Christianity Today Calls Me a “Complete Narcissist”

A few years ago I sat down with NPR’s religion reporter, Barbara Bradley Hagerty. She was writing a book about the scientific basis of mystical experiences, and had come to Baltimore to interview me. I spoke to her about a profound experience I had, when I was in my 20s, after ingesting Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms, aka “magic” mushrooms—an experience that, to this day, I look back upon as life-changing and pivotal in my understanding of what falls under the loaded term “spirituality.”

Barb’s book has just come out, and it’s titled Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality. From what I can gather, the book presents a balanced assessment of the current scientific inquiries into the nexus of science and mysticism (exemplified by the rigorous Hopkins Psilocybin studies conducted by Roland Griffiths, which I wrote about in my City Paper article “Sacred Intentions”). I haven’t read the book yet, though I have read some of the galleys, and while googling the title I came upon this review in Christianity Today:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/may/31.61.html

The review takes a fairly moderate tone until this:

Nobody who believes in the Incarnation—in a God who thinks matter matters so much as to take on human flesh to communicate himself—can conclude otherwise. God uses all of our senses to allow us to understand him, so why not the brain, which processes the senses? That drugs or epileptic fits can induce spiritual experiences is not surprising or any more or less significant than that drugs can induce fear or euphoria.

But if so, does that mean the person actually encountered the divine? No one can say for sure, not even the recipient of the experience—which, unless he is a complete narcissist, can only leave the recipient in deep doubt about the authenticity of the experience.

But Hagerty’s conversations with mystics show that the temptation to narcissism—to relish the experience as a “high” that makes me a better person—remains powerful. For example, when Hagerty asks Michael Hughes to compare a non-drug-induced mystical moment with his mushroom-induced one, he says, “Ultimately, I don’t really care if it is my brain chemistry doing this. They were equally profound. They both changed me dramatically.” For many, an encounter with Reality is less important than how they feel.

I don’t understand why my comment about my experience is labeled narcissistic. Don’t classic Christian conversions or alleged episodes of “grace” change the experiencers and make them more positive and well-adjusted? And ultimately, whether it’s a chemical inside a mushroom or intense prayer and meditation or just something spontaneous that causes profound, life-altering experiences, why should it matter? Didn’t Jesus himself say “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them”?

Also, for what it’s worth, I make no claims to have met “God” or any sort of deity. But I have read a lot about classic mystical experiences, and what happened to me in that tiny church in historic St. Mary’s, alone, late at night, fits the definition. I felt immersed in the universe, but it was a living, conscious universe, and I was connected to every part of it. I also had a deep sense of knowing what spirituality meant, and I understood that human religions are a desperate attempt to reconnect with the type of primal connectedness I was feeling. Make of it what you will. It doesn’t matter to me, in the end, because it is intensely personal experience that cannot adequately be put into words. All these years later, I’m still processing it.

It seems to me that the reviewer’s ambivalence comes from his fear that the evangelical Christian path to spirituality isn’t the only game in town, and that science may be pointing out the basic truth of the perennial philosophy—that there are many valid paths to deeper spiritual understanding and mystical union with God, the Universe, the Collective Unconscious, or whatever you want to call it.

More:

Sacred Intentions: Inside the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Studies (City Paper, October, 2008)

Roland Griffiths’ TEDx MidAtlantic Talk “Psilocybin and Experimental Mystical Experience.”

Michael Hughes
Written by Michael Hughes

Michael M. Hughes is a writer and performer. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

8 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    November 02, 2009

    Michael, a few words of clarification on my review of Hagerty’s book.

    First, I would never deny the reality and power of your experience. It sounds like it was a positive experience for you, and who in their right mind would want to sit in judgment on that? My apologies if it seemed that way.

    Second, when I talk about an experience lending itself to “narcissism,” I don’t necessarily mean that as a moral judgment as much as an existential fact. That is, most people who have powerful, mystical experiences end up talking a lot about what _they_ experienced, and thus they end up talking about what happened to _them._ This is natural and understandable, and it happens to Christians as much as anyone!

    But for Christians, the mystical experience is supposed to get us to stop thinking about ourselves and our experience, and to focus on the _Giver_ of the mystical experience: God. And then, of course, it’s to lead us out into the world to love the neighbor. I belong to a charismatic church, where people have experiences of God (rarely as dramatic as the experience you relate), and yet we so often are getting stuck in the experience as such. In my view, this is not a healthy thing.

    Whether this is where your experience left you, I have no idea. I was merely quoting how Haggarty used your “testimony.” In retrospect, it would have been better to say that _Haggarty_ was using most of her material in a way that was ultimately narcissistic, rather than other-directed.

    I hope this helps.

