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.