Living with a Wild God–Ehrenreich

LIVING WITH A WILD GOD: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything
by Barbara Ehrenreich, 2014

Having grown up to affirm the Christian faith I was introduced to as a child, I am naturally curious to hear others’ stories of coming to faith or of rejecting faith. I’m interested especially in how their childhood experiences have influenced their choices.

Intrigued by this book’s subtitle: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything, I’ve spent the last couple weeks trying to wrap my mind around Barbara Ehrenreich’s thought process.  Just as she has overlaid on her experiences an atheistic worldview inherited from her parents, so I have applied my own understanding of God and His ways to her experiences.

This author’s parents were staunch atheists holding to a strict scientific materialism—if the scientific method can’t prove it, then it’s not real.  Barbara herself from an early age was obsessed with the quest to know if this view was true.  She lived much of her young life as a solipsist, doubting the existence of anyone but herself and her own thoughts. This led her to the verge of mental illness and delusional experiences which she could not classify and feared to talk about lest she be institutionalized.  As a middle-aged adult Barbara returned to her adolescent journals to make sense of her experiences and to weave them into this tale of her journey toward a confident atheism of her own choosing. The book is at once her memoir and her interpretation of the history of religion. It is an abrasive read because of the author’s conceit in presuming to judge God and find Him wanting to the extent that she denies His existence and relevance to morality.  But it is also eye-opening and challenging as a study in how truth is to be ascertained and what prevents a seeker from finding it.

My reactions to this book have been multiple.

  • sadness over seeing a child not loved well, not listened to, and not directed to truth
  • disappointment in seeing the hardness of heart that attended her God-given opportunities (as I see them) to know the Truth and be set free from her mental turmoil. Among these were acquaintances with believers and attendance at church camp.
  • wonder at the descent of an obviously very intelligent thinking person into folly, resulting in rash unfounded statements about the obvious impotence of God and the antiquated concept of monotheism
  • confirmation that human judgment and rationale is not an effective means of determining truth
  • conviction that apart from God’s mercy the veil of unbelief is impossible to remove “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” II Cor.4:4 ESV
  • gratitude for being given the opportunity to know and believe on Jesus and so be reconciled to God the Father and given life through His Son. To know truth is an awesome privilege God extends to all in His revealed Word.  How thankful I am to have been introduced to it while young.
  • prayerful compassion for the author and her children that they will yet see the glory of the Gospel as proffered by the One True God, their Creator and the Lover of their souls

Following are some quotes I extracted to mull over. In the process of copying them Scripture verses came to mind to rebut their claims.  These are interspersed without commentary for the most part. I  leave it to you to connect the dots with discernment.  By quoting from this book I in no way wish to endorse its opinions; but I found this an excellent exercise in thinking critically about what is true and what is assumed to be so but is in actuality false.

There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way that leads to death.

Would religion have saved me, if I had one or could have adopted one?…This was the function of religion, in fact–to serve as a safe storage space for the unaccountable and uncanny [the mystical experience].

In fact the whole world would be a far better place if everyone subscribed to a belief in a good, just uber-being, who punishes malefactors and rewards the pure of heart.  Best of all, of course, would be a universe that is actually ruled by such a being, where even cruel or inexplicable things all happen “for a reason.”  But I doubt if such a universe–one run by a good and kindly god–would bear much resemblance to the one we have, this scene of constant carnage, where black holes crouch in the center of galaxies and feed on stars and planets, where…babies die ever day. p.137

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. – 2Pe 3:9 ESV

And what was so special about Plato?…As far as I could tell, he was the inventor of the idea of the one perfect God–omnipotent, all-knowing, and all good–whom I had also encountered in Saint Augustine.  If there was one thing I understood about God, it was that he was not good, and if he was good, he was too powerless to deserve our attention. In fact, the idea of a God who is both all-powerful and all good is a logical impossibility–possibly a trap set by ancient polytheists to ensnare weak-minded monotheists like Philo and Augustine, and certainly not worth my time. p143

Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age?  Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. -I Cor.1:20,21 HCSB

How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? – Psa 74:10 ESV

 As a child I had learned many things from my mother…I had learned that love and its expressions are entirely optional, even between a mother and child. No deep mammalian genetic script compels a mother to take a little girl’s proffered hand when they step out onto the street…My upbringing may have been harsh, but it was also instructive. The idea of a cosmic loving-kindness perfusing the universe is a serious, even potentially dangerous error, and I can thank my mother, however ruefully, for having made that clear long before it was my turn to brush her off. p.173

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, And not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you. – Isa 49:15 NKJV

Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. – 1Jo 4:8 ESV

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Rom 5:8 NKJV

 In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. – 1Jo 4:9 NKJV

This is the story of a quest, a childish one, since surely as a grown-up I have not gone around asking, “Why do we die and what is the purpose of life?” But the quest did not end with the onset of “maturity,” and nor did its uncanny psychic traces.  Short episodes of dissociation kept recurring… p.196

“The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have [it] more abundantly. – Jhn 10:10 NKJV

It was despair that pulled me back, as a mature adult, to the ancient, childish quest… What is actually going on here?

Or maybe depression in its demon form awoke me to the long-buried possibility that there exist other beings, agents, forces than those that are visible and agreed upon…But when I did try to return to the old questions, very furtively of course, despair and a kind of shame followed me and blocked the way.  The impasse was this: If I let myself speculate even tentatively about that something, if I acknowledged the possibility of a nonhuman agent or agents, some mysterious Other, intervening in my life, could I still call myself an atheist?…This was my parents’ legacy, and a deeper part of my identity than incidentals like nationality or even class. p.203

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, – Rom 1:21-22 ESV

When the subject came up,…I told my children that there is no God, no good and loving God anyway, which is why we humans have to do our best to help and care for each other.  Morality, as far as I could see, originates in atheism and the realization that no higher power is coming along to feed the hungry or lift the fallen.  Mercy is left entirely to us. p.203

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” – Exo 34:6-7 ESV

 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. – Mar 9:42 ESV

When I read the book of Matthew closely in my forties I was startled by the mad generosity Jesus recommends:…but then the Bible drones on and Jesus fades away to be replaced by “the risen Christ” holding out the promise of immortal life, the message takes on a nasty, selfish edge.  How can you smugly accept your seat in heaven when others, including probably some of the ones you love, are confined to eternal torment?  The only “Christian” thing to do is to give up your promised spot in heaven to some poor sinner and take his place in hell. Far easier, it seemed to me, to profess atheism and accept the moral obligations a Godless world entails.  p.204

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – Jhn 8:31-32 ESV

 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. – Jhn 3:17-18 ESV

The whole project of science, as I had first understood it way back in high school, is to crush any notion of powerful nonhuman Others, to establish that there are no conscious, subjective beings other than ourselves–no spirits, demons, or gods.  An individual scientist may practice her ancestral religion with an apparently clear conscience, but once at work, her job is to track down and strangle any notion of nonhuman or superhuman “agents”–that being the general term for beings that can move or initiate action on their own. p.205

“Many people do not realize that science was actually developed in Christian Europe by men who assumed that God created an orderly universe. If the universe is a product of random chance or a group of gods that interfere in the universe, there is really no reason to expect order in nature. 

Science has no agenda. It is a methodology, not a person, so it cannot have any agenda or purpose whatsoever. Science does not seek the truth. Scientists and researchers use the methods of science to try to disprove a hypothesis and thereby reveal more about the world around us.

While science has no agenda, scientists do! Many people perceive scientists as unbiased pursuers of the truth. But each scientist approaches the evidence with a preconceived set of beliefs. And they interpret the evidence through that lens, which, for many scientists, is molecules-to-man evolution and billions of years of history.”

