Sunday, July 31, 2011

be sober minded

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy."

This passage has come up a few times in a discussion about sobriety. There may be a blog entry or two about how sober-minded refers to a seriousness about doctrine and how one, when one has seen the light of Calvinism, does not argue for Calvinism with the ardency in which one argued against Calvinism. This is not very likely what the apostle is discussing at all but people can read late medieval theological debates back on to apostolic letters however they choose.

When the passage discusses "sober-minded" σωφρονέω refers to being sensible. It can also be construed as being temperate, moderate, or self-controlled. Christians are urged to be clear-headed and not given to passions.

Now it happens that recently a discussion amongst some of my friends touched on the necessity of being sober-minded, being clear-headed. Not being given to drunkeness is at least one application of this. Another, as Christians have occasionally discussed, refers to φαρμακεία. It is this that is widely referred to as drug use. Potion making, if you will. In the Greek Old Testament φαρμακεία is deployed in Isaiah 47:9 to refer to the two toxic results of idolatrous potion-making, widowhood and childlessness. Babylon is warned that despite the potent spells and potions she will lose her husband and her children. Now of course referring to the Septuagint as a way to clarify the broader use of a Greek word does not mean that this should be construed as an analysis of what the Hebrew text was referring to.

It's not a foregone conclusion that in every respect the Septuagint is a perfect rendering of a Hebrew text. Nevertheless the Greek word φαρμακεία consistently, in its few appearances in the LXX refers to sorcery used by Pharoah's magicians to replicate the feats performed by Moses and Aaron. It also refers to Babylonian divination and wisdom which would not protect it from military defeat and devastation. It refers to a wisdom which God, through Isaiah, says is deceptive and misleading. The magic potions and wisdom do not build up Babylon but wear it out.

Now with respect to wine and drunkenness the scriptures are plainspoken. Cases against the use of other substances are, famously, question begged by those who would propose that something like marijuana or magic mushrooms are given in nature for use. Every green herb and all that. This appeal to nature is often self-serving and selective. There are things that are perfectly natural that are toxic.

But more to my point, in my time I have had the opportunity to talk to guys who have used quite a bit of marijuana and other sorts of drugs. What they have tended to tell me is that when you're high you are able to perceive things in entirely different ways. With hallucinagens you may see sounds or hear sights. You become more alert and more aware of your surroundings but your perception of them changes. Depending on the drugs you may see tracers or weird panoramas of light. A friend of mine who took acid once noted that he could see things like massive bubble-webs of multi-colored light; or a surreal stream of ebbing and oozing light with all the colors of the spectrum swirling around within his field of vision.

More to the point, he said that he saw all these things I have described, which in fact were the visual symptoms I saw that I was having a catastrophic macular detachment that nearly took my right eye. I was the one who describe all these things to a friend from my high school days. He listened very seriously to what I said and with a worried look on his face said "$#!), I need to stop taking acid!"

To get some sense of what both Greeks and Jews would have probably addressed on the subject of "sober-minded" it is useful to get some idea of mystery religions. Altered states helped permit those who delivered the oracles at Delphi to deliver the oracles, at the risk of putting things too simply. Not everyone saw the oracles at Delphi as automatically or inherently being divine. Heraclitus was giving to cryptic and opaque statements but he wasn't that cryptic when he wrote that the oracle at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals but merely gives a sign. A sign of what? Well, there we go with Heraclitus turning out to be as cryptic as previously mentioned. What ended up being revealed was quite possibly not a divine oracle so much as what one interpreted through the oracle. The oracle was merely a sign but what was revealed or concealed at that moment was what a person brought to or took from the oracle.

In other words, despite the external methodology in the oracle at Delphi we could consider it a mere extension of what the Lord told Jeremiah false prophets did, dreaming dreams from within themselves and prophesying what was in themselves rather than what the Lord gave them. The oracle herself would be under the influence of drugs or chemically altered thought. As was touched on in the often tedious film (but quite readable comic book) 300 it was certainly known that the oracle could be construed as the way in which old men who didn't want war could say there was a divine warning against war. And, as the Crusades attest by themselves, an oracle could be contrived to argue that a war must be pursued whether or not it was going to be the best policy. Just when people imagine we have progressed past the ignorance and realpolitik or zealotry of our forebears ... .

