Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Eric Weiner's "Man Seeks God": Book Review

"Confusionist,” reasons agnostic fellow traveler Eric Weiner, defines his "spiritual-but-not-religious" outlook. As a "gastronomical Jew" but not raised with any belief, this skeptical, neurotic journalist begins his global exploration by recounting a nurse's whisper to him as he lay on an operating table: "Have you found your God yet?" This inspires his search among eight "varieties of religious experience," as he credits William James’s pioneering study. He starts, as do many seekers, by going to California.

However, Mr. Weiner does not last long on the Mendocino coast at a Sufi camp. Falling down a "New Age rabbit hole," he laments that the establishment's more "camp than Sufi." As a National Public Radio correspondent, he had witnessed the darker side of Islam, and he wishes now to find the meaning of that word's core, "submission," in its more mystical manifestation. He departs for Istanbul, visits sites connected with the medieval visionary poet Rumi, and finds that surrender to Sufi's spell, as shown in the famous whirling dervishes, comes closer to the power of love than of capitulation to a cold creed.

His trek into Buddhist wisdom leads along a well-worn path, to Kathmandu. His guide, a Virginia-born investment banker who left Malibu to model in Asia before finding his fulfillment as a student of Buddhism, leads him first to ponytailed ex-pat Wayne from Staten Island, a fellow "middle-aged Jewish guy" in a baseball cap. From Wayne, Mr. Weiner learns to meditate, and not to do it as he does it. The process of self-examination as the way to liberation feels as if biting his own teeth, endlessly self-referential, but he perseveres a bit. He finally has a brief audience with a Tibetan guru. "Meeting a revered lama is like having sex with a woman you've fantasized about for a long time." That is, anticipation leads to anxiety, bewilderment and disappointment.

His breakthrough comes not with the guru, nor with an attempt to learn about the often-sensationalized Tantric approach. (That works less effectively for him than a visit to a massage parlor.) Wayne goads Mr. Wiener towards what gives him "pause." Between the moments, choices are made to attach or let go, and effects happen for better or worse. Buddhism elongates awareness of these moments, and allows practitioners to choose how to act and react to such endless situations daily.

Many Buddhists and a few Catholics praise fewer possessions as a way to increase spiritual maturity. With the grey-clad Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the South Bronx, Mr. Weiner learns of their "radical dependency" on a life committed to poverty. Unlike most Franciscans today, these friars have returned to a rejection of most possessions, truer to the intent of their founding saint. They manage in their gang-plagued neighborhood to act as both "savvy and naive".  Accompanying Father Louis, who gave up a successful career in Manhattan, and Brother Crispin, Mr. Weiner witnesses their challenges, as they strive to detach themselves from their duty towards good works, doing tedious tasks to serve the poor, without congratulating themselves for doing so. 

As one friar confides: "You find yourself trying to love somebody who doesn't want to be loved." Mr. Weiner receives advice for his own skittish need to underline books, to analyze what he finds: "When in doubt, give thanks." Rarely thanked, these diligent if weary friars persevere.

Indulgences are discouraged for Franciscans, but encouraged by Raëlians. This, "the largest UFO-based" and IRS-registered as tax-exempt religion, glories in bonding, and hands out condoms. Founded by "a second-rate French journalist” who, for Mr. Weiner, espouses motivational-seminar speak as if "Tony Robbins in a space suit", Raëlism invites or expects less respect than the previous religions. One chant surrounds him at an enthusiastic meeting: "free your breasts free your mind."

To his credit, Mr. Weiner lets his prejudices ebb even as he keeps his critical acumen flowing. Talking to a convert, John, in a "gender-switching workshop," Mr. Weiner shares the appeal for many educated and scientific types of a religion based on a modern myth. He deftly connects strands of Raëlism with Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim predecessors, even if he cannot commend, finally, its lack of rigor or lowered expectations, where easy pleasure dominates as its "theme-park" message.

Next, the search brings him towards not a myth but the ancient homeland of a five-thousand word "short ode to conciseness," the Tao te Ching. Traveling to China's Wudang Mountain (gifted with an mist generator after "The Karate Kid" was filmed there), Mr. Wiener learns from a fellow American on tour, Sandie, how smoking and drinking are fine as pleasures as long as one is "in the moment." Taoism may share something of offbeat Raëlism as well as affinities with Buddhism, and Taoism looks to this world and this body as the gateways to truth. They "shape their God-shaped hole with a hole-shaped God." Their elusiveness--that which can be defined as the Way, the Tao, is not the Way," as the Tao te Ching opens--intrigues him. Sandie goes with the flow, literally, at the heart of the Tao. Whereas most religious folks, Mr. Weiner supposed, care more, Sandie as a Taoist tells him she grows to care less.

