To say, as people do from time to time, that science is the only source of meaning available to human beings is to consign large swaths of everyday experience to insignificance. (And to offer an open goal to any quick-footed apologist for religion who may be passing.) The implication of the maximal claim for science is that anything that can’t be brought within the reach of hypothesis-experiment-conclusion is to be ignored. I’ve heard Richard Dawkins, on a stage, respond to someone asking why people’s conviction of the presence of God doesn’t count as data: “Oh, all sorts of funny things happen in people’s heads. But you can’t measure them, so they don’t mean anything.” Yet atheists, like everybody else, fall in love, read novels, hum songs, and value the unrepeatable shadings of their sensory and cognitive experiences. The subjective makes its irrefutable demand for attention as soon as you quit the lectern.
So after periods of intense polemic there often comes a point when the polemicists double back to give subjectivity its due. It happened in the nineteenth century at the historical moment after utilitarianism had made its maximal claim that we are all self-interested calculators. John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography (1873) records his younger self’s discovery that, alongside the utilitarian reading list, he could allow himself the un-rigorous beauties of Wordsworth: “I never turned recreant to intellectual culture, or ceased to consider the power and practice of analysis as an essential condition both of individual and of social improvement. But I thought that it had consequences which required to be corrected, by joining other kinds of cultivation with it.” And now, with the maximal claim of New Atheism just behind us, it seems to be happening again: a similar spiritual stirring, defended by a similar insistence that “analysis,” or its contemporary equivalent, has not been betrayed.
Waking Up is the recently published memoir by the least nuanced member of the New Atheist “four horsemen.” Sam Harris outs himself as a surreptitious longtime practitioner of meditation, which he tries to show to be compatible in every way with a comfortable contempt for faith. Then there is Living with a Wild God, the altogether stranger, more wonderful, and more stubbornly independent book by the activist and atheist Barbara Ehrenreich. This account of a lifelong unbeliever’s buried history of religious experience is radically open and undefended: a true seeker’s document, written with a pen rather than a rivet gun. These are the best examples of a recent spate of books, perhaps a new kind of literature, that trace in personal terms the intersection of belief and unbelief. (Another, lesser example is Richard Dawkins’s Appetite for Wonder.) Welcome to the world of atheist spiritual memoir.
Though Ehrenreich and Harris enter from very different directions, they agree on many things once they arrive. Both have visionary or mystical material to report that they insist is not merely a mental epiphenomenon, not just a subjective fizz in the cortex, not a delusion. What has happened to them, they say, is real. It reveals something about the nature of things. Then, too, both of them think their experiences need to be protected from the ways in which religion would describe them. Both write as if American Christianity waits hungrily by with the wrong vocabulary, the wrong frame of ideas, and must be fended off. As Harris says, “It is decidedly inconvenient for the forces of reason and secularism that if someone wakes up tomorrow feeling boundless love for all sentient beings, the only people likely to acknowledge the legitimacy of his experience will be representatives of one or other Iron Age religion or New Age cult.”
They even describe their experiences in recognizably parallel terms, providing a quick and dirty empirical demonstration that it is the common ground of human perceptual life they’re talking about, not anything too bizarrely individual. Sam Harris by the Sea of Galilee, sometime in the last decade:
In an instant, the sense of being a separate self—an “I” or a “me”—vanished. Everything was as it had been—the cloudless sky, the brown hills sloping to an inland sea, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water—but I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.
The teenage Barbara Ehrenreich at a horse show in New England, sometime in the 1950s:
Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels, and words. I was looking at a tree, and if anyone had asked, that’s what I would have said I was doing, but the word “tree” was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language. Was it a place that was suddenly revealed to me? Or was it a substance—the indivisible, elemental material out of which the entire known and agreed-upon world arises as a fantastic elaboration?
