The Theology of Marijuana

June 15, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

The words theology and marijuana usually don’t go together. Theology is a word that most of us like to ignore, so thuddingly imperial is it. Theology is a dress up word. It wears a suit and a tie or at least pearls. Augustine of Hippo is said to have coined the word and by it, he meant “Theology and discourse of the deity.” Who wants to do that? Thomas Paine, the American pamphleteer, wrote a pamphlet against theology, stating simply that there is no God and therefore you can’t study nothing and therefore theology is the study of nothing. For those of you who have to seminary, you know the professorial sneer. “This paper has no theology, by which they meant no coherent concept of the deity.” Welcome to Judson Memorial Church, where we have no coherent concept of the deity. Instead, we enjoy here a blend of Thomas Paine’s pamphleteering, back lit by Augustinian theology interpreted by 21st century Baptists, Congregationalists and assorted Jews, atheists, agnostics and Buddhists. Unitarians are also welcome, as is the occasional none of the above. Spiritual, we say, but not religious, oblivious to the fact that clichés like that are rarely compelling. Instead, they are an umbrella under which we can stand to stay out of the pouring rain.

Marijuana on the other hand is a titillating word. It calls up the naughty and the illegal. Known as Mary Jane or the herb or weed or grass, marijuana wears blue jeans, carries a guitar and is rarely considered Augustinian.

Today I want to link the notion of high with the notion of mighty. I went through quite a few biblical texts in search of the double meanings of the high. God is understood as high and above. Getting stoned is also considered high and above. We do weed in order to attain a different consciousness, what the Beatles referred to as going cosmic, or Rebecca Solnit describes as dreaming or “the wilderness of the mind,” the place where you can’t be harnessed for production, or in her words, “a second life you’re living.”

The biblical texts are no warrant for smoking weed. They may be just the opposite. Summarizing them, they say that all that is high will be brought low and all that is low will be brought high. The biblical texts may not be anti high but they are anti mighty. They argue that what is low and oppressed will become high and powerful.

So my first touch at a theology of marijuana is to say that it is not coherent, would never pass even an introductory seminary course. I do think Spirit says something religious about getting high. And here it is. The war on drugs has been an abysmal, three trillion dollar failure. It has imprisoned people in a fundamentally unbiblical way. It has a scripturally abhorrent racism, bringing the low down lower. It has been spiritually hypocritical as the high and mighty drink their cocktails and punish people for getting high another way. That hypocrisy has the kind of self-righteous to it that keeps young people cynical. It has taken the worst part of theologies and made them worser. Yes, worser as in more worse. Shame and blame for being happy has increased. People who do drugs are bad. They have no self-control. They are inferior morally. Plus people who don’t do drugs are superior morally. Moral superiority, what Jesus refers to as self-righteousness, is the one sin Jesus says can’t be fixed. Even Jesus doesn’t know what to do with people who think they are morally superior. Not to mention the positive possibilities: Empty the prison and teach people how to grow marijuana. Seriously develop a new economy, before Marlboro and Jim Beam have their way with the new laws. Or if those are too preposterous, teach people in assisted living and nursing homes how to grow and smoke weed.

Religion is very different than theology. Religion means that which binds. Religare. What binds people together in a common humanity is the search for peace and joy and love. Sinners and saints want to go cosmic. Sinners and saints want to know what is at the bottom of the bottom and what is at the top of the top. Religion joins theology and marijuana in wanting to know what really matters.

Here in our incoherency, we argue that what really matters is grace, not God. We argue that what really matters is love and that God is love. We try not to be morally superior, even in our complaint against moral superiority. We argue that people have worth, even if they are unemployed or not yet published. We argue for grace and against work – and there is where we can enter the marijuana matter.

People who live by grace and not by achievement enjoy leisure. German Philosopher Joseph Pieper, who was a devotee of Thomas Aquinas, tried to draw wisdom from the tradition. He argued that the grace group in theology have a very broad definition of leisure, not just a Sunday afternoon idyll or even just a Sabbath but the preserve of freedom of education and culture and of that undiminished humanity which views the world as a whole. Pieper reached back to the concept of cultus, the ancient social patterns of worship and sacrifice, literally the care that was owed the divine. Culture depends for its very existence on leisure and leisure, in its turn is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with the culture, with divine worship. Here there is a vision of existence well beyond the merely utilitarian or even the readily comprehensible. It is a goal that classical music pursues and achieves.

