Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is one of those books I wanted to put down gently after reading it, for fear that it might explode. Or maybe it was my head I feared might combust. Describing it is difficult because it is so wide-ranging. On the one hand it is an atheist’s view of religion. On the other hand it is a spiritual biography. On a third hand it is coming to terms with having had a profound mystical experience. It is one of those books where, knowing my life has been so very different, yet I feel that Ehrenreich and I have had so much in common that we’d be friends if we ever met. It is also the work of a woman who is scary smart and whose teenage thoughts were so intense that my own seem puerile by comparison.
But that mystical experience! I’ve had many of them in my life, but I don’t know you well enough to share them here. They’ve been recorded in an unfinished book that I may or may not try to publish some day. (Ehrenreich was smart and took a job as a journalist, which means others assume you know how to write. Even those of us in publishing have trouble convincing agents and others who hold the keys to non-academic pricing that we understand the craft.) Mysticism quickly becomes a staid discipline, not at all like the life-directing experiences such encounters themselves actually are. It’s difficult to explain without sitting down and talking to you. It’s something academics tend to avoid like Covid-19.
The books that mean most to me are like conversations with an absent author. Drawn in by an openness, or perhaps by the fact that we’ve lived in a few of the same places over the years, perhaps passed one another unknowingly on the street, you feel that they’ve invited you into their very head. What you find there has a strange similarity to what is in your own head, while being completely different at the same time. We should all strive for such honesty in our writing. In the end Ehrenreich, with a doctorate in science, suggests we need to be open. That kind of validation is important for those of us who’ve poured our lives into the study of religion. She was drawn in from atheism, and I have been trying to escape from literalism all my adult life. We have ended up in places not dissimilar from each other and I’m glad to have met her through this profound book.