Cross-dressing for God
An agnostic's quest yields a book both funny and wise
Published: March 14, 2012
Man Seeks God:
My Flirtations With the Divine
Twelve Publishers, $26, 368 pp.
Eric Weiner has spent much of his life striving for objectivity. The former correspondent for NPR and The New York Times has reported from more than 30 countries, on everything from the tobacco industry to the bubonic plague. But in recent years, Weiner's work has taken on a more subjective tone. His bestselling 2008 book The Geography of Bliss took readers on a journey to the world's most contented places. His new book, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations With the Divine, is, as the title would indicate, more personal still. In it, the author — a "spiritual voyeur," "gastronomic Jew" and agnostic by default — sets out to find himself a religion.
Weiner's odyssey is prompted by a disconcerting encounter with an emergency room nurse who asks him if he's found "[his] God." He decides he must, and begins by investigating Islam, or at least an offshoot of it: a hippy-dippy Sufi camp in Northern California. From there we head to Nepal for an immersion in Buddhism, to the Bronx to hang out with the Franciscans, to Las Vegas to commune with the Raëlians, to China to study with Taoists, to the rural Northwest to learn from the Wiccans, to suburban Maryland to experience shamanism (who knew?), and to Israel to become acquainted with the Kabbalah. While Weiner's predilection for the mystical, sometimes fringe corners of the religious world and his continual dissection of his own depression can be wearing, his candid, self-deprecating approach ultimately makes the book a disarmingly funny, illuminating read.
Weiner's chief struggle in approaching his task is one many secular types who yearn to be spiritual will likely relate to: He's cynical. His "disbelief refuses to suspend itself," and he finds himself stifling jokes at every turn, reminding himself that "smart-assness is an impediment to spiritual growth." Indeed, one suspects that he chose at least one of his target religions so he could poke fun at it. He spends one chapter with the Raëlians, a group of "libidinous UFO junkies" who believe humanity was created by aliens who built us, plain and simple, for pleasure. Fellow participants have a tendency toward unsolicited physical affection, and part of his immersion involves participation in a "cross-gender mixer," in which he's called upon to dress as a woman.
But Weiner manages to learn from this experience, as well as those that turn out to be more profound. He concludes that Raëlism is not for him, in part because "good religion" requires sacrifice. And you have to hand it to the guy — he really does put himself out there. Despite his crippling (often hilarious) sarcastic streak, he submits to any number of embarrassing practices and some that run counter to his sense of who he is: He attends a protest at an abortion clinic; he materializes his "power animal" — a bespectacled groundhog with a clipboard in one paw; he undergoes grueling meditation practices; he humbly seeks wisdom from spiritual gurus ranging from "Wayne of Staten Island" to a toothless Chinese cave-dweller known as the Bee Hermit. Once he chants "yabba-dabba doo" for 30 minutes to see if the verbal content of a mantra actually matters. (It does, he decides.)
From the title on down, there is something painfully American about Man Seeks God, starting with its consumerist approach to religion. But, and this makes all the difference, Weiner does not pretend otherwise. He undercuts most any criticism one might have of his approach by admitting the problem, discussing it, and moving on. Near the end, for example, he faces the question of whether he has acted as a "skeptical universalist" or a "spiritual dilettante" and decides on the latter. Nor is he as much a relativist as the premise of the book might indicate. He devotes much of the introduction to grappling with whether religion is necessary at all — summoning, inevitably, the ghost of Christopher Hitchens — as well as with the politically correct notion that all religions are equally valid. (He finds the idea ridiculous.)
And Man Seeks God regularly dispenses tidbits of wisdom, some Weiner's own, some those of William James or Rainer Maria Rilke or one of the spiritual teachers Weiner encounters in his travels. (One vivid metaphor comes by way of Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi. He asks, "Would you carry your luggage on your head while on board a train?" We tend to carry unnecessary burdens in life, the story implies, while we alone do not bear the load.) Man Seeks God is simply a subjective account of one man's idiosyncratic quest for spiritual fulfillment. But Weiner's is a vulnerable, heartfelt story, one likely to give others license to make their own fumbling, flawed inquiries.
It's not easy being Raëlian, the man formerly known as Claude says. People make fun of you. They laugh. "What? You believe in UFOs?" he says, doing a passable Bubba accent. "We need to escape the zoo," says Raël, the zoo being Out There. "When you come here you may be contaminated. Even the best Raëlians, we are contaminated. We need to be together in order to escape the zoo." Thus began a theme that would repeat itself throughout the week: Out There is the problem. If you are troubled, maybe addicted to drugs, the fault lies not with you but with your "programming," as Raël calls it. His use of that word is no accident. The Raëlians speak the language of science, albeit a garbled dialect, as I would discover.
Raël mentions the Buddha, one of his half brothers along with Jesus and Muhammad. "The teachings of Buddha were the best," says Raël. "Almost perfect but not quite." Another theme: Others have almost grasped the truth, almost but not quite. Raël is not only the Last Prophet but the best.
—From Man Seeks God by Eric Weiner
Andrea Appleton is a senior editor at City Paper in Baltimore. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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