    As for the last point: Yes, Christianity is by its nature exclusive. How can it not be, if as we believe, Jesus Christ was God incarnate? But that does not mean that we can deny the genuine spiritual experiences of those outside our faith. How we interpret and make use of those experiences is another matter. But I would hope we would always have the humility to accept the experiences as genuine encounters with the divine.

    I’d be happy to carry on this conversation by email, if you wish.

    Mark Galli
    Christianity Today

  2. Avatar
    November 12, 2009

    Hi Mark, and thanks for the clarification. I appreciate you taking the time to expand on the comments in the review, though I still have some quibbles with your points.

    You write:

    But for Christians, the mystical experience is supposed to get us to stop thinking about ourselves and our experience, and to focus on the _Giver_ of the mystical experience: God. And then, of course, it’s to lead us out into the world to love the neighbor. I belong to a charismatic church, where people have experiences of God (rarely as dramatic as the experience you relate), and yet we so often are getting stuck in the experience as such. In my view, this is not a healthy thing.

    If you take a close look at the Hopkins psilocybin research (and I hope you will) you’ll find that many of the subjects do focus on the what you call the “giver” of the experience. Many of them call it “God.” And as part of the study, the researchers conducted followup interviews with the families and friends of the subjects. The majority reported that the subjects had become more loving and open, echoing the subjects’ self-reports of increased love and empathy. Also, my own experience made me much more other-directed, as Hagerty noted in her book. I became much more tolerant of the diversity of religious and spiritual beliefs and felt that I understood (*really* understood, for the first time) the core yearning we all have for some sort of communion with the universe (or “God” if you prefer that word) and the variety of ways we try to achieve that oneness.

    If you care to, please read my in-depth feature article on the Hopkins research here:
    http://www.citypaper.com/news/story.asp?id=16826

    As religious scholar Huston Smith notes in his commentary on the studies, “In the end, it’s altered traits, not altered states, that matter. `By their fruits shall ye know them.'” I absolutely agree, and I still suggest you may be giving short shrift to mine (and others’) mystic experiences because they are catalyzed by chemicals and plants instead of charismatic prayer.

    Again, thanks for chiming in! I find this type of discussion to be very useful.

  3. Avatar
    November 25, 2009

    I’m reminded of the following passage from Aldous Huxley’s “Island” whenever there’s a discussion about the “reality” or “authenticity” of drug-induced mystical states:

    “Do you like music?” Dr. Robert asked.

    “More than most things.”

    “And what, may I ask, does Mozart’s G-Minor Quintet refer to? Does it refer to Allah? Or Tao? Or the second person of the Trinity? Or the Atman-Brahman?”

    Will laughed. “Let’s hope not.”

    “But that doesn’t make the experience of the G-Minor Quintet any less rewarding. Well, it’s the same with the kind of experience that you get with the moksha-medicine, or through prayer and fasting and spiritual exercises. Even if it doesn’t refer to anything outside itself, it’s still the most important thing that ever happened to you. Like music, only incomparably more so. And if you give the experience a chance, if you’re prepared to go along with it, the results are incomparably more therapeutic and transforming. So maybe the whole thing does happen inside one’s skull. Maybe it is private and there’s no unitive knowledge of anything but one’s own physiology. Who cares? The fact remains that the experience can open one’s eyes and make one blessed and transform one’s whole life.”

  4. Avatar
    December 09, 2009

    Thanks for that excerpt, Garrett.

  5. Avatar
    March 16, 2014

    Of course the irony of all this is that in the book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, John Allegro rightly says there is no historical evidence for a Jesus of Nazareth, and then revels that the real meaning of ‘The Word made flesh’, Jesus the Christ was not a human whose blood and body he told you to eat an drink but a vegetal sacrament–a mind-altering mushroom. And this is all FAR more plausible than the literalist story of a ‘God’ sending his ‘only Son’ to be tortured and crucified so as to pay the debt of human kind for the sin of Adam and Eve. I mean this is too absurd. AND the actuality that eating sacred vegetation that have sacred names is well known anciently amongst nearly all Indigenous peoples, and continues–such as the Mazatec Indians and the psolocybin mushrooms, the Native Americans and Peyote, the Indigenous cultures of the Amazon and Ayhausca. So what is being said above—that being in love with the experience is not loving ‘God’ and being selfless in the community. But Christianity’s history is horrendous. A history of busy-body Christians in love with their own piety invading Indigenous peoples lands, who had known how to live sustainably, and have community with each other, and all of this is destroyed by the ‘do-gooding’ Christians who take children away from families, force them into their horrible schools, and force the children to lose their language. And language for many Indigenous peoples is intimately connected with their being in relation to the land!! So in affect such indoctrination DESTROYS them and this is what has happened to most of us!!! We have been divided from our unconscious processes, our bodies and the land by such pernicious beliefs.

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