But to keep using the example of the Spartan conflict for the moment, let me just play with the difference between the oracle and Leonidas. Assuming merely for the sake of discussion that Miller didn't fudge the most important facts, the Spartan king did not take drugs to make a major strategic military decision to go to war. He was of sound mind. Let me propose further that to say he was of sound mind can be stated as that his senses were keen and properly functioning.

Now a few years ago I was talking with a man who has training as a counseling pastor and he and I were discussing cognitive development in children. He shared that a theory under discussion is that as infants develop they begin with a brain and with senses that are not really firmly delineated. It takes time for the brain, as the baby grows, to develop regions that allow for the full separation of the sense of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and balance to form. By extension of this proposal, let me suggest that based on this and the shared observations of drug-using people I have known that drug use has as its primary detriment not merely the capacity to deceive the senses.

My aforementioned friend was not seeing something that was really false when he saw the kinds of things that resembled the fissures of light you see when you have a catastrophic macular detachment. What he saw was "true" but he did not know how to interpret it. What he previously saw as a cool-looking parade of images or sounds was revealed by the context of my macular detachment to be, in fact, a process that poisoned his brain.

I have never felt inspired to use mind-altering drugs. Having been interested in art, music, and literature all my life I have occasionally talked about the pros and cons of drug use to inspire creative activity. I have been and remain firmly against it. Those people who have said that drugs can help free the mind from its constraints to promote further creativity are, almost without fail, people who can't come up with ideas of their own initiative in artistic ventures. I do not assume that it is a bad thing that one can't come up with original ideas because, really, there is nothing new under the sun, but also because not all minds must necessarily always display creativity in the same way.

A woman who works as an artist or a sculptur is not necessarily inherently more creative than a house wife and mother. So far as vocations go both lives demand a great deal of creativity and ingenuity but there is a bias among fans of the arts to consider one person less "creative" than the other, and indeed there can often be a bias among housewives themselves to imagine, for no good reason, that they are not "creative" because they raise children. Because so many novels and movies depict the housewife existence as some straitjacket in which one's creativity is stifled I find it necessary to dispute this, just as I have always found it necessary to dispute the idea that an artist is a more sensitive, thoughtful, and moral human being. Frequently great artists have not been great people at all!

The people who use drugs to expand their creativity or to obtain a spiritual experience can convince themselves of the greatness of the experience but what people shared with me about their drug use while sober-minded is that sensory de-integration and disintegration is what happens. You can become more aware of yourself but if you get the idea that time has no meaning then you're losing it, losing your grasp of the world around you. People who are in love, so it is said, lose track of time. Jacob so loved Rachel that though he worked for seven years they seemed like just a few days to him because of his love for her.

But ... we are not told that Jacob had this view about those seven years with Leah. Leah certainly did not seem to feel that seven years with Jacob passed by as though they were a mere few days because the scriptures do not give us so much about her perspective. A person who loses track of time might convince himself that since a thousand years are as a day in God's sight or vice versa that losing all sense of time puts one in more touch with divine. But when Jesus said "Before Abraham was I am" He wasn't telling us how he perceived time so much as He was telling us about His existing before Abraham. In a discussion about the nature of God we Christians frequently speak as though God exists outside of time and sees all of time simultaneously but that is a useful theological distinction. If we take the incarnation seriously then Christ perceives time within time as well as outside of it. So it may be said that Jesus as a human six-year old could still perceive an hour as taking "forever" in the way many a six-year old does.

I have been around folks in my life who have made a case that as long as the drugs you take are "in nature" things are fine. Of course the venom of the brown recluse spider is "in nature" and most people rightly want to avoid an encounter with that natural wonder. No one wants to embrace getting bitten by a krait or a sea snake even though that venom is in nature. Now for people who watched the movie The Bear and saw the bit where the bear eats the magic mushroom that's amusing to us (or so we're supposed to believe) because the bear was tripping on magic mushrooms. What we're seeing in that scene is not what a bear would think, were we to suppose we can discern the thoughts of a bear, so much as what we read onto a bear's possible thoughts from within ourselves.

