An Atheist has a mystical experience: On reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God

Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book has been on my reading list since I first heard about it and it’s well worth the read, if somewhat dissatisfying in the end. Ehrenreich is the author of among other things, Nickled and Dimed in America, a feminist, activist, and avowed atheist (unto the fourth generation). It turns out she had what she identifies as a mystical experience as an adolescent. Now, much later in life, she re-engages with her younger self by rereading the journal she kept during her childhood and youth. She attempts to make sense of what happened to her. Here’s how she writes about it:

At some point in my predawn walk–not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time–the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. 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 without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a glorious tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.

Looking back from the distance of decades, Ehrenreich can make sense of what happened scientifically. She notes that she must have had “dissociative disorder” and that the episodes (this wasn’t the only one) often occurred in connection with the bright light of the sun. So, when she left LA for college in Oregon at Reed, these episodes became much less frequent because of the climate in the Pacific Northwest.

Ehrenreich, for all of her atheism and scientific background, is unwilling to explain her experiences solely in terms of physiological processes. Instead, she claims some sort of external referent which she calls “the other” (drawing on Rudolf Otto, of course, but also Philip K. Dick). So, years later, in the Florida Keys, she comes to understand it:

as the Presence, what scientists call an “emergent quality,” something greater than the sum of all the parts–the birds and cloudscapes and glittering Milky Way–that begins to feel like a single living, breathing Other. There was nothing mystical about this Presence, or so I told myself. It was just a matter of being alert enough to put things together, to catch the drift. And when it succeeded in gathering itself together out of all the bits and pieces–from the glasslike calm of the water at dawn to the earsplitting afternoon  thunder–there was a sense of great freedom and uplift, whether on my part or on its.

She notes that this presence, this Other, is not benevolent and rejects (or remains uncertain) whether the Other is single or multiple. In fact, in her interview with Jeff Sharlet, she accepts the term animism for what she experienced.

It’s a fascinating read for two reasons. First, because you get the sense that the clearheaded, incredibly intelligent, passionate woman who’s writing in her seventies is in many ways the person who experienced the world similarly fifty years earlier. At times, it’s somewhat difficult to believe that the acerbic comments about parents or teachers or classmates could have been shared by the teenager, but it’s still amazing to get the older woman’s take on her younger self.

The second fascinating thing is to see how this mystical experience works on the scientific atheist. It doesn’t bring her into conventional religion, by any means, but it does make her less certain about herself and her life. She has opened herself up to the possibility that there are realms of experience and reality that are not yet (and perhaps never will be) susceptible to scientific scrutiny or explanation and she seems at peace with that.

Jeff Sharlet’s conversation with her in May:

On My Reading List: Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

Marilynne Robinson’s review in The New York Times Book Review:

It is the religious sensibility reflected in this journal that makes it as eloquent on the subject of creativity as it is on the subject of prayer. O’Connor’s awareness of her gifts gives her a special kind of interest in them. Having concluded one early entry by asking the Lord to help her “with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing,” she begins the next entry: “Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story — just like the typewriter was mine.”

Casey N. Cep writes about it for The New Yorker:

The journal reflects a single year in the life of a believer—it includes just under fifty pages of prayers from a lifetime filled with them. It is the attempt of a young writer to reconcile her worldly ambitions with her heavenly understanding. The task she set for herself, to invigorate her dulling faith, was accomplished by the deliberate, contemplative practice of praying in her own words. By refashioning the prayers she inherited and practiced every day at Mass, O’Connor was able to find new language for belief.

Paul Harvey explores it as well:

Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journals provide a beautiful glimpse into a vulnerable soul open to the rigor of life, confident that God would use trials to shape and press her into something more. Those prayers were answered through O’Connor’s life of fighting disease and practicing her craft of writing. Her strong irony did not lead her to doubt that God was with her.

The model of Flannery O’Connor challenges the prevailing ideas of modern life and challenges us to personally assess how we reconcile our own beliefs with our scholarship and use of irony. O’Connor wielded irony as an effective weapon in her writings. Her prayer journals demonstrate her ability to harness the power of irony without allowing it to define her soul. Such an approach today would be threatening to the culture of cheap irony that surrounds us.

James Parker also reflects on her use of irony and her life of prayer:

Where the Word was operational, for O’Connor, it was always disruptive: in its presence, one’s head was supposed to explode. Her short stories, especially, reengineered the Joycean epiphany, the quiet moment of transcendence, as a kind of blunt-force baptismal intervention: her characters are KO’d, dismantled, with a violence that would be absurdist, if the universe were absurd. But the universe is not absurd. “There is an interaction between man and God which to disregard is an act of insolence,” wrote the rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, her contemporary, in The Prophets. “Isolation is a fairy tale.” The upended moment, the breaking-in or breaking-through of a vagrant, unbiddable reality: this is the grace of God and the sign of his love.

