“I haven’t said this to anyone,” he assured me, “but I’m thinking about growing mushrooms.” He wasn’t talking about the kind you eat for lunch in a salad, but another variety, the sort that do strange things to your head. The kind ancient Native Americans once chewed on to see God.
The conversation took me back to a field in Vermont where I’d once spent an idyllic afternoon as a 20-year-old college student in 1969. I’d finally taken a friend’s advice to swallow the little pill called mescaline, a popular psychotropic drug of that era said to induce spiritual visions.
Forty-six years later, here’s how I described it in my memoir: “I was kneeling in a cemetery when the voices first spoke. ‘He’s afraid,’ one said. ‘Look at how he walks, the doubt in his eyes. He’s afraid because he thinks he’s better than us. Imagine the arrogance of feeling superior because you’re alive.’ “
As the voices continued, a theme emerged. Death, they said, is but a veneer. On one side are the ageless dead multitudes who clearly see the divide; on the other those who, like me, still breathe and fear the crossing.
“They’re weak,” a voice said, “because they live in dread. If only they could see what we see. Such a shame that the truth is reserved for the dead. “
Later, as I sauntered home, I felt as if an angel had landed on my shoulder. Light and breezy with a smiling heart, it made my skin tingle and my mind soar. Feeling a deep-seated joy, I stopped to lie in the grass and stare up at the pulsating mother-of-pearl sky. And that’s where my friends found me hours later, resting on green leaves, laughing hysterically that God was alive and death was no more.
I’ve been thinking a lot about God lately, partly because of a book I just read by that title. In it, Reza Aslan traces the evolution of various human concepts of God from the ancient days before Moses through the more recent post-Christian era. In the end, he settles on an idea I’ve always deemed self-evident; pantheism, the notion that God exists in all things.
It reminds me of a story from my childhood. One day, I asked my mother where God is. “God is everywhere,” she said without hesitation. There was only one thing I knew that was everywhere; the telephone wires then crisscrossing the world. So, for the first several years of my life, I believed that God was a telephone wire.
Later, I expanded that definition. God was in the eyes of a lover, I decided. Or in a beautiful sunset. Or, as another of my book’s declared, in the birth of a child, “that bittersweet moment of awe at the miracle of life itself, the wondrous ways God and nature embrace to create the unimaginable and renew it again and again.”
Recently there’s been a dramatic resurgence of research on psychedelic drugs to evoke such moments.
Which reminds me of an essay I read not long ago by a professor of philosophy and law. When his son was just four, Scott Hershovitz wrote in the New York Times, “he reframed my view of religion. One night… he asked, ‘Is God real?’”
“‘What do you think?’ I asked.
“‘I think that for real God is pretend and for pretend God is real,’ the little boy announced. ‘God isn’t real… but when we pretend, he is.’”
Last Christmas, my own 12-year-old son, Isaac, asked a similar question about Santa Claus. “Santa is real if you believe in him,” I cautiously proffered.
“In that case,” Isaac decided, “I think I’ll believe.”
And so it is with God.
David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle,” is available on Amazon and Lazada. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author, and radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. This column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.