I grew up in a very conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christian home. Both my parents were theology students who met in seminary, but the details on how I am somewhat fuzzy. I think around the age of six or so, given that the only narrative that I was exposed to was the metaphor of Christianity it was impressed upon me the need to live a Godly life and so I became “born again” / asked JC to live in my heart. In retrospect, I don’t think this is an appropriate age for one to make this kind of decision, especially when it’s the only worldview one is exposed to, but at the time I think my intentions were as genuine as they could be for a seven year old probably scared of hell, wanting to be a good Christian to make my parents happy, not having good media literacy skills as a child, and believing these stories to be true; and, of course, because I loved Jesus.
Anyways, for most of my primary education I attended a religious Christian school and always loved reading the bible, even if I didn’t like dressing up for chapel on Fridays, or Church on Sunday morning and night, or the Wednesday night prayer meetings. Because my parents were theology students and good Christians to boot, we always had concordances lying about: English-Koine [Greek] dictionaries, and English-Hebrew dictionaries to look up the meaning of the original scriptures. Also because I grew up in an essentially a fundamentalist Baptist church (a GARBC Baptist church –fundamentalist in structure, but because they make the distinction they are GARBC they aren’t technically fundamentalist), the emphasis was on the consequences of sin and moral righteousness instead of other strains of Christianity that emphasize love, Christ-consciousness, and humility. From as long as I can remember till I was about ten years old I was winning awards in Sunday school and getting all-expense trips paid to the local Christian camp because I would be the one who memorized the most Bible verses. Being a Christian was cool and I was afraid for the souls of people who weren’t. I remember giving those little orange New Testaments to boys who lived down the street from me so they could hear about Jesus, get saved, and go to heaven too. The strains of Christianity I was exposed to were socially conservative and the only community I really knew growing up was the church. I also went to the same primary school that was in the same building as my church and where my mother taught. Some examples of how conservative my family was: we were not allowed to watch television (except for Christian movies), listen to secular music (or any music that had percussion in it) because beat driven music, and, by proxy, dancing is how the devil influences you to have premarital sex–as I learned one day in vacation Bible school. For a time, Christian pop was also deemed secular music and I remember one day my mother destroying my eldest brother’s DC Talk CD that he had bought because my mom didn’t think “rap” could edify God. I think I was about 13 years old too when I had covertly acquired a Savage Garden CD and would listen to the track “Truly Madly Deeply” and thinking about how romantic yet risqué the lyrics “I wanna stand with you on a mountain, I wanna bathe with you in the sea, I wanna lay like this forever, until the sky falls down on me..” were, haha. Scandalous!
Anyways, like I said the emphasis was on the “Old Testament” and I was always looking stuff up and insatiably curious about the religion of Jesus, Judaism. Even though I knew English translations of the bible, like the King James Version was the work of poor scholarship in all its Elizabethan English glory, I was still curious about the translations and why words were translated in certain ways and the exploded and multiple meanings of words in Hebrew. I eventually became very interested and involved in studying Judaism from an outsider’s and eventually somewhat emic perspective. I was fascinated looking at the rich traditions of Jewish scholarship in reading and interpreting the bible. I was (and still am) convinced that the Hebrews/Jews have a better approach to engaging spiritually, yet exegetically, with their sacred texts. Given that Jesus was a Jew, Judaism was the only other religion that my parents, and later just my mother because my parents divorced when I was about 7, permitted me to openly learn about. When I was 14, for my birthday my mother gifted me a side-by-side English-Hebrew Tanakh to encourage my bible studies. As a 13 year old, I used to hang out at length in the Yahoo chatroom for Chasidic Jews and learned all that I could from them about their take on the Bible, the status of Jesus (whom they titled “Yokshe” or “may his name be blotted”), and for a time, I fancied myself a homemade Jew-for-Jesus.
Additionally, I began to question some of the literalist tendencies in fundamentalist and evangelical churches. This largely stemmed from my time intensely studying the Bible, and time spent with my Chasidic friends online that pointed out glaring textual inconsistencies in the New Testament with the Hebrew bible, the way Christians restructured the books of the Bible, and how the Roman Catholic councils that canonized the bible ascribed authorship to the gospels to individuals (ie. Christ’s apostles) that is historically unsubstantiated. The ways that Jews competitively yet respectfully argue back and forth over the meaning of a single sentence because of the multiple meaning of a single word in that sentence to me pointed to a way reading the bible that felt closer to realizing the sacred nature of the Hebrew bible which revealed the mysterious glory of G-d that is beyond conceptual embodiment, personification, and literalization. It’s a very different tradition of Bible study where a pastor or priest who claims to be learned in the bible, but in all likelihood is just trained in his particular strain of theological analysis and apologetics, presents a lecture to an audience either intent on conveying the moral soundbite from a particular story, or form a grandiose metaphysical assertion based on a twisted form of Jungian divination or schizoid associative logic through selective reading/framing of passages purportedly linked through “symbolism.” I still think that to literalize most spiritual teachings results in a degraded understanding, but that the tendency to do this largely stems out of Western post-enlightenment history where religious institutions and ideologues feel like they are competing for ontological territory with cosmogonies perceived as incompatible or incomplete. At this stage in my life, I felt very comfortable intellectually deconstructing Christianity, pointing out where things didn’t make sense, or passages that couldn’t both simultaneously be literally true. My practices weren’t Jewish in that I observed Hanukah or anything, but my approach to studying the Bible is and not dismissing the very clear regulations in the Hebrew bible that many Christians denominations tend to cherry pick what they think is relevant. This is where I began to doubt, but still Christianity was my primary and really the only lens that I knew through which to view reality.
