Spirituality in and out of focus: the 'Marsh Chapel Miracle' (ii)

Spirituality in and out of focus: the ‘Marsh Chapel Miracle’ (ii)

(L to R: Aldous Huxley, Krishnamurti, Igor and Vera Strainsky, Maria Huxley and Radha Rajagopal Sloss, Wrightwood, CA, 1949[1])

Aldous Huxley’s spiritual gadget

‘What is Aldous ‘like’? Well, he is ‘like’ Beerbohm’s willowy drawing, especially the long, ever folding and unfolding legs. He is passionate about music. He is morbidly shy. He cannot resist new gadgets, whether “spiritual” ones like LSD or physical such as the vibrating chair in his study which relaxes me about as much as would a raft ride in the English Channel.’ (Igor Stravinsky to Robert Craft, Dialogues (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982), 95)

In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley gives a detailed account of his experimentation with mescaline and attempts to draw far-reaching metaphysical conclusions from his visionary experience, to which he attributed transformative spiritual significance. Huxley’s discussion is deeply informed by his prior acquaintance with both Buddhist and Christian mystical traditions, concluding with reflections on St Thomas Aquinas’s experience of Infused Contemplation in the final years of his life; it not only sold in large quantities but also provoked huge philosophical and theological debate. Those alarmed at what they viewed (perhaps a little unfairly) as a simple panegyric on the virtues of mescaline charged Huxley with promoting aesthetic escape from an engagement with the problems of society and human relationships. Thomas Mann for example wrote caustically to Ida Herz on March 21, 1954:

‘It demonstrates the last, and I would almost insist, the most audacious form of Huxley’s escapism, which I could never appreciate in this author. Mysticism as a means to that escapism was, nonetheless, reasonably honorable. But that he now has arrived at drugs I find rather scandalous. I get already a guilty conscience because I take a little seconal or phanodorm in the evenings in order to sleep better. But to put myself during the day in a position in which everything human becomes indifferent to me and I should succumb to unscrupulous aesthetic self-indulgence, would be repulsive to me.'[2]

Mann’s letter ended with a remark which would prove tragically prophetic with regard to the decades following the publication of The Doors of Perception:

‘encouraged by the persuasive recommendation of the famous author many young Englishmen and especially Americans will try the experiment. For the book sells like hot cakes. It is, however, a completely – I don’t want to say immoral, but one must say irresponsible book, which can only contribute to the stupefaction of the world and to its inability to meet the deadly serious questions of the time with intelligence.'[3]


The ethics of Chemical Holidays

A similar charge was levelled at Huxley by the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who disputed Huxley’s positive gloss on the mescaline high as a flight from selfhood and environment. For Buber, chemical escape is tantamount to an illegitimate refusal of one’s own personhood and the challenge of relationship

‘Huxley calls it, to be sure, the “urge to go beyond the self,” by which he means that here man escapes the entanglement in the net of his utilitarian aims. But in reality the consumer of mescalin does not emerge from this net into some sort of free participation in common being; rather merely into a strictly private special sphere given to him as his own for several hours. The ‘chemical holidays’ of which Huxley speaks are holidays not only from the petty self, enmeshed in the machinery of its aims, but also from the person participating in the community of logos and cosmos – holidays from the very uncomfortable reminder to verify oneself as such a person.'[4]

While Huxley had argued that the human use of intoxicants is inevitable as a means of transcending the depressing monotony of their circumstances, Buber sees this as the evasion of an ethical imperative:

‘Man may master as he will his situation, to which his surroundings also belong; he may oppose it, he may alter it, he may, when it is necessary, exchange it for another; but the fugitive flight from the claim of the situation into situationlessness is no legitimate affair of man. And the true name of all the paradises which man creates for himself by chemical or other means is situationlessness'[5]

Interestingly, Buber then points out both the similarity and distinction between the ecstatic gaze of the mescaline user and that of the creative artist:

‘Huxley distinguishes, as mentioned, two stages within the trance. In the first, one sees the things from within, as the creating artist sees them, at once objectively deepened and transfigured by an inner light. In the second, from which he looks down almost scornfully on his beloved art as on an ersatz, one experiences to some degree what the mystics experience.
In fact, the artist too is removed from the common seeing his decisive moments and raised into his special formative seeing; but in just these moments he is determined through and through, to his perception itself, by the drive to originate, by the command to form.'[6]

