Lost: A great theologian who tripped drugs to change the world
Priests aren't all bad. In my theology class at my Catholic high school, the teachers were as liberal as they could be. So they'd explain Hinduism and Buddhism before explaining to us why Christianity was better and truer. The book they used to teach us about the two was called "The World's Religions," written by Huston Smith.
He was one of the greatest religious scholars of the 20th century, and he recently passed away in his living room at the age of 97.
As we read the book, my buddy would come to theology class zonked out of his mellon on LSD. And … yet … he could still talk about religion as well as anyone else!
"Everything is one," he'd say.
"Right!" replied the teacher.
"All life matters," my buddy would add.
"You're a genius!" said the teach.
"The colors in this room are perfect right now," my buddy continued.
"Tangential, but true!" replied the professor.
How did he perform so well while gorked on orange sunshine? This event was one of my first hints that LSD wasn't the poison they told me it was. Furthermore, I didn't know it at the time, but my buddy was in the perfect state to read “The World's Religions.”
Huston Smith has said he never had a more religious experience than the ones he had on psychedelic drugs, including LSD. His highest, most moving experiences weren't while meditating in a zen monastery. Not doing yoga with Hindu gurus. It was doing peyote with Mexican Indians and doing mushrooms with Tim Leary — those got him closest to his idea of ‘god.’ Psychedelics, he thought, are god's calling cards, chemical Bibles, that let us read part of the infinite mind of god. Who knew?
My buddy thought he was dosing in theology class to be rebellious. In fact, he was doing his homework. If only his mom had known.
"The divine is eternal and unchanging, but the mind needs to be expanded in order to receive the fullness of the infinite divine," Smith once said in an interview. "These substances weave through all the religions."
Smith's most important trip happened in 1962. When he took mushrooms in the basement of a Protestant church during Good Friday services, he thought the soprano's voice was literally an angel’s. Meanwhile, another dude on mushrooms went screaming out of the church and yelping down Commonwealth Avenue and tearing up letters from the hands of the postman, because he didn't think any messages were important except the ones magic mushrooms impart.
And people wonder why the ‘60s ended with police beating hippies with batons.
Smith's acid trips made him an evangelist for the idea that we should be open to other religions. And because Smith was so upright and such an accepted part of the establishment — he taught at the University of Denver and MIT — a lot of people changed their views, and a lot of people added drugs to their spiritual search. Can you blame them? After all, what would you rather do to get religion? Put on a suit, sit in a hard pew, and listen to a pedophile talk about how your gay friends are hellbound?
Or trip face with friends in a warm pretty forest?
Huston's book sold three million copies. He also wrote “Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals.” (Entheogen is a word meaning "god-enabling" or "putting god inside you.") Smith — and his drug-influenced worldview — had such an impact on American society that he's one of the four key players in Don Lattin's acclaimed book "The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America."
Smith's trips changed the world.
Even the bad ones. Smith in his lifetime catalogued two "bummer" trips, one spending near eight hours afraid that he was losing his mind. "It was terrifying," he said. "It was like schizophrenia or something." Another time, on acid in a room built by Tim Leary, a candle lit a bedspread on fire and Smith found himself "stoned on acid and sitting before a wall of flame," as The Harvard Psychedelic Club writes, and Smith had to bail down the fire escape, tripping balls.
Still, most of Smith's trips were good, as are most trips generally. But for all the good drugs could do, Smith said that psychedelics weren't enough to live a rich, full life. "The goal of spiritual life is not altered states, but altered traits," he wrote. If getting fucked up doesn't make you a better person, he said, then what's the point?
The problem with psychedelics, and the reason they're illegal, is not that they give people religious experiences. It's that they give you the "wrong" kind of experiences. The god of mushrooms doesn't look like the god of Abraham, and that scares the people who pass the collection plate and have the power to make laws.
Stil, modern religions are missing out by not including psychedelics in their rituals. As the Psychedelic Revolution rolls on, churches will either have to adapt to the reality of psychedelics, or they won't be able to survive. You cannot ignore the psychedelic state, just like Smith couldn't. You can incorporate them and remain Christian, just like Smith did. My buddy might've kept going to church if the priests had handed out, instead of the eucharist, little micro hits of LSD.
Either way, he still would have gotten an A in theology.