An Atheist has a mystical experience: On reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God

Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book has been on my reading list since I first heard about it and it’s well worth the read, if somewhat dissatisfying in the end. Ehrenreich is the author of among other things, Nickled and Dimed in America, a feminist, activist, and avowed atheist (unto the fourth generation). It turns out she had what she identifies as a mystical experience as an adolescent. Now, much later in life, she re-engages with her younger self by rereading the journal she kept during her childhood and youth. She attempts to make sense of what happened to her. Here’s how she writes about it:

At some point in my predawn walk–not at the top of a hill or 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 without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a glorious tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.

Looking back from the distance of decades, Ehrenreich can make sense of what happened scientifically. She notes that she must have had “dissociative disorder” and that the episodes (this wasn’t the only one) often occurred in connection with the bright light of the sun. So, when she left LA for college in Oregon at Reed, these episodes became much less frequent because of the climate in the Pacific Northwest.

Ehrenreich, for all of her atheism and scientific background, is unwilling to explain her experiences solely in terms of physiological processes. Instead, she claims some sort of external referent which she calls “the other” (drawing on Rudolf Otto, of course, but also Philip K. Dick). So, years later, in the Florida Keys, she comes to understand it:

as the Presence, what scientists call an “emergent quality,” something greater than the sum of all the parts–the birds and cloudscapes and glittering Milky Way–that begins to feel like a single living, breathing Other. There was nothing mystical about this Presence, or so I told myself. It was just a matter of being alert enough to put things together, to catch the drift. And when it succeeded in gathering itself together out of all the bits and pieces–from the glasslike calm of the water at dawn to the earsplitting afternoon  thunder–there was a sense of great freedom and uplift, whether on my part or on its.

She notes that this presence, this Other, is not benevolent and rejects (or remains uncertain) whether the Other is single or multiple. In fact, in her interview with Jeff Sharlet, she accepts the term animism for what she experienced.

It’s a fascinating read for two reasons. First, because you get the sense that the clearheaded, incredibly intelligent, passionate woman who’s writing in her seventies is in many ways the person who experienced the world similarly fifty years earlier. At times, it’s somewhat difficult to believe that the acerbic comments about parents or teachers or classmates could have been shared by the teenager, but it’s still amazing to get the older woman’s take on her younger self.

The second fascinating thing is to see how this mystical experience works on the scientific atheist. It doesn’t bring her into conventional religion, by any means, but it does make her less certain about herself and her life. She has opened herself up to the possibility that there are realms of experience and reality that are not yet (and perhaps never will be) susceptible to scientific scrutiny or explanation and she seems at peace with that.

Jeff Sharlet’s conversation with her in May:

Bishop Miller’s decision on same-sex blessings

Bishop Miller has finally published his response to the Standing Committee’s report from July, 2014. He has decided to permit clergy to bless the civil marriages of same sex couples:

As chief pastor, I have to balance my own theological conviction with humility, and a willingness to create space for those who disagree with me. I must also consider what is best for the diocese. My personal position is that, given the disputed witness of Scripture and Tradition in this matter, I see the blessing of same sex couples by the Church as a pastoral provision, informed by modern insights into human sexuality and human development, not unlike the blessing of marriages of persons who have been divorced.

Therefore, after much prayer, consultation, and reflection I am willing to allow clergy of this diocese to bless the marriages of same sex couples who are civilly married.

He has also issued a set of guidelines to be used by clergy and parishes for the blessings and a form to use. The complete document is available here: Response to Standing Committee Same Sex Blessings.FINAL

No doubt we will be talking about this at Grace in the weeks to come.



Calvary: Forgiveness and Faith in a Secular Landscape

Calvary is a beautiful, bleak, powerful film about the role of the church and faith in a secular world. Set in County Sligo, Ireland, it is an unflinching examination of the effects of the sexual abuse crisis on the institution of the Catholic Church and on the religious faith of the Irish people. It begins with images that suggest all is as it has been. Sunday mass in a rural parish is well attended. The priest, Brendan Gleeson, sits down in the confessional and hears as a parishioner, whose voice he recognizes, tells of the abuse he suffered from a priest as a young boy. And then he continues, “I’m going to kill you. You’re a good priest.” His rationale is that no one would think anything of it if he were to kill the priest who abused him or another priest who had been accused of abuse. But a good priest, if he killed a good priest, people would take notice.

The film plays out in a week, a holy week during which we see the priest going about his business, tending to his flock, trying to offer pastoral care to people in broken relationships and broken lives. He tells his bishop about the threat but doesn’t identify who made it. In the course of the week, his daughter comes to visit (he had been married; his wife died of cancer and he entered the priesthood after that). She had recently attempted suicide and during their time together admits that she felt abandoned by both parents, by her mother’s death, and her father’s escape into the priesthood that left her orphaned.

