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Be Open to Spiritual Experience. Also, Be Really Careful

Ross Douthat at The New York Times

Photo by petr sidorov / Unsplash

. . . [S]tringent materialism is itself a weird late-modern superstition, and the kind of experimentation I’m describing is actually far more rational than a life lived as though the universe is random and indifferent and human beings are gene-transmission machines with an illusion of self-consciousness.

Yes, plenty of New Age and “woo-woo” practices don’t make any sense or lead only unto pyramid schemes; there are traps for the credulous all over. But the basic pattern of human existence and experience, an ordered and mathematically beautiful cosmos that yields extraordinary secrets to human inquiry and supplies all kinds of wild spiritual experiences even in our allegedly disenchanted age (and even sometimes to professional skeptics), makes a general openness to metaphysical possibilities a fundamentally reasonable default. And this is especially true if you have no theological tradition, no religious upbringing to structure your encounter with the universe’s mysteries — if you’re starting fresh, as many people nowadays are.

But precisely because an attitude of spiritual experimentation is reasonable, it’s also important to emphasize something taught by almost every horror movie but nonetheless skated over in a lot of American spirituality: the importance of being really careful in your openness, and not just taking the beneficence of the metaphysical realm for granted.

If the material universe as we find it is beautiful but also naturally perilous, and shot through with sin and evil wherever human agency is at work, there is no reason to expect that any spiritual dimension would be different — no reason to think that being a “psychonaut” is any less perilous than being an astronaut, even if the danger takes a different form.

There is plenty of raw data to indicate the perils: Not every near-death experience is heavenly; some share of DMT users come back traumatized; the American Catholic Church reportedly fields an increasing number of exorcism inquiries even as its cultural influence otherwise declines. And there should also be a fundamental uncertainty around even initially positive experiences: Not all that glitters is gold, and the idea that certain forces are out to trick you or use you recurs across religious cultures (and in the semireligious culture around U.F.O. experience today).

I’m writing as a Christian; my religion explicitly warns against magic, divination, summoning spirits and the like. (Atheist polemicists like to say that religious people are atheists about every god except their own, but this is not really the case; Christianity certainly takes for granted that there are powers in the world besides its triune God.) And it makes sense that in a culture where people are reacting against the Christian past there might be an instinct to ignore such prohibitions, to regard them as just another form of patriarchal chaunivism, white-male control.

But the presumption of danger in the supernatural realm is hardly confined to Christian tradition, and the presumption that pantheism or polytheism or any other alternative to Western monotheism automatically generates humane and kindly societies finds no confirmation in history whatsoever.

So from any religious perspective there’s reason to worry about a society where structures have broken down and a mass of people are going searching without maps, or playing around in half-belief, or deploying, against what remains of Christianity, symbols that invoke multiple spiritualities at once.

Some element of danger is unavoidable. The future of humanity depends on people opening doors to the transcendent, rather than sealing themselves into materialism and despair.

But when the door is open, be very, very careful about what you invite in.