Peter Brown’s “Through the Eye of a Needle” and twenty-first century Christianity

I’ve been reading Peter Brown’s immense and marvelous Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, The Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West 350-550. It’s a magisterial examination of the transformation of Rome and of Christianity in those two centuries, looking at those transformation through the lens of attitudes toward wealth and the poor. The standard account of the rise of Christianity focuses on the conversion of Constantine and sees a rapid move from paganism to Christianity and an equally rapid and thorough transformation of the pagan aristocracy into the hierarchy of the Christian church.

Brown tells a much more complex tale of a slow conversion to Christianity picking up speed in the late fourth century. But even so the tug of paganism remained and aristocratic Christians continued to put on games and donate to secular causes well into the fifth century. The same is true of wealth as those who converted to Christianity and sought to donate their wealth to the church were challenged by family members who saw this as a threat to the family. Interestingly, because legally it was difficult to leave legacies to corporate bodies or institutions, wealthy Christians had to name the local bishop in their wills.

Brown ranges far and wide in his study. He looks closely at Jerome and Rome, at Ambrose and Milan, and Augustine of Hippo. But he also pays close attention to Paulinus of Nola. Importantly, he offers a vivid picture of life in the country villas of Gaul and Spain.

There is much to commend this work as scholarship, but I couldn’t help but reflect on its significance for helping us think about Christianity in the twenty-first century. The fourth century has remained fascinating to Christians and it has re-emerged as something of a battleground among competing versions of twenty-first century Christianity. One of the most powerful narratives at work is the idea of the “Constantinian fall of the Church” that’s recently been challenged by Peter Leithart.

As we move to what many call a post-Christian society, many look back to the pre-Constantinian church for guidance, a church that wasn’t in power. Brown problematizes the idea that suddenly with Constantine the church became the center of political and economic power. The story he tells is much more complex. He shows conflict between clergy and laity, especially lay people who resisted conforming simply to certain standards of Christianity. But he also points out that in the sixth century, the main force trying to set the clergy apart as a separate caste (special dress, tonsure, continence) came from the laity, not the clergy. Brown shows for the fourth and even into the fifth century, many lay people tried to negotiate between competing versions of Christianity, and also tried to remain true to the traditions of Roman civic religion and of their families.

One of the dangers of contemporary Christianity is to revert to a sectarianism. There is seductive appeal in the image of a gathered church following Jesus Christ closely in a hostile world. That image fuels much of the rhetoric of the religious right, but it also drives Anabaptism and neo-Anabaptism. Even mainline congregations in the midst of a different narrative of decline, might find such an image attractive. But the story Brown tells is of different visions of Christianity competing in the fourth and fifth centuries. Importantly, his evidence that the emperors did not lavish wealth on the church until very late in the fourth century is absolutely convincing. The Christianity that emerged in the fifth and sixth centuries did not succeed primarily because it had the power of the empire behind it, but because it was best adapted to the changing historical circumstances. And even then (as now), the institutional church, the clergy and hierarchy, had limited power to shape the faith and practice of ordinary Christians.

Whether or not we are facing the same magnitude of cultural shift in the twenty-first century that late Antiquity experienced is not clear. Certainly Christianity is facing a context it has not encountered before. Brown’s book is an important reminder that history is much more complex than we often assume, and that the future may turn out very different than anyone could imagine. He also shows the creative ability of Christianity to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

G.W. Bowersock’s glowing and thorough review is here.


F. Scott Fitzgerald gets religion

The New Yorker published a Fitzgerald short story that it rejected back in 1936. In it, the BVM lights a cigarette for a corset and girdle saleswoman.

It had been a long time since she had prayed. She scarcely knew what to pray for, so she prayed for her employer, and for the clients in Des Moines and Kansas City. When she had finished praying, she knelt up. An image of the Madonna gazed down upon her from a niche, six feet above her head.

Vaguely she regarded it. Then she got up from her knees and sank back wearily in the corner of the pew. In her imagination, the Virgin came down, like in the play “The Miracle,” and took her place and sold corsets and girdles for her and was tired, just as she was. Then for a few minutes Mrs. Hanson must have slept.

Hilary Mantel’s Bringing up the Bodies

It’s at the top of my reading list. I hope it’s on yours as well. Wolf Hall was brilliant.


An interview with Mantel from Shelf Awareness … and one from NPR

Mantel on Anne Boleyn

Alan Jacobs on Mantel’s Cromwell as a “characteristically late-modern Western man”

The Guardian’s digested read (by John Crace)

An excerpt available from The New York Review of Books

What happened at Vatican II? And does it still matter?

