin mushroom and/or to fly-agaric. The natural presence and ethnographic and/or linguistic data of their use in those regions has been evidenced. See R. Gordon Wasson, The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1980).
³ Jerry and Julie Brown, The Psychedelic Gospels: The Secret History of Hallucinogens in Christianity (Rochester, VT: Park St. Press, 2016).
⁴ Jerry and Julie Brown, “Entheogens in Christian Art: Wasson, Allegro, and the Psychedelic Gospels,” Journal of Psychedelic Studies 1, no. 2 (2019): 142-163.
⁵ Prominent Christian leaders such as Craig Gross and Jonathan Merritt continue to become increasingly vocal proponents of this trend.
⁶ Gary Ferngren, Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 71. Ferngren’s descriptions of the commitments of early Christians to care for the sick adds a complexity to this conversation.
⁷ R. R. Griffiths, E. S. Hurwitz, A. K. Davis, M. W. Johnson, and R. Jesse, “Survey of Subjective ‘God Encounter Experiences’: Comparisons Among Naturally Occurring Experiences and Those Occasioned by the Classic Psychedelics Psilocybin, LSD, Ayahuasca, or DMT.” PLOS ONE 14, no. 4 (2019): 21-22.
⁸ Griffiths, Hurwitz, Davis, Johnson, and Jesse, 22.