Generally fans of the use of particular drugs make selective and self-serving arguments about what "nature" they think really counts. People who are into organic foods ignore the history in which we can see that as soon as people could mass produce agricultural goods and preserve them they did. Rail transit of food products happened in the 19th century, too. There are plenty of things even since the 19th century that can be demonstrated to be "artificial" that people are okay with. Even if we supposed for the sake of discussion that drugs that are "natural" are the way to go the reason drugs were developed at all was because many items as they existed "in nature" did not act nearly fast enough for medicinal use.

And where drugs go in creativity I have always had the impression that drugs are a shortcut. When I worked in visual media (before my macular detachment) I would draw things inspired by surrealists and associates would ask me how I came up with my ideas.

"Did you take acid before you came up with that idea?"
"No", I would reply.
"Did you smoke pot?"
"No." I replied again.
"Did you drink?"
"So how do you come up with your ideas?"
And to that I would reply, "I have a brain and I use it. I just think about things and when I come up with an idea I like I draw that."
After a few moments of disbelief followed by a moment of recognition that I really never used drugs the fellow art student would say, "Man, that's really $(#*&%) up."

Or is it? As I see it one's encounter with whatever one calls the divine or with the creative process should never depend on external chemical assistance. If a person wants to find a "natural" way to be in touch with creativity or a divine essence then the whole idea of resorting to a drug or chemical aid reveals this whole approach to be a lie. That you have to add something to yourself at all means that you, in your "nature" aren't obtaining the experiences that, by definition, you would be seeking through the assistance of drugs. Those who see fissures of light across their field of vision are either having a massive problem in their eyes or have problems in their brain if no drug use is involved.

Now since the movie Inception came out last year there has been plenty of amusing but mostly unserious discussion about how one can discern the difference between a dream and reality. Most normal people don't have sleeping disorders and so this whole question comes off as more profound than it ever actually is in real life; and the question is posed as a parlor game more than it ever actually is in real life. While you are dreaming you may be utterly unaware that you are dreaming until you wake up. I might have a dream that I've got a girlfriend who looks like Penelope Cruz but when I wake up I know very much that I am single (and unemployed to boot)! There are those who might try to argue that the most powerful hallucinagenic experience we have is when we dream at night. The chemicals released from within the brain itself create the most vivid experiences we have that make it tough for us to know what is real and what is not.

Well, to that one may observe that the vast majority of dreams are not nearly as mystical or spiritual significant as self-appointed prophets pretend they are. The scriptures themselves attest that dreams, normally, are not divine oracles but reflect what is inside the person. So when I have a dream that I've got a girlfriend who looks like Penelope Cruz I don't have think for very long as to what the significance of that dream is! When I have a dream that I am writing a piece of choral music I don't have to wonder what the dream is about.

Several years ago I dreamt that I was listening to a recording of a piece that I wrote and it was a canonic motet of some kind based on a text from Ecclesiastes (7:29). When I woke up I began to work on replicating the general mood and tone of this setting. So I can speak as a composer who dreamed about having made a piece I eventually made. The finished motet bears almost no resemblance to what I heard in my dream. It is on Ecclesiastes 7:29 and is in C minor and is for a choir but beyond that there is no similarity. I also realized I was dreaming.

You see in the case of a sleeping disorder lucid dreaming is unfortunately commonplace. The idea that the brain during sleep produces its own hallucinagenic episodes fails to account for two things. The first I already discussed, that the subjects of the dreams we have are frequently the overflow of concerns we have in waking life rather than portals into the divine self-appointed prophets want them to be.

Ecclesiastes 5:3 shows us that Koholeth observed that a dream comes forth from much brooding, from many cares, from worry, and from business--in the same way foolish talk comes forth from a lot of talking. It was known even in the ancient world that dreams sprung forth from the things you care about. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks and out of the abundance of the heart the mind dreams. This was known even to the ancients and it reveals that even if one wished to appeal to dreams as a kind of self-generated brain-residing altered state from which to justify drug use history has shown that people knew even back then that dreams had limits and constraints and patterns.

