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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






30 May 2008

Mushrooms: Magic or Menace?


Q: I know how the Church feels about drugs. I’ve been in the Church my whole life and my father is a pastor. Still, I’ve always wondered about natural drugs such as mushrooms. I’m not talking about taking a bunch just to get high. I mean a “once in a while” thing, more for meditation. What do you think?

ShroomsA: You sound like someone trying to convince himself that he’s doing right, even though others consistently say otherwise. Granted, what “the Church feels” varies from time to time and place to place. For example, some who claim to be Christian absolutely frown on any use of alcohol while others merely teach moderation and avoidance of intoxication. However, when it comes to drugs banned by the government, most take a much stronger position against their use.

I identify with you in other areas, as well. I, too, cannot remember not being a Christian. I was baptized as an infant and only missed services throughout childhood if I or others in my family were too sick to attend. Furthermore, I was born while my father was completing seminary. By the time I was 18 months old, he was a parish pastor. Therefore, all my clear memories of youth and adolescence include remembering myself as the firstborn among five pastor’s kids. As you’ve discovered, being a PK is a mixed bag: Sometimes we receive overly favorable treatment; at others, we face expectations foreign to most other children.

Now let’s begin examining “natural drugs” as a class. Nature knows many “natural” drugs — at least in their initial forms. Aspirin came from the discovery that chewing willow bark eased pain. Opium gained favor among many because of its analgesic properties. Penicillin literally grew from the observation that some kind of mold was killing bacteria. These and many other drugs found in nature were used and cultivated because they grant definite medicinal benefits. Of course, many people flocked to opium not for pain relief but because its raised their spirits or numbed their minds and emotions to bad situations. And while a brief “cushion” might not be bad, dependence upon the drug led many to constantly find their spirits low or their hearts burdened until their next fix.

Cup of CoffeeWe shouldn’t avoid consideration of a seemingly much more benign psychoactive drug — caffeine. According to legend, folks started drinking coffee because a shepherd noticed how his goats stayed up all night when they at the berries from a certain plant. Man later discovered that caffeine includes certain medical benefits but most who drink coffee, tea, or energy drinks mainly do so in order to increase alertness and thwart sleep. While neither of these is intrinsically sinful, incorrect or irresponsible use that damages the body, the “temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19)” is contrary to God’s Word.

In general, when ingesting mind- and mood-altering drugs (psychoactives), people do so not for physical benefits but for mood enhancing, emotional release, mind “expansion,” and the like. If I take either an OTC or a prescription pain medicine, the major mental and emotional benefits grow from my decreased hurting. If, however, I were to snort cocaine, drop acid, smoke marijuana, or eat “magic” mushrooms — not to imply that I do any of these, for I don’t — I most likely would be doing so in order to alter perception for an uncertain emotional benefit.

God never established a law against cultivating psychedelic mushrooms. Scripture never specifically says, “Thou shalt not consume psilocybin and psilocin through thy fungal intake.” Similarly, marijuana use is not, of itself, against Christian teaching. When we debate the use of such substances, we must call on all of God’s Word. We need to see how behaviors not clearly mentioned conform to or counter clear Biblical teaching.

Therefore, if a drug under consideration is primarily used to alter state of mind, we need to see what else Scripture says in parallel cases. In the Bible, alcohol provides he closest comparison to other psychoactive drugs. Yes, Scripture sometimes allows, recommends, or even commands a certain degree of drinking. Yet it always condemns abusing the gift by excessive drinking that leads to loss of self-control, erratic or dangerous behavior, and the like.

We know that drinking wine was part of Passover. Jesus changed water into superb wine(see John 2:1-11). He gave us His blood for drink through Communion’s wine (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, et al.). On the other hand, the Old and New Testaments agree with Paul’s exhortation: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. (Romans 13:13)”

Bad TripHow do your “magic mushrooms” fit in? Do they enhance libido or otherwise encourage wrongful sexual behavior? Without a doubt, they’re capable of triggering a bad trip — an experience that you cannot plan for and never want to experience.

You speak of not desiring to “get high” from them but only to use them as an aid to “meditation.” In response, I must ask, “Do you believe that you are positing a genuine difference?” What sort of contemplative state does psilocin induce separate from a mind- and mood-altered high? Isn’t the “meditation” evoked by “shrooms” dependent upon the drug-altered perceptions they cause? If you consume a dose low enough to avoid altered feelings or hallucinations — i.e., if you fail to get high — do you receive any meditative benefits? As one who grew up in the 1960s and 70s, I’ve heard many variations on your theme but have yet to hear a plausible rebuttal of my challenge.

Next, whether or not God’s direct commands apply, we still face a divine obstacle: The Lord holds us to the laws of the land, whether or not we agree with them. Romans 13, already cited, states this clearly at the beginning of the chapter: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. (v. 1)” Therefore, when our nation declares something illegal, we are bound by God to obey the law, unless doing so would cause us to sin or to avoid doing a much greater good.

Reefer, JointI’m positive that skipping shrooms, passing up pot, and declining other psychoactive drugs won’t lead you into sin. Rather, if you choose to use a controlled or banned substance apart from any legal means, you intentionally are breaking United States’ law — which means that you also are sinning willfully against God’s Law. If you attempt to invoke a “greater good” defense of your behavior, you’ll have to work much harder to convince me that the benefits of being stoned outweigh the prohibitions.

St. Paul wrote that, through his forgiveness in Christ Jesus, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything. (1 Corinthians 6:12)” The same is true for each of us: As redeemed children of God, we have complete freedom in the Gospel. However, our sinful natures still face the Law’s condemnation. Additionally, even if we were fully able to “handle” this freedom, we owe responsibility to others, of whom Paul also wrote in 1 Corinthians: “Sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (8:12)”

See also my earlier post Christian Use of Drugs and Alcohol.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Newspaper column #541

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