The Private Sea
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
pointthat 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
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 darknesscourageously,
perhaps, or recklessly it may beand 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 cometfrom 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 chemistryand 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 spiritto
a new Age of Faith in which man's soul in the twentieth century
will win an ultimate victory over materialism and a skeptical
Its members in fact have described the drug movement as religiousif
not a religionand 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 Godas 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
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 handsor lock hornswith 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 Godregardless 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
metaphysicsand 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 againboth 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 everythingand 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
revelationsof 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 oxygenand 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 worlda 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 dangerand the Hindu calls a blessingis
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
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