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  The Private Sea

    William Braden

        1.   The pearl of great price

    At a party in Chicago, a young man under the influence of LSD seized a live kitten and ate it. Later, in an effort to explain his action, he said he had felt an urgent need to experience everything.
    The story is revolting, of course, and possibly apocryphal; but the incident is by no means improbable, and it does make the point—that LSD is powerful medicine, and that the consequences of its use are often bizarre and terrifying. While it now appears that health authorities have exaggerated the threat of self-destruction or mental breakdown, the fact remains that LSD is dangerous. The nature of the danger, however, may be other than is commonly supposed, and it is possible the alarmists are not nearly as alarmed as they should be. Almost anything may happen when LSD produces the negative reaction that inner-space voyagers refer to as a "bad trip," and such a reaction is by no means uncommon; but LSD also can result in a good trip, which is more to the point, and the good trip may in the long run have graver consequences than the bad. Indeed, there are implications in the use of LSD which are far more disturbing perhaps than an occasional suicide or psychosis.
    Assume just for a moment that LSD's cultists are actually doing what they suppose they are doing. If you can take their own word for it, they have been tinkering with the gears of the universe. They have rushed in where Sigmund Freud feared to tread, invading a region of the human psyche from which the father of psychoanalysis recoiled in horror. They have penetrated a realm of Egyptian darkness—courageously, perhaps, or recklessly it may be—and in doing so they have raised fundamental questions about man and God.
    Whatever the answers, the questions are valid. They are not new questions but very old ones, and some have their roots in a philosophical tradition which predates Western civilization. LSD has merely given them a renewed emphasis.
    Moreover, the LSD cults are not an isolated phenomenon. There is some evidence that they represent only one aspect of a psychic revolt whose manifestations can be detected today in the areas of theology, psychology, and ethics. For example, the cults appear to have a relationship to the radical New Theology, and especially to the ultra-radical Death of God theology. In essence, the LSD cultists are saying the same thing that some of the Death of God prophets have said.
    From one point of view, LSD presents the orthodox church with a challenge more awesome than the Turk and the comet—from which, good Lord, deliver us. It casts doubt on the validity of religious experience as a whole, suggesting that the mystical awareness of God is nothing more than chemistry—and therefore a delusion. From another point of view, however, the drug raises just as many questions for the atheist as it does for the church. It challenges the scientist as well as the priest. And some of its more extravagant enthusiasts believe it will lead the way to a rebirth of the spirit—to a new Age of Faith in which man's soul in the twentieth century will win an ultimate victory over materialism and a skeptical science.
    Its members in fact have described the drug movement as religious—if not a religion—and some groups already have incorporated as churches. But if there is to be a new age, there also will be a new faith, for the LSD cultists in many cases are promulgating concepts which basically are alien to popular Western theology. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the New Theology has been its re-emphasis of the concept of immanence, or the indwelling nature of God—as opposed to transcendence, or the "otherness" of God. While immanence as such is by no means heretical, in the drug movement and in Death of God theology immanence is carried all the way to its radical conclusion, where it becomes pantheism. Pantheism of course is an Eastern concept, and the West has regarded it as anathema, describing it invariably as "a vague pantheism"—as opposed presumably to such crystal-clear doctrines as transubstantiation and trinitarianism. But pantheism is not vague. Whatever the merits of the idea, it is perfectly clear-cut and straightforward in its assertion: God is Man. Or God is the Universe. There is nothing very complicated about that, and that is pantheism. It is, by and large, the Eastern view of divinity. By and large, it represents the direction in which the drug movement appears to be headed. And, in so many words, it sums up the position of the theological school represented by Dr. Thomas J. J. Altizer. When Altizer says God is Dead, he means simply that God is Man. Altizer is a pantheist, and he admits he is a pantheist. His pantheism is not quite the same as the Eastern version, as we shall see further on; but it is nonetheless pantheism and basically therefore an Oriental concept. In this respect, along with LSD, it hints at a development that could have considerable significance for Western society.
    East is still East, and West is still West, but there is evidence now that the twain have started to meet, and at a point where one might least have expected it: the point of religious metaphysics. It appears that there is presently occurring, especially in America, a wholesale introduction of Asian theories regarding the nature of man and the cosmos. This development began long ago, in a small way, in the New England of Emerson and Thoreau, but it seems to have accelerated tremendously since the Second World War. Sages throughout history have prophesied the day when the Wise Men of the Orient would join hands—or lock horns—with the Wise Men of the Occident, and signs abound that the day has arrived as a natural consequence of the shrinking of the globe. In a sense, the immanent God of the East has come knocking at the door of the transcendent God of the West, and it is possible that we are witnesses today to a kind of cosmic shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. It would be premature to assess the full impact of the encounter or its likely denouement, but there seems to be little doubt that the encounter is taking place and that certain fundamentals of Eastern thought are being integrated or assimilated into Western culture. In its initial stages the development preceded both radical theology and the drug movement; but it is obvious that these are related to the development, just as they are related to each other, and it would be worthwhile perhaps to judge them at least partially within this wider context.