Both begin with the discovery that there are human experiences that radically refresh perception by getting outside the envelope of our habitual construction of things, and both believe these experiences must be taken seriously. But the differences follow immediately thereafter. For Harris, such alterations of perception are the tranquil, controllable results of a technique, which in his book he helpfully undertakes to teach you, offering advice about posture, breathing, and dealing with distractions. For Ehrenreich, the experiences have been startling, unsought visitations, beginning with the vision of the tree in the watery Massachusetts light, and then accelerating, when her family moved to cloudless California, into unsettling states of rupture.
Consequently, their reflections entail entirely different levels of discomfort and risk, and are written at quite different levels of literary intensity. Ehrenreich wrestles with an angel. Harris puts together some instructions for a ready-to-assemble couch. And experiences so differently weighted, so differently grounded, unsurprisingly are taken to prove wholly different nonreligious truths. That would be a reason to ignore both, if we followed Sam Harris. He’s very fond of the supposedly knockdown argument that the differences between religions void the case for them all. Sauce, goose, gander, Sam; but actually the issue is too interesting to leave so swiftly alone.
To Harris, meditation teaches happiness by teaching detachment. It shows you how to exist at a calm remove from your own frantic desires and thoughts, and therefore how to escape the cycles of craving and consumption in which contemporary life promises that you may find fulfillment. So far, so Buddhist—in a carefully detheologized kind of a way. He doesn’t, obviously, believe in the inspirited world of Buddhism as a folk religion, or in the Buddha himself as a figure to be propitiated, or in specific Buddhist ethics except where they coincide with his preferred, vague, self-evident Golden Rulery. But he has nicer things to say about the Buddhist tradition than about any of the monotheisms. He praises its scriptures as “empirical.” They offer intelligible, how-to guides to doing things with your consciousness, from which you can easily snip off the regrettable elements of “superstition.” He has looked at the Bible and the Qur’an and discovered that, stuffed as they are with narrative, poetry, biography, law-giving, metaphor, and other unsystematic dreck from the Iron Age, they are hardly useful at all as “manuals for contemplative understanding.” Pick the right Buddhist sutra, however, and it’s almost like doing science.
The primacy of science is the main lesson of his account of meditation. When you learn to regard your own anxious self as a fiction, a cobbled-together illusion of control, an illusion that you need not scurry to maintain, and you dissolve gently into the ocean of consciousness, you are in effect doing neuroscience. Hypothesis, experiment, conclusion. You are obtaining an experiential confirmation of the latest consciousness research, which (he says) suggests that the self as we imagine it is in truth an imperfect post hoc improvisation by our minds, retrofitted to the shoreless ocean within, to give us the illusion of being coherent to ourselves. Consciousness is real; the self is not; meditation shows it to be so; and happiness is to be found in learning to conform to the deep peace of this discovery. Quite how Harris gets from here to the universal love with “the character of a geometric proof,” “deeper than any personal history could justify,” which he experiences while experimenting with the drug MDMA, is not clear. It’s deeply important to him that the visionary should imply the ethical, easily and straightforwardly, but readers who don’t share his confidence that virtue is self-evident will tend to think that the step from is to ought is harder and more puzzling than he allows.
Indeed, a surprising proportion of the latter part of the book consists of firefighting, as he endeavors to deal with the frequently erratic, unsavory, and downright unappealing behavior of some gurus, who apparently know the way to the sea of inner peace and yet spend their time drunk, or philandering, or collecting Rolls Royces with their disciples’ money. Worriedly reporting a Zen parable in which the master makes a point by lopping off a child’s finger with a knife, Harris trembles on the brink of a whole new way of reading. New to him, anyway: “Ancient tales of liberating violence . . . seem like literary teaching devices, not accurate accounts of how wisdom has been reliably transmitted from master to disciple.” Hey hey hey: Could it be that other old religious-type documents might be full of complicated nonliteral meanings? Metaphors and other verbal gizmos that might prevent them from being regarded just as failed meditation manuals?
