Mystical Atheism? Sightings

It is Good Friday, a day that for me has rich theological meaning.  Many Christians around the world will gather to remember the one whose death on a cross serves to reveal to the world the extent of God's love for that world.  Good Friday and Easter can be explored historically, but the ultimate meaning of these events must be understood through faith.  So, perhaps it's with a bit of irony that I would be sharing this essay about atheist Barbara Ehrenreich's recognition of the mystical.  In the essay we learn that one of the things that Ehrenreich lacks is vocabulary to express her experiences.  As a believer, I am thankful that I do have vocabulary, but I think we can learn something from her experiences -- there is more to reality than meets the eye!  

Activist Barbara Ehrenreich on "Living With a 'Wild' God"
Thursday | Apr 17 2014
                                                                                                            Screenshot: Phillips Academy / vimeo
Online, radio, and print news is abuzz about Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Living with a Wild God, with the paradoxical subtitle, A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. And, yes, this is the “fourth-generation atheist,” Barbara Ehrenreich, of leftist-labor and feminist-activism fame, whose award-winning journalistic investigations into social, economic, and political issues span decades.

Now in her early seventies, Ehrenreich discloses a narrative running parallel to her life and career since a young age, most significantly a personal experience at seventeen. On a predawn walk in Lone Pine, California, Ehrenreich recalls, she encountered “something alive” which she describes as nothing short of a “cataclysmic experience” when “the world flamed into life.”

No visual hallucination, no prophetic voices; rather, the world opened up and was “rushing out to” her. Ehrenreich writes: “Something poured into me and I poured out into it…. a furious encounter with a living substance.” Looking back on this moment, as recorded by her younger self, Ehrenreich reflects on the want of adequate language to describe what happened, personally, experientially, and as an atheist who continues to describe herself a rational empiricist (though, recently, also as a “mystical rationalist”).

Grasping for words outside of “ineffable,” “transcendence,” “spiritual,” or “religious,” Ehrenreich leans on the word “mystical” to carry her burden of meaning. The lack a vocabulary to express the varieties of the inexpressible leads Ehrenreich to her larger challenge to science: go forth boldly in the study of uncanny experiences.

This challenge also arises from the question Ehrenreich poses, as a young woman writing in her journal, to the woman she would become. “What have you figured out?” her younger self asks her future self. “What’s it all about?” And, the age-old question: “What is actually going on here?” Big questions “hurling across the decades from one’s younger self” pose quite a challenge, not to mention responsibility, reflects Ehrenreich.

The quest to answer these questions has taken her across decades of writing and research, through debate-strewn lands in which she has engaged psychiatric disorders, neuroscience, fiction and non-fiction writers, philosophers, and more.

From the psychologist and philosopher, William James, she draws some insight, especially on mysticism. From the theologian, Rudolph Otto, she draws support from his idea of the encounter with the Other as “beyond all question something quite other than the ‘good.’” Otto’s description of encounters as something like a “consuming fire,” with possible disturbing effects, resonates, says Ehrenreich, with her own experience.

She takes issue with narratives equating encounters with the Other as good, divine, or benevolent. Hers was more akin to what Otto calls mysterium tremendum et fascinans—at once, one trembles and is fascinated. She has sought out others’ stories of encounters, from saints to science fiction writers, such as Philip K. Dick, with an eye to charting these troubled waters of alternative experiences outside of ready understandings of “the religious” or “the spiritual.”

Equally critical, Ehrenreich tills familiar research-terrain in neuroscience and religion to uproot tendencies to reduce mind to brain. Surrendering one to the other imposes limits on vocabularies of subjective experience and curtails new studies of “the uncanny” or alternative forms of consciousness. Here she is not alone, for James and many others have also challenged this kind of medical materialism or reductionism and its implications for an interior life.

If Ehrenreich misses a thing or two in her argument it may be how experiences of the uncanny have set inquiries into motion and changed relations between religion, science and psychology throughout the ages. Witness: early twentieth-century scholars James or Otto, or, today, Anne Harrington.

Also, currently there are a growing number of experts who are reinvigorating not just the age-old questions Ehrenreich raises but age-old questions about the relationship between science and religion (and psychology).

Consider, for example, religious studies scholars (e.g., Rubenstein) interested in philosophy, theology and physics’ “persistent entanglements” often arising from multiple-worlds cosmologies, physicists (e.g., Lightman) pondering our significance and how we make psychological sense of living in an “accidental universe,” and social and political philosophers (e.g., Dupuy) contesting skewed relations between religion, science, and reason in which faith is set over and against reason.

Ehrenreich’s request for a bolder science and neuroscience is a worthy one. While her interests lean to a phenomenological side, her book suggests a call to cultural and social structures and to histories of science, psychology and religion for more, not less, cosmic wandering.


Mary Hynes. “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry.” CBC Radio, April 11, 2014, Tapestry.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. “A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment,” The New York Times, April 5, 2014.

Harrington, Anne. The Cure within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.

Rubenstein, Mary-Jane. Worlds without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (... inwhich are discussed pre-, early-, and postmodern multiple-worlds cosmologies: the sundry arguments for and against them: the striking peculiarities of their adherents and detractors; the shifting boundaries of science, philosophy, and religion; and the stubbornly persistent question of whether creation has been "designed"). New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Lightman, Alan. The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. New York: Pantheon Books, 2013.

Dupuy, Jean-Pierre. The Mark of the Sacred. Translated by M. DeBevoise. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2013.

Image Credit: screenshot of Phillips Academy / vimeo

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit:
Author, Betty M. Bayer, is Professor of Women's Studies at Hobart and William Smith College. Recent publications include "Enchantment in an age of occupy" (2012, Women's Studies Quarterly). She is working on a monograph: Revelation orRevolution? Cognitive Dissonance and Persistent Longing in an Age Psychological. Bayer is a 2013-14 Senior Fellow in the Marty Center.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.
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