However, before the age of 14 I also became inquisitive about other non-Abrahamic faiths and was somewhat frustrated with some the dismissive comments I would hear about other religions in church, Sunday school, and from other Christians in casual conversations. The best example of the most commonly heard glib remark about other religions (and sometimes other sects of Christianity) was that the gods they worshiped were actually demons. For me I thought this was absurd. I thought that people must not consciously think they are overtly worshiping false gods over Jesus and that no one would consciously regard their gods as demons or malevolent forces. I actually felt too that the idea that deities of other religions were actually demonic forces or fallen angels was incompatible with Jewish-Christian teaching and that other religions were likely devoid of any sort of spiritual agency, like the contest between Elijah and the pagans’ alters in I Kings chapter 18. My curiosity in other religions was firmly discouraged by virtually every Christian around me; the response I got by most was: Christianity is the only true religion and there’s no need to get confused by looking at the beliefs of false religions.
I also thought that I could communicate telepathically and thought that this is what prayer was and used to try to project my thoughts into the universe. I was interested in representations of the supernatural and “magic” as I saw glimpses of it on TV at my friends’ houses whose parents weren’t as strict as mine. Additionally, my church would have these topical pamphlets that I loved reading that would warn about the dangers of real
satanic spiritual forces and the horrible things that happened to well-meaning people who got involved in the occult in the pursuit of power and magic. My Sunday school teachers would also warn us about the spiritual dangers of Ouija boards and recount personal stories about having seen them fly across the room. I would try to see if crystals might actually have magical powers, I would draw portals like what I saw on the TV show Ghost Writer, and was interested in potentially possessing magical powers, but mostly poking fun outwardly at these naive concepts of magic. I remember being skeptical of but fascinated by magic as a child and wondering to myself how can a physical object have influence over the supernatural or a spiritual entity. Putting my doubtful mind aside, I researched to the best of my ability at the time everything I could find out about magick. I think it’s fair to say I was a precocious 13 year old. I designed my own language using a mix of scripts that I developed by looking at the history of each letter in the English language in those old World Encyclopedia sets and the language had its own particular pronunciation, grammar, and spelling. One day in seventh grade at the Christian school I was attending I was joking with a friend in class about having magical powers and there was a girl sitting in on our class whose parents were considering sending her to my school. Apparently, my jokes about having psychic powers spooked this girl and she went to her parents and told them students were practicing witchcraft. Her parents decided to not to enroll their daughter and to inform the administration about my occult activity. I was actually suspended for a week while my school investigated my activity in the occult and confronted me with my own ingenuity of creating my own language as evidence of me casting runes, made me apologize for my satanic activity to my entire class (only 15 kids, but hey still embarrassing), and gave me the equivalent of a protestant exorcism–the pastor of the church and the principal of the school took me alone into their office and laid their hands on me to pray the demon in my life would come out and I was forced to say a prayer renouncing the devil. This experience prompted me to really try to understand what it is people believe instead of generalizing about their practices and approaching it through the chauvinistic attitude that my beliefs must correct.
