by barbara ehrenreich
grand central, 256 pages, $26
Barbara Ehrenreich describes herself as a “hard-line atheist,” the kind of no-nonsense rationalist who has a perpetual bone to pick with the very notion of ineffability. Yet to the surprise of many (not least herself), the muckraking author has turned her eyes heavenward. In her new memoir Living with a Wild God, Ehrenreich takes stock of her varied life in order to account for the one piece that doesn’t fit: a series of evidently mystical experiences she had in her youth.
In her past work, Ehrenreich has given religion short shrift. Christianity seems to earn special disdain in the famous Nickel and Dimed, an important undercover journalistic take on low-income labor and the precarious lives of the working poor. In Dimed, Ehrenreich visits a Christian tent revival only to muse that “Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned. . . . [It] may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.”
Get past the raised hackles and it appears that, for all her ardent atheism, Ehrenreich has a remarkably developedalbeit unsoundview of Christianity and its ethics. From this excerpt alone we learn, for example, that she imputes explicit support for industrial-age economic and social arrangements onto figures of the preindustrial world. She also supposes modern Christians ought to derive their politics through simple mimicry, importing directly into the present whatever political techniques happened to be available for Jesus.
The impetus for this memoir came when she happened upon an old diary, once much beloved. There she had recorded a pivotal series of experiences the meaning of which she had never fully confronted. “Something peeled off the visible world,” she recalls, as it “flamed into life.” Ehrenreich’s descriptions of her encounters are vivid and moving, frenetic with energy and infused with wonder at the vibrancy and power of nature. She believes this was decidedly not an encounter with the divine. What was it?
A glimpse of another dimension, or so she proposes as a girl writing in her diary. Or the psychological phenomenon of “disassociation,” as an adult in this book. Commentators and reviewers have dreamed up other hypotheses, nearly all of them in the realm of the neurological and purely explicable: painless migraines, responses to trauma (Ehrenreich candidly and briskly recounts her family’s struggle with alcoholism, abuse, and suicide), quirks of “brain chemicals.” Ehrenreich does not come to an explicit conclusion, though she imagines an explanation of the non-supernatural sort does exist, somewhere, in the glittering hidden parts of the universe: nebulae, atoms, deep ocean currents.
Unnecessary eithers and ors abound in Ehrenreich’s thought. Why must the existence of neurological disorders rule out the divine character of mystical experience? I am a theologian who has epilepsy, and I have frequent experiences of the divine, just as Ehrenreich recountsbut that a quirk in the brain might open a breach into the soul is no mark against my understanding of my experience. To insist otherwise would mean I had already decided, tacitly or otherwise, that there really was no soul to be touched and that the status of the brain was the final word on perception.
Mysticism, after all, is a journey in other ways of knowing, which Ehrenreich seems to sense, if not to like very much. She submits that the value her doggedly atheist family placed on “utter rationality” could “cut the other way and eventually lead to doubts about the entire system [her] parents held up as ‘reality.’” Yet Ehrenreich still smoothly claims to have “outgrown the easy answerGodalong with theism of any kind.” Rather she imagines the universe to be replete with “what looks like liferunaway processes driven by positive feedback loops, emergent patterns, violent attractions, quantum leaps.”
How does Ehrenreich know that what she encountered was surely not God? Her answer: because what she experienced did not feel like what God should feel like. “This Other who appears in mystical experience is not benevolent, or at least not consistently so,” she writes, noting that “mysticism often reveals a wild, amoral Other, while religion insists upon conventional codes of ethics enforced by an ethical supernatural being.” In other words, Ehrenreich gets one half of the Christian formulation of God quite right: God is good and His will is inseparable from the human good. Her more curious presumption is that the goodness of God should feel like the goodness we associate with order and righteousness here on earth.
For Ehrenreich, religion and religious ethics are synonymous with what she repeatedly identifies as a kind of “New Age” feel-goodery, but Scripture provides an alternative account. God’s self-revelation to Moses in Moses’s encounter with the burning bush in Exodus 3 is eerie and fantastic; Moses is rightly terrified and awed, shrinking back from the sight. God’s presence can be aptly made evident through fire that burns without consumingnot only in the episode of the burning bush but also in the narrative of Pentecost. Being in the company of the Lord, though not destructive, is hardly a serene experience. God’s love burns, and the all-encompassing strength of his love is the liberating force that frees humanity from sin, meaning that Christian ethics are intimately bound up in God’s self-revelation. To listen to Scripture and the mystics of the Christian tradition is to understand that God’s love is powerful and profound enough to be sonorous and bracing, as thrilling and overwhelming as freezing wind or raging flame.
Ehrenreich’s mystical experience was shattering, and her return to it in Living with a Wild God might have opened her eyes once more to new ways of seeing. Yet as much as Ehrenreich claims that her understanding of truth was altered, she seems much more loyal to her identity as an atheist than she’s finally willing to admit. Early in her account, she muses that she once intended to be “a veritable nun of science,” which seems more or less to have come to pass: It’s clear, anyhow, what sort of vows she has taken.
Are we then seeing a space emerge for secular mysticism, in which experiences that indicate a theistic world are construed to reaffirm atheistic naturalism? Maybe. Ehrenreich’s memoir certainly can be read as supporting a secular reading of the world, one that doesn’t deny on principle the manifest transcendence of certain experiences. She has remarked that part of her motivation for writing the book stemmed from her learning “that some people seem to have had similar experiences, but they generally framed them in religious language or in some other way that completely turned [her] off.”
Ehrenreich’s alternative route for fitting transcendent experience into one’s worldview contributes to a growing genre along with Christopher Hitchens’s Hitch 22 (2010) and Richard Dawkins’s An Appetite for Wonder (2013). As the New Atheist movement grows, these memoirs act as how-to pieces for reimagining the manifold experiences of life that were once dominated by religious interpretation, including marriage, meaning-making, and, now, mysticism. Christianity is often the out group against which New Atheism defines its cultural credo. This is very likely why Ehrenreich insists on a strident construal of the faith as a kind of spiritual selfishness, a “little careerist scheme to get into heaven.”
Some critics of Ehrenreich’s (such as Slate’s Hanna Rosin) have touted the fact that, after a lifelong curiosity and engagement with what amounts to mystical experience, Ehrenreich nonetheless committed herself to “the mundane tasks of socialist committee meetings, union rallies, and feminist marches, in the less intoxicating but more fruitful project of nickel-and-diming the world into social justice.” Ehrenreich’s contributions to the temporal world, especially on matters of poverty and inequality, deserve the admiration they get and then some.
But to encounter the divine is not necessarily as deleterious to engagement with material reality as some critics, self-assured in a mildly derisive atheism, suggest. Consider the ministry of Pope Francis: He has advocated for “a culture of encounter” between persons while offering a social teaching that has been derisively labeled “pure Marxism.” Legends have already sprung up of the pope sneaking out of the Vatican at night dressed in simple garb to minister to the poor, and whether the stories be true or not, they reflect the sense of many religious people that activity in the material world is a genuine expression of God’s own activity in their lives.
As an interlocutor Ehrenreich is witty and at times abrasive, wry and quick to dispense judgments that catch the unassuming reader off guard. She has a keen eye for the surprising strangeness of the familiar, especially in the natural world. But the real fascination of Living with a Wild God is that it throws into stark relief the difficulty a secular culture has in coming to grips with the lasting, innate tendency of human beings to reach out to Godespecially when he reaches first.
Elizabeth Stoker is a Marshall Scholar studying Christian ethics at the University of Cambridge.