Atheist Mysticism in NYT (Barbara Ehrenreich)


I’m always fascinated by the appearance of religion and Judaism in the secular medium of the New York Times. This week what caught my interest was a confessional piece by Barbara Ehrenreich. A committed atheist, part of the piece roots that atheism as part of a family tradition that goes back generations and has, in its telling, much to do with the refusal of institutionalized religion to accommodate life trauma. What she herself calls mystical experience is rooted in nature and in awe. It’s “not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.”

What an article like this suggests to me is the importance of retiring certain kinds of concepts and concept-language that have been used in the 20th c. to talk about these kinds of “experience.” There would be nothing sui generis about these kinds of moments. They are not “extra-ordinary,” not “supra-natural,” not “ineffable,” not “serendipitous.” Regardless of their source, they would, in fact, seem wired into human consciousness and embedded into the world. Their ordinary appearance is practically predictable, in this case, their appearance in the pages of the New York Times in this virtual age.

About the source of these kinds of things, Ehrenreich speculates about encountering “other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life” when, to use her language, our mental wires get crossed with the world. What I like about this kind of speculating is the way it can push (institutionalized) skepticism up to its own epistemological limit.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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9 Responses to Atheist Mysticism in NYT (Barbara Ehrenreich)

  1. donovanschaefer says:

    I liked her article and I really like your analysis here, but why does she come around to beings and “forms of consciousness” at the end? That baffles me. Interesting moment where it seems like the trace of religion shapes the patterns of interpretation of atheism.

    • zjb says:

      maybe BE is philosophically untutored, or maybe there’s no getting around consciousness. I’m putting my bets on the latter, despite knowing better.

      • efmooney says:

        How about Heschel’s ‘radical amazement’ as an attunement wide enough to be elaborated as a religious or mystical or aesthetic encounter, each of these modes of encounter having gradations of intensity, and filled out in various narratives-of-encounter, no single one of which is privileged as the sole or ultimate way of recording or witnessing the phenomena at issue?

  2. Gail says:

    It seems to me that she ends quite like Deleuze, with “a life,” but from her interview in the NYT magazine *last* sunday, I’d say that she frames the encounter as possibly consciousness because that’s how it felt: the phenomenology of encounter is the affect of address.

    • zjb says:

      yes! that’s how it feels, like the way Chalmers talks about qualia.

      • dmf says:

        once we start to untangle the bundled knots of as-if experiences all sorts of reifications start to get more like poetic-dwelling.

    • efmooney says:

      Yes, we’re addressed by the things of the world — a child’s smile, a tree’s uprightness, a storm cloud’s foreboding. And the address can be terrifying or gentle and everything in between. Jumping to speculation about ‘consciousness’ is to enter an unnecessary metaphysical box — a cage from which it’s hard to escape..

    • donovanschaefer says:

      Yes! Co-sign

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