Psychonauts, Plinths, & Re-Paganizing Pop Culture
Ross Douthat has a warning for those seeking enchantment:
But precisely because an attitude of spiritual experimentation is reasonable, it’s also important to emphasize something taught by almost every horror movie but nonetheless skated over in a lot of American spirituality: the importance of being really careful in your openness, and not just taking the beneficence of the metaphysical realm for granted.
If the material universe as we find it is beautiful but also naturally perilous, and shot through with sin and evil wherever human agency is at work, there is no reason to expect that any spiritual dimension would be different — no reason to think that being a “psychonaut” is any less perilous than being an astronaut, even if the danger takes a different form.
There is plenty of raw data to indicate the perils: Not every near-death experience is heavenly; some share of DMT users come back traumatized; the American Catholic Church reportedly fields an increasing number of exorcism inquiries even as its cultural influence otherwise declines. And there should also be a fundamental uncertainty around even initially positive experiences: Not all that glitters is gold, and the idea that certain forces are out to trick you or use you recurs across religious cultures (and in the semireligious culture around U.F.O. experience today).
I’m writing as a Christian; my religion explicitly warns against magic, divination, summoning spirits and the like. (Atheist polemicists like to say that religious people are atheists about every god except their own, but this is not really the case; Christianity certainly takes for granted that there are powers in the world besides its triune God.) And it makes sense that in a culture where people are reacting against the Christian past there might be an instinct to ignore such prohibitions, to regard them as just another form of patriarchal chauvinism, white-male control.
But the presumption of danger in the supernatural realm is hardly confined to Christian tradition, and the presumption that pantheism or polytheism or any other alternative to Western monotheism automatically generates humane and kindly societies finds no confirmation in history whatsoever.
I cannot agree with this strongly enough. I believed it anyway before I started working on my book on re-enchantment, but now that I've been researching both the the occult, and the use of psychedelics by "psychonauts" to explore what they take to be the spiritual realm, I feel emphatically more convicted about this. Especially about the psychedelic stuff, which I was more agnostic on before.
If you heard my interview recently with Andrew Sullivan, I mentioned to him that dabbling in LSD as a deeply depressed, irreligious college student changed my life, and was a key marker on my road to believing in Christ. I have never talked about it publicly, because I don't want at all to encourage people to try psychedelics, though my experience back then, in early 1986, has led me to consider the possibility that in small, controlled doses, psychedelics really can help chronically depressed folks, and could be tried under medical supervision.
What happened to me was not dramatic. In the winter of 1985/86, I was sunk in depression over a girl. Unrequited love, the usual. Couldn't stop thinking about her. I had begun to drink heavily, even more than the usual LSU undergraduate, and would lie in my dorm room that spring semester, alone at night, listening to sad music, and wanting to die (though please know that I was never suicidal). One day I was invited to become the roommate of a freshman I knew through a mutual friend. This guy was a happy-go-lucky Jewish hippie from New Orleans. A happy guy, in love with life. On Mardi Gras weekend, for some reason we found ourselves stuck on campus when everybody else had gone to New Orleans. My roommate said he had two tabs of acid. He had never tried it. Would I be interested?
In my state of mind, I would have tried just about anything to escape the emotional pain. Sure, I said, why not.
If you've never done LSD, you should know that it is not a narcotic. You don't lose control of yourself, at least not at any dose I've tried. What it does is dramatically heighten your senses. In my experience, this means more or less that you see the world as if it were a kind of impressionist painting. The effect it had on me was dramatic. I remember lying down on a bench in the quad, watching the sunlight filter through the small green leaves of the tree above me, and thinking what a fool I had been to be so turned in on myself. God really was everywhere, and filled all things. I had been living in my mind as if it were a dark, dank concrete cell, thinking only about the girl who didn't love me. I had totally missed the very real beauty all around me, and the joy of life. That feeling stayed with me after the drug wore off. It made me get more serious about finding God.