Artistic practice, like drug use, implies a form of  heightened consciousness. Buber however contends that genuine art, marked by intentionality, is volitional in a way that drug use is not: ‘the enjoyer of mescalin, for instance, produces the alteration of his consciousness arbitrarily. The vocation of the arts, in contrast, sets him in his unarbitrary special relation to existing being, and from there, willing what he should, he does his work in conscious realization. Where arbitrariness interferes, the art becomes illegitimate.'[7] Crucially, Buber opposes Huxley’s monistic tendencies to his own quintessentially Jewish philosophical framework, emphasizing the irreducible I-Thou structure of personal encounter in spiritual experience:

‘Let us leave to one side the problematic medium and content ourselves with the observation of the great visions and mystical experiences of human history so far as they are accessible to our observation. One thing is common to all of them: He to whom this happiness is overtaken by something from a sphere in which he does not dwell and could not dwell, a ‘face’, a ‘hand’, a ‘word’, a ‘mystery’.[…] What takes place here is no flight: one is seized, one is overpowered, one is called. Neither the artist nor the mystic transposes himself into the condition in which, from time to time, he beholds the vision; he receives it. They do not take themselves out of the communality, they are taken out. And they must deliver up not less than themselves, the whole living person and his whole personal life, in order to withstand what has taken possession of them.'[8]

Heaven in a capsule?

The most thorough-going and publicized theological critique of Huxley came from the Oxford Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics R.C. Zaehner (a Roman Catholic), who reacted as early as 1954 with an article entitled ‘The Menace of Mescalin’, which opened with the words:

‘Mr Aldous Huxley has recently published yet another book. It is not a very good book; nor is it a very attractive book; but it is, alas, in its way an important book. Its importance consists in this: that anyone who may feel an inclination to enjoy, here and now, what Christians call the Beatific Vision or the experience which the Zen Buddhists call satori, has merely to buy himself three-pennyworth of mescalin at the nearest chemist’s, and behold, the ineffable vision is his […] there it is for any who may care to make the experiment – heaven in a capsule’ [9]

In this and his more extended treatment in Mysticism: Sacred and Profane, Zaehner took up what he considered to be the profound theological and ethical challenges thrown down by the capsular approach to spirituality which effectively suggested that the traditional Christian moral framework was redundant; as with Thomas Mann, the pertinency of his controversial comments would be borne out by history. Mescalin, he asserted, ‘presents us not only with a social problem, – for how on earth could a society composed exclusively of ecstatics possibly be run? – but also with a theological problem of great magnitude’,[10], since Huxley was essentially describing what Zaehner termed a ‘natural mystical experience’ which could ‘occur to anyone, whatever his religious faith or lack of it, and whatever moral, immoral, or amoral life he may be leading at the time’.[11]  Consequently this type of mysticism was unrelated to God, Zaehner contended; to think otherwise would be to admit
‘that the vision of God is a natural concomitant of mania, that it can be induced by drugs, and that since the vision makes nonsense of common morality, let alone of the virtues of humility and charity, then the picture of God which we derive from the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth must be false’.[12]

Zaehner attacked Huxley’s interpretation of psychedelic experience as illegitimate, but not without undergoing a clinical trial himself in Oxford in December 1955. For Zaehner this did not issue in a revelatory encounter with reality, but rather hysterical laughter; Zaehner began to giggle uncontrollably when shown Gentile da Fabriano’s painting ‘Adoration of the Magi’,  convinced that one of the three wise men was trying to bite the infant Jesus’s foot. ‘In Huxley’s terminology, he commented, ‘self-transcendence’ of a sort did take place, but transcendence into a world of farcical meaninglessness. All things were one in the sense that they were all, at the height of my manic state, equally funny’, adding ‘the fact that I am an assiduous reader of Alice through the looking-glass is probably not irrelevant to the nature of my experience.'[13]

Marsh Chapel window (photo: John Stephen Dwyer)

Marsh Chapel window (photo: John Stephen Dwyer)

This whole controversy around Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, raising fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness and of religious experience, constitutes the essential background to the 1962 ‘Good Friday experiment’ in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel discussed in our previous post. The conclusion of the latter was that the descriptions offered by 9 of the 10 participants given psilocybin were classified by the investigator Walter Pahnke as having had a ‘mystical experience’, as opposed to only 1 in the placebo group. Recalling the experiment in a recent video, the now 91 year-old Smith particularly remembers having ‘the most profound religious experience’ at the conclusion of a soloist’s rendition of the hymn ‘my times are in your hands’ piped into the basement from the Good Friday liturgy going on in the Chapel above him. Here the comparison with Huxley and Zaehner is instructive – it seems evident that the similarities and divergences in their experiences (and their subsequent interpretations of those experiences) can largely be attributed to their differing prior expectations and philosophical frameworks with which they approached their experiments. Zaehner, for example, had a sophisticated interpretive grid at his disposal, being just as if not more aware of the mystical traditions of the world’s religions as Huxley, but by the time he took mescaline in 1955 he had already penned his first denunciation of The Doors of Perception. Smith, like Zaehner, brought to his participation in psychedelic experimentation Christian belief allied with a substantial background in comparative religion; however, as his comments penned in 2000 make clear, he was also driven by a definite desire for ‘religious experience’ which he had found lacking in his own Protestant upbringing:

