Saturday, April 28, 2007

Akinola and Ecstasy

How to wire your brain for religious ecstasy. - By John Horgan - Slate Magazine

Our current mystical technologies are primitive, but one day, neurotheologians may find a technology that gives us permanent, blissful self-transcendence with no side effects...Shulgin, the psychedelic chemist, once wrote that a perfect mystical technology would bring about "the ultimate evolution, and perhaps the end of the human experiment." When I asked Shulgin to elaborate, he said that if we achieve permanent mystical bliss, there would be "no motivation, no urge to change anything, no creativity." Both science and religion aim to eliminate suffering. But if a mystical technology makes us immune to anxiety, grief, and heartache, are we still fully human? Have we gained something or lost something? In short, would a truly effective mystical technology—a God machine that works—save us, or doom us?

Good Lord, what a question! Of course it would save us, and of course we would still be "fully human." This is like asking whether, by taking advantage of some dream technology that made us immune tooth decay, which eliminated drilling and pulling, we would still have "real teeth." The whole purpose of change and creativity is to eliminate anxiety, grief and heartache and, ideally, promote bliss. Plug me in!

Until the technology is developed however the most reliable ways to achieve mystical experience are recreational drugs and religion. According to the article, only about one third of the population has experienced mystical bliss and that seems a damn shame. It's a pity that the drugs that induce these blissful experiences aren't legal and readily available. If people are prepared to assume risk to get these experiences, I don't seen any compelling reason why the state should stop them other than plain puritanism. I would bet though that even if a completely risk-free mechanism for inducing mystical bliss were available the same puritans who are intent on keeping recreational drugs illegal will see to it that it's banned--just as they they strive mightily to see to it that people aren't going to get mystical experiences out of religion either.

I joined the Church to get mystical bliss and sometimes I even managed it. Meditation never did anything for me but the Church had the props to turn me on: good music, good architecture, fine writing and all the sensual, spooky stuff of high church. But for the past 30 years the liberal puritans have done everything in their power to minimize mystical bliss by pulling the props and undermining the kind of belief in transcendence that facilitates mystical experience.

Nowadays, the only alternative to liberal puritanism is conservative puritanism, which is even worse. Here is an article on the unwelcome American visit of the Most Rev. Peter Akinola, Archbishop of Nigeria and Pope Presumptive of conservative Anglicans. Akinola's followers believe in transcendence, and some even conduct services according to the eminently transcendent old Prayer Book, but they are much more interested in sex. They want to see to it that there's less of it around and, in particular, that gay men and lesbians aren't getting any of it, for much the same reason that liberal puritans want to restrict access to mystical experience. I suppose neither bunch wants to eliminate bliss altogether, whether sexual or religious: they just want to minimize and control it, restrict it to 10 minutes of transcendence around Communion or heterosex within marriage, and make sure that no one gets it unless they pay their dues.

I used to be more sympathetic to conservatives because they believed in God and seemed to think that theology was interesting and important. But when the crunch came it was apparent what their real concerns were. There was no schism when Bishop Pike ridiculed the Trinity as "a sort of committee God"--he was honorably retired, presumably with a hefty pension. Bishop Spong didn't even have to retire when he announced that theism was not only false but completely implausible to any educated person. That was fine--it was his views on sexual ethics that raised protests. And now, the schism in the Church at bottom is not about theology but about sexual behavior and more broadly about competing social agendas. For partisans on both sides what is important about the Church is the way of life it promotes and a range of moral and political issues.

None of this is the Church's business and the Church is now collapsing because it stuck its corporate nose into a place where it didn't belong. The Church's business is theology and mystical experience--and it isn't doing its job. Fortunately, I can do theology on my own, with the help of my colleagues and the Society of Christian Philosophers (which I take every opportunity to link and advertise). As for mystical experience it looks like I'll have to wait until neurotheologians develop a stick I can plug into my brain.


Anonymous said...

As I recall, Bishop Pike died in the desert in Palestine after resigning his position and announcing he was leaving the institutional church. There was a horrible biography published years ago, and a mediocre one (infinitely better) much more recently. I have a copy of both but you'll have to look them up yourself; I can't be bothered.


H. E. said...

I should look these up. However I recall that the last straw was his divorcing his second wife and marrying a third, of an age to be his daughter, at a time when PECUSA was still sticky on divorce.

As I understand it, Pike was only the 2nd Episcopal priest to actually get called on the carpet for heresy. The first was Algernon Crapsey (vicar of St. Paul's Chapel, NYC I think) who was defrocked for being a Ritchelian around the turn of the 20th century. His memoir, which I devoured as an undergraduate when I was supposed to be doing symbolic logic proofs was entertaining, but you'll have to look it up yourself.