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:

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