‘The [Good Friday Experiment] was powerful for me, and it left a permanent mark on my experienced worldview …. For as long as I can remember I have believed in God, and I have experienced his presence both within the world and when the world was transcendentally eclipsed. But until the Good Friday Experiment, I had had no direct personal encounter with God of the sort that bhakti yogis, Pentecostals, and born-again Christians describe'[14]

Huston Smith 2005

Churches and Hipsters

It is perhaps easy for us to ridicule the ‘Marsh Chapel miracle’ in the light of the subsequent development of the 1960s drug culture and to excoriate the practitioners involved as sorcerer’s apprentices, but this would be to commit the widespread ‘retroactive fallacy’ of using our present historical knowledge to judge those who had little or no inkling of what lay ahead. If the exchanges of the 1950s and early 1960s are read in such a way as to bracket out our consciousness of the later historical evolution of psychedelic counter-culture, several points emerge which perhaps facilitate an understanding of the conjunction of chemistry and spirituality investigated by Pahnke’s experiment that might otherwise appear incomprehensible to us (although a mass of anthropological evidence suggests that the notion of pharmakeia as a gateway to the Divine it goes back at least as far as the Ancient Greek Eleusian Mysteries).

i) The belief that the ability of modern science to unlock a Door in the Wall of consciousness could bring about radical social change and even a qualitative evolution of the human being may have been misguided, but it was certainly sincere in the minds of figures such as Aldous Huxley, whose utopianism was by no means uncommon in the early 1960s. It was however restricted to an intellectual and cultural elite in the years between 1954 and Huxley’s death in 1963, with no indications that the use of psychedelic drugs would subsequently become a mass phenomenon. Experimentation was carried out under clinical control and in full legality, not least because initial results in treating chronic alcoholism with LSD appeared to offer real prospects of tangible medical benefits. Timothy Leary’s increasing lack of respect for scientific controls and indiscriminate drug administration in the years following the Good Friday Experiment which would alter this scenario fundamentally. The disrepute engendered by his activities – together with later exposure of the sinister covert use of LSD for brain manipulation by the CIA for intelligence purposes – would effectively stop all legitimate scientific research into clinical applications of psychedelic substances for nearly 40 years (although here it should be said that FDA-approved investigation has recently recommenced at institutions such as John Hopkins University).

ii) The immediate and serious engagement with the religious implications of mind-altering substances was logical to anyone familiar with traditions of spirituality not only in Eastern religion but also within Christianity (RC Zaehner, Huston Smith and Olivier Messiaen clearly all fall into this category); the issue of the relationship of psychedelic experience to the Beatific Vision was grasped both by proponents and opponents alike. This is perhaps most bizarrely illustrated by the case of one of LSD’s most notorious activists, ‘Captain’ Al Hubbard, an enthusiastic Catholic who even managed to persuade the clergy of the Cathedral of the Rosary in Vancouver to issue a statement in 1957 entitled ‘Introduction to LSD Experience’ (which I would have considered spurious had I not seen a reproduction of the original document) that read:

‘True scientific knowledge is the honourable objective of man’s inquisitive intellectual faculties […] Each division of scientific knowledge has produced proof conclusive of the Supreme Being responsible for the perfection of order our scientific minds uncover. We are aware of man’s fallibility and will be protected in our studies by that understanding and recognition of the First Cause of all created things and the laws that govern them. We therefore approach the study of these psychodelics [sic.] and their influence in the mind of man anxious to discover whatever attributes they possess, respectfully evaluating their proper place in the Divine Economy. We humbly ask our Heavenly Mother the Virgin Mary, help of all who call upon Her to aid us to know and understand the true qualities of these psychodelics, the full capacities of man’s noblest faculties and according to God’s laws to use them for the benefit of mankind here and in eternity’

iii) Although no-one could have predicted the developments of the late 1960s at the time of the publication of The Doors of Perception, the notion of ‘heaven in a capsule’ was, as we have seen, subjected to penetrating philosophical and theological critique from the very outset. Even Huxley himself s aw that the ‘cleansed perception’ which he found in drug-induced contemplation of Reality begged the crucial question (posed with such acuity by Martin Buber) of how such ecstasy was ‘to be reconciled with a proper concern with human relations, with the necessary chores and duties, to say nothing of charity and practical compassion?'[15] As for Huston Smith, the final section of his celebrated article ‘Do Drugs Have Religious Import?’ drew some insightful conclusions from the Good Friday Experiment which have lost little of their currency. While controversially defending Huxley’s interpretive line rather than Zaehner’s in relation to chemically-altered states, he emphasized that

