Now that Colorado and Washington have made selling marijuana legal, the question is whether this signals anything of significance. Oliver Sacks thinks so. He smoked pot in the Sixties. Now he denounces it as a shortcut.
On January 1st, 420 days after the citizens of Colorado voted to legalize marijuana, around 37 pot shops opened their doors. The state accepts licenses without a cap and cultivation for personal use is allowed. Washington’s law is more restrictive. There are limits on the number of licenses and keeping plants for personal use is not allowed.
More states are leaning toward legalization as public opinion on the issue has shifted dramatically – from 32 percent support for legalization in 2002 to 58 percent in the latest Gallup poll. This comes amidst considerable evidence that smoking pot is addictive in about one in six teenagers. Young people who smoke go on to suffer I.Q. loss and perform worse on other cognitive tests. Despite this evidence, David Brooks says many Americans are reticent to sound judgmental on the issue. “Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of drug use because that would imply that one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life.”1
Oliver Sacks, a pot smoker in the Sixties, isn’t so shy. Sacks is a physician and professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. In a 2012 essay in The New Yorker, he recalled his pot smoking days. “Living on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings,” he wrote. We yearn to “transcend” the daily and “see over-all patterns in our lives.”2 Sacks views the Sixties as a decade when people trafficked in the idea of transcendence and were serious about seeking it.
Seeking involved experimentation. Sacks’ circle sought to appreciate nature, art, religion, and practice spiritual exercises. Many smoked pot in the “belief that there is a mysterious link between spiritual realities” and drugs. “But it was difficult to get many people outside the drug culture to take the idea seriously,” writes Sacks “especially Christians.” That’s sad, as John Stott, a Christian, took this stuff seriously. If Sacks had read Stott, he might have sooner lamented what he’s since learned, how “drugs offer a shortcut; they promise transcendence on demand.” And if Christians read Stott, they’d see why Sacks is unlikely to experience transcendence in today’s church.
Lauded as the closest thing to an evangelical pope, John Stott, who died in 2011, was an Anglican cleric and cultural analyst who saw the Sixties as an era of widespread hunger for spirituality. He described it as a “quest for transcendence.” Stott then asked whether those thirsting for transcendence find it in the church, “in whose worship services true transcendence should always be experienced.”3 His answer? “Not often.”
Stott was an evangelical who felt that “evangelicals do not know much how to worship. Evangelism is our specialty, not worship.” Evangelical worship demands little of participants. There is no requirement to be faithfully present, fully present, and practicing spiritual disciplines. Instead, worship is often reduced to “meeting your needs,” being “relevant,” and highly entertaining. It “seems to have little sense of the greatness and glory of Almighty God,” wrote Stott. It’s “frivolous to the point of irreverence.” Small wonder Stott mourned how “those seeking reality often pass us by!”
Oliver Sacks seems to be seeking reality. He’s no longer into shortcuts. But he’s not checking out the church either. For this to happen, Christians might consider reading Sacks as well as Stott. Sacks helps us see why the Colorado and Washington decision is a shortcut, similar to gambling, another shortcut that’s proving immensely popular. Stott helps us see how the church is somewhat culpable in this by being trendy rather than helping congregants experience transcendence. Reading both might invigorate church leaders to pursue what seekers like Sacks yearn to experience – transcendence.
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1 David Brooks, “Weed: Been There. Done That.” The New York Times, January 2, 2014.
2 Oliver Sacks, “Altered States,” The New Yorker, August 27, 2012.
3 John Stott, The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011), p. 44.