The Private Sea: LSD and the Search for God by William Braden

Originally published in 1967 ‘The Private Sea: LSD and the Search for God’ by William Braden is, broadly speaking, an attempt to contextualise spiritual and religious readings of the psychedelic experience in regard to other apparently contingent social movements of the time. William Braden was a journalist who, in writing the book, applied several journalistic techniques including interviews with prominent individuals and even experimenting with mescaline on himself.

Braden argues that there exists a relationship between radical theology, specifically the New Theology of Bishop John A.T. Robinson and the Death of God proclamation of Thomas J.J. Altizer, and what he refers to as LSD cultism (spiritual groups with psychedelic sacraments  like Timothy Leary’s League for Spiritual Discovery, which from hereafter will be referred to as the psychedelic movement.) This relationship, his argument goes, is partly based on the introduction of Eastern philosophical and religious concepts into the Western mode of thinking and that together they present a challenge to orthodox Western theism. Secondly, he argues, these cultural shifts have created a renewed interest in metaphysics and that the possibility of developing a new humanistic ethic, based on the LSD experience for example, also represents a challenge to established science and reason. Braden explores his argument through examining the respective places of transcendentalism and immanence within other systems of thought.

“But in pure immanence, or pantheism, God’s nature and man’s nature are identical. God is just another word for mankind as a whole, or the universe as a whole, or reality as a whole, or the life force as the whole. In pantheism it is neither insanity nor heresy to imagine you are God, because in fact you are God. Western theology on the whole has tended to emphasize the transcendent aspect of God – certainly so at least in comparison to Eastern theology, which has tended to emphasize the immanent aspect of God” (Braden 61)

Braden identifies five signifying categories of the LSD experience: Depersonalization; time stopping; loss of meaning in language; no or resolved dualities; and the perception that one has the knowledge of ultimate truth. Examples of all these categories exist in the literature, both literary and scientific, but the extent to which they cover the full experience or, in fact, limit its interpretation is highly questionable. However, what is displayed here, is the challenge of the psychedelic movement to orthodox Western theism. These categories share much with descriptions of the mystical experience and, although there is a lack of religious language, there is a direct challenge in the shape of offering ‘knowledge of ultimate truth’; something the Church might feel it has a monopoly over.

Braden often cites The Golden Bough (1890) by Sir James Frazer (1854-1941); a widely read and very influential comparative study in religion and mythology. He borrows one central idea to put the psychedelic movement into context and to bolster his own emerging argument. Frazer, Braden discusses, writes about a series of ‘ages’ of man, each with a working hypothesis; firstly there was the age-of-magic when individuals felt they could control the world around them (perhaps akin to shamanism); secondly was the age-of-religion wherein there was a belief that the forces of nature were uncontrollable and were therefore worshipped for appeasement and salvation; thirdly came the age-of-science, which introduced a rational framework for understanding natural forces.

Although Frazer’s system is a gross-simplification, Braden argues that LSD could possibly be an avenue for creating a ‘new age’, one that belies all previous ones and that could propose a more perfect hypothesis. What is important to note, for Braden’s overall argument, is that he is establishing the possibility of a socio-cultural process occurring. In order to uncover this same process in other cultural threads, Braden looks at the New Theology of Bishop John A.T. Robinson and Thomas J.J. Altizer’s Death of God as being theological proofs of this cultural shift from transcendentalism to immanence.

Simply stated, the following is Braden’s interpretation of Robinson’s argument; whilst he rejects a transcendent Being, the God of theism, he believes the transcendent element (which he is arguing in order to maintain for “modern man”) refers to humanity’s “divine attributes” like love, justice and wisdom. However, this opens a question: How is God still transcendent of these attributes? How does he avoid the pantheism of identifying the attributes and God as being identical? Robinson’s answer is that the divine attributes are not identical to God because they do not reflect the whole Ground of Being (God); they are projections of it. Therefore, in dealing with divine attributes, Robinson is discussing a self-transcendence. The degree of “holiness” in a person depends on the extent to which they align themselves to the Ground of Being, through the divine attributes. Misalignments give rise to “Sin and Hell”. So whilst Robinson does not completely do away with the transcendent, he implies enough immanence to lay a challenge to orthodox theism.

Thomas Altizer, however, embodies in his metaphysical system that which Braden recognised as the socio-cultural shift; namely the move of emphasis from the transcendental to the immanent. Essentially, Thomas J.J. Altizer took a position that read the Incarnation of God in Christ and his Crucifixion in the bible as truth but he denied the Resurrection. This is important. A transcendent God took immanence in the shape of Jesus Christ. When he was crucified God did not “jump back into heaven” but began the process of becoming completely immanent, identified, with the universe. What God did, Altizer said to Braden, was “empty himself of transcendence”” (Braden 158). The process of becoming immanent is evolutionary and eschatological in that the point of universal immanence is the Godhead. This is completely pantheistic and very similar to Braden’s, albeit slightly superficial, reading of Eastern metaphysics.