    Within such a context, LSD and the Death of God oppose orthodoxy in crucial areas of doctrine. Not only do they dispute the idea of Theism, or a personal and transcendent deity, but they also question such concepts as pluralism, resurrection, personal immortality, grace, evil, and redemption or atonement through the intercession of some supernatural agency. In short, they leave man pretty much on his own, with nobody to turn to but himself and with no place to seek salvation except inwardly, in the recesses of his own inner Being. Putting these doctrinal concerns to one side, the drug movement challenges the church in its functional role as well. According to the LSD cultists, men today are thirsting for the direct, personal experience of God—regardless of his actual nature. In other words, it matters not whether God lies within or without; in either case, men need and want a sense of direct communion with the ultimate source of their faith. This divine-human encounter is not found in church, where little or nothing is done to promote it. But it is found in LSD, the cultists believe. Thus LSD challenges the church to do as well and offer as much.
    The debate spills over into the province of psychology, where a related movement is under way to establish standards of behavior and adaptation based on universal truths rather than social norms. Mental health would be defined in terms of man's actual nature or Being, and LSD might prove a helpful tool in determining what that nature or Being really is. Such a program of course would introduce psychology to the field of values and ethics, which many have argued is a field that psychology should have occupied long before now. And it might open the way to the development of a humanistic morality founded on man's true nature, replacing those legalistic moralities which are founded on cultural mores or instinctive but arbitrary notions of right and wrong. Coincidentally, this movement comes at a time when psychoanalysts are doing their best to repress a theory that schizophrenia is a physical disease, best treated by massive doses of Vitamin B-3. The theory reduces Freud more or less to the status of a witch doctor, and it raises the possibility at least of a common origin for insanity, religious mysticism, and LSD experience.
    It may be that all of these movements are interrelated in still another fashion, reflecting a revived interest in the study of metaphysics—and especially that branch of metaphysics termed ontology, or the metaphysics of Being: the study of life's essential nature. Academic philosophy had largely abandoned metaphysics in favor of an arcane linguistic analysis, and churchmen for the most part had turned their attention to such mundane considerations as ecumenicism, internal renewal, and civil rights. Now it appears that metaphysics has come into its own again—both inside the church and out of it, but mostly out of it, and not so much yet in the universities. And this is just a fancy way of saying that people have started once more to ask ultimate questions. They are asking who they are, and who God is, and what is the relationship, if any, between them and him. Altizer is asking these questions, and so is the hipster who seeks cosmic fireworks in an LSD sugar cube. They are asking the questions that Gauguin asked on his canvas: "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" It might be said that men have found themselves confronted by two kinds of questions, problems and mysteries. In recent years, men have dealt primarily with the problems; but the mysteries are now and always will be the source of the world's essential anxieties and aspirations, and it appears that men are probing afresh into the mysteries, including the mysterium tremendum. They are seeking again the pearl of great price.
    The asking of ultimate questions is significant in itself. It implies an assumption that there are ultimate answers, and that these answers moreover are accessible to men. In recent times, it seems fair to say, this assumption has not been widely held or widely expressed. Even proud science has gone mute on the subject, having painted itself into that corner known as Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty. As a result, it has been said, the very best we can hope for apparently is that science one day will be able to describe everything—and explain nothing. But the new search for answers is not predicated upon scientific principles, nor indeed is it predicated upon orthodox religious principles; it seems to reject both the Scribes and the Pharisees, the scientists and the formal religionists. If it does in fact constitute a religious revival, which is open to argument, it is one which is bypassing the church's magisterium. It is eclectic, and it rejects all outward authority. On the other hand, it does accept the basic religious premise, as William James defined it: "the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." Fundamentally, today's pearl seekers are following Plato's injunction. They are striving for an explanation of Being, which all true lovers of knowledge must have as their final object, Plato said. They are inquiring into the nature of their own Being and into the nature of Being itself. And they are conducting the inquiry by turning inward upon themselves, like flowers closing their petals in the night of doubt. Like poppies, one might add, or possibly morning glories and lotuses. But that is another question.
