Barbara Ehrenreich’s Theophany

Review by Katharine Jefferts Schori

There’s a story long told about a man who grew up on Crete during the Second World War. One morning a Nazi motorcyclist crashed near his house and in the wreckage he discovered a broken side mirror. He took a shard and, blunting its edges, turned it into a plaything, learning to shine light into dark corners. Eventually he discovered this to be a reflection of his life’s meaning (see Robert Fulghum’s It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It).

Living with a Wild God
A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything
By Barbara Ehrenreich.
Grand Central Publishing. Pp. 256. $26

Barbara Ehrenreich’s lively narrative begins in a similar search for meaning. In a remarkably frank account — candid in the ancient sense of light-bearing incandescence — she shares something of her adolescent journal, describing a radically self-centered young woman, her struggles, and eventual emergence into understanding herself as a member of a wider community, a species with more than one member. She does not stop at the end of adolescence, but continues the journey into her eighth decade. This is a spiritual autobiography, albeit in possibly unfamiliar language.

Living with a Wild God is a brutally clear and honest example of the kind of account claimed by many of the unchurched and unreligious around us today. If you want to understand why Christianity struggles to explain itself, read this. If you want a glimpse of the “spiritual but not religious” milieu in which we live and move and have our being as Western Christians, read this. If you want a deeper sense of the struggles between Western and Global South Christianity, read this. If you want to re-encounter and re-enliven your own spiritual journey, read this.

Ehrenreich comes from a long and proudly atheistic lineage of savvy poor people who have seen religion used to oppress: “When the pious bow down before the powerful or, in our own time, the megachurches celebrate wealth and its owners, the ‘good’ and perfect God is just doing his job of legitimizing human elites” (pp. 214-15). Her search for meaning takes her through a remarkable range of investigation — training as a scientist (of several sorts, though her PhD is in physical chemistry), tireless exploration, ventures into induced alternative states of consciousness, as well as uninvited and repeated experience of the numinous. As a teenager, she met “a world that glowed and pulsed with life through all its countless manifestations, where God or gods or at least a living Presence flamed out from every object” (p. 215). Her honest confrontation with that irrefutable experience leads to a life’s wrestling: is this simply misfiring synapses, mental disorder, psychosis, or is there something more?

This Wild God evokes the search of a true scientist (a seeker after wisdom), and a recognition of the radical otherness of what underlies all that is. She may claim to be an unbeliever still, yet she seems to have “given her heart” (as credo means giving one’s heart, rather than belief as often understood as assent to particular postulates) to the wild creativity of the universe. Ehrenreich evinces the knowledge of a mystic and sage, as did Meister Eckhart — who saw God as “one whose ‘nature … is to give birth,’ over and over, eternally, in every human soul that will make room for him.” And she herself begins to discover that meaning as she finds room in her own soul for “other members of the same species” (p. 225).

Ehrenreich’s account challenges the churched and the religious to go deeper into our own understandings of who and what God is, and what that means for our lives. Our often easy reliance on inherited language rather than the living (and fiery) Word has made us incomprehensible or unbelievable not only to “cultured despisers” but to many who are deeply hungry for meaning and relationship with Something or Someone beyond themselves. These seekers rightly reject the boxed-up, domesticated, precisely defined versions of God so glibly proclaimed around us. A deity truly worthy of that heart-giving relationship must be far more than a predictable list-checker, a puppeteering despot, a judgmental moralist, or an ultimate Nice Divine Person. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses is the one who claims to be “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be,” not the predictable sort claimed by fundamentalists of all stripes.

Ehrenreich’s encounter in the desert was not unlike that of Moses. The account we have of his theophany does not indicate an immediate and unquestioning response. We hear something of his myriad questions, as we have also learned the wrestling of many others — Jacob, Joseph, and Jesus himself. Ehrenreich’s meaning making emerges both from her repeated encounters with otherness in the created world and in the learned reality of relationship with other human beings (she has been a committed and effective community organizer and advocate of justice). Her ascription of agency may not use the same language, but the results have some real coherence with what the Church is out to be and do. Read and enter the conversation — and see what sorts of cardiac conversion might result!

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori is the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church.

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