–Answers in Genesis

I realized that the theism I rejected was actually only monothesim, or the particular version of it represented by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, in which the “one God” or “one true God” is not only singular but perfect–both omnipotent and perfectly good and loving. In the Freudian framework, the God of monotheism is a projection based on the child’s perception of reliably nurturing and powerful parents.  I had no such template to build on , which may account for the scorn, expressed early in my journal, for a “parental God.”

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. – Psa 103:13 ESV

Watch out, brothers, so that there won’t be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart that departs from the living God.  But encourage each other daily, while it is still called ‘today’, so that none of your is hardened by sin’s deception. -Heb.3:12,13 HCSB

…the rise of monotheism…(is not an) advance in human civilization (but) a process of deicide, a relentless culling of the gods and spirits until almost no one is left…Monotheism is the final abstraction, leaving humankind alone in the universe with the remote and perfect “one true God.” Nonhuman animals came to be seen as “dumb” or even evil beasts, best worked to death or consumed as meat.  Thus did monotheism pave the way for Descartes and the dead world of Newton’s physics.  p.215

[Is it not uncanny, even ironic, (or could we say demonic?) the way morality is attributed to atheism while Descartes’ doubt is attributed to monotheism?! Something is fishy here.–LS]

[Cartesian doubt is a systematic process of being skeptical about (or doubting) the truth of one’s beliefs, which has become a characteristic method in philosophy. Additionally, Descartes’ method has been seen by many as the root of the modern scientific method. This method of doubt was largely popularized in Western philosophy by René Descartes, who sought to doubt the truth of all his beliefs in order to determine which beliefs he could be certain were true. It is the basis for Descartes’ statement, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”)–Internet]

For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith. – 1Jo 5:4 NKJV

She (the great-grandmother) understood that the great, unforgivable crime of the monotheistic religions has been to encourage the conflation of  authority and benevolence, of hierarchy and justice….p.214

But God is my King from long ago; he brings salvation on the earth. … Remember how the enemy has mocked you, LORD, how foolish people have reviled your name. – Psa 74:12, 18 NIV

 …all of the great Christian mystics showed clear signs of temporal lobe epilepsy; indigenous people possessed by spirits are succumbing to “regressive id drives.”. A recent paper from Harvard Medical School proposes that the revelations experienced by Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Paul can all be attributed to “primary or mood disorder-associated psychotic disorders.” p.217

[nothing new here, remember how Paul was treated in his day? –LS]

At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. – Act 26:24-25 NIV

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares [us], and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of [our] faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. – Heb 12:1-2 NKJV

I was not afraid of dying, because it was obvious that the Other, the Presence, whose face I could almost begin to make out in the foam, would continue just fine without me. p.222

(This was the author’s response after ‘fighting for her life’ against a sudden storm while kayaking alone.  It seems a disingenuous admission.) 

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. – Heb 2:14-15 NKJV

So, according to the cognitive scientists, our brains are afflicted with a “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device,” predisposing us to imagine gods, faces in clouds, divine beings in rocks. This has become, in just the last decade or so, the killer argument against religion, as if we needed another one: that it is an odd relic of our evolutionary history as prey, this tendency to imagine “agents” where there are none. p.222

The fool has said in his heart, “[There is] no God.” They are corrupt, They have done abominable works, There is none who does good. – Psa 14:1 NKJV

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown [it] to them. – Rom 1:18-19 NKJV

Rudolf Otto surveyed the works of (mostly Christian) mystics for clues as to the nature of the mysterium tremendum…the “Wholly Other,” and concluded that it was ‘beyond all question something quite other than the ‘good.’ It was more like a “consuming fire,”…and “must be gravely disturbing to those persons who will recognize nothing in the divine nature but goodness, gentleness, love, and a sort of confidential intimacy.” p.226

 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear [the guilty]; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth [generation]. – Exo 34:6-7 KJV

For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God. … (For the LORD thy God is a merciful God;) he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee…Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live? … Unto thee it was shewed, that thou mightest know that the LORD he is God; there is none else beside him. Out of heaven he made thee to hear his voice, that he might instruct thee: and upon earth he shewed thee his great fire; and thou heardest his words out of the midst of the fire. And because he loved thy fathers, therefore he chose their seed after them, and brought thee out in his sight with his mighty power out of Egypt; – Deu 4:24, 31, 33, 35-37 KJV

