The spiritual journey, in fiction and nonfiction, is a tried-and-true theme because religious community and spiritual experience play a large role in the lives of so many, and have for millennia. The latest author to explore this realm is Eric Weiner, whose memoir MAN SEEKS GOD is about looking for the sacred.
"It is not so much the various religions and religious practices examined that make MAN SEEKS GOD compelling, but the people Weiner encounters and spends time with as he travels around the world in search of something to fill the proverbial 'God shaped hole.'"
While in the hospital for mysterious severe abdominal pain, a nurse ominously asked him, “Have you found your God yet?” The answer was no. Rattled by the possibility of illness (it turns out he was just fine) and spooked by the question, Weiner sets out to discover a deity, or a religion in which he can find meaning and comfort. Raised a secular “gastronomical” Jew but with no emotional ties to Judaism, and wary of the term “agnostic,” the world of religion was wide open to the self-proclaimed “Confusionist.”
A former NPR correspondent, Weiner was comfortable traveling the world to get information and perspective, and so that is what he did. Guided by the work and biography of philosopher and psychologist William James, author of the seminal THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, Weiner takes an experiential approach to finding God. But, ever the bibliophile, his search is informed by additional thinkers and theologians such as Ghandi, Aldous Huxley, Rumi, Lao Tzu, Rilke, Paul Tillich, Isaac Luria, and many more.
Weiner begins with Islamic mysticism, Sufism. From California to Istanbul to Konya, he ponders Sufi thought and tries to spin like the Whirling Dervishes. And while he finds beauty in the practice, Islam is not for him. He next goes to Kathmandu in search of the wisdom of Buddhist meditation, studying with a guy named Wayne and circumambulating a stupa. While he appreciates the Buddhist emphasis on compassion, he finds the religion “cold, almost clinical.” And so on to a stay with some Franciscan monks in the Bronx. Chinese Taoism is one leg of the journey, and Neo-Pagan Wicca is another. There is a brief interlude with Shamanism and time at a gathering of Raëlians in Las Vegas. The Raëlians, in case you don't know, are a hedonistic UFO-based religion. Finally, Weiner finds himself in Israel learning about Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.
MAN SEEKS GOD is interesting, but not because it illuminates religious ideas or rituals. In fact, the experiences Weiner seeks out are often mystical or in some way deviant from the mainstream. Without the context of the larger tradition that, say, Sufism is part of, the experiences are jarring. To dive headlong into Buddhist meditation is difficult enough, but to do so in order to find a spiritual home without substantial Buddhist study and context is daunting, to say the least. The enterprise of finding a religion in this way seems doomed, especially coupled with the depression Weiner suffers throughout the process. Yet the process is compelling, and Weiner, the true subject of the book, is fascinating. He is at once charming and naive, profound and whiny, funny and annoying.
In the end, no major spiritual truths are uncovered, except that maybe all religions have their amazing ideas and their silly ones. Weiner finds a renewed interest in his own Jewish heritage after gaining some interesting insights into other faiths. It is not so much the various religions and religious practices examined that make MAN SEEKS GOD compelling, but the people Weiner encounters and spends time with as he travels around the world in search of something to fill the proverbial “God shaped hole.” Still, the most intriguing insights are the ones he discovers about himself in this honest and neurotic, generally entertaining book.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 2, 2011