Any society of buying and selling, getting and having ignores the spiritual dimension of life. May I suggest that more people worship with “pot” than worship in public? It is almost that we have made worship illegal when we criminalize marijuana.

In the very incompatibility marijuana has with work and achievement, in the very compatibility it has with spiritual leisure, there is power, the power of an experience that at once reignites the possibility of an existence beyond self-justification. Being high can move you to a place outside enough to find grace.

Being high all the time is not happiness. Nor is it grace. It is just the substitution of one master for another. Addiction is slavery. By the Beatle’s own admission, they were taking too many pills-uppers, too much pot, and beginning to drop acid (LSD). By 1968, they were all spiritually bereft and decided to go to India with George to visit the Maharishi Mahesh to learn Transcendental Meditation. They intended to learn it and teach it to the world. They trekked into the Himalayas and stayed in meditation huts. Ringo and his wife left after two weeks with upset stomachs. (He had taken two suitcases of Heinz Baked Beans with him. Paul and John benefited from the daily meditation and the alone time. John meditated for five days and wrote hundreds of songs. He felt many were his best songs and they were about melancholy and loneliness and suicide. He said, "That's how I felt up there trying to reach God and feeling suicidal. You can take drugs or get drunk, do whatever, but you're just suppressing the feelings…There is no contentment, joy or pain. There's just this dream of constant joy…Pain, is something like food in a way…[Painful feelings] go into your body and unless you feel it or express it, it remains there…There's no escape from it, it's there, in your body somewhere. It'll come out in your nerves or how many cigarettes you smoke or what you do…I think we all go through heaven and hell every day. To feel is to live… There was a competition [in the camp in the Himalayas] to see who would get cosmic first. (What I didn't know was I was already cosmic.)" (p.284, Anthology) John and Paul left after one month. John wanted to get back to Yoko. George stayed longer. They all felt meditation was good and they all practiced it to some degree. One story about my father on behalf of the leisure you will all take today to think about your own. Donald Osterhoudt couldn’t stand his bosses. He always referred to them as “high and mighty,” and that’s one of the reasons he got fired a lot. He didn’t like to be put down – hear the words – put down – and hear their biblical ring. And his bosses didn’t like to be put down either. His claim that they were high and mighty goes to the heart of the text today. In religion, spirituality and in incoherence about them we are lifted up. Not put down. We get high but not mighty.

If I were to conclude this sermon simply, it would be to say that being high is somewhat Godly and being high and mighty or high and enslaved to being high is not. Think of your theology as your tattoo. Molly Baskette remembers her tattoo this way. “I got my second tattoo in seminary, after a long and careful process of discernment, of looking at the world through Tattoo Eyes. What beliefs and symbols were so important to me that I was willing to have them permanently carved into my body? What was worth a lifetime of my allegiance, whatever may come? What would not change, however I might change?

The tattoo artist, Zed, was straight out of Central Casting, a huge biker with a mass of black curly hair just about everywhere. I was worried that whatever I asked for, I’d end up with a Harley studded with roses, but when I told him I was up at the Divinity School he was so excited to finally have someone to talk with about 4th century desert monasticism that he gave me a discount and threw in the color for free.

In case you’re dying of curiosity, my tattoo was of a rugged wooden cross, with the Hebrew word “Tikkun” emblazoned above it: “to heal, repair, and transform the world.”

What is it you most believe, deep in your heart? What is your life saying about how the world works, or what it could be? Is it saying that love really does conquer all? That death does not have the last word? That things will be hard for a while, but all is not lost? Is it saying that goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever? Is it preaching tikkun, that we can heal, repair and transform this world? group-engagement so that I am now of greater use to my community. All power to the people.” Think of theology as a holy hunch, a spiritual tattoo. Think of incoherence and leisure as absolutely essential to what coherence and work is possible. Make sure part of your life purpose is having fun. I know it’s summer and many of us are preoccupied breaking in a new pair of flip-flops. Or taking the Q train last car on Saturday nights for the poetry readings that happen there. Whatever you do and however you do it, let the summer help you get cosmic. By the way you are already cosmic.

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