What is more for those with sleeping disorders the dream state does not even qualify as what one might be call a hallucinagenic state. While my sleeping disorders went untreated I would almost invariably recognize that I was dreaming and could alter the outcome of a dream. This was the most pointed sign that I had a sleeping disorder. Whereas in a normal brain the dreamer cannot recognize that he is dreaming a person with a sleeping disorder is in a state where the sleep is not deep enough for the brain to fail to perceive it is in a dreaming state. In other words, within the structure of the dream state it is necessary for the senses, within the brain, to be fully integrated for the fully hallucinatory effect of dreams to be perceived.

A person with a sleeping disorder who has lucid dreams perceives himself or herself at a remove from the events of the dream itself. This was how I was able to always know I was dreaming, because though all my senses were integrated within the dream I still had my wits enough about me to recognize that what was internally consistent in my perception still lacked something important. So while I could grant that someone desperate to rationalize drug use by an appeal to the human capacity to dream as a "hallucinagenic state" will find a way, the reality of my decades long experience of dreams with untreated sleeping disorders has given me a different perspective on such an argument--I can see that it is grasping at straws.

I have learned enough about the mundane nature of dreams and the emotional and intellectual remove possible within the lucid dreaming state in contrast to normal dreaming that I know that, whatever chemical processes are afoot in the brain in dreaming to create the dream, these are, still, not the same as the brain's capacity of self-perception that allows one to truly discriminate between a dream and reality when one has disordered sleep.

If Cobb wanted a superhero team member on his team in Inception then he should have included someone with sleep apnea in his team because he could have a team member who usually had lucid dreams who wouldn't need a totem to know he or she was dreaming. Of course the idea that shared dreaming is even possible is pure fantasy anyway and since I think Cobb gave himself over to a dream state created within himself I don't think he was capable of putting together that for people with sleeping disorders almost constantly being able to discern the difference between a dream and reality is a mundane and exhausting reality.

Now perhaps this is too mundane a concern for Christians but Francis Schaeffer discussed how, as he saw it, a Christian should not seek a spiritual experience or enlightenment from the use of drugs. Instead a Christian should seek spiritual experience in fellowship with the Lord. I don't wish to recite here the various strands of Christian mysticism that downplay the value and veracity of spiritual visions and experiences. We do not need to endlessly rehearse how the devil can masquerade as an angel of light.

What I would propose as a supplement to Schaeffer's observation is that the kinds of experiences sought by drug users or even by Christian mystics and Pentecostals tend to be experiences in which sensory integration is diminished and a "heightened state" is obtained. This is a state of heightened emotion rather than of heightened perceptual ability and sensory awareness. Attempts to use chemicals to change one's state may be, if anything, a really Corinthian or Delphic approach to spirituality in which one must consult outside sources for some sense of divine guidance.

Now Christians certainly affirm that outside guidance is necessary! This is why we take the scriptures seriously, yet much of the testimony of scripture is not given to tell us what path we must take but how to walk in the path, whatever path we may find ourselves in. We often wish that the scriptures would be more clear as to what path we should take and what life we should live. It is often not satisfying to realize that Paul tells us in the letter to the Romans that we can rejoice that we have been brought near to God in Christ, and to rejoice in our sufferings because suffering lets us perservere and the hope we gain amidst that suffering will not disappoint, and that we can ultimately rejoice in God Himself who is saving us through Christ. We want something more substantial, more tangible, more clear. Idols provide the option of giving us solace, comfort and direction right now. Whatever it may be it offers the taste of what we await in the eschaton, the final return of Christ.

A drug-induced spiritual experience might be sold to one's self as a sign of spiritual aspiration and it is that ... but what if it is, perhaps, a revelation not of God's character but our impatience and unwillingness to wait for what we hope shall be the divine embrace in all its glory? When the scriptures say that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, that no one has imagined what the Lord is preparing for those who trust in Him it may be that the drug-induced experience of the "divine" is the attempt of a human to pierce our veil of ignorance and to grasp what that may be. If the dispensationalist errs in constantly trying to calculate the day and the hour of Christ's return despite the Lord's warning against the futility and error of such an endeavor then perhaps in the drug user, not least the drug user who identifies as a Christian there is a great temptation to atttempt to grasp not the timeline but the nature of the awaited experience.

