Transcending and Transforming Psychedelics

November 4, 2021
Composite image of psychedelic hands by Kristie Welsh, MTS '99
Composite image of psychedelic hands by Kristie Welsh, MTS '99

To some, the word “psychedelics” is a synonym for the 1960s. This name—coined in 1957 for a class of drugs that profoundly alter our states of consciousness—derives from the Greek deloun and psyche meaning to “manifest the soul” or, as Michael Pollan puts it, to “change your mind.” If you’ve been on an extreme media fast these past 10 years, the wave of articles, books, and programming about psychedelics might not have reached you. But the wave is now cresting, and we are currently surfing the so-called Psychedelic Renaissance.

There are people, especially those with ties to indigenous communities, who object to the name psychedelics and prefer to speak of entheogens or plant medicines—not least because they have an exceptional history grounded in religious and healing practices. Studies out of Johns Hopkins University show that psilocybin, for example, has remarkable therapeutic outcomes for patients who experience depression and substance use disorder, especially when they experience what the researchers call “mystical-type” experiences from the drug. Studies at New York University are administering high doses of psilocybin to religious professionals (priests, ministers, rabbis, etc.) in hopes of understanding how their personal sense of religious vocation and spirituality is affected by the drug. Other studies are exploring how another psychedelic, MDMA (aka Ecstasy), can effectively treat post-traumatic stress disorder, including among veterans.

In response to this renaissance of interest in psychedelics and how they intersect with religion and spirituality, the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) launched a year-long series in September 2020 called “Psychedelics and the Future of Religion,” which consisted of eight Zoom webinars (all available on YouTube). The series was a wild success, with record numbers of participants from across the globe. The webinars explored a range of topics, including: bold claims made by psychedelic researchers about religion, spirituality, and mysticism; limitations inherent in the scientific study of psychedelics (and the need for the humanities, especially the study of religion to take more of a lead); the possibility of training spiritual guides for psychedelic experiences, sometimes called “psychedelic chaplaincy”; the evidence for psychedelic use in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, from the Eleusinian Mysteries to early Christianity; and how to honor and include indigenous voices that are often sidelined in popular discourse.

In the first event of the series, Charles M. Stang, CSWR Director and Professor of Early Christian Thought, hosted Dr. Roland Griffiths of John Hopkins University, perhaps the leading researcher into the healing possibilities of psilocybin. Stang pushed Griffiths on how his studies seem to sanitize mystical experiences by defining them as profoundly moving encounters with a loving, transcendent source, and sidelining harrowing experiences of the divine as abysmal, dark, and even terrifying. Stang remarks: “This is where the history of religion is important, because it is shot through with the full archive of experiences. Religions know how to deal with harrowing experiences of God as an abyss because, guess what, people regularly have experiences of God as an abyss. And communities have to hold that, have to help people work with those experiences.”

In the second session of the series, we meet the Reverend Rita Powell, the Episcopalian chaplain at Harvard, who reflected on her participation in the 2016 NYU study on the effect of psilocybin on religious professionals. Powell describes a profound psilocybin experience (God as an abyss, no less!), but counts it as one of many ways she has sought to further her knowledge of God—ways that also include yoga, the arts, cooking, living in a monastery, and reading religious texts.

Rev. Powell reflects: “Lots of practices can crack someone out of a limited sense of self in the world. Finding a way out of a limited view and into the expansive infinity of God is a matter of urgency for our spiritual health.” She concludes, “Before we even get to psychedelics, I think the call for the church is to reinvest in the transcendent.”

Stang decided to translate the enthusiasm for psychedelics and their relevance for the study and practice of religion into a broader, multiyear initiative he has named “Transcendence and Transformation.” The psychedelics series will continue, but under the aegis of this new initiative. Echoing Powell, Stang reminds us: “Psychedelics are one means to an end, and so are fasting, meditation, prayer, dancing, deep study, extended silence, wandering, and other practices.” The end, simply put, is the transcendence of our normal states of being, consciousness, and embodiment, and the resulting transformation of individual, community, and society.

Implicit in this pursuit is the conviction that reality—sacred and profane, seen and unseen—is multilayered. There are different modes of access to those layers, including, but by no means limited to, those afforded by psychedelics. The initiative will connect with traditions across time and place that have cultivated practices of transcendence and transformation, as well as the many worldviews that inspire such practices. It will take seriously reports of extraordinary experiences of the sacred and the changes such experiences elicit in our minds, souls, and bodies—pairing disciplined inquiry with an openness to the archive of such experiences, ancient and modern.

The Transcendence and Transformation Initiative builds on foundations the Center has established under Stang’s directorship these past four years: not only the series of psychedelics, but also the “Matter and Spirit: Ecology and the Non-Human Turn” series and past conferences on the future of “Spiritual, But Not Religious,” and “Theosophy and the Study of Religion.” A significant aspect of the initiative will be to explore traditions excluded by the framework of world religions, such as indigenous traditions, and those that have been, for better or for worse, grouped under such categories as animism, paganism, shamanism, and folk religion. A goal will be both to study these different traditions for their own sakes and to attend to the ways elements of these traditions are continually disassembled and reassembled for contemporary use—especially by seekers who identify as spiritual, but not religious.

The Transcendence and Transformation Initiative will support visiting scholars, research associates, postdoctoral fellows, grants for students, staff, and faculty at HDS (as well as Harvard more broadly), international conferences, lecture series, workshops, and reading groups. As the pandemic winds down, the initiative will keep some of its programming online—to continue reaching broader audiences—and will return to in-person gatherings as soon as possible. These efforts are all in service to the CSWR’s mission of creating a sustainable community of inquiry for students and scholars and serving as an international think tank in the study of religion.

We asked current CSWR affiliates how the new Transcendence and Transformation Initiative will advance our understanding of spirituality and religion. Here’s what they had to say from their scholarly perspectives. (You can learn more about the current visiting scholars and senior fellows on the CSWR site.)

“Attracting practitioners and scholars from different fields, the Initiative represents a unique interdisciplinary space to study the relationships between spiritual and religious transcendence and personal and political transformation. We will challenge current reductionist interpretations of ‘altered states of consciousness’ and offer new analytical tools and perspectives to better understand these widespread phenomena.”
Giovanna Parmigiani, PhD, CSWR Research Associate

“The Transcendence and Transformation Initiative will pave the way for scholarship on religion and spirituality that is sophisticated but also sympathetic to the reality of the sacred. Far from assuming a neat, static definition of mysticism, this initiative is designed to experimentally broaden, explore, and better understand the vast dimensions of human experiences of the more-than-human.”
Hadi Fakhoury, PhD, CSWR Postdoctoral Fellow in Transcendence and Transformation

—by Alice Denison