Barbara Ehrenreich on "Living With a 'Wild' God"

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 5:27am
Barbara Ehrenreich on "Living With a 'Wild' God"

In Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book — and first memoir — she asks the age-old questions at the center of human life. A self-described atheist, she leans into the word "mystical" and encourages more cosmic wandering.

Commentary by:
Betty M. Bayer (@BettyMBayer),  guest contributor for Sightings
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Credit: Thomas Hawk License: Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Online, radio, and print news is abuzz about Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Living with a Wild God, with the paradoxical subtitle, A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. And, yes, this is the “fourth-generation atheist,” Barbara Ehrenreich, of leftist-labor and feminist-activism fame, whose award-winning journalistic investigations into social, economic, and political issues span decades.

Now in her early seventies, Ms. Ehrenreich discloses a narrative running parallel to her life and career since a young age, most significantly a personal experience at 17. On a predawn walk in Lone Pine, California, Ms. Ehrenreich recalls, she encountered “something alive” which she describes as nothing short of a “cataclysmic experience” when “the world flamed into life.”

No visual hallucination, no prophetic voices; rather, the world opened up and was “rushing out to” her. Ms. Ehrenreich writes:

“Something poured into me and I poured out into it…. a furious encounter with a living substance.”

Looking back on this moment, as recorded by her younger self, Ms. Ehrenreich reflects on the want of adequate language to describe what happened, personally, experientially, and as an atheist who continues to describe herself a rational empiricist (though, recently, also as a “mystical rationalist”).

Grasping for words outside of “ineffable,” “transcendence,” “spiritual,” or “religious,” Ms. Ehrenreich leans on the word “mystical” to carry her burden of meaning. The lack a vocabulary to express the varieties of the inexpressible leads Ms. Ehrenreich to her larger challenge to science: go forth boldly in the study of uncanny experiences.

This challenge also arises from the question Ms. Ehrenreich poses, as a young woman writing in her journal, to the woman she would become. “What have you figured out?” her younger self asks her future self. “What’s it all about?” And, the age-old question: “What is actually going on here?” Big questions “hurling across the decades from one’s younger self” pose quite a challenge, not to mention responsibility, reflects Ms. Ehrenreich.

The quest to answer these questions has taken her across decades of writing and research, through debate-strewn lands in which she has engaged psychiatric disorders, neuroscience, fiction and non-fiction writers, philosophers, and more.

From the psychologist and philosopher, William James, she draws some insight, especially on mysticism. From the theologian, Rudolph Otto, she draws support from his idea of the encounter with the Other as “beyond all question something quite other than the ‘good.’” Mr. Otto’s description of encounters as something like a “consuming fire,” with possible disturbing effects, resonates, says Ms. Ehrenreich, with her own experience.

She takes issue with narratives equating encounters with the Other as good, divine, or benevolent. Hers was more akin to what Mr. Otto calls mysterium tremendum et fascinates — at once, one trembles and is fascinated. She has sought out others’ stories of encounters, from saints to science fiction writers, such as Philip K. Dick, with an eye to charting these troubled waters of alternative experiences outside of ready understandings of “the religious” or “the spiritual.”

Equally critical, Ms. Ehrenreich tills familiar research-terrain in neuroscience and religion to uproot tendencies to reduce mind to brain. Surrendering one to the other imposes limits on vocabularies of subjective experience and curtails new studies of “the uncanny” or alternative forms of consciousness. Here she is not alone, for William James and many others have also challenged this kind of medical materialism or reductionism and its implications for an interior life.

If Ms. Ehrenreich misses a thing or two in her argument it may be how experiences of the uncanny have set inquiries into motion and changed relations between religion, science, and psychology throughout the ages. Witness: early twentieth-century scholars James or Otto, or, today, Anne Harrington.

Also, currently there are a growing number of experts who are reinvigorating not just the age-old questions Ms. Ehrenreich raises but age-old questions about the relationship between science and religion (and psychology).

Consider, for example, religious studies scholars (e.g., Rubenstein) interested in philosophy, theology, and physics’ “persistent entanglements” often arising from multiple-worlds cosmologies, physicists (e.g., Lightman) pondering our significance and how we make psychological sense of living in an “accidental universe,” and social and political philosophers (e.g., Dupuy) contesting skewed relations between religion, science, and reason in which faith is set over and against reason.

Ms. Ehrenreich’s request for a bolder science and neuroscience is a worthy one. While her interests lean to a phenomenological side, her book suggests a call to cultural and social structures and to histories of science, psychology, and religion for more, not less, cosmic wandering.

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Betty M. Bayer is an author and professor of Women's Studies at Hobart and William Smith College. Her recent publications include "Enchantment in an age of occupy." She is working on a monograph: Revelation or Revolution? Cognitive Dissonance and Persistent Longing in an Age Psychological. Ms. Bayer is a 2013-14 Senior Fellow at The Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion.

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3Reflections

From your descriptions, I get the feeling that she does not have enough "humility" to be taken seriously on these issues. But this is just a first impression.

To come in contact with ones own essence can be extremely scary, but the sensation of the event is not as important as why the event took place. Ones essence is always with, but to get your "switch" flipped. Why? I believe it is that one surrenders ones will. And, most likely, these people don't even know they are doing it. I have had my own event, and I know of three others. I have looked into this, of coarse, it leaves one with many questions. It might even scare one away from God, as the event is unlike anything you've heard in church, and seemingly very personal.
What she describes makes me think of Love as an essence. To think more of the "other" than one does of oneself, the "I". The flowing back and forth, "a world flamed into life". Loves flame of veracity?
Maybe.Wow! Cool!

In reading Barbara Ehrenreich over the last few decades, one of the thing that has struck me is how much of her hostility to religion governs how she thinks. Over the past decade of the new atheist fashion, I've come to see how much that hostility, not empirical rationalism has governed all aspects of modernity for all of the 20th century.

That has led to such things as the rote denial of the fact that, in the West, religion was the major force in reforming society and laws in most areas, racial equality, womens' sufferage, rights of workers, relief to the destitute and poor. I have also, largely through reading what atheists of the "rational empirical", materialst type have said, have come to see atheism as an inherently anti-liberal ideology, denying the absolute reality of equal, inherent rights and the equally held moral obligation to respect those rights. Without those metaphysical foundations, liberalism (in the American sense of the word) is impossible and, in fact, wrong.

Through reading history I have also come to the conclusion that those things are obviously not wrong, that the history of the 20th century, largely through the activity of anti-religious governments and governments that denied the reality of those metaphysical foundations produced a factual record proving that liberalism got that part of it right. Those lessons, unlike the ones demonstrating evolution and geological history of the planet and life, are an articulation of human intentions and a more direct route to understanding than science has available to it. People produced that record to articulate their intentions and document their acts, to communicate them in a way that is intentionally unambiguous - accounting for and rejecting intentional falsification. The record of that history is directly factual in a way that much of science can't be. The fact supporting the reality of equality, inherent rights and moral obligation is unambiguous whereas much of neuro-science, cognitive-science, evolutionary psychology and the speculations of cosmology are far more indirect and require a far greater degree of interpretation, much of it as or more open to ideological twisting and wishful thinking as any other area of academic study. The past decade of encountering atheism and atheists has shown to me that they are as prone to being governed by wishful thinking as any other group of people. Without an authoritative declaration that it is a sin to bear false witness and lie, even that imperfect governor on self-deception and intentional deception are replaced by the mere gable that they might not be able to get away with it. In the area of academic discourse and journalism, they often do.

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