But it’s an implication too far for him. He is too wedded to a flat, one-ply account of religion—the monotheisms especially—as a set of falsifiable propositions. And when he tries to summarize what he takes to be theism’s essential proposition, you begin to see why faith is emotionally as well as conceptually impossible for him. It’s all about coercion, about a scary form of Otherness:
In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the human soul is conceived as genuinely separate from the divine reality of God. The appropriate attitude for a creature that finds itself in this circumstance is some combination of terror, shame, and awe. In the best case, notions of God’s love and grace provide some relief—but the central message of these faiths is that each of us is separate from, and in relationship to, a divine authority who will punish anyone who harbors the slightest doubt about His supremacy.
He calls this “dualism,” using the term in a distinctly nonstandard way to mean not the Cartesian or Platonic soul–body distinction but the violation of the peaceful ocean by the suggestion that there is another something out there to be discovered. Terror, shame, awe: If these emotions are theism’s fundamentals, if being crushed and humiliated is its “central” offering, then any theistic interpretation of what Sam Harris experiences when he dissolves into transpersonal peace and love and freedom must be threatening. For him, axiomatically, God does not equal peace, or love, or freedom. If he existed at all, God would be a force engaged in a zero-sum dominance game. He’d be a mugger, a pirate on the sea of consciousness. Or worse yet, he’d make the sea itself angry, and terrifying: not a place where a self-respecting atheist could go to melt away, to lose the illusion of self safely.
There is no safety at all in what Barbara Ehrenreich has to report. Her first visions or revelations of the world’s preverbal grid, its bare chassis of being beneath all the domesticating specifics of California and Massachusetts, came at a point in her adolescence when she had worked herself into a kind of solipsistic terror over mortality. Stoicism and intellectual honor seemed to require that she dispense with more and more sources of possible consolation for her impending personal extinction, up to and very much including the unprovable reality of other people. On the outside, she might have looked like an averagely gloomy teenager in a plaid dress with lace cuffs, reading Nietszche in a coffee house and resisting her high-school class in Life Adjustment.
Inside, she was clinging to minute crannies in the walls of a one-person abyss. She wrote in her journal, “I am Nietzche’s rope dancer and the rope is imaginary. If I look down for an instant and see that there is nothing there, I’m lost.” Not much assistance was to be expected from her parents. “I understood the family, my family at least, to be a temporary and unstable unit like one of those clumsily named elements down at the bottom of the periodic table, Berkelium or Rutherfordium, for example.” Her father was a clever, angry former copper miner from Butte, Montana, clawing his way up the corporate ladder in a haze of martinis and self-disgust; her mother was a clever, angry reader of every book she could get her hands on, and another heroic drinker, experiencing the duties of 1950s femininity as a personal damnation. Fission loomed.
Ehrenreich renders their portraits with powerful adult understanding, but (again a point of honor) with no more charity than she actually feels. She denies several times that Living with a Wild God is anything resembling an autobiography, but of course it is, and a very fine one: a spiritual autobiography, with narrow, sometimes needle-fine focus, recording the isolation and the concentration and the invisible desperation of a mind turning in on itself, and seeming to lose its grip on the world.
Then, aged seventeen, she went on a road trip north from LA—the car driven by a sort-of boyfriend who, somehow inevitably, later turned out to have been transporting ancient, dangerous nitroglycerine in the trunk—and slept the night parked up in a side street in the town of Lone Pine. Walking out the stiffness in the gray early light, she began to have another of her familiar episodes of dissociation. But it turned without warning into something else:
At some point in my predawn walk—not at the top of a hill or at the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time—the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.
Whatever this was, it was not a gentle experience. Indeed, in some respects it resembled the encounter with an irresistible cosmic bully that seems to be what Sam Harris least wants. As Ehrenreich observes now, “‘Ecstasy’ would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.” Back then, though, not knowing what to say, she immediately took her own advice and said nothing. She walked the rest of the way up the street to a diner and ate some toast with the sort-of boyfriend, never mentioning that the world had just briefly metamorphosed into immanent fire; and she went on not mentioning it over the decades that followed. She wrote down an account, and then confined the journal pages in question to a folder she never revisited, yet never parted with either, aware that there was something in there that awaited an accounting, that existed in troubling discord with her stated principles. “The impasse was this: If I let myself speculate even tentatively about that something, if I acknowledged the possibility of a nonhuman agent or agents, some mysterious Other, intervening in my life, could I still call myself an atheist?”