I wish I could tell you that I never did the drug again, but that's not true. I fooled around with it off and on throughout my college years. I regret that, and consider myself very, very fortunate to have not damaged myself mentally or spiritually. But it would be a lie to say that using that drug, at least that one time, did not have salutary effects, both mental and spiritual. I understand why people may be drawn to that, or other psychedelics, seeking mystical experiences.
I'm not going to say the experiences aren't real. In fact, I think they usually are, for reasons I'll get to in a second. Generally speaking, I think the danger is similar to the danger of becoming a multimillionaire by winning the lottery, versus having worked for it over a long period of time. The instantly rich often can't manage their money, and it ruins them.
Why have I become convinced that these things should not be used, aside from the religious prohibition on them in Christianity? Because I firmly believe that they open one's nous ("noose," the Orthodox word for one's spiritually perceptive faculties) up in ways that are highly risky. You might be thinking that there's nothing spiritual about this, it's just chemicals working on the brain. But the mind, soul, and body are a unity; it should not surprise us that chemical changes in the brain can and do affect our spiritual perception and vulnerability.
Not long ago I had a phone conversation with a person back in the US, who gave me permission to share his story as long as I didn't identify him. He's an Orthodox Christian, married, with kids, and in a prestigious professional job. A few years back, he was visiting friends in a state where cannabis is legal, and was talked into trying a pot brownie (he had never done drugs). They told him the high would be very mild, as it usually is. It didn't work out that way for him. As he puts it, the drug opened his nous wide, and he was projected out of his body, into a terrifying realm. He remembers standing next to a big metal wall, and being aware that there was a being of indescribable evil behind the wall, and it wanted to get at him. He said an angel appeared to him, told him that he wasn't supposed to be there, and that there are a number of ways to access that realm, but they are forbidden to humans. Because this was an accident, the angel said, you will be protected from the demons. But if you come back here, you will be on your own.
I didn't write down all the details, but the man told me that he was shown later around a peaceful, beautiful realm he took to be Paradise. He was fully aware that his friends and family were standing around him as he lay on the bed, and he could communicate with them, even though he was elsewhere. He told me that the angel told him he could ask any question he wanted, but that he would forget the answer. He remembers vaguely asking about this or that theological claim within Orthodoxy. His wife and the others remember him lying on the bed, with a beatific look on his face, saying, "It's all true! It's all true!"
Nevertheless, the man took the angel's warning very seriously. He says that these substances really do open doors that we are sternly warned not to open. Most people who use pot don't have that kind of reaction, he understands, but people should stay far away from this stuff.
Also for the book, I interviewed an ex-occultist who was heavily into psychedelics as part of his demon-worshiping. He opened doors to the occult both in his religious practice and through drugs. He is now an Orthodox Christian. He's not "out" yet, so I have to use a false name for him. I'll call him Will. He used just about every psychedelic drug you can imagine, and some that most people have never heard of. He got into this world out of curiosity, seeking mystical experiences, and deeper knowledge than was available to him from the bland suburban Evangelicalism in which he was raised. The stories he told me would scare the hell out of you, literally. He says he was willingly and unwillingly possessed on a number of occasions. Because I haven't yet negotiated with him about which of those stories I can tell, I won't repeat them here (they'll be in my book). But I can use these passages from an e-mail follow-up interview I had with him:
You can take a psychedelic and have an astounding experience and it can still be full of demonic delusion. You can cast a spell and have it work to an amazing degree - this says nothing about whether it is spiritually healthy and safe to engage in such practice. Even within the context of Christianity, over-reliance on personal experience of God (whether spiritual phenomena, or ecstatic emotional moments) can be deadly. Our experience is clouded by sin, untrustworthy outside of the proper constraints, all of us are capable of unfathomable degrees of delusion. What is trustworthy is Christ -- not our personal subjective conception of Christ but Christ revealed and understood through His true Church, which gives us the ecclesial and doctrinal guardrails to guard against experiential delusion and deception.
