Friday, February 5, 2016

Review: Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbelievers Search for the Truth About Everything
by Barbara Ehrenreich
(c) 2014 by Barbara Ehrenreich. Twelve Books. 237 pgs.

2 ½ out of 5 stars.

I was disappointed in this book, and perhaps that had more to do with what I was hoping to find within its pages rather than what Barbara Ehrenreich has to present.  I have read and greatly enjoyed many of her books, with Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch being near the top. I have also tried to “read” another of her books, Dancing in the Streets, but had to stop.  I have read in quotes because I was actually listening to it and therefore assumed that one of the reasons I couldn’t get into it had nothing to do with the book but instead with the narrator. Perhaps after reading Living with a Wild God I need to reassess that situation.

Based on the title, which also includes the fact that she claims to be an atheist, I was expecting her to explain her struggles and wrestling with God (however she might define that term).  I was hoping that it might be similar to Nevada Barr’s excellent biography Seeking Enlightenment Hat by Hat: A Skeptics Path to Religion in which she too is a non-believer who comes to encounter God in a unique way. But that expectation on my part was never closely matched.

Ehrenreich is born into a family that not only has rejected the idea of God, but proudly has rejected that and seems to hold that as deeply as others hold onto God, and perhaps just as unquestioningly.  She begins by going into a long history of her family, close and extended, and their various dysfunctions, and then continues through her college and early adult years.  It was never really clear to me why this information was important, or where it was leading, nor is it clear why she stops telling us this information when she does.  A constant refrain I had throughout the book was “what does this have to do with the subject” which I thought was living with a wild God, and coming to terms with a mystical/spiritual event she has as a teenager.  I thought about putting the book down on several occasions but kept hoping it would get to the point and it would get better.

Ehrenreich’s experience is really more than just one event, but is centered around one significant experience in which it seems like her life became sort of like a Picasso painting in which everything lost shape and colors swirled while at the same time having a significant vitality that “glowed and pulsed with life.”  This left her unmoored, although it might be argued she was already unmoored by relying on solipsism, or the belief that the only thing she knows to be real is herself.  I say that it seems like this is what happened because Ehrenreich never really explains in a way that is understandable, at least to me, what actually happens.  Perhaps this is because, as William James says, one of the attributes of mystical experiences is that they are ineffable, or can’t be put into words.

Ehrenreich actually uses that term several times, although not ever really in reference to her own experience, and sadly doesn’t even make reference to James’ The Varieties of Religious Experiences: A Study in Human Nature until some 200 pages into the work.  Since Ehrenreich is someone who is known as digging deeply into the history of ideas I was expecting much more wrestling with these experiences throughout history, which really doesn’t happen.  Nor does she ever really wrestle with the idea of God, or the Other as she begins to call it, until the very end, and then it’s still very superficial.

She concludes the book by saying “But this is what appears to be the purpose of my mind, and no doubt yours as well, it’s designated function beyond all mundane calculations: to condense all the chaos and mystery of the world into a palpable Other or Others, not necessarily because we love it, and certainly not our of any intention to ‘worship’ it.  But because ultimately we may have no choice in this matter.  I have the impression, growing out of the experiences chronicled here, that it may be seeking us out.”

Does that mean that she has shifted from an atheist to a troubled agnostic? It’s unknown.  Perhaps others will get a lot more out of this than I did, and perhaps my expectations of the work when I entered, in judging the book not so much by its cover but at least by its title, impacted my view of what Ehrenreich presents (and perhaps, like many authors, she had nothing to do with the title). It had great potential, but I think she should have left much of the “living” out an instead struggled with the experience and what it might mean to have a “wild God” or at the very least to have explored how an scientist and atheist ultimately comes to terms with the question of “why?” rather than leaving that to the last few pages.

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