Summary: An associate professor at South University and a biblical scholar, Douglas Estes, speaks with neuroscientist William Struthers about the concept of psychedelic therapy. Estes and Struthers discuss the cultural shift in perspective that psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA are experiencing as they move from taboo into the medical system. “If you’ve moved beyond the drug being a taboo, more often than not, you’re moving into it being understood as having some sort of therapeutic or medical or healing properties,” explains Douglas Estes.
Originally appearing here.
No one would suggest we study the Bible while on drugs. But each week, many Christians go to church, go to small group, or have quiet time with the Bible in one hand and a stimulant in the other. We are not afraid to admit that coffee enhances our lives—yet the key ingredient in coffee that does the enhancing is a drug, caffeine.
Because caffeine is a drug that society accepts, people will use drugs like this without question—and in doses that go far beyond what can be found in nature. From alcohol to tobacco to St. John’s wort to saffron, there are many other nature-derived drugs that people use uncritically. Marijuana is also a drug that a segment of society accepts and uses—and in doses that go far beyond what can be found in nature. How should a Christian respond to drugs like caffeine or cannabis that blur the line between nature, medicine, and vice?
In less than a generation, residents of the US have watched as 33 states have decriminalized medical marijuana. So what’s next? On Tuesday, voters in Denver will decide whether to decriminalize magic mushrooms. Beyond that, unexpected drugs such as ecstasy (MDMA), psilocybin (magic mushrooms or LSD), ayahuasca, peyote (mescaline), and kratom (mitragyna speciosa) have already entered the medical research literature.
Douglas Estes, a biblical scholar and associate professor at South University, recently talked with Wheaton neuroscientist William Struthers about how drugs that were once taboo now have a medical pathway to legalization and how Christians can start wise conversations today about drugs, healing, and faith.
Sometimes there’s confusion over what the word drug means. Can you help us understand first what a drug is?
A drug is any substance or compound that’s administered or ingested to produce some sort of effect. It is something that the body doesn’t have any inherent use for. It doesn’t make [the drug] itself, and it’s not an endogenous compound. But the drug comes in and mimics the endogenous compound in some way and alters the body’s functioning.
I like to say chemicals are stupid; they don’t know what reason they’re being used for. So when the chemical goes in your body, it doesn’t know if it’s being used by a person to be knocked out for surgery or to get high or to avoid having a conversation with someone about something unpleasant or to help you write a term paper. What’s important are the motives of the people involved in the drug that is being administered.
What does the Bible say about drugs?
It’s naïve to think that there are Bible passages about every drug that comes out. So what we have to do is we have to search the Scriptures with an attitude of humility.
We’re also asking specific 21st-century questions: “when to use cannabis, when to use ecstasy. Is it right? Is it wrong? Should it be legal? Is it illegal?” And we’re asking those kinds of questions directly into the Scripture, which is not really prepared to answer those questions in the way that we want to pose them. Scripture is about who God is and what God’s plan is; that’s what we need to have straight so that when we now start asking these modern-day questions, we can explicitly see how they fit into that narrative.
At the annual Center for Pastor Theologians conference, you spoke about the pathway for illegal drugs becoming legal in the US. Can you summarize the pathway?
For drugs, or any chemical, it’s not uncommon for them to start out as taboos if they don’t already exist in a culture where they are embraced. For example, tea—everybody’s fine with tea. But there are some communities where the drinking of tea and caffeinated beverages is a taboo. Cannabis started out as a taboo: “We don’t smoke pot.”
If you’ve moved beyond the drug being a taboo, more often than not, you’re moving into it being understood as having some sort of therapeutic or medical or healing properties. When we start talking about “medical marijuana,” who’s not in favor of healing? People are very open to thinking about compounds as having healing properties that can be used for the benefit of getting rid of pain or suffering or disease.
The next movement is when you want to change the cultural narrative from healing into recreation. If a drug is okay to be used in healing, then maybe it’s okay for relaxation or entertainment. People were very much on board with medical marijuana, but now we see it moving into recreational marijuana usage.
Once you move into the recreational narrative, the next thing is [saying] marijuana is needed to enrich people’s lives. [People will say] “we smoke marijuana in order to make our lives more enriched.”
The final stage is marijuana being a right—people have the right to smoke, the right to get high however they want—that it is a necessary part of their identity … moving from a notion of enrichment (that a drug actually makes me into a better person) to enhancement (it makes me into the person that I want to become).
The medical or healing part seems key to this pathway. What does a Christian view of healing look like?
A Christian vision for healing should be all-encompassing. It should not just be focused only on the pharmacology or the biology of a person’s condition. Medical interventions have a significant place in that conversation, but they are not the only voice in that conversation. A Christian has a wider view of what health looks like; they will be able to incorporate that medical information into an understanding of who they are and what they are made for.
Since many Western Christians lean toward a dualistic perspective of human nature, how does this discussion affect who we are beyond our body?
That actually causes some problems when we start thinking about drugs because we think about the drugs as doing things just to our bodies, rather than affecting our entire psychological, social, physical, spiritual unified being. You don’t affect the physical without affecting the spiritual. You don’t affect the psychological without affecting the spiritual. You don’t affect the spiritual without affecting the physical or the psychological. So they’re all woven together.
How soon are these drugs entering the pathway?
It’s not a question of if these drugs will be in the pathway; it’s where they’re already at in the pathway. The conversation is already being had among mental health providers about whether or not these drugs can be used for medicinal or therapeutic purposes.
Of the drugs that are following the same pathway as cannabis, which one is the one you are most concerned about as far as public health goes?
Ecstasy (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA). Recently, ecstasy has presented itself as a treatment for anxiety disorders, and especially Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health disorder that is very intractable in many individuals.
Ecstasy acts as a psychological analgesic in that it allows the person to withstand the pain of revisiting those memories so that they can go in and make sense of those memories. But we don’t want that news to become “ecstasy is how you treat PTSD,” because ecstasy is not how you treat PTSD. Ecstasy is how you prepare a person to be treated with their therapy for their PTSD.
What really concerns me is that people who have PTSD oftentimes self-medicate with cigarettes and with other types of stimulants (tobacco or alcohol) and that they’re going to hear this and misunderstand how it’s to be used.
Does the opioid crisis have anything to offer this conversation?
People didn’t think twice about whether opiates were dangerous or not because their doctors gave them to them. Because their doctors gave them to them, they trusted implicitly, not being fully aware of how dangerous these drugs can be. So the cultural authority that physicians have has to be scrutinized. We have to be wise when we go to our physicians; we have to be wise when we go to our psychiatrists and they recommend these drugs because there may be consequences that go beyond how they are intended to treat some problem we have.
How do pastors and ministry leaders address this rapidly shifting cultural landscape?
We need to have a discussion as a Christian community to get greater clarity on these issues. The conversation around healing, I would argue, should look different than conversations about drugs being used in a recreational context, that should look different from a conversation about drugs as enriching, that should look different from a conversation about drugs as a means of enhancement.
Any decision about drugs or any kind of healing should be based on biblical wisdom. How does Christlikeness act as our goal? Not the alleviation of our suffering, not the convenience that it offers, not the productivity that we can generate, but Christ has to be the endpoint. So that should be the target for our biblical wisdom.
How should a person begin to grow in biblical wisdom as they face decisions about new drugs in the near future?
Decisions like these have to be done in communities that value searching the Scriptures to understand what Christlikeness looks like, to discover the principles that should govern what a faithful Christian life looks like—going it alone is not a good idea. Doing it in community that submits itself to the authority of Scripture and the authority of the Holy Spirit is what we should be striving for.