Living with a Wild God is that long-delayed reckoning, disinterring the encounter in Lone Pine, adding to it later brushes at Key West with a “face I could almost begin to make out in the foam,” and trying her best to follow the implications wherever they led, no matter the embarrassment. (She has indeed been pilloried for her apostasy.) It is an exhilarating book to read, for “vague gurgles of surrender” still never satisfy her, and in her search for exactitude she constantly resharpens the expressive edge of her prose. Where she is headed seems genuinely up for grabs. She is reasoning herself along without a set destination, without the safety net of church or party, and she is as unsparing of herself as she is of her parents. Naught for our comfort, and naught for hers.
One thing she is sure of, though: Whatever it is that lobbies for her attention in thunderheads and thrift-store windows, whatever it was that set the world on fire in Lone Pine, it cannot be the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Partly, this is a matter of continuing family loyalty. Whatever her parents’ drawbacks, they raised her in a tradition of defiant working-class unbelief, which represents to her a precious commitment to this-worldly good. Partly, on the other hand, it’s that her experience decisively fails to match what she understands of monotheism. For her, in contradistinction to Sam Harris, ought and is are entirely separate categories. Religion is preeminently the domain of ought, of do’s and don’ts, which her skeptical eye very readily interprets as convenient cover stories for power. Meanwhile she believes that her Other, burning away, is not moral at all: “My own ‘epiphanies,’ to overglorify them, had nothing to do with right or wrong, good or evil, kindness or cruelty, or any other abstractions arising from the human tribal life that I had only recently entered into.” A couple of traditional antireligious themes play a supporting role, too—an argument from theodicy, a repulsion at the prospect of eternal life—but this is the core of her refusal. “Whatever I had seen was what it was, with no moral valence or reference to human concerns.” With a God of ethics or creed or scripture consequently ruled out, what she is left with is a kind of freelance or zoological theism. The world may be infested with one or many amoral spirit-beasts, bulging under the ontological skin of things. Wild in her title turns out to mean not just unconditioned but feral. At this conclusion, of course, monotheists and atheists will swivel round together in rare unanimity to glare at her. Neither side wants this picture she arrives at, by being too honest to deny her experience, and too stubborn to accept any organized, existing description of it.
For a Christian, reading Living with a Wild God is frequently frustrating. Despite her brilliance, Ehrenreich makes slow, heavy weather of ideas that for a believer flow together in swift, fluent cascades. When she quotes Meister Eckhart saying that God must be born in every soul in “a sort of nest, or as Eckhart sometimes puts it, a ‘manger’”—and calls the result “shockingly zoomorphic,” as if he were proposing that a spiritual parasite will lay eggs in us—can she really not have noticed that he has something Bethlehem-related in mind? A bit of Thomism would help with her firmly post-Protestant sense that a creator would have to be transcendently remote from creation. A familiarity with the psalms would correlate her startled reflection that “I was not afraid of dying, because it was obvious that the Other . . . would continue just fine without me” with the stern comfort of “As for man, his days are as grass . . . but the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting unto everlasting.” The presence who only “was what it was” could be linked with the Presence that announces itself, in a circular affirmation of bare being, as “I am that I am.” And above all, her insistence on the amorality of the Lone Pine vision, its ethical unproductiveness, seems to rest on a literal and limited demarcation of what it might mean for an experience to have an effect in a life. Before it, she was a desperate solipsist. After it, she was set on a course that would lead back toward her fellow humans and eventually, in the second half of the 1960s, into antiwar activism. That sequence again: The bush burns, and some time later you find yourself trying to guide an unruly crowd toward the promised land. This is not exactly unheard of as a pattern of events. Oh come on, thinks the believing reader. No need to reinvent the wheel. You would save yourself so much time if you knew how everything was supposed to join up. Quick, someone air-freight this woman a Jesuit!
