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A major motive for being a Christian and participating in its rituals and disciplines is about to collapse. This is going to make a lot of Christians panic, but I believe the recent development will be all to the good.

The development is the discovery that hallucinogenic drugs can give people an experience seemingly identical to powerful religious experiences. A recent New York Times article by John Tierney describes the experience of retired clinical psychologist Clark Martin. Martin had been treated for depression for years, but counseling and antidepressants did nothing to help. At age 65, he enrolled in an experiment at Johns Hopkins medical school that gave people psilocybin, a psychoactive ingredient found in some mushrooms.

When Martin was administered the drug, he says, "All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating … . Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water's gone. And then you're gone."

Today, more than a year later, Martin says the six-hour experience helped him defeat depression and deeply transformed his relationships with his daughter and friends. "It was a whole personality shift for me," Martin said. "I wasn't any longer attached to my performance and trying to control things. … You have a feeling of attunement with other people."

His experience, writes Tierney, is not all that unusual, and he says, "Scientists are especially intrigued by the similarities between hallucinogenic experiences and the life-changing revelations reported throughout history by religious mystics and those who meditate."

The same connection was made by Barbara Bradley Hagerty in her popular Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality (Riverhead), which I reviewed last year. For example, she describes the experience of Michael Hughes, who had a mystical experience when he ingested some psychedelic mushrooms when he was 22 years old just before he walked into a Catholic church. "It was almost as if I had wandered into the magical place," he said. "I sat down and felt a really strong sense of sacredness." He said he encountered "Something"—"an intelligence to be sure, but it felt like an intelligence that imbues everything."

When the Roman Catholic Hughes was asked to compare a non-drug-induced mystical moment he had with his mushroom-induced one, he said, "They were equally profound. They both changed me dramatically."

From the point of view of experience, it seems it's impossible to tell the difference between drug-induced and "natural" mystical experiences. Both are powerful. Both enable people to enjoy a transcendent moment. Both seem capable of transforming people so that they feel a greater sense of empathy for and unity with other people—what most people would call love.

* * *

This sort of thing makes many a Christian nervous, and for good reason. We live in an age in which religious experience is the centerpiece of faith for many, many Christians. We disdain faith that is mere intellectual assent or empty formality. We want a faith that is authentic, that makes us feel something—in particular, one that enables us to experience God. When we describe the one time in the week when we put ourselves in the presence of God, we talk less and less about "worshipping God" and more about "the worship experience." The charismatic movement, with its emphasis on experiencing the Holy Spirit, has penetrated nearly all churches. This religious mood, which characterizes our era, is epitomized by the title of Henry Blackaby's continuing best seller, Experiencing God.

So, to hear that people can have even more powerful religious experiences without Christian faith gives us pause. It's a lot of work to fast and pray and worship and deny oneself—and even then, experiencing God is a hit or miss proposition! What's the fuss if we can pop a mushroom and have a nearly guaranteed religious experience?

* * *

It would seem that just as God has given us the ingenuity and resources to heal the body of disease, he seems to have given us the tools to help us have religious experiences. Some Christians balk at the artificiality of drug induced mysticism, but that may merely be an aesthetic distaste. In the long run, it may not end up being any more serious than those who at first thought it unnatural to use penicillin to heal infections.

I am certainly not encouraging readers to go and trip out on psilocybin! The field is still a huge unknown, and there are real dangers involved. Some people have very bad experiences on psychedelic drugs—though researchers seem to be discovering ways to minimize the bad experiences and maximize the good ones. Still, this is not something one does at home.

But the research suggests a number of consequences for the way we do Christianity in our day. If religious experience is something that a drug can induce even more easily than spiritual ritual and disciplines, it may be time, for example, to rethink what many churches are trying to do on Sunday morning: create a memorable "worship experience."

* * *

This topic cannot be fully explored in the space of a column, but let me make a few forays into the matter, hear some of your reactions, and continue exploring this in future columns.

There are many reasons to question the amount of attention our age gives to helping people have memorable religious experiences. For one, other religions seem to be equally capable of giving people an encounter with transcendence. For another, as we now increasingly see, drugs seem to be able to do the same thing.

Similarly, we rightly question making our faith mostly about "deeds not creeds"—as if the Christian faith were primarily a religious ethic. Again, most of the ethical injunctions of Christianity are found in other world religions, and are even championed by many atheists. You don't need revelation to figure out that adultery, stealing, and murder are really bad ideas, and that there is something noble about caring for other human beings. We have countless examples of Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and others—even agnostics and atheists—living upright lives and giving themselves in sacrificial service to the marginalized.

In short, what Christians uniquely have to offer the world is not religious experience or even a unique religious way of life. We're not hawking "your best religion now," for our religion, upon close examination, seems no more admirable or sinful than any other religion. Christianity stands under the judgment and grace of God—as do all religions.

No, what Christians bring to the world is a message embedded in a story, and nothing less than a God-given, God-revealed message and story.

The Gospel writer John put it this way: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). 

The apostle Paul put it many different ways, and one was this: "God … through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18-19).

The great theologian Karl Barth, when asked to summarize his massive Church Dogmatics—his best effort at summing up the substance of Christian theology—said, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

The Christian faith is, at its core, not about ethics or religious experience, but a message about a God who has gone to extraordinary lengths to be and remain on our side, to become the-God-with-a-name, Emmanuel, "God with us." Christians are not primarily mystics (those who experience God in a special way) or activists (those who live the way of Jesus). We are mostly witnesses of who God is and what he has done and what he will do in Jesus Christ, the God who in Christ has "a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:10).

This is not to deny that our faith must be expressed in deeds and empowered by a genuine experience of God. Faith without works, or a genuine encounter with God, is not Christian faith. But after promising the disciples that they would receive the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus told them what their main mission was: "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

We are shortchanging our people when we make worship mostly about experience or a pep rally to motivate people to good deeds. We practice religious neglect when we fail to witness to them the saving story of God in Christ and train them to be fellow witnesses of that story, so that they might share that story with a world that does not know its left hand from its right. A world which does not know God as Emmanuel, but merely as "Something." A world that knows transcendence but does not have eyes to see God with us even to the end of the age. A world that senses "attunement with other people," but does not recognize the One who holds everyone and everything together by his love.

People will never figure this all out—and thus never be able to enjoy a full and saving encounter with God—unless someone tells them. And who will tell them if no one's been sent, because we're mostly creating wonderful worship experiences and teaching mere ethics?

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).


Related Elsewhere:

Previous SoulWork columns include:

 Asking the Right Question | Why neither worm theology nor worth theology will do. (April 1, 2010)
Love Needs No Reason | One difference between the therapeutic gospel and the liberating gospel. (March 18, 2010
Love of Unimaginable Proportions| What to do when you find yourself praying to the quid pro quo god. (March 4, 2010)
SoulWork
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Galli is editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins, Chaos and Grace, A Great and Terrible Love, Jesus Mean and Wild, Francis of Assisi and His World, and other books.
Previous SoulWork Columns:
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