Will and I discussed how the natural and understandable desire both of us, as young men, had for spiritual experiences, and how Christianity, as it had been presented to us, was too dull and shallow:
I don't look back on my Evangelical upbringing with bitterness but I view it deeply tragic, considering how unequipped the authority figures in my life were to shield me from the increasingly demonic spiritual and intellectual paths to which I became enslaved. Plenty of these authority figures recognized the reality of the demonic but they brought a knife to a gun fight in their attempt to stave off such influences. Some had simply no answers (or wholly unsatisfying ones) for my myriad youthful theological curiosities. Others seemed oddly totally comfortable with certain kinds of liberalization but then totally closed off against other instances. Theology as presented within the Evangelical world all seemed so arbitrary. Mostly, it was emotional experiences of worship that were cast as the foundation of the faith. So, when those dried up for me, my conservative faith seemed untenable.
By the time he realized what he had gotten himself into -- that beneath the glittering surfaces, it was truly Satanic -- it was too late:
I was not wrong that this open devotion to the demonic was a culmination of a journey that I started by simply accepting as a teenager that the world knows better than God and Christian tradition when it comes to moral issues. I still should have known better. But I didn't, because I was intoxicated by the aesthetic beauty produced by occult experiences, by the unfathomable power I felt when I allowed myself to be possessed, by the feeling that I could peer deeper into the black void of the infinite than any human before me. I didn't want the experiences to end. So I went along with unthinkable evil. I've been reaping the consequences ever since. And I pray for God's forgiveness and mercy.
He goes on, talking about how the entire culture was on the side of him and his occult brethren:
Countless films, television shows, songs, and books provided implicit versions of our worldview, or at least planted a seed that would make them an easier mark for manipulation. Someone likes Star Wars? Talk to them about Joseph Campbell. Use Campbell to lead them to Jung. Use Jung to lead them to Western esotericism. Then they're already in deep occult territory and all it took was one of the most popular fictional properties on the planet and a manipulator with the correct demonic directions. Our demonic religion was already the secret religion of the modern world. Plus, things were getting so explicit. Normies could turn on the latest trendy adult animation series on Netflix and hear celebrities describing the virtues of ritual magic and Aleister Crowley! We felt that we were obviously winning.
The Christian churches didn't feel like a threat, they had no idea of the countless ways the whole world was primed to destroy their defenses and melt them into the demonic religion of the twin principles of superhumanism and anti-humanism. While I was in the active service of demons, I maintained friendships with conservative Christian friends. Not one of them told me that they sensed something spiritually amiss about me. And I read articles from staunch conservatives like you and Ross Douthat, who occasionally wrote with interest and sometimes what seemed like cautious positivity about the very topics that defined my journey - psychedelics, the varieties of religious experience, paganism, the paranormal. This told me that with time, even conservative Christians could be coaxed into my paradigm.
Sometimes I would even send your and Douthat's articles on those subjects to my conservative Christian friends, just to (falsely) reassure them that my interests were totally compatible with their beliefs and not anything dangerous. I even felt a patronizing fondness for Evangelical types who held onto their fear of the demonic. They took spirituality seriously and that was enough for me. Given enough time, I felt sure that even they could be made to abandon their black-and-white spiritual paradigm and embrace the shapeless spiritual chaos I hoped to help sell to the world.
I asked Will about the role of psychedelics in this delusion. He went on:
Drugs are never worth the risk because they place us in a hyper-vulnerable cognitive state, ripe for demonic manipulation.
The idea that psychedelic drugs are purely hallucinatory in nature is mostly a weak secularist-skeptical position, designed to be knocked down by more sophisticated yet more dangerous spiritual positions that recognize the spiritual potency of these substances while downplaying (or entirely ignoring) the dangers. These drugs can bring you into contact with spiritual reality, but in a manner rife with misinterpretation, ego-inflation disguised as humility, confirmation bias, or even more openly demonic forms of deception.
