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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William James and the Varieties of Religious Experience

William James and the Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

The book I’m reviewing, over one-hundred years old, is as important today as when first published, maybe more so, as its arguments against what James calls scientific materialism speak to the aggressive atheism of today. 

James argues that religion gets its energy from spiritual experience.  Religion itself is an “over-belief,” an elaboration of spiritual experience.  The elaboration, such as the teachings and doctrines of Christianity, are relatively unimportant.  Important is the spiritual experience that gives rise to belief structures.  James, however, was unable to hold to this view.  The “belief structures” of Christianity may have saved his life. 

The book was so important and remains important because it redirects the argument from “does God exist?” about which we can argue, to spiritual experience itself.  It doesn’t matter where it comes from, it doesn’t matter to what it corresponds.  If some people have what James calls spiritual experiences, then spiritual experience exists.  The experience itself is real, even if its object remains in doubt.  Possibly it has no object but itself.

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