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Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, an Autobiography
by Huston Smith, with Jeffery Paine
Publisher:
HarperCollins 
Year:
2009 
ISBN:
0061154261 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D., 10/29/2009

Are Entheogens Entering the Mainstream Religious Discourse?
A Two-Book Review

Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine: An Autobiography, by Huston Smith

At first glance, readers who have an interest in the entheogenic uses of psychedelics may be disappointed. Although both books consider this use, entheogens are not featured but occupy an equal role along with other psychospiritual technologies. At second glance, this equality may be just what marks Fingerprints and Tales as significant books.

For the most part until now, books about entheogens have stood on their own as a separate genre of religion books; entheogens have not been mentioned in most books about religion or perhaps mentioned only in passing, usually as interesting anthropological curiosities. Other books dismiss them as dead-ends left over from the fading Sixties. Fingerprints and Tales, however, each in its own way, embed entheogens as equals to other ways of spiritual growth. Does this mark entheogens’ transition to an insider status—no longer an outsider status? Many previous books on say, ayahuasca, peyote, and mushrooms have implicitly or implicitly pleaded that they deserve a seat at the table of religious sacraments.

By inviting them to sit at the table along with contemplative prayer, meditation, yoga and belief systems that include the major world religions, these books host entheogens into socially respectable company, although each book in its own fashion. Fingerprints charts a decade-plus search by Bradley Hagerty to answer the questions “Is there another reality that occasionally breaks into our world and bends the laws of nature? Is there a being or intelligence who weaves together the living universe, and if so, does He, She, of It fit the description I have been given?”

In pursuing the traces or “fingerprints” of this being, she investigates current research in neurotheology. Her search takes her to research anecdotes on mystical experiences and their transformation of people’s lives, unusual healing, genetics, psychedelic drugs with special emphasis on the Native American Church’s use of peyote, and the psilocybin experiments of the Roland Griffiths team at Johns Hopkins. Two odd omissions: the author cites neither Huston Smith’s Cleansing the Doors of Perception nor One Nation Under God: The Triumph of the Native American Church (co-edited by Smith and Reuben Snake), and fails to mention Ralph Hood’s Mysticism Scale and its years of use.

She then pokes into the structure and function of the human brain as people experience spiritual experiences, the phenomenon of “spiritual virtuosos”, out-of-body experiences, and other experiences that seem to smash our assumptions about time, space, and personal identity. While these topics might be covered in the gee-whiz style of tabloids and drugstore paperbacks, much to her credit Bradley Hagerty balances journalistic reporting of these events as she and her informants described them with both her own professional skepticism and those of established scientists. This balance makes Fingerprints a worthy update on neurotheology and an introduction for those unfamiliar with this emerging field. Furthermore, the ideas she presents and her vocabulary are readily understandable to the educated reader who may not be familiar with the arcana of the neurosciences.

How did her journey conclude? “I found evidence of the spiritual painted on the canvas of a person’s life. I came to define God by His handiwork: a craftsman who builds the hope of eternity into our genes, a master electrician and chemist outfits our brains to access another dimension, a guru who rewards our spiritual efforts by allowing us to feel united with all things, an intelligence that pervades every atom and every nanosecond, all time and space, in the throes of death and ecstasy of life.”

Huston Smith’s search as reported in Tales of Wonder tracks his nearly ninety-year journey, which he divides into a horizontal, secular dimension and a vertical, sacred dimension. The first is a feet-on-the-ground report of adventures on earth; the second reports on his head and heart as they explore spiritual geography and time. Of course, they blend into each other.

The stations on Huston’s journey started with being the son of a Christian missionary in China, finding the life of the mind at an American college, social involvement, marriage and family, mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Interestingly, he, like Bradley Hagerty, adds the Native American Church, parapsychology, and entheogens to this list.

Thanks to meeting Aldous Huxley, which resulted in taking mescaline at Timothy Leary’s house on New Year’s Day, 1961, Smith reports, “After a dozen or so hours I felt that my animal nature had ascended step-by-step up to the very borderland of divinity. ... What the mystics had sung were not poetic metaphors but real experiences, I knew now.”

Other well known leaders make an appearance in Tales: Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, Joseph Campbell, Swami Satprakashananda (“perhaps the only person I know who was truly a saint”), Krishnamurti, Thomas Merton, T. S. Eliot, Robert Oppenheimer, D. T. Suzuki, among others. Smith names these not to name-drop, but because each influenced him in some way.

Both Bradley Hagerty and Smith use their journeys to examine, refine, and enrich their understanding of the religions that were their starting points. After her explorations of neurotheology, Bradley Hagerty, a Christian Scientist by upbringing, feels at home in a more sophisticated Christianity, one strengthened in some ways and critiqued in others. Smith adapts a saying by humorist Will Rogers, “I never met a religion I didn’t like,” yet he feels centered in his native religion, “Of most things that happened to me, had they not happened, I would still be the same person. Erase Christianity from my life, though, and you have erased Huston Smith.”

Bradley Hagerty, as a media insider (she is a National Public Radio correspondent), and Smith, as a religion insider, both start with a specific religious home base and expand from it to broaden their understanding by exploring adjacent fields and using them to elaborate their views. Science (Bradley Hagerty) and comparative religion (Smith) are not unusual neighborhoods to visit, but entheogens are.

Does including peyote, mescaline, LSD and similar doors to primary spiritual experience indicate that twenty-first century religion is moving into an era of widely available mystical experience? Are direct sacred experiences available for nearly everyone? Rather than mystical experiences being the rare exaltation of the lucky few, do entheogens democratize them? To me at least, Fingerprints of God and Tales of Wonder suggest this. If so, Western religion may be moving from 500 years of being centered in text and word to an era of direct spiritual experience.

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