There are differences between them. Some, like psilocybin mushrooms, represent a specific demonic personality. LSD is corrosive to the foundations of a stable human psyche and can open up portals for demons to come through. DMT tends to bring humans into contact with a specific class of demonic entities and/or into a specific demonic realm. Even marijuana is highly inadvisable, as it can have a lower grade effects similar to psychedelics.
I know several people who do not recommend psychedelics to others, but still feel that they have had God speak to them through a psychedelic. In my estimation, this is less an advertisement for psychedelics and more a testament to how the Holy Spirit can choose to work through whatever it wills.
"Respectable experts" have begun pushing hard for a normalization of psychedelics. We have to see through this façade. Many of the scientific studies these types cite utilize faulty methodologies. The personal stories about how psychedelics solved this or that physical or mental problem are not proof that these substances should be used (remember the pragmatic fallacy). Advocates for psychedelia often pretend to be worldview-neutral spiritual/scientific seekers, which is an absurdity. And when they do express their metaphysical commitments, it's often laughable New Age pablum.
Never take psychedelic drugs, ever. Be careful around those who have recently used them or are unrepentant ongoing users, they may be unwitting vessels of demonic influence. My personal recommendation (made less strongly than other principles I've advocated for here) is that if you recreationally use any mind-altering substances at all, limit it to very carefully moderate use of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine and nothing else (and abstain from even these entirely if that's spiritually necessary for you).
Will is an academic who is highly educated in the philosophies and theologies behind occultism. He's not an amateur.
Going over our interview notes, what stands out to me, nearly forty years after my psychedelic experiences, is that the impetus for trying them is entirely understandable, at least the reason some people experiment. I've been a lifelong spiritual seeker myself, and though I had put psychedelics behind me by the time I became a Catholic, the mystical aspect of Catholicism gave me an outlet within normative Christianity to explore these realms safely. As readers know, I've been Orthodox for almost 17 years now, and as an even more mystical tradition of Christianity, I have found, like Will, a safe home in Orthodox Christianity. Will strongly recommends reading Father Seraphim Rose's 1970s classic Orthodoxy And The Religion Of The Future, which stunned him when he first encountered it, by its insight into how occultism works -- this, from what he learned from his years in occultism. I recommend Kyriacos Markides's excellent book The Mountain Of Silence, which is a fine introduction to the Orthodox mystical tradition, as explained by a monk of Mount Athos. Markides, now a retired sociologist of religion, writes in the book that much of his career had been devoted to studying and writing about pagan shamanic traditions, but he realized at some point that Orthodoxy has its own such tradition. Markides says that if Westerners who are bored by the dryness of secular materialism, and the shallowness of much contemporary Western Christianity, rather than going towards Eastern religions looking for mysticism, they should first look deeply into ancient Christianity, which is a living tradition in Orthodoxy, especially on Mount Athos. I'll be addressing that too in my forthcoming book.
So, to sum up: Douthat is emphatically correct that one should be extremely careful about this stuff. There is no reason at all to believe that the spiritual realm is benign. You can find online a number of accounts from people who have had traumatic encounters with malign entities through using DMT. The Orthodox friend I mentioned at the top of this post -- the one who had the accidental cannabis experience -- told me that in his part of the world (the West coast), use of psychedelics by people seeking spiritual experiences is exploding -- and religious leaders have no idea how to deal with it. With this in mind, I asked the ex-occultist Will what pastors should know about this phenomenon. From the transcript of our interview:
If you were giving advice to priests and pastors about how to deal with the occult, what would you say?
Read up on these subjects just enough to avoid demonic snares and help others avoid those same traps, but not so much that you become overly fixated on the darkness . This ideal middle-ground will vary depending upon personal tendencies and life circumstances, but we all must find it.
Not everyone will be called to be a literal exorcist, but you must be prepared to confront the demonic in its many forms and to vigilantly help protect people from its influences. The fate of countless souls are at stake and the demons are only getting bolder, so this is not a fight we can shy away from.
