When Eric Weiner is hospitalized and thinks he might be dying (of what turns out to be gas), a nurse asks him “Have you found your God yet?” Weiner, who, like me, grew up as a secular Jew, is hit with an epiphany. He hasn’t.
Upon regaining his health, Weiner, a former NPR correspondent, immerses himself in eight different faiths, a mere sampling of the 9,900 religions currently available. The eclectic pilgrimage results in “Man Seeks God” in which he hopes to get in touch with his dormant spiritual side, for as he says, “Good religion elevates us, makes us better people than we thought we were, than we thought possible.”
Weiner first embeds himself with Sufis, “the drunkards of Islam,” who teach him the concept of Zuhurat, which involves an unwavering belief in a friendly universe. Along the way, he deftly weaves in observations from such experts as Karen Armstrong and Carl Jung, the latter of whom believed that the reason modern man is less spiritually developed than his ancestors is overnutrition. That, according to Weiner, explains why fasting is so integral to so many religions. “It’s not easy finding God on a full stomach.”
Thankfully, he doesn’t neglect the less-popular faiths, which make for the most compelling sections. Weiner shows up at a “Shamanic Workshop” in Maryland, where he’s told to bring a drum, rattle, blindfold and a grapefruit-sized rock, and at a Raelian convention in Las Vegas. Unlike most people of faith, the 80,000 Raelians base their sect on the pursuit of pleasure, rather than its denial. Like Mormons, Raelians prohibit drugs, alcohol and coffee; unlike Mormons they enjoy orgies, going topless (“Free your breasts free your mind” is a common chant) and cross-dressing. Yes, cross-dressing. In the book’s funniest passage, Weiner describes being forced into a gender-switching workshop. “I choose a nice blue polka-dot number, a blond wig, some necklaces,” he says, “and, ambitiously, a size 34C bra.”
But it is his visit to a Wiccan named Jamie — who writes a blog called “Witchful Thinking” — that proves to be the most illuminating. Jamie is drawn to her religion because it allows her to choose which gods and goddesses to worship. “If a god isn’t working for you,” she says, “you can fire him or her.” Their sect may be on the fringe, but it has between 1 and 3 million followers, and, Weiner adroitly points out, they are recognized by our government. Wiccan service members killed in the line of duty can have their faith’s symbol, the pentagram, engraved on their tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery.
Well-researched, informative and engaging, “Man Seeks God” is packed with facts and wisdom that, regardless of which God you root for, will leave what a Buddhist friend of Weiner’s calls “Post-it Notes on the brain.” Weiner not only rectifies common misperceptions — turns out Buddhists actually see reincarnation as failure (“Another life means you didn’t get the last one right.”) — but also describes an occasional personal discovery. “I become aware of how my mind constantly judges,” he writes. “Nothing is neutral.”
Which explains how I feel about some of Weiner’s devices. Each chapter begins with an imaginary personal ad directed toward a particular God, and those ads go right up to the border of cheesy. (“CWM seeks forbidden deity. Looking for a crazy Love. Take me out for a spin, and let’s see where our hearts lead. Are you my hidden treasure?”) Weiner is at his best when he stops aiming for cleverness and tells a story. His attempts at humor (e.g., Jamies’s boyfriend “looks like he’s been there since the Clinton administration”) often fall flat and slow down the pace.
I wish that for every religious nugget he unveiled, Weiner had disclosed more about himself. What he does mention — a lot — is his chronic depression. He discloses a history of suicide attempts (both successful and unsuccessful) in his family, but never elaborates beyond that. And, with the exception of drinking, the author doesn’t seem to be exploring solutions for his despair. Had Weiner exposed more of himself, it would have made for a more complete work — and he’d truly have something to give thanks for to one of his newly discovered gods.
MAN SEEKS GOD
My Flirtations with the Divine
By Eric Weiner
Twelve. 349 pp. $26.99