Friday, July 14, 2006

The Non-Ecstatic Adventure

I went to a small Lutheran college with a charmingly eccentric library. Very rarely did it lack the books I wanted, and often I would run across books I wasn't particularly looking for but found interesting nonetheless. In the music section, there were a couple anti-rock books detailing how rock music was from the devil. One of them even had a handy list of rock star deaths, which was supposed to prove some kind of rock curse or something. While researching a freshman science paper, I ran across this book, and I didn't even get marked down for using it as a source. That's not to say all all the propagandist books espoused a conservative viewpoint, though. When I was a fifth-year senior I was doing research for a presentation in science class. My topic was simply "drugs." The "drugs" section of the library yielded a gem called The Ecstatic Adventure. This 1968 book urged people to turn on and tune in, if not drop out. It was a collection of essays by people who had experimented with psychadelic drugs, each detailing a positive experience.

Not surprisingly, David Crosby and Allen Ginsburg were contributors. Also not surprisingly, there was a section of the book written by people with religious backgrounds, many of them practicioners of New Ageism or Eastern Mysticism. What was surprising, though, is that tucked within this section were two chapters by what we might call today Evangelical Christians. A "distinguished teacher" of theology and a female protestant minister wrote chapters describing the positives of psychadelics from a Christian perspective. Even more surprising, both of them seemed to have otherwise orthodox theologies. A text of the book is actually online.

I was reminded of this book recently when I read about a new Timothy Leary biography out. The review of the book mentioned Ralph Metzner, the editor of The Ecstatic Experience. I read that Metzner was actually still alive (which I guess isn't all that surprising, though I feel like he should be dead for some reason) and working for some radical think tank called "The Green Earth Foundation." I decided to e-mail the dude about the book. Here is what I wrote:

Hello Mr. Metzner,

I recently ran across your 1968 book "The Ecstatic Adventure." I was
particularly surprised to see contributions from Christian scholars such as
Walter H. Clark and Rev. Mary Hart. I can't imagine anyone in the Christian
community today advocating the use of psychadelics. Do you know if Clark
and Hart continued their exploration with psychadelics, and if they also
remained committed to Christianity? Did their comments engender controvery?
Do you know of any Christians today who advocate psychadelics?

Thanks for you time,

The part about recently running across the book was a blatant lie of course, but I didn't want to confuse the guy (not sure how many brain cells he has left at this point, after all). This is how he responded:

Azor Cigelski --
I don’t know if Walter Houston Clark and Mary Hart remained committed to Christianity — I do know they remained committed, in public, written venues, to the value of their psychedelic experiences in their lives.
I don’t know of any Christians today, or non-Christians, who “advocate psychedelics”.
I do know personally many admirers and followers of Christ’s teachings, who have used psychedelics and have found value and meaning in their experiences.
The above is probably not the answer you were expecting and hoping to hear.
Ralph Metzner

I'm sure this guy has spent his lifetime under attack by a mainstream establishment for his unconventional views, and has developed a shorthand to identify friends and enemies. Though my questions are completely neutral, he determined by my use of the word "advocate" that I was in the latter category, and chose to dismiss me with a patronizing last line. I decided to respond (with a less blatant patronization of my own):

Hi Mr. Metzner,

Thank you for your response.

I'm a bit mystified by your last sentence. I'm wondering what I said that
indicated to you that I had a particular hope or expectation from your
answer. I'm simply trying to satisfy my curiosity. I'm 28- years-old, and
for as long as I can remember I have perceived American society as rigidly
stratified by "culture wars." I'm fascinated by the possibility that there
was a time when the culture wasn't so rigidly stratified. Put in more
concrete terms, I wouldn't be at all be surprised to run across a book of
the same general tenor of "The Ecstatic Adventure" today, but I would be
surprised if contributors included Evangelical Christian ministers or
theologians. I'm wondering if in some small way, you can help me make sense
of why I was surprised to see these contributors in your book.

I fear that my use of the term "advocate" was off-putting and perhaps even
offensive to you. I realize in hindsight that it could be a loaded term. I
assure you when I used the term "advocate" I meant nothing more than a
willingness to share one's belief that the use of psychadelics could be
beneficial or valuable.

Thanks again,

His response:

Azor --
The sixties were a very different time than now.
There was nothing at all unusual about Christians, or the followers of any other religion, being interested in the mind-expanding possibilities of psychedelics.
I can’t help explain why you were surprised — that has to do with your expectations.
There are large numbers of books and articles written by religious scholars of various denominations, expounding the value of psychedelics, under certain circumstances.
You might look up the Council on Spiritual Practics ( for a look at that literature.

I send out occasional (once or twice a week) announcements (some to local Bay Area names) and socio-political-ecological commentaries to my e-mail list. If you are not on that list and would like to be, please send me an e-mail with your first and last name and “Add to mail list” in the subject line. Please indicate whether you reside (a) in the SF Bay Area; (b) North America – other; or (3) International – other.

If you are on the list, and would like not to be, send me an e-mail, with “Remove from mail list” in the subject line.

Yes, Ralph, the sixties were a different time than now, you patronizer. I believe that is what I said to you in my second e-mail, but perhaps the subtletly was lost on your drug-addled brain. And don't give me crap about personal expectations. You just said yourself that the sixties were a different time, so obviously there is something beyond personal expectations that led to my surprise. And now you want me to join your mailing list? Apparently my sucking up had at least one effect, as I seem to have got on your good side.

I'm probably being a bit too harsh on Ralph. I was asking him for a macro-cultural analysis, and he is way to far inside a specific subculture to see the big picture. It doesn't help that that particular subculture is a politically polarizing one, and the discourse surrounding it entagled in a web of political contexts. I was literally asking the impossible when I asked him to disentangle himself from that web. Of course, the irony is that he would probably say that his experiences with psychadelics allow him to see the big picture. In reality, such experiences not only seem to block his overall cultural perception, but in fragmenting him into a world in which all he comes into contact with are placed into a categorical framework (in this case "friend" or "enemy" to the cause), he has defeated the concept of "universal harmony" that he claims to espouse.


Blogger t nies said...

In your posting you say, "he is way too far inside a specific subculture to see the big picture." Do you think that in some sense we are all inside some sort of subculture? Or is there neutral ground that can be attained? And if there is neutral ground, who determines where/what that is?

Anyway, it was good seeing ya at the Wilco concert a couple of weeks ago. Random run-in at Old Chicago a year or so ago, than the random meeting at Summerfest on the 5th. It's getting to be a yearly ritual. See you next year!


1:38 PM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

That was an interesting post. It's funny to see you get all riled up.

6:57 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

Yo Tom. Good questions. The prevailing philosophy in academica today is that we are limited by what psychologists call our "schema." While we can never be completely objective or neutral, I do think we should strive to be, instead of declaring its impossiblity. I think neutral ground can be achieved in part by learning about other subcultures and inquiring into their epistemologies. I don't think a whole lot of people, including intellectuals, make good faith efforts to do so.

3:41 PM  

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