Make sure those under your spiritual care know that pop culture is not their friend. This is not to say that every single piece of modern entertainment is irredeemable, but we must realize that much of our culture is produced by those who wittingly or unwittingly serve demonic interests.
Have zero tolerance for openness to the occult. If any of your parishioners show an interest in even seemingly benign esoteric or New Age spirituality (for example, astrology) warn them that they're opening themselves to evil forces that will seek to drag them to hell.
Have zero tolerance for ecumenical impulses. Do not let liberals emotionally blackmail you or your parishioners with blather about religious tolerance. Ecumenism is the religion of Antichrist.
I don't quite know what he means by "ecumenism" here. If he's talking about friendly discussion and cooperation between Christian churches on areas of mutual interests, well, I disagree. I need to find out more about this, from his perspective. If he's talking about believing that all religions are equally valid as ways to God, absolutely I agree with him that this is bad news.
One more passage from our interview:
Based on your academic research, and on your personal experience, what are the main ways the occult manifests itself in the life of ordinary people today?
Pop-culture, especially genres like science-fiction and horror, and certain styles of pop music.
Spiritual but not religious/New Age normalization of forms of divinization like tarot and astrology.
Feminist appeals to the divine feminine and glorification of witches/witchcraft.
Modern ideologies around sexuality and gender, whose glorifications of transgression and hybridity echo longstanding occult principles.
Interestingly, Douthat begins his column by talking about new public statues that are going up, with occult or pagan effects. Pictured above is a statue that recently went up at Madison Square Park, by the artist Shahzia Sikander. Another version of this figure was just installed atop the NY courthouse, in part as a pro-abortion protest. He writes:
Recently a statue appeared on a New York courthouse, occupying a plinth near famous lawgivers like Moses and Confucius. It’s a golden woman, or at least a female figure, with braided hair shaped like horns, roots or tendrils for arms and feet, rising upward from a lotus flower.
The figure’s sculptor, the Pakistani-American artist Shahzia Sikander, has emphasized her work’s political significance. The golden woman wears a version of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s lace collar, and she’s meant to symbolize female power in a historically male-dominated legal world and to protest Roe v. Wade’s reversal.
But the work is clearly an attempt at a religious icon as well, one forged in a blurring of spiritual traditions. It matches a similar statue by the same artist that bears the word “Havah,” evoking the Arabic and Hebrew name for Eve, and thereby making a feminist claim on the monotheistic tradition. But the imagery of the courthouse statue is also pantheistic, the roots and flower evoking nature-spirituality, “a magical hybrid plant-animal,” as one art critic puts it. And then finally its very hard not to see the braids-as-horns, the tendrils that look a bit tentacle-like, as an appropriation of Christian images of the demonic in a statue that stands against the politics of conservative Christianity.
We have to take this stuff as seriously as its creator and her supporters do. It's not merely a matter of aesthetics. It is there to represent a rival religious and political order. Similarly, in New Orleans, the same city space where a statue of Robert E. Lee once stood now hosts, at least temporarily, a statue of an African goddess. From ART News:
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Leigh’s bronze sculpture aims to undo the legacies of power that the Lee statue represented, and was specially designed for the Prospect 5 and the Circle. The sculpture depicts a snake wrapped around a slender female body whose form resembles a spoon.
The design is inspired by the various cultures of African diaspora that mix and flourish in New Orleans. Mami Wata is a water deity shared by many African cultures, while the spoon shape is an important symbol of status in the Zulu culture.
Even the placement of the sculpture seeks to subvert the hierarchies established by the Lee monument.
Want to lash out against white supremacy? Fine. White supremacy is bad. But let's not pretend that this sculpture is merely about putting a defiant finger in the face of white supremacy. It is about the proclamation of a new religious and political order. This is a pagan goddess. You may think this is a fine thing, but let's not act like it doesn't have potent spiritual meaning. I assume this is the kind of thing that Will is talking about when he says the ideology of "religious tolerance" can open the door to the demonic:
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