Psychedelics as Sacred Objects
Mircea Eliade, Henry Corbin, and Shlomo Giora Shoham all inadvertently point to the sacrality of psychedelics which should be considered sacred in religious contexts, particularly within Mormonism.
This is a portion of a paper I’ll be presenting at the Forms of Psychedelic Life conference next month on the role of psychedelics in Mormon theology.
As a bit of context to the following for the unaware, a recent article makes the case that psychedelics played a significant role in the origin of the Mormon faith. I’ll also be publishing a series of papers extending the argument in the near future. This particular section of a paper I’m presenting builds on the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith’s theology of using physical objects as a means of reaching the spiritual. Joseph and his family utilized many such objects such as divining rods, multiple seer stones, magical parchments, and talismans among other objects to facilitate connection to the other world.
Psychedelics as Sacred Objects
Joseph Smith’s seer stones and the Urim and Thummim were just stones, but they were also something more than stones, they were hierophanies. As Mircea Eliade writes, “by manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself. . .a sacred stone remains a stone.” While the stone remains just a stone to an outsider, the stone reveals itself as sacred to the individual. Such is the case with these psychedelic plants. To those for whom it reveals the sacred, they are sacred. To those on the outside, they are simply profane, hallucinogenic plants. There’s a reason why all of the indigenous tribes who have utilized these substances for thousands of years treat them with respect and sacrality. Through these plants, they manifest the sacred.
The modern world, according to Eliade, has difficulty and unease towards many manifestations of the sacred. They find it difficult to accept that for many human beings the sacred can manifest in stones, trees, the sky, etc. They find it absurd that the primitive people “venerate a stone”, a plant, a tree, or anything else. But, what the profane world and the outsider misunderstands is that the sacred plant, the sacred stone are not worshiped qua stone or tree, they are worshiped because they are hierophanies, they manifest the sacred, hence why they are treated reverently. Along similar lines, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes that language is ontologically weak and “cannot but disappear in the thing it names.”1 If we focused on the form in which language came in it would lead us away from the knowledge of the thing it brings. The sacred object itself is ontologically weak, it is meant to bring us into the sacred.
The bread and water of the sacrament are, to use Eliade’s terminology, profane. They are simply bread and water.2 A church or temple is just a building. But they are revered because through them, the sacred is manifest. God is manifest. They are the means through which he is manifest. The means, however, can become idolatrous. And, in limiting the means through which God can work is similarly idolatrous on Jean-Luc Marion’s definition of idolatry.
We can get stuck on or lost in the thing as Jean-Luc Marion warns. An idol, he says, is a veridical vision of God but this vision of God stops there. Our gaze in this instance, is filled completely by this particular vision of God, and, he argues, becomes a mirror. We are no longer authentically viewing the divine, we are just showing our own conception of God back to ourselves, we are limiting the divine within the confines of our own Dasein. The icon provokes a vision but, instead of stopping the gaze, allows the gaze to travel through. It goes beyond just acting as a lens for the gaze, in fact, it allows for the return of the gaze, from the Other! The icon is never fixed on a specific image and is not in our control (as the idol is in both cases).3
The philosopher and mystic Henry Corbin provides a parallel vision of what it means to be an idol:
Idolatry consists in immobilizing oneself before an idol because one sees it as opaque, because one is incapable of discerning in it the hidden invitation that it offers to go beyond it. Hence, the opposite of idolatry would not consist in breaking idols. . . it would rather consist in rendering the idol transparent to the light invested in it. In short, it means transmuting the idol into an icon.4
Rending the idol transparent is releasing the infinite from the bounds our finite mind places on it. Anything can become an idol—a physical object, a concept, a specific trait, the idea of a prophet or the idea of God—even something that initially functioned as an icon. The idol places a limit on the divine within the confines of our own being, our own understanding. However, it takes two to tango, and it takes two for a revelatory or mystical experience to occur.
