Lovecraft, The Psychedelic Experience and the Problem of Religious Language

*Work in Progress*

The problem of religious language, that is whether or not we can we talk meaningfully about religious concepts and experiences (specifically, for example, the nature of God or mystical experience), dates back at least as far as the 5th-6h Century Neoplatonic mystic Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Pseudo-Dionysius argued in favour of what has come to be known as the via negativa – or the apophatic way (from the Greek ‘to deny’) – a means of talking about God that gets at its point not through describing what God is, but rather through describing what God isn’t.


This idea emerged through the realisation that an infinite, transcendent being such as God must be completely beyond the capacity of limited human beings to fully comprehend. Pseudo-Dionysius’ solution, then, is to talk only about what God is not:

“We therefore maintain that the universal and transcendent Cause of all things is neither without being nor without life, nor without reason or intelligence; nor is He a body, nor has He form or shape, quality, quantity or weight; nor has He any localized, visible or tangible existence; He is not sensible or perceptible; nor is He subject to any disorder or inordination nor influenced by any earthly passion; neither is He rendered impotent through the effects of material causes and events; He needs no light; He suffers no change, corruption, division, privation or flux; none of these things can either be identified with or attributed unto Him.”
Later scholars would also pick up on this notion. St. Augustine, for example, referred to God as aliud, aliud valde, meaning “other, completely other.” This notion as later taken up in Rudolf Otto’s notion of the numinous, and specifically in regard to the mysterium (including it’s fascinating and terrifying components).
We see a similar problem of ineffability rearing its head in the literature on the psychedelic experience. The experience itself very often seems to transcend our capacity to express it in words – we simply do not have the language to convey the complexity and immensity of the psychedelic experience. Indeed, recent interesting research at Johns Hopkins University and New York University has been exploring the potential for the use of religious language and concepts in expressing the otherwise ineffable qualities of the psychedelic experience. Orthodox Rabbis, Zen roshis, Episcopalian and Greek Orthodox Christians have all been given doses of Psilocybin (the active compound in magic mushrooms) in clinical settings:
The researchers, who are dividing the psilocybin sessions between their two universities, plan to see if these ministers can use their spiritual practice and the vocabulary of religious study to provide insight into those sacred psychedelic moments that so often seem to transcend words.

The writings of H.P. Lovecraft also contain numerous allusions to the impossibility of adequately describing the inter-dimensional monsters of his alien pantheon. In The Call of Cthulhu (1928), for example, we are told:

“The Thing cannot be described – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled…If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.”


Researchers are giving religious leaders psychedelic drugs in the interest of science


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