    All in all, the challenge appears to be directed toward the laboratory more than the pulpit. The implications of the drug movement are basically anti-science rather than anti-church, and they offer grounds for some far-reaching speculation. We spoke earlier of a possible psychic revolt, and we might ask whether this is not in fact suggested now by the widespread interest in LSD and by related developments in radical theology and psychology. Are these perhaps omens of a counter-swing of the psychic pendulum? Over the centuries, as the classical historian Edith Hamilton has observed, that pendulum has swung back and forth: from the rational to the intuitive, from the seen to the unseen, from the conscious to the unconscious. Whenever one alternative has failed to answer man's questions or to meet his needs, he has turned invariably to the other option; it follows, therefore, that the apparent challenge now is not merely to science but to rational thought as such. And this is necessarily so. It can be argued that the erosion of religious belief has not been caused so much by the specific revelations of science; rather, it is a result of the empirical method which science has utilized to obtain those revelations—of the introduction into the culture of a show-me frame of reference which might be characterized as the Missouri Syndrome. If empiricism has proved a disappointment, as indeed it has, it is entirely possible that the instinctive and unconscious forces of the mind may be rising again now in opposition to the rational and the conscious; the spiritual element may be reasserting itself in an era when scientific rationalism had appeared to be solidly entrenched. An outburst of mysticism perhaps has been simmering on the rear burner for some time, in fact, and, if you care to, you might trace the possibility back to the anti-rational philosophy of Henri Bergson.
    Now LSD has turned up the flame.
    Of course, a revolt is not a revolution. The flame could die— from lack of oxygen—and empiricism may be just as impregnable as it thought it was. But the movements of the time deserve serious attention even if they do not, for the moment, seem to be leading anywhere or offering much substance. What men search for, after all, is just as significant in a sense as that which they find, providing some measure at least of their nature and their needs.
    But suppose the revolt did ripen into a revolution. Would that necessarily be a bad thing? What, if any, are the dangers involved?
    The main danger, already apparent, is the possibility that these various movements could lead to a sort of neo-Gnostic rejection of the world—a retreat from the concrete, as it were, resulting in the kind of pipe-dream lethargy which characterizes so much of India and the Middle East, and which is symbolized in turn by the Hindu contemplative and the Arab hashish-eater: the one held spellbound by an idea, the other by a drug. And perhaps the gravest challenge is not after all to science, or to rationalism, but to the world as such. Not just the values of the world, not just social goals, but the world itself, as earth and substance. The danger in this case arises from Oriental concepts of the world as some kind of illusion, trick, or snare for the senses. According to this point of view, the world does not really exist. It's all done with mirrors, and the purpose of life is to realize this fact, such realization bringing with it an immediate release from the world where man is held captive by his own ignorance. Upon such release the enlightened one attains the eternal bliss of nirvana, beyond appearances.
    What we have called a danger—and the Hindu calls a blessing—is not a problem in so far as radical theology is concerned. New Theology is utterly committed to the world, having turned away from the heavens, and Death of God theology actually rejoices in the world, embraces it, cherishes it, and does all but make love to it. Contrary to their popular image, the Death of God people are by and large a jolly and optimistic lot. As the radical theologian William Hamilton expressed it, in so many words: Prufrock, no; Ringo, yes. As far as he is concerned, the Wasteland has been transformed into a latter-day Canaan. Man is no longer alienated from the world, according to Hamilton. Man is "quite at home in this world." And next to Altizer, Hamilton is a gloomy Gus. All this happy talk stems directly from the fact that God is no longer around to spoil the fun, so to speak.
    The danger of world rejection exists within the drug movement, where one hears cultists referring to the Net of Illusion and the Quagmire of Phenomena. But even if you grant the basic validity of the drug experience, it does not necessarily follow that the world is a hoax. After all, there are Oriental philosophies and Oriental philosophies. The Hindu and the Zen Buddhist start from the same point of view; they share a common experience, and they argue from the same evidence. But they arrive at antipodal conclusions. The Hindu appears at least to deny the world, while the Zen Buddhist affirms it. So it is possible for the drug movement to go either way: toward a total rejection of the world or a total commitment to the world. To help clarify the alternatives, we shall explore the conclusions of Zen and related concepts in some detail. To provide still another option, we shall look into the evolutionary-theological theories of Teilhard de Chardin, applying them to the questions raised by LSD and Asian metaphysics.
    In sum, it is the argument of this book that a relationship exists between LSD cultism and radical theology; that both offer a legitimate challenge to orthodox theology; that both reflect an introduction into the West of Eastern religious ideas; that LSD may provide the basis for a humanistic ethics; that contemporary currents indicate a renewed interest in metaphysics in general, ontology in particular; that there is some evidence of a nascent revolt against science and rationalism; that all of these developments carry with them both dangers and promises. If the church is challenged, it has been challenged before. If men have lost their God before, they have always managed, somehow, to find him again. If legitimate questions are raised, there also are legitimate answers to those questions, and we shall suggest what some of them might be.
    The drug movement has been characterized as a weak-kneed retreat from reality. In reply, the cultists assert that the truth is just the other way around: it is we who flee reality and they who accept it. They alone have faced the dreadful knowledge that comes when one encounters the Clear Light of the Void. Only they have dared to turn and see what makes those flickering shadows on the wall of the cave. Possibly the only way to settle the question is to follow these explorers all the way and enter with them into the secret inner world they say they have discovered. And if you do that... well, they are not cowards. They are very brave, perhaps, or very wise, or very dull and foolish. Craven they are not.

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