Ehrenreich’s ineffable

It’s hard to imagine what it’s like having a brain like Barbara Ehrenreich’s. Resolutely analytical and critical, Ehrenreich is a ruthless puncturer of platitudes and soft-headed consolations about the way the world works. You may already be familiar with two of her finest works – Nickel and Dimed or Bait and Switch – both exposés of the dark underbelly of American capitalism. You might also know Bright Sided, a broadside against the power of positive thinking, written in the wake of a 2001 breast cancer diagnosis.

Critics of her sort are welcome in a culture that tends toward complacency, and so that ruthless streak is mostly to her credit. It’s bracing to have someone come along, rip the sheets off the bed, and call us to attention. It might not be pleasant, of course, but you do tend to gain a certain existential clarity as you stand there shivering in the cold gray dawn.

It’s likely no surprise that Ehrenreich’s critical faculties are directed toward religion as well. Though the title may evoke it, Living With a Wild God, is not your typical pious, moist-eyed spiritual memoir. The traditional aspects of the genre are nowhere to be found; there’s no return from prodigality, no divine discourse on the road to Damascus, no beatific vision.

What there is is an intellectually and emotionally harrowing childhood. Ehrenreich’s memoir centers around a journal she kept from late childhood to her late teens, from 1956 to 1966. She writes that the key to who she is as a grown woman lies in the words of the young girl she was during those years, and so she’s written Living With a Wild God as an “exegesis” of that journal.

Ehrenreich begins by recalling the line of religious dissenters that came before her. On her deathbed, her grandmother reportedly threw a crucifix the priest had placed on her chest across the room. Ehrenreich’s father had an “undying antagonism” to religion too, lecturing the family on Sunday mornings with readings from Robert Ingersoll, the nineteenth century American atheist.

What her lecturing father couldn’t have anticipated is that “his insistence on utter rationality could cut the other way and eventually lead to doubts about the entire system he held up as ‘reality.’” All that hyper-rationalism sends young Barbara’s brain into a kind of positivist over-drive. Everything is scrutinized. Everything is questioned. Everything is broken down to brass tacks. She spends her late adolescence besotted with the sciences, delving deeply into chemistry and quantum physics, because they seem to be able to decode “reality” for her, at its most basic, its most elemental.

Ehrenreich’s interrogation of everything means she also struggles to form deep relationships with others. Not because she’s a misanthrope, because she’s unable to convince herself that they actually exist. She calls her younger self, unblinkingly, a “solipsist,” partially because it seemed intellectually honest, but partially because it made for good social armour. (Solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist.)

There’s a rupture in all this hyper-rationalism, though. On a trip through the Mojave desert, on a predawn walk, “the world flamed into life.” There were no visions, no prophetic voices, no visits by totemic animals, just a “blazing everywhere.” Ehrenreich remembers it as “a furious encounter with a living substance” that was coming at her “through all things at once.” “Something poured into me, and I poured out into it.”

The compelling tension at the heart of this memoir is built around that experience, and the similar ones that follow. Ever the ruthless rationalist, Ehrenreich is well aware that her experience of the transcendent may be nothing more than run of the mill schizophrenia or some other dissociative disorder, since there’s always a welter of scientific terminology available to explain these sorts of experiences. Yet she can’t quite let things settle there, either. There’s something so compelling, so real about her experiences that she can’t just consign them to the peculiarities of brain chemistry. She finds some conceptual help from the Christian and Jewish mystics, though she wants to resist falling into the “slop of spirituality.” She eventually alights on an animistic understanding of her experience, affirming “a world that flowed and pulsed with life through all its countless manifestations, where God or gods or at least a living Presence flamed out from every object.”

And so the final chapters veer from a rather sterile scientific dogmatism to an openness to transcendence. It’s almost as if she wants it both ways. That might be maddening, especially to those of us who are pretty clear on our metaphysical affiliation. But there’s value in exploring the ineffable with Ehrenreich, too. Her brush with transcendence is a particularly concentrated, acute specimen of a common variety of religious belief in the post-Christian 21st century. Many of our secular neighbours have an awareness that something is missing, that this immanent frame in which we supposedly dwell is haunted, its cracks and crevices glinting with transcendence. Living With a Wild God can be an encouragement to explore those thin places, to ardently ask the hard-nosed questions, and to maybe, however hesitantly, take a tiny leap of faith.


  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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