Barbara Ehrenreich is a well-known left-wing activist, anti-war, anti-capitalism, author of books like Nickeled and Dimed
about poverty and oppression. In 2014 she published a different kind of book, Living with a Wild God
. This is a sort of memoir that recounts the mystical experiences she has been having since she was 17 and tries to make sense of them within her basically rationalist worldview. She described that first experience like this:
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.
At the time she simply buried the experience, lest she have to question her atheistic worldview. But after other such experiences, she dragged out her old journals and confronted the world that her visions seemed to reveal.
Reviewers have reacted very differently to this effort; in the Times, Dwight Garner
said that the first half of the book is an "agonizing slog" and summed it up by quoting Kingsley Amis:
Religion and masturbation are alike in one regard. Feel free to practice them, but no one really wants to hear you go on about it.
But the conservative Catholic critic at First Things
, Francis Spufford,
called the book "exhilarating", and was inspired by it to write a fascinating meditation on the relationship between raw mystical experience and organized religion:
One thing Ehrenreich 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, 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.
A Christian, says Spufford, is likely to find much of Ehrenreich's rambling frustrating:
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. . . .
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. . . . 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.
This is certainly my main gripe about religion as I know it: that the spark of inspiration gets lost in a forest of laws, a fog of theology, or a morass of dubious politics. I always wonder, why can't we leave well enough alone? Why, when confronted with the absolute, the unknowable, the mysterious, do we have to wrangle about eating rock badgers or spend 2,000 years parsing the exact meaning of "this [bread] is my body"? The only theologians I like are those medieval Muslims who said that we can make no statements about God at all, because all human words limit him unacceptably.
The universe is vast beyond our understanding, each human life an incomprehensible mystery. When religious writers stick to that ground, they often move me. But when they somehow work their way from I am that I am
to doctrinal wrangling and bans on birth control, they lose me. More, they anger me. They impose their small human obsessions on the vastness beyond, trying to bring the infinite down to their level. Even worse is when they imply that a meaningful life is not possible outside their little system – for some of them it's either empty hedonism or the church in all its rigor.
But outside the church and the temple and the mosque the sky is a star-strewn vastness stretching beyond our knowing, beyond our systems and our theologies, beyond our smallness, out into a universe that might as well go on forever; close at hand are wonders of life and art beyond counting. If you like rules and systems, they are there for you; if you do not, don't let the rigor of the lawgivers and the theologians dissuade from seeking your own meeting with the burning bush.