Oddly, Braden never contextualises his interviews within the LSD space and appears to only ask questions about the correspondence between Robinson and Altizer’s systems and that of the Eastern religions. This is a great shame and it is the cause of his failure in trying to develop arguments around LSD spirituality. In fact, LSD as the premise for the book increasingly disappears as the book continues and the text evolves into a more broadly theological debate, and this becomes obvious in his treatment of ‘Humanistic Psychology’. In this chapter, Braden identifies a change in psychology through pathological spaces. He distinguishes between Being Psychology (B-Psychology) and Deficiency Psychology (D-Psychology). D-Psychology treats “psychic deficiency diseases” while B-Psychology studies healthy people with a view to cultivating “the actualisation of their essential inner natures” (Braden 181). Although he explains the difference aptly, he seems completely unaware of the LSD psychotherapy movement which had already developed similar distinctions.

The post-script to the book is a description of Braden’s personal mescaline experience (he says he would have used LSD had it not been made illegal) but for all his perceived thoroughness, there are several occasions where his research falls down; partly due no doubt to a lack of personal experience, but also because he seems to have relied too heavily on other untested testimonies. For an example, he believed Indian hemp and all its derivatives like hashish produce a fully-fledged psychedelic experience. Although this point is still contentious in regard to how one categorises cannabis, there is little or no suggestion in the literature that it’s able to produce a peak experience in the same sense as LSD, psilocybin or mescaline. In other places Braden repeats commonly held fallacies of the time, like the Old Man of the Mountain story and the etymological connection between the words hashish and assassin. However, these points don’t detract wildly from his argument.

“When Ulysses found his men feeding upon the flowery food, in the land of the lotus eaters, he did not pause for thought. He asked them no questions, and he offered them no arguments. He laid hold of his men, and he led them, weeping and sore against their will, back to the swift ships” (Braden 228)

The book reflects many of the establishment attitudes of the 1960s but its treatment, though superficial in places, does retain at least the façade of journalistic objectivity and proposes a cogent argument; a cultural swing to immanence, through theology and the psychedelic movement and the possibility of a spiritual evolution for humanity. His post-script is particularly illuminating in regard to the spiritual evolution. In it Braden reports that  while he was never fully convinced in the spiritual capabilities of psychedelics, he did recognise the psychedelic phenomenon as being indicative of a wider spiritual-cultural movement that was emerging at the time. Underlying his arguments, though never explicitly stated, is a belief in the spiritual evolution of humanity and the coming of a New Age, not necessarily caused by LSD, but indicated by its place and value in society.

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6 Responses

  1. Always nice to read Rob’s reviews. Thanks.

  2. Nowhere Girl says:

    I also had the impression the book is more about the “modern spiritual condition” than about the psychedelic movement. it was anyway an interesting read. You probably know the book is available at the Psychedelic Library website with a commentary on Braden’s mescaline experience by Peter Webster. What I was able to say after finally reading the whole book is that I definitely disagree with Webster’s commentary. Braden is in no way more “hardened” and “colder” than the average person – on the contrary, he shows much sensitivity to such topics and something else, something psychonauts maybe fail to notice: his experiment was also a sign of intellectual courage and honesty.
    A small digression: lately I’ve read an interesting article about ibogaine. Some scientists wonder whether its addiction-breaking properties can be separated from its psychedelic action. And two have developed a compound with similar influence on receptors which seems promising in animal tests. Does it have psychedelic properties, too? They don’t know. A self-experiment is literally unthinkable to them.
    We seem to be really far from the pioneer age. For Hofmann it was clear that the only scientifically and ethically honest thing is to test the unknown substance on himself before even presenting the topic. And now we see people who work with psychedelic substances and don’t have the courage, or hybris, or carelesness, to try them personally. As a possible “world record holder in Waiting” I may notice more easily it isn’t obvious.

    • Rob (editor) says:

      @Daniel Thanks man!

      @Nowhere Girl – I largely agree with your feelings on the Webster commentary in the Psychedelic Library. It was a little restricted by not dealing with the wider context that Braden employed and a little cold-hearted with his conclusion; though Braden didn’t endear himself to the psy-community with the introductory ‘story’ of The Private Sea, which set a negative tone from the off.

      It would be nice to see those scientists taking the plunge, both ethically and because the “pioneer age” certainly has a romantic quality!

  3. ausfoolia1111 says:

    His postscript was exactly how I felt and that is why it can’t be a delusion. ” ALL IS ONE” and that oneness when realised is in fear and that fear was horror on a level no-one should get 2, but you will because it is just you out there……

  4. John says:

    I was shocked to read his postscript, which was exactly how I felt under the influence of LSD. The fear of oneness and if there was a word to describe that lonely state in that consciousness i’d use it because it was a feeling that felt like home. I was all that there was and thus wanted anything else behind me. A God wanting a God. Reverse time was also something that was shocking….

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