I have since extensively studied the history, rites, and beliefs of Christianity–many major and minor denominations: Catholicism, The Eastern Orthodox and Coptic churches, Lutherans, Anglicans, Mennonites, Wesleyans, the many varieties of Baptists and their theological idiosyncrasies, Universal Unitarians, Pentecostals, Jehovah Witnesses, etc. I studied Judaism in Reform, Reconstructivist, Orthodox, and Chasidic varieties. I studied various cults of Hinduism (Vishnu, Krishna, Kali), some Buddhist teachings, Islam, Baha’i, Druze, Bön, indigenous spiritual healing traditions, or “shamans,” worldwide and I studied neo-pagan religions like Wicca, Asatru, and Neo-Druidism, Voodoo, alongside various strains of occultism (Golden Dawn, Rosicrusianism, IOT, Chaos Magick, Gnosticism, etc). The place where I grew up was actually a wonderful place to study neo-pagan or earth based religions as the largest neo-pagan festival in North America, Starwood, used to be held about 45 minutes from my hometown. Once I started getting in my teens and able to assert that I didn’t want to go to church anymore at around 15, I started exploring the local religious landscape. There were lots of Rainbow Family gatherings and other alt-lifestyle and hippie festivals around and I met and came to know many Wiccans, neo-druids, aspiring occultists and ritual magicians, among others. I would also go to all the local religious centers in my town. For my job-shadowing day in economics in high school I job-shadowed a Wesleyan minister, one day I went to the local Islamic center, and on another occasion one day I stumbled into the Tibetan Buddhist meditation center. Growing up I’ve met many wiccans who invited me to participate in various rites in their circle, a friendly ex-army bisexual and bipolar artist-occultist who taught me a lot about lucid dreaming and other kinds of dreamwork, witches in the licensed herbalist sense who taught me to respect and identify plant spirits, friendly Green Tara adepts who taught me how to be aware of my breathing and steady my mind, a kind Muslim Palestinian man who was the first person ever to show me how to write my name in Arabic and who couldn’t believe I was searching for truth at age 15, a yoga instructor strung out on LSD raving about the universal abstract that is the Dao, vampyres in southern California who wanted to teach me pranayama, among many other strange and beautiful human creatures, some insightful and many deranged.
The biggest effect that psychedelics have had on my perspectives towards religion and spirituality is that my first mushroom trip at around age 18 really allowed me to break out of only being able to think in Christian metaphor. It gave me a fresh break to build and embody other models of the universe, to consider things on their own terms more fully, and taught me that I can choose what past experiences rule my life. I think that I should add that from the time I was 13-15 I tried to kill myself repeatedly after I became more acutely aware of my sexuality and I couldn’t I couldn’t successfully “pray away the gay” no matter how much I begged G-d to transform me. A lot of my self-hatred stemmed from how I knew that same-sex sex is not okay from a biblical point of view, and how my peers would unabashedly let me know how disgusting being a fag is. Part of my insecurity and self-hatred about my sexuality also was in part because I was sexually abused as a child and it was difficult for me to resolve the difference between the desires I felt, what was actually abuse, and being able to explain to lovers why I was so weird about sex. I’ve also been subject to various forms of emotional and physical violence and alienation growing up and psychedelics have truly helped me heal to where I can acknowledge these events but I don’t let them define me. I see people who have gone through similar life experiences as me, and the one’s who have turned to psychedelics as a source of spiritual truth seem to become burnt out hippies full of conspiracy theories, or they got into Heroin and are addicts, but most of those guys are now dead from ODs. 😦 Psilocybin Mushrooms gave me permission to stop believing and the mental space to approach phenomena without expectations. Keeping these insights and making them real is a whole other matter.
I think too what psychedelics have done for me is to me help me retain emotional openness and curiosity to the seemingly incorporeal realms of the mind and non-ordinary, sublime, and mystical states. I still retain the intellectual tendency to interpret these experiences critically and am more interested in what people can do with their spiritual practices than what they believe. It’s important as a spiritual pilgrim to be careful too: there are many charlatans out there who will scam you for a buck or for whom you are just another notch on their Christ-post and don’t really care about you as an individual. Any mature practitioner who truly believes as a matter of conviction and isn’t using belief as a tool to achieve various goals I think should struggle with doubt instead of risk being deluded with certainty. I recognize that Christianity and other Abrahamic faiths can be profoundly transformative and empower certain individuals to accomplish great things, but these system doesn’t work for me in that I have found them experientially empty, the power of Christ was incapable of transforming aspects of my personality that I now no longer want to change, and I have a hard time with someone who claims to be a true spiritual adept and identifies with words that have political histories rife with oppressing others.
Personally, at this point in my life I find aesthetically distasteful the spiritual systems centered around literary scholarship. What a degradation indeed it is for one’s sense of relationship to the divine to derive from indoctrination with religious documents that outline moral modes of conduct. I also question the validity of claims that an autonomous and extrinsic god, or any entity, can only be discovered through language and via analysis of certain sets of sacred texts. Genuine Christian, Mulsim, Yazidi, Jew, or not, my general response to this is if G-d or any deity wants to talk to me s/he can call me on my cell phone because I don’t have time to sift through cryptic multi-meaning messages anymore. If this dimension of human experience is important to you, it’s vital to listen and to approach spiritual teachings with the burden of a true seeker. Be vigilant in keeping your heart and mind guarded from the deranged, the misguided, and the capitalists, yet be open to receiving insights from the most unusual places.The universe is inside and all around you. Expect it to communicate directly. Regard that which doesn’t as beautiful and sometimes violent noise.