Taoism lacks a center, however. What if a religion had not one doctrinal approach, one god, but hundreds? What if it allowed choice, and inspired invention of new gods and goddesses? Wicca, as Mr. Weiner finds in Index, Washington, offers Jamie the witch this chance to guide herself by an ethical system open to possibility. Magic can be channeled for good, and what is conjured up as if invented then takes on a real power for those willing to guide its forces towards healing and renewal.

Mr. Weiner imagines the passion and intensity of Wiccan ritual to echo that of the now-faded ceremonies at the start of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Freed of sin, compelling its makers to use the forces for goodness and not harm, Wicca's ethical component resonates with Mr. Weiner. 

Its demands for moral accountability gain careful explanation. He tells of this often caricatured religion's attempts to direct natural forces to generate righteous behavior and careful choices. Yet, as with other religions he has encountered, it fails to appease his own darker side, his melancholy. Figuring that paganism's "lowercase gods" would have little time for him, he turns towards perhaps the ancient ancestor of witchcraft, and religions that have evolved slowly since, that of shamanism.

Shamans, after all, were primitive psychiatrists. Today, Dana, a former executive in Beltsville, Maryland, hosts a drum-led circle: "now materialize your power animal." Participants fantasize and let go of their worries. guided into realms of the spirits. While all this pleases the "smart-ass" Mr. Weiner more than he may have expected, he cannot shake the mental image of one dream weaver's companion, Sasha the Poodle, whose eyes lock into his as they both wonder what those humans are up to.

Finally, he faces his ancestral Judaism. Dreading the meeting, he goes off to Tzfat (Safed) on the Sea of Galilee, settled by Kabbalists expelled by the Spanish Inquisition. This settlement, orthodox yet open to Jewish misfits, endures as a spiritual center. What makes a place such, Mr. Weiner wonders, may elude explanation: is it the place that imbues its residents with an aura, or do holy people wind up in such a hallowed place? 

This thoughtful section of his tale takes him deep into difficulty. His psychological unease grows. He finds that one can convert to one's "own" faith, but the memory of his brother who embraced Orthodoxy creates more rather than less tension. 

In Israel, Mr. Weiner faces the Jewish reverberations of a faith dimly known but evaded and avoided for a lifetime. His Jewish soul, his "nefesh," a variety of patient teachers show him, reveals itself by patience, and by "kavanah," intention, within such a soul. Shabbat in Tzfat, when time appears to halt, opens up the promise of living within space devoted to peace, worship, and community. Here, he glimpses the potential of the oldest of all the organized religions which he has participated in during his quest.

The wise observer of the hopes for religious harmony in Israel, writer Yossi Klein Halevi, tells Mr. Weiner that the Jews need him. Those who turn him off, by rules and rituals, will choke the life out unless Mr. Weiner brings what he has learned from Kabbalah--that such teachings open up life by its eternal forces. Mr. Weiner cannot agree with Yossi; he insists that he remains temperamentally a seeker who must wander. He convinces himself as he leaves Israel that he is not a dilettante, but a universalist. He argues with himself, and sometimes others, how his orientation transcends any denomination or affiliation. 

In conclusion, Mr. Weiner remains faithful to his convictions. This narrative moves smoothly between erudite quotes from James, Jung, Heschel, Chesterton, and Durkheim. (It also recalls strongly here and there a recent work, J.C. Hallman's The Devil is a Gentleman, that had its author travelling to sites founded by America's new religions over the past century. It mixed personal interviews with Hallman's own story, through an application of William James's sociological research from a hundred years ago.) 

God Meets Man: My Flirtations with the Divine scans rituals so venerable they lack inventors and doctrines so fresh he watches them evolve in Washington State and Las Vegas. True to Mr. Weiner's nature, he constructs a composite God. One that cobbles from all the faiths he's studied, and more, yet has an identifiably Jewish angle that he finds he can admire. Mr. Weiner confesses that out of small steps, progress towards understanding emerges. He no longer flinches from observing the Jewish holidays with his little girl. (Featured at New York Journal of Books 12-5-11 in condensed fashion--about half the length of above!)

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