Living With A Wild God is a 2014 book by Barbara Ehrenreich, which I recently read for a book group. The author wrote Nickel and Dimed, a book about her experience working for a three-month period as a minimum wage worker, an insightful book about the new working class, which I enjoyed immensely. This book, however, is very different. It is the story of her struggle to make sense out of the world (her “quest for truth”), having grown up in a somewhat dysfunctional, working class household with two avowed atheists for parents. The subtitle on the cover of the book is “ A non-believers search for the truth about everything.”
What I find most engaging about the book is despite describing herself as an atheist, what Ehrenreich describes is her lack of belief in a certain type of god–a rigid, monotheistic god. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, made the comment at a recent gathering at our neighborhood Episcopal church that when someone says he or she is an atheist, she often asks, “Now tell me the characteristics of this god you do not believe in.” She often answers that she does not believe in that god either.
Now while Ehrenreich’s concept of “The Other” or “The Presence” would probably not fit nicely into an Episcopal bishop’s understanding of God, it comes dangerously close to mine. She acknowledges a Divine “Presence” in all of life and the validity of mystical experiences. These experiences–like the one she had at age 17 in a Death Valley town called Lone Pine– cannot be explained by science but are nonetheless real. She also believes humans are not fundamentally different from other animals but rather only higher up on the food chain and that the presence of “The Other” is throughout all of creation. If this sounds a lot like animism, I suppose it is. I have always described myself unapologetically as a closet animist.
Most people today are aware that the mainstream Christian Church in the U.S. and most developed countries is in decline. I think that one reason for this is the association of the Christian Church with the kind of rigid description of God that Ehrenreich rejects. We Christians should enlarge the tent and broaden our understanding of the Divine Presence in our lives. Rigid, strict “orthodoxy” is a turnoff for many GenXers and Millennials and for a lot of people who like Ehrenreich are on their own spiritual journey. Most humans ask these questions: Why are we here? Why do we die? What is this all about? Simplistic, pat answers may satisfy some people, but they are fewer and fewer in our secular age.
Now I have been an active church-person almost all my life. I am an Episcopalian, and the Episcopal Church is very progressive in a lot of ways. It has led the way on issues of inclusiveness and sexuality and is generally pretty good on social justice issues. But we still have to say the Nicene or Apostles Creed at every service. These ancient creeds describe the type of God that makes no sense to Ehrenreich or, for that matter, to me. Here are some of my questions:
[We believe in] God the Father: Is God really a human-like deity? Why a “he” and not a “she”? Does God really have two hands, two feet and male organs? Ok, maybe we should not take this literally, but if that is the case, why is this language in there?
Jesus his “only son.”Now I know that for some this is the absolute essence of Christianity. But if God is not really a “he” but, like Ehrenreich says, more a Divine Presence, how can a “Divine Presence” or “Other” have a son? Even if God is a he, how exactly does this fatherhood thing work? I mean he is up there and Mary was down here, right? But where exactly might “up there” be? And what about Joseph? The Gospel of Mathew traces Jesus’s linage through Joseph, not Mary, all the way back to Abraham. That would imply that Joseph was the father. And how come Jesus is God’s only son? There are a lot of planets in the universe, probably well into the trillions. Isn’t it possible that there might be another son somewhere else? Keep in mind, we say in the creed that God is the maker of “heaven and earth and all that is seen and unseen.”
Jesus came down from heaven. So if he came down here from up there, what was he doing up there before he came down here? And why did he come down here to save us? I know, you really aren’t supposed to take this literally and that this idea is the cornerstone of Paul’s theology, but still…
Jesus descended into hell. (Apostle’s Creed) Why did he do that and where exactly might hell be? Is it below the Earth’s surface? How far down? What was he doing there for three days?
Ascended Into Heaven.I suppose what comes down goes back up, but you get the picture.
[Jesus is now] seated at the right hand of God. Back to his god-man thing. Why would God have hands and why the right hand? And why are God and Jesus just sitting there and not doing anything?
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. So what about judging all these dead people? I thought that Christians believed that when you die you go to heaven or to hell and do not have to wait around until Jesus comes back. Some or maybe all of these dead people have been waiting around over 2,100 years for his return.
We look to the resurrection of the dead (“body” in the Apostles Creed). Does this imply we are stuck with the bodies we die with for eternity? Given a choice between living in eternity as a 25-year old versus an eternity as a 90-year old, wouldn’t most people choose the former?
I can hear some of my Union Seminary classmates groaning along with a lot of others who are devout Christians. Doesn’t this guy get it? Doesn’t he understand? This language is symbolic. It is not supposed to be taken literally.
Well, maybe not, but the challenge is that even if the language is not taken literally, it still represents an effort of humans to describe in human language what is beyond description and beyond human understanding. Short answer: much of the creed that Episcopalians are supposed to say at every service just does not make sense. At least it does not make sense to me though it is perfectly ok to conclude that this is just another nail in the coffin that proves I wasted four years of my life going to seminary. In any event, I don’t say the creed anymore myself.
The God that is meticulously described in the two major creeds of the Christian Church is what Ehrenreich has rebelled against and a lot of other, self identified “atheists” are rebelling against. I am not an atheist, but I have to agree with her that rigid monotheism is a turnoff for many. It should not have to be this way. God by definition is too vast and mysterious for us humans to fully understand or keep in a box constructed by us. If truly “believing” the Nicene Creed is the only ticket to being Christian, it represents a pretty high bar. Good luck on turning around the decline of mainstream Christianity.
Living With A Wild God if nothing else raises a lot of questions. It is honest—brutally honest at times—and, like most of what Ehrenreich has written, insightful. It surely gets you thinking. It also suggests that we who have stuck with the church–albeit painfully at times–should pay attention.