Book Review: Living with a Wild God (2014)
by Alan F. Zundel
“Living with a Wild God” is a tour de force by an exceptional writer tackling an exceptionally difficult topic. Subtitled “A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything,” it is part memoir, part scientific-philosophical exploration, and part confessional.
The writer is Barbara Ehrenreich, a long-time writer on politics, feminism, and other social topics. I hadn’t read any of her books before, but the quality of her writing here hooked me. She is spare and exact in her choice of words, with just the right amount of metaphorical seasoning:
“In this war against children we all enter on the losing side and carry our wounds along to the next generation.”
“Then there was the other kind of hunger, seemingly issuing from a small shrewlike animal that had made its home inside my head and could never get enough books, ideas, or information to feed on.”
“It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it.”
The experience she is referring to, and the one that defines the book, is a mystical experience Ehrenreich, an avowed atheist throughout her career until now, had when she was a teenager. That experience came back to haunt her in a surprising way.
In handing her papers over to a university library, she came across a folder with sheets of paper written in her youth between the years 1956 and 1966. She kept the folder and delved into it, coming across a plea from her former self to her older self not to forgot what happened, and interrogating her with “What have you learned since you wrote this?”
The message and the question began to eat at her and resulted in this book. It is a fascinating exploration of seeking and finding the unknowable mystery, only to be left without a way to incorporate the substance of it into the everyday demands of life. Or did it give her a way, a way she did not fully recognize?
Ehrenreich relates her story of growing up with rationalist atheist parents, a brilliant but alcoholic father and a sad and frustrated mother. She inherited her father’s inquisitive nature and begins to question everything, including the nonsense being transmitted by her teachers at school. As she grows older the quest for meaning gleans a few insights, such as that you can’t know anything for sure but the fact of experiencing your life, but no ultimate answer as to who we are, why we are here—or whatever the right way to frame this perennial question is.
Her search comes to an unexpected culmination during a road trip with an older boy and her younger brother when she was a teenager. They stop to sleep in their car in the desert, and in the morning she wakes up and wanders off alone. There she has her awakening, the kind that will never be encompassed adequately in words.
Ehrenreich never revealed this experience to anyone until she wrote this book. After that trip, she went on to college and grad school, studying chemistry, and then got waylaid by the antiwar ferment of the ’60s, leading her to a long career as writer and activist. Now in her 70s and facing cancer, she wrestles with the challenge from her younger self.
In the final chapters she faces this challenge honestly, coming out as a more-than-atheist but less-than-theist, knowing that there is a living presence “behind” the reality we usually live with but not knowing what to make of it. In writing about it she conveys the sense of how that presence seeped into her after her encounter with it, bearing fruit in a wise appreciation of life as she comes nearer to the end.
Yet I question, as I infer that she too does, whether her career was really a detour from this presence or the manifestation of it. The lifelong commitment to easing the societal suffering of the most vulnerable among us seems to me not a detour, but a resetting of her internal compass to work that is always crying out for human hands to take up.
That is, at least, my understanding of the meat of the Bible, informing both the Jewish and the Christian traditions. The God of those traditions calls us to address the needs of the marginalized; what other kind of God would be worthy of the name?
I had a similar disruptive mystic experience when I was a young man, but rather than professing atheism I eventually reappropriated the Christianity of my youth. Yet the result was a similar resetting of my compass, as I was led into a career researching and writing about poverty and economic justice. Not as distinguished a career as hers, but clearly with the same orientation.
Then at fifty, a couple decades earlier than in her trajectory, I began to question whether I had actualized the meaning of that early experience in the unfolding of my life. (In my case there was more than one experience, but I’ll leave that for another discussion.) My wrestling with this question had an outcome which was both different from and similar to hers.
It was different in that it resulted in another unexpected shift in consciousness, one that is both rooted in that earlier one and yet more radical in that it altered my outlook in a very clear and unalterable fashion. It is similar in that I find I can no longer live within the labels I used to use to categorize myself: “Catholic,” “Christian,” “theist,” “Buddhist-Christian,” or anything else. Nothing fits, nothing feels right.
Or maybe it is just age that takes some of us—many of us?—to this point of unknowing in which the accumulated mental structure of a lifetime gradually fades into the sandcastle it always was. We are left with the mystery, the one we sought in our youth, only to find it is all we are now left with.