I just finished reading John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard University Press, 2008). I read it for at least three reasons. First, John is a teacher, mentor, and friend. Second, I realized I had never read anything substantive about the council, a glaring lacuna in my knowledge. Third, with the recent developments in Roman Catholic liturgy and practice, it struck me as important pastorally to understand some of the background to the Roman Catholic church of the late twentieth century, what conservative Catholics are reacting against, and what disaffected Catholics are struggling with.

O’Malley delivered on all of those points. It’s an engaging read of a difficult subject, and probably very difficult to make interesting for the non-specialist. To talk about machinations behind the scene, debates over schemas and the like is no easy thing. He doesn’t divide the opposing camps into “liberal” and “conservative” but calls them “majority” and “minority.” One gets the sense that the council had a life of its own that made it difficult to control and surprising in its outcomes to both participants and observers.

Most interesting to me are the three underlying themes that O’Malley detects. These, he says, are “the issues under the issues” and are key both to understanding the council and to making sense of Catholicism today. They are: 1) the development of doctrine; 2) the relation of center to periphery; 3) the “style” or model according to which authority is exercised.

In many respects, these three issues are not unique to Catholicsm. It may be that because Anglicanism is shaped very much like the Roman Catholic Church that we experience them acutely, but it seems to me they are pervasive throughout Christianity, and to some degree, throughout the History of Christianity. The first two are, of course, particularly important in debates within and concerning the Anglican Communion. The third I find especially intriguing. O’Malley points out that the documents of Vatican II are self-consciously written in a “pastoral” style, a remarkable break from the doctrinal formulas and anathemas of previous councils. That style involved a change in rhetoric, towards teaching, a change in vocabulary, but also a change in form, perhaps with the emphasis on collegiality.

I read a blog post about “the theology of the text message.” In it, Jason Byassee argues that pastors must be ready to “text” with younger parishioners or risk not communicating at all with them. He talks about offering pastoral care via text message, but there is more to be said. Christians are people of the Book, readers and interpreters of scripture. The question is, what sort of theological and spiritual “style” might emerge from our use of new media?

One possibility: The New Media Project at Union Seminary offers a case study of the House for All Sinners and Saints.

The Guardian’s “How to Believe” series

I suppose I first encountered this long-running series when Bishop Alan Wilson wrote essays about the Book of Common Prayer. Since then, I’ve become addicted, even though I don’t often have the time to read all of the entries with the care they deserve. Clare Carlisle wrote about Spinoza, which took me back to a theology colloquium at Harvard I participated in. To be honest, we read Descartes and Spinoza, and Descartes left the more prominent mark on my thinking. Still, reading her essays reminded me of what a fascinating and challenging thinker Spinoza was.

The current topic is Karl Marx, written by Peter Thompson. Here’s what he has to say about Marx’s understanding of religion:

The critique of religion as a social phenomenon did not connote a dismissal of the issues behind it. Marx precedes the famous line in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right with the contention that religion was the “sigh of the oppressed creature in a hostile world, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions” and that an understanding of religion has to go hand in hand with an understanding of the social conditions that gave rise to it.The description of religion as the heart of a heartless world thus becomes a critique not of religion per se but of the world as it exists. What this shows is that his consideration of religion, politics, economics and society as a whole was not merely a philosophical exercise, but an active attempt to change the world, to help it find a new heart. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in his famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach, the phrase carved on his gravestone in Highgate cemetery.

To Change the World

I’m working through James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.

I’ve been carrying it around in my bag for the last few weeks, in hopes of cracking it open. I finally did today. It’s quite interesting. Hunter is a Professor at the University of Virginia. The book is an analysis and critique of the ways in which Christians, left and right, have approached cultural change. Hunter argues that change in culture occurs largely by means of networked elites, i.e., top-down, rather than bottom-up. He points out that for all of their efforts in the second half of the twentieth century, Christians were unable to effect much cultural change at all. Take a hot-button issue like same-sex marriage. Recent polls suggest that in spite of all of the efforts against it, a majority of Americans now support it in some form.

I’m not all the way through, but it’s clear where Hunter is headed. He starts, not with Jesus’ teachings, but with creation: “In the Christian view, then, human beings are, by divine intent and their very nature, world-makers.” He argues against the politicization of Christianity, either by left and right, and seeks to place Christianity’s role in “faithful presence.” I will say more about this idea in a later post.

It’s interesting reading in the context of what is taking place in Madison right now. I have made the case that Grace Church, by its very presence on the square, is an actor in the current drama. Whatever we do or don’t do sends a message. Hunter, I’m sure, would agree, because of his perception that politics (power) has become all-pervasive in our culture. Yet what should I or Grace do?

