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.