Friday, October 5, 2012

Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine
Eric Weiner (2011, Twelve)

    Eric Weiner’s memoir of his search for the Divine is a particularly light-hearted example of the genre. His search, itself, is serious: he puts himself on the line, both in the distance he travels, and in the occasionally comic experiences that result. In the end, I think he succeeds, because he winds up asking the right questions. It helps that he begins by admitting that he needs to ask them: “We Confusionists throw our arms skyward and shout: We have absolutely no idea what our religious views are. We’re not even sure we have any, but we’re open to the unexpected, and believe--no, hope--there is more to life than meets the eye.” Surely, that’s a promising starting point.

    Raised as a ‘gastronomical Jew’, and by profession a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, Weiner is a rationalist. But there’s always the question, “...whether reason alone is sufficient for a happy, fulfilled life. Nobody, as far as I know, has ever reasoned herself to a state of pure bliss.” He’s also a compulsive reader, well versed in the spiritual masters, but always at a safe remove: “ some point I began to suspect that I was using these books, using concepts themselves, in order to avoid having an actual spiritual experience.”

    But as a middle-aged man with a young daughter, Weiner finds that the time is right to pursue the question in person. He chooses eight particular religious practices, across a broad spectrum, from Wicca to Catholicism; some ancient, some modern; honoring one God, many gods, or no gods at all. Unlike William James, whose Varieties of Religious Experience makes up a central piece of his research, he immerses himself: he whirls with the Sufi dervishes, cross-dresses with the Raëlians, and marches outside an abortion clinic with the Franciscan monks.

    Weiner discovers similar practices across the world, things like kneeling on the floor, going barefoot, and meditating by walking. He also discovers a series of remarkable guides and teachers, people as intense and questioning as himself, who have already stepped off a particular spiritual cliff. His guide to Tibetan Buddhism in Kathmandu, for instance, is a fellow called Wayne, who left the United States in 1975. “I wonder: Is Wayne the right teacher for me? He’s not exactly what I had in mind, guru-wise. I had envisioned a wizened lama with twinkly eyes who promised secret wisdom, not a ponytailed Jewish guy who speaks in riddles.” Just the right guru, in short, for Eric Weiner.

    Though his own head is a roil of neurosis and depression, in the manner of Woody Allen in his prime, Weiner knows wisdom when he sees it. Of a Taoist monk: “His is not a bookish wisdom, or even a wisdom centered in the mind at all. The Bee Hermit is wise the way a cat is wise when it effortlessly finds the most comfortable two square feet in a two-thousand-square-foot house.” He likes the Shamanistic practitioners who acknowledge “the beauty of inexactitude, the divinity of ‘more or less.’ ... A religion that demands precision of its adherents is not only a religion without mercy, but also one that is out of touch with reality.”

    After turning and turning, not surprisingly, Weiner ends up studying Judaism with new insights. Characteristically, he studies with two teachers at the same time, with two different approaches to the mysteries they point to. One is heady and abstruse, leaving Weiner baffled but impressed; the other serves tea and cookies. “All the while, she says things that are incredibly wise or blindingly obvious--or both, wisdom being nothing more than common sense in drag.” Weiner ends up with the common-sense wisdom that faith is not so much about what you believe, but what you experience, and what you do. He could do worse, and so could we.

E-mail edition, October 2012