[C.S. Lewis in his fantasy, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe indirectly reconciles these seemingly contradictory traits which are both descriptive of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah]:

“Aslan is a lion— the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

This of course poses a nearly insoluble problem: Mysticism often reveals a wild, amoral Other, while religion insists on conventional codes of ethics enforced by an ethical supernatural being. The obvious solution would be to admit that ethical systems are a human invention and that the Other is something else entirely. p.226

The heart [is] deceitful above all [things], and desperately wicked: who can know it? – Jer 17:9 KJV

 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. – Rom 3:10-12 KJV

 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. – Rom 2:7, 14-16 ESV

 If the Other as perceived by mystics is not benevolent, neither is it necessarily malevolent; in fact both descriptions are flagrantly anthropocentric.  Why should it be “for” us or “against” us anymore than the God of monotheism should favor the antelope over the lion?  p.227

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? – Rom 8:31-32 ESV

Do I believe that there exist invisible beings capable of making mental contact with us to produce what humans call mystical experiences: No, I believe nothing.  Belief is intellectual surrender; “faith” a state of willed self-delusion….But experience–empirical experience–requires me to keep an open mind. And human solidarity, which is the only reason for writing a book,[?] requires that I call on others to do so also. p232

But without faith [it is] impossible to please [him]: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and [that] he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. – Heb 11:6 KJV

…but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. – Jhn 20:31 ESV

As for the emergence of matter out of nothing, which tormented me so much as a child, we are coming to see that there is no Nothing. Even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and constantly giving birth to bits of Something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. p.233

…knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, – 2Pe 3:3-5 ESV

re: her lifelong quest to know the truth

I learned this much…an atheist admits only at some risk to her public integrity: You first have to revise the question.  To ask why is to ask for a motive or a purpose, and a motive has to arise from an apparatus capable of framing an intention, which is what we normally call a mind.  Thus the question why is always really the question who.

Since we have long since outgrown the easy answer–God–along with theism of any kind, we have to look for our who within what actually exists.  No one is saying that the universe, as an entity, is alive, and certainly not that it has motives or desires. But the closer and more carefully we probe, the more it seethes with what looks like life…there are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world, writing and reaching, pulling matter ad energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness.  Sometimes, out of all this static and confusion, the Other assembles itself and takes form before our very eyes. p.236

‘Now see that I, even I, am He, And there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; Nor is there any who can deliver from My hand. – Deu 32:39 NKJV

In him was life; and the life was the light of men. – Jhn 1:4 KJV

re: a transcendent moment in the mundane

But this is what appears to be the purpose of my mind, and no doubt yours as well, its designated function beyond all the  mundane calculations: to condense all the chaos and mystery of the world into a palpable Other or Others, not necessarily because we love it, and certainly not out of any intention to “worship” it.  But because ultimately we may have no choice in this matter.  I have the impression, growing out of the experiences chronicled here, that it may be seeking us out. p.237

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, – Rom 1:19-22 ESV

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, … And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, – Act 17:24, 26-30 ESV

If you have waded through this slough of unbelief with me you are ready for the refreshing grand finale–the way the True Story ends, regardless of scoffing and unbelief.  Truth will prevail. God’s righteous judgments will win out. Jesus will reign. And His kingdom will never be destroyed!  Read and savor this reality!

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

 And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’ – Dan 7:13-14, 27 ESV

 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Phl 2:9-11 ESV


He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming quickly.” Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!
– Rev 22:20 NKJV

P.S. If perchance you are reading here and have not yet made acquaintance with this Jesus, know that though God’s judgment is sure, Jesus has offered to bear it on your behalf.  May you find life in His Name!

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. – Jhn 3:17-18 ESV

Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
Rom.2:4 HCSB

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