Wild Gods: Barbara Ehrenreich and William James

Wild Gods: Barbara Ehrenreich and William James.

Better known for her books on low-wage workers, such as Nickled and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote her dissertation on cellular immunology, and had always considered herself a scientist, even as she began to write on social issues. 

Author of about twenty books, the one that breaks the pattern is among her last, Living with a Wild God, in which she writes about an encounter with god, an event for which she was unprepared.  “I saw God,” she says about an encounter years earlier in which she experienced the world alight with what the traditionally religious might call glory, “where God or gods or at least a living Presence” appeared to her (pp 127, 215).  Previously imperceptible “conscious beings . . . . that normally elude our senses” seems to be the expression she is most comfortable with, but she freely employs the terms God and gods.

This does not lead her to say “I believe in God.”  Rather, she says she knows God because she has encountered him in a wilderness called Lone Pine.  But if she knows God, her god is nothing like the traditional theistic God, for he (or it) has no interest in our welfare. 

As Eckhart . . .  had asserted centuries earlier, referring to the Other as “God,” the religious seeker must set aside “any idea about God as being good, wise, [ or ] compassionate.”  This of course poses a nearly insoluble problem: Mysticism often reveals a wild amoral Other, while religion insists on conventional codes of ethics enforced by an ethical supernatural being. (p 226)

If this wild god has a purpose, then it is to keep us company.  Since Descartes, we have made ourselves the center of reality, creating a lonely world, the result of the “collective solipsism” of our species.*  While the wild gods are unconcerned with humans’ need for cosmic company, she makes the surprising suggestion that they may be seeking us out (p 237). 

The suggestion is surprising not only because nothing else in the book prepares us for it, but also because it faintly reflects the traditional Judeo-Christian view of God as intensely involved with his people, first rescuing them from Pharaoh, and then saving them from the obliteration of death. 

Ehrenreich’s gods are more modest, seeking only companionship.  Or perhaps this experience of an invisible companion is how we put together our chaotic experience of the world when we are in a mystical state.  Or a psychotic one (p 215).  Ehrenreich is certain there is a difference, but not always certain which one prevails at the moment, and she is wise to hesitate.  She does not hesitate in her assertion that these gods are other than human, other than ourselves.  We may experience them in a mystical state, but their existence is independent of human desires. 

William James: “Something really wild in the universe” 

In his 1895 essay, “Is Life Worth Living?” William James concluded that human life is either a “real fight in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success” or it is a trivial game from which “one may withdraw at will.” With the latter phrase, he is referring to suicide.  As evidence for the first possibility, he stated that

it feels like a real fight, as if there were something really wild in the universe which we . . . are needed to redeem. (paragraphs 61-63)

Ehrenreich reveled in this wildness, which reached out to grab her and might even need her.  James would redeem it.  But what does that mean, and does nature need redeeming?  Theodor Adorno (1984) answered that anything that looks like the redemption of nature is bound to be domination in disguise.  What James seems to mean is that we need to “redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.”

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Stories about God

Stories about God

Jack Miles has written a couple of books about the life of God.  They are not new books.  New, or rather recently renewed, is my appreciation of them.

What’s different about Miles’ books is that he assumes that the Bible, Hebrew Testament and New Testament, can be treated as literary works, biographies that tell us about the development of the protagonist.  No historical criticism, no redaction criticism, no textual criticism (who wrote what when).  He treats the Bible as you would a biography you pulled from your bookshelf.  What type of person (that’s really the term for how he treats him) is God, what does God learn along the way, how does God develop and change in the course of his encounters with man, particularly but not exclusively the Jews?  Miles’ God is a Trinitarian God, particularly in the sense that whatever we learn about Christ we learn about God, for they are one.  “Jesus is Lord.”  While God: A Biography stands alone, it is only complete with his second volume, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.

A harsh God

Though the God of the Hebrew Testament can be loving toward his people (1 Kings 10:9), he is fundamentally a warrior God, which is what his people wanted.

In rage you stride across the land, you trample the nations in anger as you advance to save your people, to rescue your anointed one. You stave in the sinner’s roof beams, you raze his house to the ground. You split his skull with your bludgeon. (Habakkuk 3, quoted in God: A Biography, p 98)

God is praiseworthy because he smashes the heads of Israel’s enemies.  Pity the poor Amalekites.

The Lord swore to Moses: “Record this in writing, and recite it in Joshua’s hearing, that I will utterly wipe out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” (Exodus 17:14)

Now, go and crush Amalek. Put him under a curse of total destruction, him and all that he possesses. Do not spare him, but slay man and woman, child and babe, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (1 Samuel 15: 2–3)

Miles comments, “what the Lord swore and Moses solemnly witnessed was, in more modern language, an oath of genocide.” (p 101)

What changed with the New Testament?

What changed is that God was confronted with his own weakness.  His strong right arm could no longer protect the Israelites against Babylon, and then Rome.  But rather than admitting defeat, God changed the terms of the covenant.

God does have, however, one alternative to simply bringing his storied career to an ignominious close. Instead of baldly declaring that he is unable to defeat his enemies, God may declare that he has no enemies, that he now refuses to recognize any distinction between friend and foe. (Christ, p 108)

To make this argument, to exemplify and die for it, is the job of Jesus.

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The loving Jesus is often angry. Why?

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I teach ancient Greek political philosophy for a living.  Plato and Aristotle are the main characters.  Along the way I point out that the classical Greek virtues, wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and justice, are only half the story of Western civilization.  The other half comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition: justice is necessary, but the Western tradition is also about love.  The Western tradition needs both Athens (reason) and Jerusalem (love) to be complete.  This is Christ’s great contribution. 

According to Harold Bloom in Jesus and Yahweh, “Yahweh’s love is Covenant-keeping, no more and no less.” (p. 164)  This does not seem a fair account of The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh).  It is not much of a stretch to read The Song of Solomon as an account of a love affair between God and His people.  What Jesus adds is the idea that God would allow himself to become man, suffer, and die in order to share in humanity’s suffering.

Yet, something about Christ’s love is frightening.  If Jesus is God, then it makes no sense to think of His love as comparable to human love.  I’ve never thought it made any sense to talk about taking Jesus Christ as my personal savior.  There is something terrifyingly stark and other about Jesus.  And there should be.  He is man, and not man.  Many Christians prefer the Gospel of Luke because in it Christ seems most “humane.”  But if one thinks about Christ seriously, that is a category mistake.  Christ is not humane because He is not human. One does not have to be a Docetist (representing the view that Jesus only appeared to be human) to believe that. 

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