One of the plotlines involves Father James’ ministry to a woman who was widowed when drunk drivers crashed into the car she and her husband were in. She’s French and quickly reveals herself to have a fierce faith that can process even so horrific and unexpected a death.

As I watched the film, I reflected on my own priesthood, carried out in a very different setting and dealing for the most part with much less dramatic issues. As I watched Father James make his rounds, I was struck by his humanity and his compassion, by his efforts to help people in situations that were very difficult and sometimes in situations where people didn’t want his help and actively derided him.

Ireland in the 1950s may have been stultified by the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church, but its precipitous decline in the second half of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first has left a gaping hole in Irish society. S. Brent Plate comments:

The alternatives to the ethical and spiritual influence of religion are not all they are cracked up to be. The smart and rational-minded fritter life away with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The commoners don’t appear to have the sense to make sense. The rich piss it away. The sensitive become self-destructive to the point of suicide.

I think that’s exactly right. Whatever reasons people in this parish have for continuing to come to church, it’s clear that their lives have no spiritual or ethical center. John Michael McDonagh depicts a religion-less world, or a world in which religion holds no deeper meaning beyond the externals of ritual. Father James goes about his business with the death warrant hanging over him, seeking to console and comfort, to guide those around him even as he submits to the fate that awaits him. I wonder whether the film maker had in mind Jesus’ words at the Last Supper as he wrote and filmed the final scene:

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

In the end, Father James’ continual plea for forgiveness, for himself, for others, for his daughter, offers a way through the evils of the past and present, as well as hope for the future. As the film closes, we see the words “I forgive you” formed on his daughter’s lips; or at least I did.

Other takes:

Some thoughts from Jean Meade:

But it is really about being a Christian, which means being willing to follow Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death: the shadow of one’s own predicted murder, of continuing to live on in faith after tragedy, and of forgiveness to your father’s murderer. The priest who is the main character, the new widow, and the priest’s daughter who botched her suicide – he was married and widowed before his ordination – are each followers of Christ. Each has a different terrible valley to go through. In spite of everything, each eventually walks on, amazingly confident even in the midst of fear and pain and loss that “thou art with me” (Ps 23:4).

Kaya Oakes:

Calvary posits that faith is mostly a fear of death, but in reality, like Gleeson’s performance, faith is a living, changing, malleable thing. His Father James helps us understand why people still need religion: because all of us, in one way are another, are sad and alone, and a person who will sit with you in your loneliness can be a source of deep consolation. Samuel Beckett understood this, but he also understood that the reverse of that bleakness is the kicking and fighting desire for life that we all possess. Calvary has its bleakness. But in the end it lacks the fight.

And a very different perspective from Episcopalians Bonnie Anderson and Rev. Dan Webster at the Episcopal Cafe who saw aloofness where I saw connection.

The Burning Bush and Grace Church: A Sermon for Proper 17, Year A

Most of you know that we are embarking on a capital campaign in a few weeks in order to renovate and upgrade our facilities. We’ve been talking about this for several years now, gone through several iterations of plans, but now we’re on the brink of the campaign itself. Excitement is building and over the next few weeks you will hear more about the campaign itself, how you can be involved, and more about what precisely we hope to do as we renovate our historic facilities. Continue reading

The arc of the moral universe does not lead anywhere in particular

Jesus told the Parable of the Unjust Judge, the writer of Luke tells us, to teach us about prayer, but I think it can tell us something about justice as well. The unjust judge of the parable could be petitioned into rendering justice in a particular case if it were made inconvenient enough for him not to. This realization, of course, we have heard echoed by Malcolmand Martin alike. We should notice, though, what does not happen in the parable – the judge does not repent or reform. He does not become a righteous man. He renders justice to the widow out of pure self-interest, but this does not make him anymore inclined to be just in the next case the widow might bring, or indeed the next case that anyone else brings. There is no amount of pleading, petitioning, or protesting that will transform the judge into a just man. We live in under a state that is at best, indifferent to our problems, and at worst, actively seeking to destroy us. It is good and right that we hound the state into giving us justice, but blacks cannot delude themselves into thinking that the state will ever become justice. There are no laws that can be passed or reforms that can be pursued that will allow us to stop being vigilant. There are no victories that will bring us peace. We will never be able to pound our swords into plowshares, because we will always have to be prepared to fight. Dr. King, our beautiful prophet, was wrong. The arc of the moral universe does not lead anywhere in particular, not in this life. If it bends towards justice, it is only because it is pulled that way by our constant effort, by our unceasing straining and sweating and shouting.



The whole piece by Ezekiel Kweku, is a must read.

Late have I loved you

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new; late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me; and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” Augustine, ConfessionsBook 12.xxvii. 38

By way of preparation for his Feast Day tomorrow.