Revelation, and encounters with the sacred, as the Jewish philosopher and mystic Shlomo Giora Shoham argues, are fundamentally creative in nature. God is not the sui genesis of revelation. “Mythoempirically, man was from the outset an integration of spirit and matter” which Shoham later argues that revelation is likewise an integration of spirit [God] and matter [man].”5 The faculty through which this occurs externally Mormons call the Spirit or Holy Ghost. When discussed in the Mormon context it is referred to it as our “spirit.” Corbin, in addition to the psychologist Carl Jung, instead call this Active Imagination. The function, however, is the same.
The Active Imagination is what guides our sensory perception, according to Corbin, “which is why it transmutes sensory data into symbols. The Burning Bush is only a brushwood fire if it is merely perceived by the sensory organs.” For Moses to perceive the Burning Bush and hear the Voice coming from within, for there to be an authentic theophany, requires that the correct sensory organ, the Active Imagination, is activated.6 The ancients, and Joseph Smith, had this sensory organ well tuned and utilized it. Psychedelics could be considered a vitamin, or a supplement, “to strengthen and nourish our body,” well, our spiritual organ at the very least.
Henry Corbin notes that “a metaphysics that includes the Active Imagination [spirit] is required” and that “both the validity of visionary accounts that perceive and relate ‘events in Heaven’ and the validity of dreams, symbolic rituals . . . of visions, cosmogonies, and theogonies, and thus . . . the truth of the spiritual sense perceived in the data of prophetic revelations . . . depends on the Active Imagination completely.”7 He further mentions that the exploration of the spirit realm requires a participation between the human and divine and is at once both discovery and creation. All of this depends on the ability to use active imagination, to see God’s hand, as the brother of Jared did, touching the stones in individual's lives. As mentioned earlier, God gave the brother of Jared the choice as to the means through which God would answer his prayer. God asked a man for a solution to this man’s need of a theophany. And the brother of Jared, rather than constraining and limiting what God could do said:
And I know, O Lord, that thou hast all power, and can do whatsoever thou wilt for the benefit of man; therefore touch these stones, O Lord, with thy finger, and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness; . . . Behold, O Lord, thou canst do this. We know that thou art able to show forth great power, which looks small unto the understanding of men.8
The brother of Jared’s God was an icon, not an idol. Shlomo Giora Shoham suggests, following Martin Buber, that “precisely because of man’s theurgic abilities, he has a major role in inducing God either to open his flow of grace or to avert his face from his creatures.” And, by concretizing God, and rendering him unchangeable (by placing him in our neat little box), we break a relationship with him and petrify that relationship to him as an I-It transformation, which Shoham notes, like Jean-Luc Marion, is the essence of Idolatry.9
Psychedelics interrupt and reframe what Heidegger calls the readiness-at-hand, our everyday non-conscious workings.10 We pick up a pen without thinking of it as a pen and asking what it does. We say a prayer without thinking, perhaps repeating the same daily prayer at meal times without recognizing what it is. Instead, psychedelics promote the Heideggerian “meditative thinking”, the type of thinking that is deeper, slower, and forces us to engage with the fundamental questions of being human and existing. This is the type of thinking that allows for creativity—creativity allows for truth to be revealed—because it is about being open to the mystery of Being and allowing for a fluid, iconic relationship, giving the Other a chance to reveal itself.11 Heideggerian truth is unconcealment, while untruth is concealing and coercing or covering up what is actually there.
Psychedelics can reset our ordinary readiness-at-hand causing pause to reflect on the divine and Heideggerian truths that are revealed in our daily lives. In essence, giving them a chance to re-reveal themselves to us. Psychedelics promote and guide us to icons rather than idols.
