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.”

Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. The “scientific proof” that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment (or some stage of Being which that expression may serve to symbolize) is reached.” (Life, para. 61-63) 

Only it’s a little more complicated than that.  Richard Gale argues that James was himself split on the issue of wildness.  James’ Promethean self was a creator of worlds and maker of meaning.  That’s the self that must redeem the wildness of the world.  But James’ mystical self wanted to abandon itself to what is ultimately a benign universe.  The world needs not redemption, but acceptance. 

Robert Richardson directs us to James’ admiration of the wildness released by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  James’s first response to the quake was, he states, one of “glee,” “admiration,” “delight,” and “welcome.” “Go it,” he almost cried aloud, “and go it stronger.” 

The Marcus Aurelius whom James admired, and who had prayed, “O Universe, I want what you want,” could scarcely have improved on James’s unhesitating, fierce, joyful embrace of the awful force of nature. It was for James a moment of contact with elemental reality . . . (Richardson, p 16)

But the moment didn’t last.  Almost immediately James went into his wife’s room to see if she was unhurt.  Next James went into the ravaged city to look for his sister, who was likewise unhurt. 

Satisfied that his loved ones were safe, James spent the next days talking with anyone in the city who would talk with him about his or her experience of the earthquake.  His diary for the following day, April 19, says simply, “Talked earthquake all day.” (Letters)  Richardson says a large part of James’ fascination with the earthquake was the way it revealed a world that, like James’ conception of consciousness, was pure flux having nothing stable, permanent, or absolute in it. (p 18)

But one should not overlook the religious element.  Not Marcus Aurelius but Job is his model for how one should look at the tribulation that God’s universe inflicts on us.

When Marcus Aurelius reflects on the eternal reason that has ordered things, there is a frosty chill about his words which you rarely find in a Jewish, and never in a Christian piece of religious writing. The universe is “accepted” by all these writers; but how devoid of passion or exultation the spirit of the Roman Emperor is! Compare his fine sentence: “If gods care not for me or my children, here is a reason for it,” with Job’s cry: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him!” and you immediately see the difference I mean. . . . How much more active and positive the impulse of the Christian writer to accept his place in the universe is! (Varieties, p 24)  

James is not religious

It would be a grave mistake to see James as a religious man.  Everything he writes about religion has to do with the individual.  Tradition is equivalent to dead thought.

I speak not now of your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit. It would profit us little to study this second-hand religious life. We must make search rather for the original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct.  (Varieties, p 5)

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”  (Varieties, p 18)

Whatever experience of God James is writing about, it is not religious in the usual sense.  It comes closer to what Harold Bloom characterized almost a century later as the American Religion.  The American Religion is fundamentally gnostic, free “from nature, time, history, community, and other selves.” (loc 614) 

As such the American Religion, which is so prevalent among us, masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian. (loc 316)

James is a psychologist, not a gnostic.  But he undervalues tradition.  Ritual is the living invocation of tradition.  Ritual is how we embody belief.  Though religious ritual may become deadened, it need not.  And ritual is shared.  Mystical experience of God is an individual experience.  It may seem like salvation, but it is only traditional religion that seems to have saved James’ life at a difficult time when he felt unreal to himself.    

The fear was so invasive and powerful that if I had not clung to scripture texts like “The eternal God is my refuge,” etc. “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden,” etc. “I am the resurrection and the life,” etc.  I think I should have grown really insane. (Varieties, p 91)

Attributed to a “French correspondent” in Varieties, it is clear elsewhere that James is referring to himself. 

Using God, or being used by him?

Ehrenreich knows she’s not writing about religion.  James doesn’t.  Instead, he approvingly quotes a professor who says that so long as men can use their God, they care very little who he is, or even whether he is at all.

God is not known, he is not understood; he is used — sometimes as meat-purveyor, sometimes as moral support . . . . If he proves himself useful, the religious consciousness asks for no more than that. Does God really exist? How does he exist? What is he? are so many irrelevant questions. Not God, but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion.  The love of life, at any and every level of development, is the religious impulse (Varieties, p  270, emphasis in original)

Conclusion: what does God ask of me?

One could better question what does God ask of me?  James misunderstands his project more thoroughly than Ehrenreich.  Ehrenreich knows she is writing about a wild God.  James writes about individual mystical experiences but calls it religion.  I don’t believe individual experience is the foundation of religion.  The foundation is the communion of saints, men and women gathered together in worship.** What an odd religion it would be, were we to assume that God is the pragmatic servant of man.  That would be man’s worship of himself.

A fond reader of James might argue that I am confusing his speculations about the anthropology of religion with his religion.  That would be true if James had a religion.  In its absence, his anthropology of religion becomes his religion.   

———————-

*  “Collective solipsism” sounds like Orwellian newspeak, but it makes sense when its subject is plural to begin with, in this case, a species.

** The communion of saints refers to the community of faithful followers of Christ living and dead.  The phrase is from the Apostles’ Creed.

References

Theodor Adorno, “The Idea of Natural History,” Telos, June 20, vol. 1984 no. 60 (1984), 111-124.  doi 10.3817/0684060111

Harold Bloom, The American Religion.  Chu Hartley Publishers, 2003 [original 1990, Simon & Schuster].

Barbara Ehrenreich, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything.  Grand Central Publishing, 2014.

Richard M. Gale, The Divided Self of William James.  Cambridge University Press, 1999.

William James, “Is Life Worth Living?” In James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy and Human Immortality, 22-36.  Digireads.com, 2010 [original 1895].  Also in https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Is_Life_Worth_Living%3F_(James)

William James, Letters of William James, 2 vols., edited by H. James. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920, volume 2.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.  Digireads.com Publishing, 2011. [original 1902]

Michael L. Raposa, “Review of Gale, The Divided Self of William James.”  In First Things, August 2001.  https://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/08/the-divided-self-of-william-james.

Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism.  Mariner Books, 2007. 

Photograph is of Barbara Ehrenreich who died at age 81.

(Revised February 6, 2024)

One thought on “Wild Gods: Barbara Ehrenreich and William James”

  1. Shall be very interested to read this book and find out about her encounter with the wild god. I am enjoying this post because it’s unexpected in its content and its appearance. You’ve done a lot of reading so it will take me some time to be able to concentrate on it when I may possibly write another comment. I’d like to know what other people think about it
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