But this is to let ourselves off the hook too easily. If someone as open as this, with such a strong working sense of the tragic possibilities of existence, recognizes nothing in the descriptions of faith she has encountered, then we are not describing it rightly. If the “rage of joy” she has felt seems to have nothing to do with goodness, then we have been misrepresenting virtue. If what we have managed to extend in her direction seems to be only an offer of authoritarian parenthood, or a resistible politics, then we have made a mistake of our own about the place we allow for the wildness of God. Those of us who have a positive theology, populated with the items of the catechism, often treat negative theology—the term for what we don’t and can’t know about God—as an optional afterthought. But on the strength of this book, negative theology should be getting a much louder say in the public presentation of faith. We should be leaving a humbler, more obvious space for the terrible, the earth-shaking, the category-breaking excess of the Lord, beyond all our systems and descriptions of Him. Everyone who practices a faith, of course, embeds it in one way or another in a set of shared behaviors, in a social, and often then in a political, vision. Naturally: An occasional experience of ecstasy is not enough, and such embedding is what lets us build out the heart or the mind’s assent into something coherent. But faced with somebody like Ehrenreich, who knows she does not share the conservative politics that seem inseparable from American Christianity as she views it, and therefore is prevented from seeing what essential thing she does have in common with Christians, we are called to distinguish much more loudly between theism and the systems into which we build it. If God is universal (if God is God), then he is the God of liberals and radicals as much as of conservatives. Christianity is not just a religion for those temperamentally inclined to be reassured by firm systems, rigorous rules. It is also for the wild at heart. God himself is both rule-maker and rule-breaker. He is therefore the ground on which human rule-makers and rule-breakers ought to be able to meet.
If we want to talk to Barbara Ehrenreich, we cannot appeal to the naturalness with which, to us, our swift cascades of interpretation flow. Least of all can we appeal to the majesty of orthodoxy. (Orthodoxy! Thy very name is like a . . . not very attractive thing.) We would need to be far more cautious, far more fine-grainedly empirical. We would need to dismiss the context that presents itself so readily to us, and say: What is there, in these experiences themselves, that might point a generous-minded seeker toward Christian understandings? What is there about this Californian flame, which turns its witnesses to flame, that might tentatively align with the strangeness of Pentecost? What is it that consoles, in the thought of this being’s permanence, when it makes our temporariness so plain? What wild quality is it, in its seemingly amoral fire, that seems to burn a path to visions of the human good?
And if we do this, we will also be true to the shock and disorentiation of such encounters. Anyone who has had anything resembling Ehrenreich’s experience, and such an experience is surprisingly common, will tell you that the presence they met did not so much contradict their religious expectations as stand in a kind of orthogonal relationship to them, so much more than and other than expectation that expectation seemed almost beside the point. Wild justice—justice unmediated and unfiltered—is different from the thing we painstakingly try to make in courtrooms. Wild charity—love unmixed and uncompromised—is fearfully unlike the adulterated product we are used to. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. To call the presence you meet “amoral” is at least to acknowledge its difference—to allow awe, bafflement, and uncertainty their honest place.
Three months ago, I was standing in a wood on a hilltop in England with two Anglican priests. The beech trees were in new, intensely green leaf, and the spring sun came through in shifting specklings of brightness; the bluebells were in full flower on the forest floor, and drifted the ground in all directions with a fine-grained blue mixed with the bright white of wild garlic. The silence between the gray uprights of the beeches was expectant, intent, and more vivid and demanding than was strictly comfortable. Because we were who we were, and knew what we knew, and believed what we believed, for us it was natural to infer, from the ground we could see, a figure just out of sight, and to name the wild moment by saying, Surely the holy one of Israel is here. But if we had been standing in the same wood two thousand years ago, we might well instead have left an offering to the genius loci. Or, like Barbara Ehrenreich, have improvised an altar to an unknown god.
Francis Spufford is the author of Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.