Review of Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich.
In a nutshell: Living With a Wild God is the story of a rational, scientific-minded atheist wrestling with the meaning of a personal mystical experience.
Ms. Ehrenreich is an atheist, has been all of her life. And she is from a lineage of atheists that goes back to her great-grandmother (the great-grandma was Catholic and the priest wouldn’t show up when her father was dying unless they paid him $25; a few years later she was dying in childbirth, when the priest showed up, put a crucifix on her chest and started administering the last rites she hurled the crucifix against the wall.)
But as a young teen-ager Ms. Ehrenreich was obsessed with the quest to find the “Truth”; in other words to find answers to such questions as why are we here, what is the point of life? At the same time she started having experiences where her perception would dissolve, like all the boundaries around separate objects disappeared. She had trouble putting the experiences into words in the journal she kept at the time, and the best word she could come up for it was “disassociation.”
Then one day when she was 17 she had a profound experience, which, again, she struggles to express. Her best metaphor is of fire:
the world flamed into life…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.
Because she had no framework for this experience, in the ensuing months she struggled to keep her equanimity. She worried she was mentally ill. Soon she left for college and the existential crisis passed.
Her father was a scientist, and she assumed from an early age she would become a scientist. She ended up getting a PhD in biochemistry, although she has never worked in the field. Instead she became a political activist and social scientist, writing such books as Nickel and Dimed about her attempts to live on minimum wage (imagine, a social scientist who experiments on herself).
As she entered middle age she returned to her quest. She got out her teen-age journal and decided to reckon with this experience. What did it mean?
She realized that her ancestors’ atheism had been a reaction against the preposterous God of monotheism. But maybe that still left room for something Other. She began to research the origins of religion, and started to see that perhaps her mystical experience could be explained as a form of animism: the universe is alive. The earliest human religions were animist, which is, she says, just the recognition of the presence of conscious agents all around us.
And, she contends, animism has entered the scientific worldview. As one of her examples of this change, scientists are starting to recognize that animals have consciousness. Ms. Ehrenreich writes:
Here were the Others, or some of them anyway, whose existence science had tried so hard to deny: conscious, autonomous beings, or ‘agents’ in the largest sense, very different from ourselves and, no doubt, from one another. They were all around us and they always had been. The scientific notion that humans are the only conscious beings on the planet had been an error all along, an error rooted in arrogance and provincialism…To quote the polymathic and determinedly rationalist Howard Bloom, ‘We have vastly underrated the cosmos that gave us birth. We have understated her achievements, her capacities, and her creativity. We’ve set aside will, purpose, and persistence in a magic enclosure and have claimed that…[they] do not belong to nature, they belong solely to us human beings.’
She says she still doesn’t believe in anything:
No, I believe nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender; ‘faith’ a state of willed self-delusion. I do not believe in the existence of vampire-spirit-creatures capable of digging deep into our limbic systems while simultaneously messing with our cognitive faculties, whether we experience the result as madness or unbearable beauty. But experience—empirical experience—requires me to keep an open mind. [italics in original]
Her conclusion is that there is Something, an Other, that exists and is alive. This Other bears no relation to the God of Christianity. This Other is not good—or evil, it’s not loving, it doesn’t care about us. It is a consuming Fire of Being. This Other may have an agenda that has nothing to do with us, but there is something…
Ms. Ehrenreich notes that she became known in the 1980s for an essay she published on atheism, and it seems to me that she is showing courage to publish this book and expose herself to criticism, like “is she going soft now she’s getting older?” The book may not convince anyone to change their mind about God, but it’s a compelling look at an intelligent person’s struggle with the question.