Thursday, December 29, 2016

Barbara Ehrenreich's Wild God, or, Mystics and Theologians

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 ThingsFrancis 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.


Unknown said...

It strikes me that, for some possessed of the insight or vision you're talking about, having the vision is inseparable from trying to convey it to others, which means inevitably embodying it in some kind of social life. And human social life seems inevitably to mean rules like no eating rock badgers. You may recall Scott Alexander's excellent essay comparing the Levitical rules with our own society's purity laws (Why is the prohibition on pork more arbitrary or antiquated than our own avoidance of horsemeat? Why do we permit eating sea-dwelling arthropods but recoil from ingesting land-dwelling ones? Etc.)

In any case, it strikes me that one of the reasons these huge religious movements have endured is that they have the capacity to appeal to several different sensibilities simultaneously. A purely negative theology would not survive as a living movement, but a vast conglomerate held up by its own internal tensions (negative theology, purity rules, messianism, etc., etc.) has real durability.

John said...

You are certainly right about the enduring appeal of religion as social and systematic construct. I was only saying that *I* am so turned off by the systematizing and the rule-making that I can't participate. I think my position is a fairly common one in our madly individualistic age.

I liked Spufford's essay because he, from a Catholic perspective, recognizes the problem. I think the current pope also recognizes it. I think his efforts to downplay wrangling over abortion and divorce are directed in the direction Spufford points, toward opening the church to spiritual seekers and spreading God's love to all of humanity, not just the fraction that likes firm doctrine and old rituals. For him Christianity is an experience of the divine, not a list of do's and don't's. The problem is that for many conservative Catholics those do's and don't's are the absolute heart of the faith, drawn from the irrefutable theology of Natural Law and the grand tradition that supports everything about the church, including the authority of the pope. We talked here before about the conservatives who blame everything bad about modernity on Nominalism. An openness to raw ecstatic experience like Ehrenreich's can be seen (and has been seen) as an attack on the authority of the tradition. As you say, these internal tensions may be part of what sustains a religion across the centuries, but they can also lead to big problems.

If you believe deeply in both the supernatural origin of ecstatic experience and the authority of tradition, you end up with the problem that has caused so much grief in the church: what to do when people have experiences that seem to contradict the tradition? To systematic thinkers the only possible answer was that these ecstatic experiences had been sent by the devil, the doctrine that underlay the witch hunts. Spufford argues that the right response is to approach these experiences as something beyond simple logic; to just let them be what they are. After all the biggest threat to religion in our age is not wrong belief about the supernatural but a complete rejection of its possibility.

I wonder about the future of our secular world. I have my doubts that a society can thrive without some sort of moral guidance, and a world without angels and demons seems pathetically empty to many. But if the only alternative is to enter a church that believes such a long list of things that you need a degree in theology just to discover the scope of them, and has so many rules that you need professionals to parse them, then I and many, many others will stay out.

Unknown said...

I don't have any intention myself of living a life bound by religious rules, but a part of me respects those who do. In an existence where God (or whatever) doesn't manifest to many of us, those who follow such rules are, in principle and at their best, doing so as a way to get closer to God (or whatever)--the only way open to them. This is my understanding of what yeshiva types mean when they say they find joy in Talmud. Plus, I'd be lying if I pretended that the reason I don't want to follow religious law is that I'm some sort of boundariless creature of pure spontaneity and freedom. I reject religious law because I was raised according to the rules and taboos of American secular consumer society, and, now as an adult, I find them much more congenial, familiar, and convenient (than halakha, shari'a, canon law, or whatever).

On a somewhat different issue, like you (I suspect, if I read you right), I am sensitive to the claims of the religious that there is a bleakness in life without God or some sort of similar ultimate reality external to ourselves. But like you (with the same caveat) the reality of that bleakness doesn't convince me that religion is true.

Unknown said...

On still another note, have you read anything by Whittaker Chambers? I've read just a short piece or two, but he seems to me like another conservative Catholic author you might find interesting. He seems a bit like Spufford and some of the others you cite. And in print he's fluent and even charming, surprisingly so given the way he's often depicted in retellings of his confrontation with Hiss.

John said...

No, I haven't read Chambers. Any suggestions?

For me, my humdrum aversion to the particular rules of the religions I know is backed up by my deeper spiritual thinking: I find lists of rules that obviously reflect the particular social conditions of ancient Israel or medieval Arabia to be not just un-religious but anti-religious. To me, what is divine is beyond the details of human culture. I understand, intellectually, the notion of consecrating everyday life by following the divine code, but personally it seems backward to me.

Plus, of all the experiences I have had that I would call most spiritual, only one was in a church. (Two if you count my wedding, but that was more of a historic monument than a church.) Far more have been out in the woods or on the moors. I generally feel little in church but discomfort and a vague worry that someone is going to jump up, point at me and shout, "You! Leper Outcast Unclean! Begone from this Holy Place!" Which is not a very spiritual feeling.

Unknown said...

Well, my own understanding of the consecration of everyday life is also pretty intellectual, not deeply felt. I do respect what they're trying to do.

I'm also of several minds about the whole "outcast unclean" thing. In some moods I see that aspect of archaic religion, where I've encountered it, as an effort to convey and understand something that is totally "other," not human and not necessarily kind or welcoming.

On Chambers, the only thing I can specifically recall is “Big Sister is Watching You," a delightfully savage review of the execrable Atlas Shrugged. If you google that phrase, it will take you to a website that has several of his writings. ("Big Sister" isn't only recommended for the entirely worthy pastime of watching Objectivism get slammed; it actually has some pretty serious reflections on the death of God and modern philosophy.)