Thursday, July 24, 2014

"LIVING WITH A WILD GOD" by Barbara Ehrenreich (review)

The first Barbara Ehrenreich book I read was “The Hearts of Men.”  At the time, which was 1983, just after I left seminary, it was a defense not heard often and full of resonance.  Now, after reading “Living with a Wild God,” the earlier book is clearly recognizable as a defense of her father.  That’s not a slam.  The lives of theologians always foreshadow their eventual theories of God.  In fact, the lives of scientists also can shape their theories.  How can we be other than what our pasts have made us, since even rejection of them amounts to a development from them?

It is often suggested that science is a kind of religion with its own leaders and morality, its own way of being in the world, but that’s backwards.  Religions are early versions of science, rough drafts composed of the knowledge of the times.  The differences in religion, once one learns how to look, are the differences in the evidence offered by the environment, the ecology, of the place the religion evolved.  To understand this, then, means accepting the ideas -- the grand principles -- of both ecology and evolution.  Both are about how things fit together and can vary radically but finally come down to survival.

To get closer to the universal forces beyond ecology, one must go to genetics, neurotheory, and quantum theory.  In our times we have gone beyond the observational science of the centuries leading up to the 19th century nose-counting and notebook sketches to highly technical investigations requiring complex machines of enormous expense and the education to operate them.   

People shaped by infinitely differing conditions are now mixed together into circumstances that can provoke war or simply maladaptation that imposes enormous suffering to masses who are displaced from everything they believe and can do.  And yet the primal questions persist.  The two that preoccupy us now are whether there is any reality outside our perceptions and whether our capacity to make contact with it (which we now begin to understand is only symbolized by our brains, because we turn out to think with our guts and muscles as well as our neurons, and which is limited as much by our capacity to organize what comes to us through our sensorium as it is by the acuteness of our perceptions.

The Holy Land

Those people whose roots came out of the Middle East, which offered the Abrahamic religious positions, were based on the nuclear family and the tribal chieftain, especially the father/son connection that was the means of passing down power and wealth in a shrinking ecology.  Erosion, land exhaustion, diminishing rainfall, the invention of agriculture and irrigation that pushed away hunting/gathering, walled cities and the invention of chariots for the purpose of war.  These are the stories of the Old Testament and the Koran and the advice for how to deal with them.  Where the influence of the New Testament came from -- Buddhism from India, Celtic goddesses from the tribes to the north -- is up to better minds with more resources than mine.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, “Living with a Wild God: a Non-believer’s Search for the Truth About Everything” is confined by our obsessive conviction that GOD is what religion is about, in the same way that FATHER is what family is about. “The Hearts of Men,” is now clearly about FATHER, her father and what she experienced while witnessing the life-arcs of her parents.  These were closely related to the furor about Communism and Marxism and the demand for economic justice.  

Butte mine accesses

Ehrenreich is about the same age as I am, took her undergrad work at Reed in Portland, and proceeded through a technician’s career under the guidance and oppression of respected scientists.  Her brilliant father began in Butte (a bit of European coal culture transplanted to the high mountains of Montana) digging below ground, and somehow by patronage from “fathers” and support from wife, managed to rise so high in the resource corporations that he finally transcended to management.  (The priesthood.)  He was admired and well-paid but not happy and eventually fell apart into alcoholism.  Divorced, his wife lost control of her life as well.  Their religion was “atheism” which I do not see as a cause so much as a result.

Ehrenreich has always been scrupulously honest about her thoughts and in this case was investigating her personal development through “lab notes,” i.e. a journal she kept throughout her youth.  She is also honest -- but not disclosive -- about her relationships, even her two children, one of which died.  What comes through is a lack of empathy, a distrust of intimacy.  As she moved into journalism, her strength was investigating other people’s lives, understanding them in a kind of ecological way, but then leaving.

This specific book is based on a risky disclosure: a mystical experience that caused the world to “burst into flame” with meaning and inclusion.  As a young adult she and her brother, plus a friend, had gone skiing on Mt. Shasta, were sleep-lagged and famished, when she walked alone into her vision.  It is indecipherable.  Through her life little gleams of flame would return, but never that engulfment.

To complicate it, the “friend” guided them to Death Valley so he could retrieve a cache of dynamite he had found -- old, sweating, unstable, explosives which they took back to his home.  She claims she had no idea at the time but realizes in retrospect that in many alternative scenarios they could have blown up the car or his house and family.

Ehrenreich says, “My agent Kris Dahl pressed me to turn was was originally conceived as a history of religion into a personal narrative.  At first I resisted, but I think that, as usual, she was right.”  She also lets us know that she was hurting financially, since in one of the many hurricanes she had lost a New Orleans home with all her accumulated papers and since the collapse of traditional publishing had removed the practice of offering advances.  In fact, the entire ecology of publishing had collapsed, hurting her as much as anyone else writing.

Today agents do much of the shaping of a book that was once undertaken by "house" editors.  Rather than the reputation of a publishing house, profit is the guide.  The overwhelming concept is that “immersion” sells.  That is, sensation and adventure, but also intimacy with the author.  “How did you feel?  What was it like?”  Somehow, the paradigm of the sexual encounter has become our key to the meaning of life.  Orgasmic saints, both those who are virtuous and those who were wicked, seem to be our epitome of humanness.  We’ve been here before:  Zeus was very resourceful about being a swan, a shower of gold, a bull.  We see erotic love as an overwhelming -- even consuming -- force that takes us out of our skins, even out of our minds.  Of course, back there in the trunk of the car is always that sweating dynamite, liable to “blow” us to “kingdom cum.”

A dynamite explosion.

Like myself, Ehrenreich was open to Hindu ideas, though she doesn’t seem to have had access to the classes I was taking in my parallel years at Northwestern where several strong atheists and comparative religionists had found a niche.   They were the same ideas that seduced the Transcendentalists in New England.  But my “god-prob” was not the nuclear atomic “Shiva” that coincided with her and my primary school years.  Mine was “Deus Absconditus,” since my father was a traveling man who had a prefrontal cortex injury in 1948 that erased all empathy.  Of course, alcoholism and divorce are also "flights from commitment."  Maybe the right phrase is "from engagement."  So we're similar there, too.

Neither parent of Ehrenreich seems to have those little spindle cells that bestow empathy.  This lack was considered an advantage in the Cold War worlds of science labs, corporation management, and sexual carelessness.  These detached frigid contexts may be the background emptiness that creates our craving for intimacy with people we will never meet.  We're trying to come in from the cold.

"Coming in from the Cold"  (a movie)

The title of Erhrenreich's book, like the titles of many books, is meant as enticement.  It has nothing to do with the content.  There's no such thing as a "wild god" -- all gods are domestic.  (Some of them are feral.)  The heart of the book is about direct mystical experience of existence -- God has nothing to do with it.  Ehrenreich's search is not for God -- it is for meaningful relationship.  She believes in the search.  She was gifted with epiphany.

1 comment:

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

For those who prefer a scientific explanation of what happens in the brain when the world seems to flame with significance, see Oliver Sacks' article in the Atlantic Monthly on Dec. 12, 2012. It's called "Seeing God in the Third Millennium."

I do not think this diminishes the significance of the experience in the person's life.

Prairie Mary