Living with a Wild God

A non-believer’s search for the truth about everything
Barbara Ehrenreich
Granta, 2014

I have developed a habit of reading Christian memoirs, especially those writings which reflect on a conversion of one kind or another. Lately I’ve enjoyed Thomas Oden’s A Change of Heart, Peter Hitchen’s The Rage Against God, Esther Baker’s I Once Was A Buddhist Nun and Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, among others. Now Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Living with a Wild God, is resolutely not a Christian; she refuses monotheism, rejects any idea of a perfect God with a good plan for our lives. Yet she was, as a teenaged atheist, driven to discover ‘what’s really going on here?’(p37), that is, what is life about? What is the meaning of it all? Living with a Wild God is about that quest of hers, which she dropped for most of her adult life of writing and social activism, but has returned to in her seventies. The book a very personal wrestle with her upbringing, her attempts to build a foundation for knowledge and, centrally, her desire to come to grips with an overwhelming mystical experience she had as a young woman.

Ehrenreich’s unfinished business with the events of her young life is dramatically described at the beginning of the book. While her personal papers were being sorted and sent off to a university library for preservation, she kept back  

‘a thick reddish folder or envelope of the old fashioned kind, tied by a string. It had survived for about forty-eight years through god knows how many moves from state to state and from one apartment to another. In all that time I never opened it and never mentioned or referred to it. But somehow I had always remembered to pack it in the bottom of a suitcase, no matter how chaotic the circumstances. Future graduate students could snicker over my love affairs and political idealism if they were so minded, but they could not have this.’ (pX)

In the folder was a series of loose leaf, intermittently produced, personal writings from her teenaged years that led up to ‘an event so strange, so cataclysmic, that I never in all the intervening years wrote or spoke about it’ (pXII). Ehrenreich knew that these papers required ‘a major job of exegesis, a strenuous reconstruction of all that I once thought was better left unsaid’. Hence Living with a Wild God, and if that doesn’t intrigue you, I don’t know who you are.

The quest begins in Ehrenreich’s awareness of the brevity and apparent futility of life. Her family raised her to reject religion in favour of an anti-authoritarian atheism, and to embrace thinking as the road to the answers to questions that trouble you, and so Ehrenreich seeks to exercise her sharp young mind in pursuing her quest to make sense of life by thinking. There are a couple of problems she faces in this. One is finding a sure place to think out from. The rationalist Ehrenreich tries to begin with radical doubt, and quickly discovers that there’s ‘simply no way to get from “I” to “not I” once you’ve boxed yourself in to what I later learned is called Western dualism’ (p37). Ehrenreich seems genuinely to have struggled to be anything but a solipsist until her early twenties, and even after that she was not really convinced about the reality of other minds until she had children (p218).

Another difficulty she has in her quest is that she began to experience episodes of altered perception, moments where, ‘something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels and words’ (p47), where ‘all that was familiar would drain out of the world around me’ (p49). The teenaged Ehrenreich wrote that, ‘it is as if I am only consciousness, and not an individual at all, both a part of and apart from my environment. Strange. Everything looks strange as if I’d never seen it before.’ (p49). Ehrenreich can see how a materialist, neurological explanation might account for these episodes, but she is not ready simply to understand these things as mere temporary perceptual breakdowns. She wonders whether they are instead perceptual breakthroughs—glimpses of the substance of things lying under the named world.

But then these episodes of dissociation are completely surpassed by an experience she has at seventeen. Early one morning, walking in an unfamiliar town, returning from a skiing trip,

‘I found whatever I had been looking for since the articulation of my quest, or perhaps, given my mental passivity at the moment, whatever had been looking for me.’ (p115)

‘[T]he world flamed into life. … It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once … the only condition was overflow.’ (p116)

After that she knew

‘that the clunky old reality machine would never work the same way again. I knew that the heavens had opened, and poured into me, and I into them.’ (p117)

That was the day ‘the truth arrived in all its blinding glory’, but Ehrenreich felt it was an experience she could neither speak nor recapture, although it divided her life decisively into ‘before’ and ‘after’. It was an experience she could not make sense of, and as she writes her memoir, she interprets the experience as affecting her as a trauma, a catastrophe, knocking her into a spin and leaving her feeling like a failure, unable to testify to the truth she had encountered. Then it was time to go to college pursue the ambition of becoming a scientist that she knew would win her father’s approval. Ehrenreich seeks a new start in ‘the data, the theories, the mathematical and physical rules that other, more knowledgeable people had come up with’ (p145)

Yet even in the lab she is haunted by the idea that there is an Other seeking her out. Her thesis involved seeking to measure the ways voltage varied with current in silicon electrodes, but the voltages would not settle on fixed values, they oscillated in ways no-one expected, or could explain. Unhappy, unappreciated and under pressure, she wonders whether she is encountering ‘something that was attempting to communicate with me through the voltage tracings, if only I could make out the message’.  

There’s much more in this narrative about Ehrenreich’s early life — her difficult relationships with her father and mother, for example, and the book is an engaging and frank attempt to reconstruct the inner life of the young Barbara. But what I wanted most of all to know is how she would finally try to integrate her ‘Encounter at Lone Pine’ with her view of reality. When she does do this, in the final chapters, she refuses to countenance any consideration of God, theistically understood. From what she writes, she seems to do this out of sheer determined prejudice, believing for various unarticulated reasons that God is some kind of easy non-answer, a refusal to think. It feels like there is also deep loyalty to her family way operating here. I must say this seems itself an easy and probably unfair shutting down of the possibility theism might be true. What she is prepared to try to integrate into her atheism is that there may really be an Other or Others: living (although perhaps not organically), intentional (although not necessarily benevolent or moral), perhaps emergent within the universe and present to us in various ways (through nature as well as in experiences like Ehrenreich’s). Ehrenreich’s last words in the book are ‘it may be seeking us out’ (p237).

What shall we say to this? This is the inner world of a particular card-carrying, vocal atheist. Who’d have known, if Ehrenreich did not have such candour, and the conviction that she owed it to her younger self to write this book? Ehrenreich is doing what we all seek to do to various degrees, that is, to make sense of the world as we experience it. Reading Ehrenreich’s own testimony to her experience, it hardly seems like a narrative confirmation of atheism, a world devoid of transcendent glory. Rather it seems like it’s a world where it’s hard to shake the idea that Someone is there, encountering us, and seeking our attention.

Ben Underwood, WA