A recently well-regarded theory to understand the mind involves predictive processing. The idea is that our mind functions in a Bayseian manner, always updating our priors based on experiential evidence. The brain is driven towards coherence and fitting things within the hierarchical predictive models. The stronger the prior, the more weight it is given when factoring in sensory data. What some neuroscientists suggest is that psychedelics act as an entropy-introducer. They introduce entropy into the system and flatten the hierarchical predictive processing allowing our priors to be disrupted. Thus, someone who is depressed and “stuck” in the patterns, is given a chance to break out of their problematic patterns and associations.12 In a similar manner, since our brain is prone to specific patterns of behavior, we can have our gaze stuck on idols—not necessarily to any fault of our own. Psychedelics might act as a tool to allow us to break free from our everyday, routine associations. They allow us to reconceive the contents of our lives through Heideggerian meditative thinking. One stark example is the Marsh Chapel Experiment performed at Harvard in 1962.
While touted as a means for revelation and connection to God, the pews often serve as an uncomfortable napping location. In 1962, in order to see if psychedelics would enhance the church experience, Walter Pahnke, a graduate student at Harvard designed what’s been coined as “The Good Friday Experiment.”13 A double blind experiment was performed where ten of twenty graduate students were given psilocybin, while the other ten were given a placebo of niacin, and were then taken to church to sit through the service. Nine of the ten subjects given psilocybin reported having a profound religious experience during the sermon and felt closer to God than before, while only two of the placebo group reported having any positive experience at all. Notably, one of the participants in the experimental group was the religious scholar Huston Smith who reported that the experience was “the most powerful cosmic homecoming I have ever experienced.”14
In a follow-up study by the founder of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), Rick Doblin, found that this experiment occasioned some of the most spiritually significant experiences in the life of the participants.15 This alone places psychedelic substances in the realm of the sacred and ideal candidates for being sacred objects.
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, (Hartcourt, Inc., 1959), 12. Italics in original.
Giorgio Agamben, “Experimentum Vocis” in What is Philosophy? (Stanford University Press, 2018), 9-10.
According to D&C 27:2 “it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory.”
Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being trans. Thomas A. Carlson, (University of Chicago Press, 1991), 7-24, 28-32; Christina Gschwandtner, Postmodern Apologetics? Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy (Fordham University Press, 2013), 109-110.
Henry Corbin, “Theophanies and Mirrors: Idols or Icons?” trans. Jane Pratt and A. K. Donohue, Spring 1983: 2.
Shlomo Giora Shoham, The Mytho-Empiricism of Gnosticism: Triumph of the Vanquished (Sussex Academic Press, 2003), 164-168.
Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton University Press, 1997): 13.
Corbin, Alone with the Alone, 80.
Shoham, The Mytho-Empiricism of Gnosticism, 46-47.
Another interesting avenue for further exploration beyond the scope of this paper is the function of the faculty of consciousness known as imagination (not in the fantasy or fake sense of the word) in revelatory or visionary experiences. According to philosopher and religious scholar Jeffrey Kripal, the faculty of imagination is key in mediating or synthesizing the material and immaterial as well as objective reality (i.e. God) and subjective reality (i.e. our perspective of God). Likewise, the Inkling and philosopher Owen Barfield argues that the capacity for imagination, and understanding it correctly, is the key to saving the religious mode of consciousness from idolatry. Given the visionary and imaginal nature of the psychedelic experience, they will be indispensable tools for working with and understanding this relationship. See Jeffrey Kripal, The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge (Bellevue Literary Press, 2019), 133-165 and Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (Wesleyan University Press, 1965).
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time trans. Joan Stambaugh (SUNY Press, 1996), 98.
Gschwandtner, Postmodern Apologetics, 32-33.
See Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston, “REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Toward a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics,” Pharmacological Reviews 71 no. 3 (July 2019): 316-344.
Walter Pahnke, Drugs and Mysticism: An Analysis of the Relationship Between Psychedelic Drugs and the Mystical Consciousness, (Dissertation, Harvard University, 1963).
Huston Smith, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000), 101.
Rick Doblin, “Pahnke’s ‘Good Friday Experiment’: A Long-Term Follow-Up and Methodological Critique,” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 23 no. 1 (1991): 1–28.