We have opened our doors, welcoming in those who are protesting in the streets, offering hospitality, a place to warm up and rest. As we open our doors, we offer something else, too. Grace is a beautiful space. As I’ve said here before, people sense its beauty, experience it, and for many who enter, they have never experienced anything quite like it before.

This weekend we will be doing a couple of other things. First, we will make more room for prayer. I don’t know how many people will come in tomorrow, but we will offer our chapel as a place where those who seek silence and prayer can find it.

Serendipitously, we will also be offering two musical experiences that will also evoke the beautiful. The first is a concert Saturday night by Seraphic Fire. The second is a performance in the liturgy at 10:00 on Sunday morning of a missa brevis by Haydn. Each will be an opportunity to encounter beauty. Whatever else we might do this weekend, we can do that. We can invite people to encounter beauty, and through beauty, to encounter God.

I don’t mean this as a distraction from what’s taking place on the streets. Rather, it seems to me that beauty can put everything else into its proper perspective, and by helping us touch the divine, help to ground us when all around seems to be chaos.


The New Metaphysicals

I recently complete reading Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Bender’s new work is widely acclaimed. Telling the stories of a spiritual practitioners who call Cambridge, MA their home, Bender uses their lives to rethink how scholars understand contemporary spirituality and the study of Religion. She begins by trying to locate some historical connection that binds the array of new age religious practices found in Cambridge to the city’s history as the locus of 19th century metaphysical speculation. And connection she does find, at least insofar as William James The Varieties of Religious Experience continues to shape, often implicitly, the way new age practitioners approach their own experience and attempt to enter into dialogue with social scientific analysis. The stories she tells are gripping, often of “lost souls” who through some experience have found a connection to something that seems much deeper than themselves, much deeper than the reality they experience in day-to-day life. We see them trying to make sense of their experience, and make connection to others whose journeys seem to converge with theirs.

For scholars of religious studies, Bender offers some provocative suggestions about how to understand and interpret contemporary spirituality, and by extension, religion in general. For example, she begins by noting

“that spirituality, whatever it is and however it is defined, is entangled in social life, in history, and in our academic and nonacademic imaginations.” She continues by observing that most recent definitions of spirituality attempt to define it as “a distinct category of action or activity (or mental state); and that they attempt to “extract something essential from it.” (p.5)

In her conclusion, she argues that she has demonstrated in her study that neat and tidy distinctions between the spiritual (or religious) and the secular are inadequate to explain the reality of religious life in America and the production of spirituality. Perhaps most interesting is that she sees the development of American spirituality and the scholarly analysis of religion and spirituality in the early 20th century as impacting one another.

While there is considerable material here for scholarly reflection, Bender also raises questions for those involved in congregations and religious institutions. Her argument that what is important is not so much the direct experience itself but how it is interpreted, explained, and how individuals incorporate that in their lives and in their social environments. One gets the sense that the “new metaphysicals” with whom Bender speaks are actively attempting to make sense of their experience and draw on a wide variety of resources in doing so.

She distinguishes between experience in “congregations” and spiritual networks. While such distinctions may be useful for her analysis, one wonders about the relevance of that contrast. It is likely that there are people who have had similar experiences but remain embedded in congregations, even as they try to integrate those experiences into their lives. It is also likely that some congregations may push people with such experiences to the margins. I’m also reminded of those studies that say among the most important roles that clergy can take on is that of spiritual guide.

All in all, there is much food for thought here.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God

I just finished reading the above-titled novel by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. If I were still teaching undergraduates, I would immediately adopt it for … well any of my courses, I suppose. It’s witty, intelligent, and addresses interesting questions.

It’s worth it, if only for the appendix (which lists the 36 arguments for the existence of God and offers refutations for them).

If I get a chance, I might write more about this, but I’m taken, not only by the arguments, but by the story, which in the end seems to argue for the existence of God, or, if not for the existence of God, then for the reality of religious experience and for the significance of religious community and religious tradition.

It’s been many years since I’ve read the novels of Chaim Potok (The Chosen, The Promise, My Name is Asher Lev), but as I was reading 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, I felt I had traversed this journey before, changed only by the cultural changes of the last forty years.

I’m not a philosopher, never have been one, but I taught several times Intro to Philosophy and dealt with arguments for the existence of God both in my training and in my teaching. While I don’t find philosophical arguments convincing for faith, I do find them, as Newberger Goldstein has her main character argue, a helpful rationalization for those whose faith precedes philosophical argument, and for whom philosophical argument helps give them rational arguments for their faith.

And the Cambridge stuff was just fun!