Man Seeks God: My Flir­ta­tions with the Divine

  • Review
By – March 15, 2012
It is fol­ly to gauge the mea­sure of anoth­er man’s faith,” writes Eric Wein­er in Man Seeks God: My Flir­ta­tions with the Divine. I con­cur, but a review­er of a book about a spir­i­tu­al quest can’t help but attempt to assess the earnest­ness of the impulse and the depth of the endeav­or, as well as the qual­i­ty of the chron­i­cle of it.

Wein­er, born Jew­ish, is by his own account­ing, a skep­tic, a Con­fu­sion­ist” when it comes to reli­gion, a neu­rot­ic pre­oc­cu­pied with death, and a man who uses his charm­ing­ly self-dep­re­cat­ing and irrev­er­ent wit to habit­u­al­ly deflect deci­sion, depth, and com­mit­ment. Wein­er writes that Con­fu­sion­ists, lack the smug uncer­tain­ty of the agnos­tic” and that Con­fu­sion­ists have absolute­ly no idea what our reli­gious beliefs are. We’re not even sure that we have any, but we’re open to the unex­pect­ed, and believe — no, hope that there is more to life than meets the eye.“

After a fright­en­ing episode that brought him to an emer­gency room where a nurse asked him, Have you found your God yet,” Wein­er says he could­n’t get the ques­tion out of his head. Not long after­ward his young daugh­ter asked him a ques­tion about God, and he had no ade­quate answer. Con­se­quent­ly, he decid­ed to inves­ti­gate eight reli­gions, seem­ing­ly plucked from a hat, with­out expla­na­tion as to why he chose them and exclud­ed oth­ers. His inves­ti­ga­tions, beyond read­ing (there’s an exten­sive bib­li­og­ra­phy), usu­al­ly involve brief bursts of trav­el, some­thing he rel­ish­es, and dip­ping his toe into the shal­low end of dif­fer­ent spir­i­tu­al prac­tices.

He dal­lies with Sufism in Cal­i­for­nia at a camp of aging hip­pies, and whirls in Istan­bul with dervish­es; brush­es against Bud­dhism in Nepal with a guru from Stat­en Island named Wayne; sojourns with Fran­cis­can monks in the South Bronx; cross-dress­es with breast-bar­ing UFO believ­ing Raëlians at a Las Vegas con­ven­tion; tar­ries and takes tea while chat­ting about chi with a Taoist in Wash­ing­ton State before tak­ing a Taoist tour of Chi­na; wit­ness­es a Wash­ing­ton-based wic­can witch coven; tries to divine his ani­mal totem in a geo­des­ic dome with a shaman in Mary­land; and kib­b­itzes with Kab­bal­ah in the city of Tsfat in Israel. He calls it shop­ping for God” as well as flirt­ing with the divine.“

Wein­er’s exis­ten­tial and spir­i­tu­al issues are unde­ni­ably real, his writ­ing and wit are win­ning (I laughed fre­quent­ly), he engages the peo­ple he meets in con­ver­sa­tions of sub­stance, and the book is always enjoy­able and inter­est­ing. How­ev­er, the episod­ic for­mat, the repor­to­r­i­al gloss he gives to each reli­gion, and his for­ev­er glib tone, while per­fect for a trav­el­ogue, don’t lend them­selves to con­vey­ing some­thing as seri­ous as a spir­i­tu­al quest. In most spir­i­tu­al auto­bi­og­ra­phy, the quest pre­cedes and stands inde­pen­dent from the book con­tract, here, the scope and struc­ture of the quest seem con­trived most­ly just to meet the mar­ket­place. The almost com­plete dis­count­ing of the main­streams of Judaism, Chris­tian­i­ty, Bud­dhism, and Islam also bespeak a cer­tain lack of seri­ous­ness, and one doubts that he ever had any open­ness to becom­ing a Raël­lian, a war­lock, a monk, or a shaman. Most of the peo­ple he inter­viewed were seri­ous spir­i­tu­al seek­ers who real­ly risked and invest­ed them­selves in the quest and in what they found, while he seems mere­ly a tourist.

By the book’s end, Wein­er incor­po­rates a melange of pleas­ant ele­ments of the reli­gions he encoun­tered into his life, invent­ing and assem­bling what he calls a com­pos­ite God” which/​who works” for him, although this seems lit­tle dif­fer­ent than the new-age eclec­ti­cism that he him­self dis­dains, writ­ing, Reli­gions are like cuisines, They don’t always trav­el well. They get watered down, dilut­ed, and the next thing you know you’re ingest­ing the spir­i­tu­al equiv­a­lent of chow mein.” Good reli­gion, Wein­er writes at one point, is sup­posed to be hard. Good reli­gion push­es, as well as pulls, and in doing so tack­les head-on Hes­chel’s urgent ques­tion: How does a man lift his eyes to see a lit­tle high­er than him­self?” Wein­er acknowl­edges that his own prac­tice isn’t so sol­id” and seems sat­is­fied for the moment not to lift his eyes from his own chow mein, but as smart and self-aware as he is, he must know the jour­ney and the quest must go on in more depth.

Discussion Questions