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What Mainstream Churches Can Learn from an Ayahuasca Church

What Mainstream Churches Can Learn from an Ayahuasca Church

This is the third article in the series “God on Psychedelics.” Read the first article here, and the second here.

How can explorers of ayahuasca and other entheogens step back from the sometimes bizarre experiences generated by psychedelic drugs and sacred plant medicines? Is this revelation or delusion? How are we to know if we are connecting with divine truth or just fueling our own spiritual grandiosity?

One particularly fascinating and informed account of this struggle comes to us from G. William Barnard, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He is the author of Exploring Unseen Worlds: William James and the Philosophy of Mysticism (1997) and Living Consciousness: The Metaphysical Vision of Henri Bergson (2011). In his new book, Liquid Light: Ayahuasca Spirituality and the Santo Daime Tradition (2022), the professor comes out of the closet as a fifteen-year devotee of that church, seeking to balance his academic skepticism and religious faith.

Like many baby boomers, Bill Barnard had his psychedelic baptism as a teenager, courtesy of a couple mind-bending LSD trips. Unlike most of us, he has spent a lifetime trying to understand these and later experiences as both a scholar and a believer.

What are we to think when we find ourselves “so utterly immersed in the extremely rich, poignant, breathtaking beautiful flow of what’s happening, both inside and outside?” Try as we might, Barnard suggests that “there’s simply no place for some detached, sit-back-and-watch witness to calmly remember it all.”

Barnard took a deep dive into the devotional, visionary world of ayahuasca, Brazilian-style. He struggles, for example, to understand the meaning, message and reality of a shimmering green lizard being, majestic and noble, adorned with magnificent swoops of gold and red around her/his eyebrows, or a “Green Goblin” figure that flies around cackling, leering and laughing.

Barnard views his revelatory visions through the lens of the renowned American psychologist Williams James (1842-1910) and the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). As explained in his landmark book The Varieties of Religious Experience, James argues that visions produced by drugs or other spiritual practices are not necessarily just delusions or hallucinations conjured up by the brain. Perhaps the brain is somehow tuning into pre-existing states of awareness, a “continuum of cosmic consciousness.” Bergson also argues that “consciousness is not a function of the brain,” that it can and does transcend physical boundaries.

To Barnard, the strange entities and wondrous beauty he encounters on ayahuasca are not simply delusions or projections created by his own mind. “In fact, we can argue that they might well be manifestations of a more profound, more inclusive quality of perception.”

Barnard is associated with a branch of the Santo Daime movement that embraces spirit mediums to communicate with “suffering spirits.” These are seen as the ghosts of human beings who are stuck on this plane of existence. They still have business to do here on Earth, such as unfulfilled desires, a longing for revenge or issues with addiction. “Due to the lack of a physical body,” he writes, “they are not able to fulfill that endless craving.”

This particular Santo Daime sect is strongly influenced by the Umbanda movement, one of several Afro-Brazilian spiritist movements embraced by millions of devotees of South American mix-and-match religion. During a reporting trip to Brazil back in 1987, I spent one wild night in communion with Umbanda priest Jose Alberto Nunes and fifty members of his flock gathered in a large room behind his house in Fortaleza, Brazil. No psychedelics were involved in these rites, which seemed to be fueled instead by the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol.

Here’s the top of my report published in pages of the San Francisco Examiner:

“Conga drums, Catholic prayers and African chants fill the temple with a hypnotic Afro-Brazilian beat. Clouds of incense barely conceal a pervasive aroma of spilled rum and human sweat. Suddenly, Expedita Pinheiro feels herself going into a trance. Her 14-year-old daughter keeps her from tumbling onto the floor as Pinheiro spins into the center of the room like a whirling dervish. There, Pinheiro is surrounded by other mediums possessed by the spirits of gypsy whores, Indian chiefs and old black slaves. Young women smoke five cigarettes at a time. Gay men possessed by the spirits of female prostitutes prance among the worshippers. Mediums overtaken by the spirits of old drunks guzzle bottles of beer. And Jesus Christ looks down on it all from a Technicolor crucifix atop an altar overflowing with dime-store icons.”

It’s hard to imagine mixing a powerful psychedelic beverage with these rites, but that’s exactly what this Dallas-based religious studies professor has been doing for the past fifteen years. Barnard assesses his ayahuasca experiences through William James’ three-fold test for discerning the validity and value of a spiritual revelation. Does it have “immediate luminosity,’’ “philosophical reasonableness,’’ and “moral helpfulness?”

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For him, life as a Santo Daime devotee — at least potentially —passes all three tests. Barnard also believes that Santo Daime would pass muster with the late Huston Smith, the respected scholar of comparative religion and one-time associate of the late Timothy Leary, the infamous “high priest”of the psychedelic Sixties. Smith stressed that “religion is more than a string of experiences.” He wondered whether a true psychedelic church would emerge out of all the entheogenic experimentation of the baby boomers of the 1960s and 1970s — “something like the Eleusinian Mysteries” of ancient Greece. Barnard argues that Santo Daime is exactly such a “modern-day mystery school.”

After venturing deep in the Amazonian jungle, and consuming large amounts of ayahuasca at marathon and often arduous San Daime ceremonies in Brazil and in the U.S., Barnard has moved from the camp of “agnostic skepticism” to the view that “reality seems to be much stranger and more mysterious than I once thought.”

“The world suddenly opens up; magic, mystery and wonder return — the iron cage of modernity no longer feels quite so inevitable,” he writes. “We begin to see with great clarity how we had previously, unknowingly, been living in a Flatland, two-dimensional world, a world created by our limited assumptions and experiences.”

In an interview over Zoom, I asked Barnard — who was raised in the Methodist church — what he thought declining mainline churches like the one of his childhood could learn from the burgeoning psychedelic renaissance. “The major obstacle is for mainstream churches to let go of this sense that these substances are drugs and are inherently causing psychopathic hallucinations in people. Yes, the brain is being altered, but let’s think of it as the brain switching channels on a TV. These substances have been used for thousands of years in an integral way in people’s lives. Perhaps we can look at these less as pernicious drugs and more as sacraments. These substances can be a vehicle for God’s grace in people’s lives, to share God’s presence and light and love in beautiful disciplined thoughtful settings.”

And what can the psychedelic community learn from mainline religion?

“With the Daime, we already know the importance of discipline and commitment and having ongoing community,” Barnard replied. “The ‘spiritual but not religious’ people want freedom. They don’t want people telling them what to believe and what to do. But if you are making it up all yourself, the ego is running the show. But if you’re spiritual, you don’t want your ego running the show. There are all kinds of lessons you can only learn with a stable, institutional structure and a community. For the longest time, I didn’t want anything to do with religion. I was spiritual but not religious. But I’ve come around. I think you need it for spiritual growth. When I came into the Daime, I’d say things like ‘why do we have to sing all night?’ Well, it’s like being in a baseball game and saying I want five strikes, not three. You have to play within the structure.”

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