And for those of us who would warn the drug user that there is a better way we should not be wholly unaware of both positive and negative elements in the aspirations through which a temptation leads to experimentation. Yes, we can say that a drug user is seeking a means of escape where a drug user may cite an eagerness to pursue enlightenment and seeking something greater than the miserable humdrum nature of his or her own life. Both of these things may be considered true. This no more justifies the use of drugs to obtain a spiritual experience than it justifies those who categorically condemn drug use as sin as being guiltless as though they were not prey to other temptations through similar conditions in the heart. A person who may wish to transcend the limits and frustrations of life through drug use may have at his root a core dissatisfaction that leads another man to start up an enterprise to give his life a sense of purpose in the midst of years of failure in other realms.

One decision is clearly more productive and better than the other at every level but the core temptation both men may face may not be so different. We are to understand that if someone is caught in a sin we who are spiritual should gently correct them, being aware that we, too, may fall prety to the same kind of temptation. But what may be useful to remember is that though we may fall prey to the same kind of temptation it may manifest in our lives through a very differnt sort of sin.

Now earlier I mentioned that some drug users have claimed they have had a heightened sense of awareness. I find this claim suspect for the simple reason that most people who have described drug use have described how in their "heightened awareness" they need to be immobile for long stretches of time or even have someone talk them through or out of their trip. A truly heightened sense of awareness would be on the order of a father becoming faster and more alert than he has ever been in his life because his child is about to fall off of a big toy in a playground. In that moment he does not spiritually claim that time has no meaning because God is in eternity and if we just perceive things as God does we shall see that time is meaningless in light of that. No, he thinks "I must save my child and there is not a second to lose!" The reality that so many people who go on drug trips have buddies to talk them out of the drug trip and anchor them suggests that sensory perception is so utterly decimated by drug use that a wingman is needed to keep one anchored.

I have managed to go 37 years without using recreational drugs. I hardly ever even use simple aspirin in the few times I have headaches because most of the time a headache for me is not so bad it precludes me from normal functioning. But for those who do use aspirin I don't see it as a bad thing if they take it. I'm not a Christian Scientist. I also have no problem with the prolific use of the internet in job hunting. I realize that I can get hooked on internet activity the way someone else gets hooked on a drug. The brain is a strange and mysterious thing and I don't want to say that someone else is a lesser or worse Christian for having struggles that manifest in different forms of escape than the ones I am prone to.

I hope, however, that as Christians we can exhort each other to be sober-minded, a great deal of which is to concede that there is a great deal of misery in this life, that death is ever present and pervasive and that it cannot be escaped and in some cases it cannot even be forestalled. Yet Paul wrote that even in the midst of our dying, behold, we live. Christians like to discuss how the mind is more than just the brain so as to provide a rebuttal to a naturalistic materialistic view. Yet in the age to come our brains will be as much a part of the resurrection as anything else we possess. We must be stewards, as best we can, of our brains.

The most substantial risk drug use brings to a Christian is damage that it can do to the brain. It can deaden our senses while appearing to amplify them. Paradoxically attempts to justify the use of certain drugs as "from nature" reveal the inherently artificial nature of any drug use as a way to heighten one's senses or perception. It becomes an assertion which reveals the inherent hypocrisy and double standard in the person who attempts to rationalize drug use by an appeal to the "natural" occurrence of substances. Even an appeal to the idea that mind-altering substances within the brain meets with the reality that for those who have scientifically studied the nature of dreams and sleep that there is less going on than a would-be drug user could cite and that the more that is going on than meets the eye reveals some simple realities about how our brains work.

In this respect the trials of someone with sleeping disorders can shed light on how the brain normally works and how sensory integration and perception in dreaming tells us something basic about human perception. In my untreated condition I was acutely aware of how every dream was not reality. By contrast, drug users who have shared with me what they thought they perceived reveal that they have a reverse process. They find in their drug-altered state that they see the real world as more dream-like and less the "real" than what they perceive in their altered state. Both the lucid dream of the person with a sleeping disorder and the ostensibly heightened state of a person in a drug-induced experience, however, point to an underlying shared difficulty, the brain not functioning as it ought because of a disorder within the body.

Well, I have rambled quite enough about this subject for the time being.

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