What Do Christians Need To Know About Psychedelics? | Sojourners


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What Do Christians Need To Know about Psychedelics?

New research is persuading some clergy to move beyond a “just say no” approach.

IT WAS DARK. Totally dark and empty. Andrea Smith felt a familiar hopelessness. “Of course I’m all alone,” she thought. “It’s my greatest fear.”

Smith, a pastor in the United Methodist Church, was at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research in Baltimore, in the first moments of a psilocybin trip designed for clergy.

“I didn’t know crap about psychedelics leading into it,” Smith told Sojourners. Through work with the center before her 2019 experiment with psilocybin (a psychoactive ingredient found in some mushrooms), she was prepared to possibly meet her greatest fears — some participants even reported seeing their own death. At first, that’s exactly what happened.

Smith’s profound childhood trauma — her mother suffered a fatal aneurysm in front of her at age 9 — had instilled an existential fear of being alone, she realized, which had led her to the brink of self-destruction. Burnt out in ministry, avoiding the truth about her husband’s infidelity, and grieving the death of her father, Smith entered the Johns Hopkins study in a fog of depression. She was considering returning to the antidepressants she’d stopped years before. “I was broken,” Smith said. “I was just exhausted and spent.”

During Smith’s psilocybin treatment, something shifted. She described moving “in and through” increasingly abstract and light-filled imagery that led her on what was ultimately, she said, a journey of redemption and forgiveness. She never got back on antidepressants, because the depressive fog lifted almost immediately after her psilocybin treatments. Smith credits the psilocybin experience with her ability to make major life changes.

The scientists at Johns Hopkins paved the way for contemporary research into the unique pharmacological properties of organic and synthetic compounds known collectively as “psychedelics.” In 2000, the Johns Hopkins team obtained the first regulatory approval in the U.S. to restart research into psychedelic use with healthy voluntary subjects. In 2006, the team published the first wave of results on the “safety and enduring positive effects of a single dose of psilocybin,” which helped catalyze a worldwide resurgence of psychedelics research.

Because so many research subjects — even those who are nonreligious — have reported “spiritual awakenings” among treatment outcomes, some researchers recommended anticipating these spiritual outcomes and integrating spiritual care into the therapeutic research setting. This has led to a multidisciplinary approach between researchers and religious professionals. In 2015, the Johns Hopkins team launched an investigation into the effects of psilocybin on the psychology and effectiveness of religious professionals, such as Smith. The results of that research are expected to be published this year.

Smith continues to draw upon and feel deeply connected to the source of light she encountered during the treatment. “It saved my life,” she said.

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Bekah McNeel is a freelance journalist living in San Antonio. She reports on the intersection of faith and early childhood for Sojourners.