photo by: Skeptiko
On this episode of Skeptiko…
Alex Tsakiris: Wait a minute, I’ve heard you say this before; do you think for a second that this idea of recasting Jesus from this born of a virgin, son of God, God on earth being, to someone who’s well-schooled in entheogens and healing… there is no way that’s going to fly with modern day Christianity.
Jerry Brown: Whether you believe in all the other stories about The Bible, you can and it is not contradictory to a belief system that says that Jesus was the son of God, if that is your belief, to contemplate that he could have realized his divinity through entheogens.
Stay with us for Skeptiko…
Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science and spirituality with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. Of course, [we] have to have their critics in there. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode a really interesting topic that we’ve touched on only slightly here and there and I’m glad to bring it center stage. Dr. Jerry Brown, along with his wife Julie Brown, have written a book, The Psychedelic Gospels…
So the issue here is something you’ve probably heard about: were psychedelics a part of early Christian history? Spoiler alert — yes they were. Here’s an anthropologist who has looked into it extensively. He has all the artwork, all the analysis, all the stuff. But, of course, this is Skeptiko. We want to go much further, and the questions I wanted to explore were, what does this mean? Does it mean, like some atheists take it, that Christianity is just bonkers because “those dudes were just trip’n?” That seems to be the takeaway there from the atheist side.
Now, there’s another side, there’s a super progressive Christian perspective, and please don’t ask me to point this person out because I don’t know who or where they are, but they would maintain the Christian narrative about Jesus, and son of God, and virgin birth, and all that stuff, plus they would add that he may have been introducing psychedelic mushrooms as well? And that has to be in play too here because, as you’ll hear, that’s kind of where Jerry is coming from.
And then there’s this vast middle ground… so, who was this figure Jesus? What role have these psychedelics played in the development of religions, wisdom traditions, of people just experiencing these extended realms?
So, a really interesting topic, a lot to pull apart there and we try and do it all in this interview with Dr. Jerry Brown.
Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Jerry B. Brown to Skeptiko. Jerry is an anthropologist who, along with his wife Julie, who is a psychotherapist, have written, The Psychedelic Gospels: The Secret History of Hallucinogens in Christianity. Jerry, welcome to Skeptiko.
Jerry Brown: It’s a pleasure to be here, thank you Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: So Jerry, this idea that psychedelics have somehow played a role in Christianity and in a broader sense maybe some or all of the world’s religions, is something that’s been out there for a while and has picked up some steam in the last 20 years or so, but it looks like you’re really bringing something new to this discussion — certainly a rigor and a research academic background that I don’t know has been there before. Was that your intent and how did you get started in looking at this?
Jerry Brown: Well, let me start off by talking about how we got started in looking at this and then come back to your question about the rigor etc.
I’m an anthropologist by training and after my first LSD experience, I was in a tumultuous time in my life and the set that I came into it was quite unsettling and I had a difficult experience and I took it as both a challenge and an opportunity to learn more, much more, about psychedelics. So as a founding professor of anthropology at Florida International University in Miami, I designed and taught in 1975, a course called Hallucinogens in Culture, which is still offered today. It might be the first university catalog course, for credit course on psychedelics in the US. I’m not positive about that.
In any case, in the process — and I can talk more about the course — starts out with indigenous use of hallucinogens and psychedelics, entheogens and shamanism, moves onto classical cultures of Greece and India and concludes with what I call the modern psychonauts, the Timothy Leary’s, the Ram Dass’s, the John Lilly’s of the world.
So, in the process I became quite familiar with ethnobotany and the ethnomycology, the way in which different cultures use and relate to the mushroom world.
Then in 2006, on an anniversary trip to Scotland, my wife Julie and I decided to visit Rosslyn Chapel, inspired by the mention of Rosslyn in Dan Brown’s book and film, The Da Vinci Code.
Alex Tsakiris: Now Jerry, let me just interject with a quick question here. At this point did you have any sense that you were going to investigate this connection further, this long interest you’d had in hallucinogens and the early Christian, kind of perspective, did you have any sense of that?
Jerry Brown: None whatsoever, in fact quite the contrary. As we point out in the book, having cut my teeth on the groundbait, breaking and pioneering studies of Gordon Wasson, whose poetic writings and erudite research, gave wings to the young field of ethnomycology, I also had accepted his authoritative conclusion that psychedelics or as we like to call them entheogens, plants and chemicals that generate the divine within, that entheogens, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, had ended a thousand years before the coming of Christianity.
So I had, kind of closed that door with many other scholars, taking Wasson’s observations as correct and had no inkling prior to visiting Rosslyn Chapel and the events that unfolded after that fateful visit, that I would ever be researching this topic, not in a million years.
Alex Tsakiris: Let me just ask you, you tell a great story in the book about the experience that you had, sitting in this café, you’re exhausted from the trip. It’s a great story, can you retell it? It’s such a great turning point in the book.