‘Drugs appear able to induce religious experiences; it is less evident that they can produce religious lives. It follows that religion is more than religious experiences. This is hardly news, but it may be a useful reminder, especially to those who incline toward “the religion of religious experience,” which is to say toward lives bent on the acquisition of desired states of experience irrespective of their relation to life’s other demands and components.'[16]

Smith ends with a warning to those attracted by the promise of mystical experience seemingly offered by chemical experimentation:

‘If the religion of religious experience is a snare and a delusion, it follows that no religion that fixes its faith primarily in substances that induce religious experiences can be expected to come to a good end. What promised to be a shortcut will prove to be a short circuit; what began as a religion will end as a religion surrogate.’

At the same time, Smith predicts a bleak outlook for institutionalized religion unless it can connect doctrine with lived experience. What is clearly needed in his diagnosis is a combination of experientially-based faith and spiritual rigour, but he laments that ‘nowhere today in Western civilization are these two conditions jointly fulfilled. Churches lack faith in the sense just mentioned, hipsters lack discipline.‘ As we will see in the next instalment of this post, in which the action shifts from Boston to California, New York and Amsterdam, Smith can with this last sentence be said to have predicted and analyzed both the psychedelic degenerescence of the late 1960s and the inadequacy of the Christian response to it (the failure of the Church to retrieve its own authentic spirituality, leading emerging generations to seek transcendence elsewhere). His much reprinted essay concludes by citing a question posed by Paul Tillich – himself one of the key figures of the discussions of the 1960s whose legacy is not without its own special ambiguity – to the Harvard Hillel Society which remains as relevant today as ever:

‘The question our century puts before us [is]: Is it possible to regain the lost dimension, the encounter with the Holy, the dimension which cuts through the world of subjectivity and objectivity and goes down to that which is not world but is the mystery of the Ground of Being?’

‘Tillich may be right’, Smith comments; ‘this may be the religious question of our century. For if (as we have insisted) religion cannot be equated with religious experience, neither can it long survive its absence.’



[1] Stravinsky and Huxley (to whose memory the composer dedicated a set of serial orchestral variations in 1963-4) were united by a strong friendship lasting two decades. It was Huxley who recommended W.H. Auden to Stravinsky as an opera librettist, a collaboration which issued in The Rake’s Progress.

[2] Letter reprinted in Conrad Watt (ed.), Aldous Huxley (London: Routledge, 1975), 394.

[3] Ibid., 395.

[4] Martin Buber, Judith Buber Agassi, Martin Buber on psychology and psychotherapy: essays, letters, and dialogue (The Estate of Martin Buber, 1999), 100.

[5] Ibid., 102.

[6] Ibid..

[7] Ibid..

[8] Ibid., 103.

[9] R.C. Zaehner, ‘The Menace of Mescalin’ in Blackfriars vol 35 (July 1954), 310-323:310.

[10] R.C. Zaehner, Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (Oxford: OUP, 1961), 13, quoted in Jeffrey John Kripal, Roads of excess, palaces of wisdom; eroticism and reflexivity in the study of mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 180. In my discussion of Zaehner I am following Kripal’s lucid account.

[11] Mysticism: Sacred and Profane, xv.

[12] Ibid., 124.

[13] R.C. Zaehner, Mysticism Sacred and Profane (Oxford: OUP, 1961), 226, quoted in John Horgan, Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border between Science and Spirituality (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 26n. and Jeffrey John Kripal, Roads of excess, 180.

[14] Huston Smith, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000), 100-101.

[15] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1972), 40. Ethical considerations are considerably less apparent in the essay Heaven and Hell, whose focus is predominantly aesthetic, concerning visionary experience from a phenomenological rather than primarily metaphysical standpoint.

[16] Huston Smith, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. LXI, No. 18, September 17, 1964. What has not necessarily stood the test of time is Smith’s somewhat naive assertion that, when allied to ascetic discipline and genuine faith, chemicals can be an ‘aid to the religious life’.



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