The Psychedelic Science of Good Friday
Modern Christianity and the imminent reckoning with drugs and violence.
On Friday, April 20, 1962, Howard Thurman delivered a Good Friday sermon at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. “He came to me with his eyes and asked for water,” Thurman began in a retelling of the Samaritan woman at the well, “stretched out his hand and spoke. His mind burned into mine like the noon sun. My pitcher of thoughts broke.”
He described in those words what so many Christians — indeed all those with a deep and abiding spiritual yearning — desire: a life-changing direct encounter with the Divine.
When these moments do occur, they are often termed “mystical experiences.” They’re marked by an overwhelming sense of unity with a higher power, transcendence, and a kind of knowing that is not bound by rational thought. Some people seem to be blessed with these unexpected encounters, like Saul on the road to Damascus. Others prepare for them for decades through fasting, solitude, prayer, and meditation, like the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Still others live in quiet faithfulness their entire lives without any kind of experience they would consider mystical.
In the basement of Marsh Chapel, as Thurman preached that day in 1962, Walter Pahnke, a Harvard researcher studying the nature of mystical experiences for his Ph.D. thesis, was conducting an experiment. He had gathered 20 seminary students and 10 guides to examine whether those intense, life-changing experiences had to be so rare. Or, could they be induced — with help of some fungi? Pahnke administered a placebo to a control group and for the treatment group he gave a 30 mg capsule of the psychedelic psilocybin, a legal substance at the time, derived from so-called “magic mushrooms.”
“He showed me my own soul, cracked and dry as a discarded wine skin and made it whole,” continued Thurman, from above. “As I carried my peace back to the streets of saika, a new world woke.”
Huston Smith, the world-renowned scholar of comparative religion, participated as a guide and received a dose of psilocybin that morning.
In Cleansing the Doors of Perception Smith recalled that day. The basement was in chaos. One student stood in front, mumbled a…