Jerry Brown: Sure. So at Rosslyn I was fascinated by these hundred green men, because Rosslyn is a synthesis, it’s a Catholic church, but it is 15th century incredible synthesis of pagan and Catholic symbolism and there are over a hundred green men there and they are protruding down from the ceiling in a stone bas.
Alex Tsakiris: Explain the green men thing.
Jerry Brown: The green men are fertility symbols; they have a kind of fierce fecundity about them. They’re found throughout Europe — there are taverns named The Green Man, but green men images, you can find them from India to Europe in churches and in other places.
Alex Tsakiris: Kind of gargoyle(ish) looking things if you didn’t… not really but in that general…
Jerry Brown: Not as grotesque as gargoyles but certainly interesting faces with a variety of emotional expressions and very often with vines and tendrils growing out of the eyes, growing into the nostrils, around the mouth, so they’re wrapped in earth symbolism; this one particular green man had that; [he] kind of glares enigmatically and somewhat sardonically down from the ceiling, right over the most sacred part of the church, the altar in the front where worship is conducted and mass is conducted.
I found a plaster replica of this green man’s head in the gift shop in Rosslyn Chapel, bought it, [and] put it into my knapsack. Then Julie and I traveled a little more and we came to visit St. Andrews, and when we arrived in St. Andrews, hot, thirsty and fatigued from our trip, out of the Cairngorm Mountain in Scotland, we drove, Julie had gone to the ladies room, I reached for the map, I found the green man, I put it down on the table, the red and white checkered table in this Italian restaurant and absentmindedly turned it around 180 degrees and found myself staring at a replica, a sculptured replica of a psychedelic Amanita Muscaria mushroom, sculptured upside down into the forehead, right over the pineal gland of this green man.
Alex Tsakiris: Help me understand what you were looking for at that point, because one of the problems with this topic and you eluded to it a little bit is — atheistic folks latch on to this idea — like you just said and it’s not just Allegro, many people since have said, “It’s a way to kind of write off Christianity and religion in general. Hey, there’s nothing divine, there’s no extended consciousness realm, it’s just people tripping, you know, that’s all it is.” So, there’s that part of it, but then there’s also the deep spirituality part that says, “This is some doorway connection to these extended consciousness realms that join all religions.”
So, I guess one question would be, at this point, did you have some bias, and then my follow on question’s going to be, how you sought out those two very different kind of conclusions or ways to take the basic idea that hallucinogens, entheogens are somehow at play with the spiritual experience?
Jerry Brown: That’s a really excellent, excellent question. As we say, in the invitation to readers at the beginning of our book, that Julie and I had our initial experiences with the divine with psychedelics in the 1960s and 1970s, and we saw them in our own personal experience, as a pathway to the divine presence or whatever you would like — the intelligence that runs and permeates the universe as LSD research has indicated.
So we did not see that as a confirmation of atheistic thinking, we knew that shamanistic cultures throughout history and including many that are living today in South America and Africa and Asia use psychedelics as the portal to the supernatural and the divine world. We don’t see this as conflicting with that, in fact we quote Brother David Steindl-Rast who was a priest from the Order of Saint Benedict who said the following: “If I can experience God through a sunset on a mountaintop, why not through a mushroom, prayerfully ingested?”
So we came down and there is much research, including The Miracle at Marsh Chapel, which proved the synthetic psilocybin in the double-blind experiment conducted in 1962 by Walter Pahnke could create authentic mystical experiences.
Alex Tsakiris: We better back up there and why don’t you talk through that experiment real briefly, and there’s a couple of points I want you to touch on afterwards. One is synthetic, because that then takes us out of the natural part of it and some of the shamanistic stuff has to be called into question there, and the other thing is when you say ‘the experience’, you know, the divine experience. Then what are we really talking about, because that asks the question — is it an experience or is it something more? You know, because we can have experiences but those don’t necessarily suggest that there is an extended consciousness realm. I’ve probably laid too much on the table there, but tell us about that experiment.
Jerry Brown: Not at all, not at all. Let me walk you through this, and just to put one point aside, this is about synthetics. Wasson found a living mushroom among the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca in Mexico and he went down there; he was invited, and he participated in psilocybin mushroom experiences. That material of psilocybin mushrooms was sent to Albert Hoffman, the discoverer of LSD, who was a chemist, a pharmacologist at his lab in Switzerland. He was able to make synthetic psilocybin. It was brought to Maria Sabina, the famous Mazatec Shamanist and she found it to be the same experience.
So, it’s interesting on that count, it is also interesting that Huston [Smith] — the famous scholar of religion — gave independent objective readers LSD writings [and] writings of Christian mystics and they couldn’t tell which were which. So I just wanted to make that point.
Now, to come back to your basic question about The Miracle of Marsh Chapel, also known as The Good Friday Experiement, this took place, it was conducted by Walter Pahnke, who designed it under Timothy Leary’s Harvard psilocybin project, obviously before Leary and his colleagues were expelled from the Harvard faculty. What they did was on Good Friday 1962, Pahnke randomly divided 20 volunteer protestant divinity students into two groups, in a small chapel, in the under rooms of Marsh Chapel. Half of the students received capsules containing 30 milligrams of psilocybin and the other half received a placebo, niacin vitamin B3, which makes you feel flushed. The results were compelling. 9 out of the 10 subjects, the divinity students, who received psilocybin, reported profound mystical experiences and only 1 of the control group did this. In fact, Huston Smith, who then was a student, went on to write several books about entheogenic plants; he described this Marsh Chapel session as, “The most powerful cosmic homecoming I have ever experienced.”
25 years later, Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, maps.org, did a follow up study; he found 7 of those 9 students who had the mystical experience, and they confirmed that it was among either the most profound or one of the most profound and long-lasting events in their life.
So all this gives us sound experimental evidence that these experiences are for the subjects real, and Walter Clark, a famous American psychologist wrote, “There are no experiments known to me, in the history of the scientific study of religion, better designed or clearer in this conclusion than this one.” I love this study because it creates an illuminating and a unique fusion, Alex, between science and religion.
Alex Tsakiris: What is that reinterpretation? Okay so here’s the big payoff. What’s the reinterpretation of Christianity, what’s the bottom line, an in particular, because a lot of Christian people — and I’m not a Christian — but a lot of Christian people, what is the reinterpretation of the life of Jesus?
Jerry Brown: The reinterpretation is that during the missing years Jesus could have gone to India, but we argue that he went to Egypt where he learned the sacred rights that were practiced by the Egyptians — to leave the body and return while alive and to become a being of light; he learned the rituals of the sacred mushrooms, which he incorporated into his teaching and into his healings.
So, in other words, if our theory is correct, then the master story of Christianity would have to be dramatically revised to incorporate the role of psychedelics in the teaching and healing mission of Jesus; in plate 14 of our book, there’s a very interesting photo […] of Jesus on his healing mission, after he has been baptized by John the Baptist, and it is him placing his head on the leper’s head. The Latin scrolls say the following: […] Jesus says to the leper, “Do you want to be cleansed?” and the leper says to Jesus, “Master, if you want to, you may cleanse me,” and the leper says back, “I want to be cleansed.” But the scroll that the leper is holding unfolds, not to Jesus, but to psychedelic mushroom that Jesus is suspended above and we know that in many shamanic cultures, psychedelics, ayahuasca, ibogaine, psilocybin, peyote among the Ch’ol and Cora tribes of Mexico, well used for healing. So here is a direct reference to it.
To take this even further Alex, what does it mean, we want to talk about enigmatic— let’s look at the New Testament Gospel of John, John 6:51-56, where Jesus says, “Who so eateth of my flesh and drinketh my blood have eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood dwell within me and I in him.”
Now look, we do not believe that Jesus was encouraging cannibalism, this would have been anathema, repugnant to both Romans and Jews alike, and the early Christians were all Jews. We believe that he is talking about the sacred mushroom.
And I can take that further because in the chapter of The Kingdom of Heaven, we go back into the Gnostic Gospels, which were supposedly the representations and the words of the living Jesus and were buried in the sands of Egypt from 200 on, and Jesus says to his disciples — it’s in the Gospel of Thomas — “Compare me to someone and tell me who I am like,” and Thomas replies, “Master, my mouth is wholly and capable of saying who you are like,” and Jesus says, “I am not your master, because you have drunk you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which thy have measured out, he who drinketh from my mouth will become like me, I shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.”
Now listen here, for those of you who are not familiar with this passage. He is saying to Thomas, “You have drunk, you have become intoxicated and visionary from this drink that I have measured out.” In other words Jesus is saying, “I measured it out, I know the dose and if you drink from what I offer; you will become like me, you will have a trans-personal mystical experience and I will become like you and all things that are hidden will be revealed,” and as Jesus said, “The Kingdom of Heaven, look not here or there, the Kingdom of Heaven is within.”
So we believe this is in the language of that time, a reference to saying that this heavenly world, this supernatural world, this mystical world which gets described in different terms and different cultures is revealed from within by taking this drink from the psychoactive plants. That’s where we really believe there is a revision of the master story of Christianity, but it is not a destruction of a belief in Jesus or a…
Alex Tsakiris: Wait a minute, I’ve heard you say this before, do you think for a second that this idea that recasting Jesus from this born of a virgin, son of God, God-on-earth being to someone who’s well-schooled in entheogens and healing? There is no way that’s going to fly with modern day Christianity.
Jerry Brown: Well, it flies with Brother David Steindl-Rast, and hear me out on this because, whether you believe in all the other stories about The Bible, you can — and it is not contradictory to a belief system that says that Jesus was the son of God, if that is your belief to contemplate that he could have realized his divinity through entheogens, his divinity and sense of immortality, which is what we hear that these psychedelic plants do from Soma and the Rig Veda.
Alex Tsakiris: Jerry, this Jesus plus thing just isn’t going to fly, I mean, we’ve got to kind of get down to the core issue of who was Jesus, and are you suggesting that Jesus was this magician, herbalist who was a healer, or is he this divine being and for, I guess to start there we have to say, do we believe that there are divine beings, do we believe that there are beings that are somehow different or somehow straddling this extended consciousness realm in this realm? What do you think about that question and then the big question is, who was Jesus?
Jerry Brown: Alex, I believe we’re all divine beings and we all can realize that through psychedelic or other pathways to the divine, and I think that’s what the teaching was and this is what we find in the Gnostic Gospels, that Jesus did not come to save humanity from sin, but to teach enlightenment that God and man were not other but are one, and this is the teachings of the Gnostic Gospels, we believe this is part of the true teaching of early Christianity and that’s where, certainly there’s going to be dispute with orthodox Christianity.
But think about it for a minute, the visionary experience, the inspired experience, the mystical experience, is very prized throughout The Bible, from the early Old Testament to certainly The Book of Revelation and so if we’re going to move in a paradigm shift, from ritual at the beginnings, to analysis of Christian text and gospels from the printing press on, to now, considering that all of us can have a direct experience of the divine, no matter what your religious framework, whether it be Hindu, whether it be Judaic, whether it be those people, those many people who in a Pew’s survey say, “I am spiritual and not religious,” because look at this, we are all looking for our place in the cosmos, and if psychedelics provides one for some portion of the population, this is why Julie and I, in our book, encourage the foundation of sacred centers as legal, the legalization of psychedelics to be used in sacred centers for personal growth and religious exploration, which should be allowed under the first amendment of the United States constitution, which requires that there be no prohibition on the freedom of religion.
Now, coming back to the more controversial issue — look, it took 300 years for the Catholic Church to forgive, to apologize to Galileo for showing him, during the Inquisition, the instruments of torture to get him to recount what he saw through his telescope. We hope it will not take 300 years for the Catholic Church or for Judaism, which we couldn’t get into in this book, to acknowledge the role of psychedelics as having a valuable experiential and existential contribution to people’s religious experience.
Alex Tsakiris: Very well said, and it’s a huge, huge topic that you’re tackling here and you’re just doing it in a very thoughtful, deep way.
One more last question or question area that you just kind of dipped into with that last response and that is, you know, what do we make of the dark, deep state part of this? So anyone who’s looked into LSD, psilocybin as well, you know, you’re going to run into MKUltra, you’re going to run into Timothy Leary being coopted by the FBI and the CIA, you’re going to run into mind control. It’s not all white light when we look at psychedelics is it, and do you have concerns there, when you talk about the freedom of expression, the freedom of thought, the freedom to do what you want with your consciousness? This seems to be a topic that the deep state is very interested in and has been for quite a while and their read of what our rights should be seems to be quite different than what you’re talking about.
Jerry Brown: Yeah, we touch on that in a footnote, because look, we couldn’t touch into Judaism in this book, we couldn’t get into these deep state arguments. I encourage you to read Acid Dreams, which reveals the freedom of information, additional deep state information about the MKUltra, horrible experiments they did on LSD, giving LSD to soldiers without their knowledge or permission. Both the US and the Soviets explored these as tools of mind control, as truth serums, as battlefield instruments, and they don’t seem to work for a variety of reasons.
Certainly that element is there, we do not explore it in our book, but we do believe that if the theory were true that the CIA spread psychedelics, including LSD, throughout the country, in order to try to disarm the very powerful, civil rights and antiwar movement. They absolutely failed, and the success of the counterculture in many ways, in which it has become almost embedded into many aspect of American life, whether it be in food or protest or cultural styles, and now the current resurgence of the psychedelic renaissance, which is avoiding the mistakes that Leary and the others made, perhaps out of innocence, perhaps out of overenthusiasm, by overly promising what these drugs can do, but by putting these substances through the rigorous scientific and medical methodology of showing how they can help with Alzheimer’s, with cluster headaches, with relief for cancer patients, with helping first responders and our veterans who come back traumatized from war, this is the way in which psychedelics are going to enter the mainstream.
In other words, as we saw with marijuana, legalization follows medicalization and the medicalization model is what’s driving this new science of psychedelics. We touch on that in the last chapter of our book and I encourage your listeners, you can find all of this on our website, psychededlicgospels.com or you can find our book on Amazon, The Psychedelic Gospels, or you can follow our page on Facebook – Psychedelic Gospels.