Man Seeks God

Man Seeks God - 614 eZine - Vol 6, Issue 5

A foreign correspondent who is agnostic goes on a quest to find a God he can believe in.

New York Times best-selling author and former NPR correspondent Eric Weiner goes on an unexpected exploration of faith after a health scare lands him briefly in the hospital. While awaiting his diagnosis, a nurse asks him whether he has found his God yet. Luckily, the health problem was nothing serious (a painful bout with gas), but the nurse’s question nagged at Weiner, a self-proclaimed agnostic. So he launches himself on a global journey—into the world of Shamanism, Kabbalah, Buddhism, Wicca, and other religions—to find out whether there is, indeed, a God that he can believe in.

You say in the book that “God is to religion as food is to a menu.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

I mean that the menu is important only as a means to the food. You wouldn’t walk into a restaurant and eat a menu. Likewise, religion is valuable only as a way to know God (however you define Him/Her.) The problem, I think, is that too many people forget this and obsess endlessly about the menu, worry if the menu is printed on the right kind of paper, fret if they spill something on the menu, worry that someone else might have a better menu, or a dangerous one. They’ve completely forgotten that the menu is a symbol, a point of entry. They end up choking on all that paper. There’s an old Buddhist expression, “Not the finger pointing to the moon, but the moon.” Same idea.

For one of your chapters, you go to Israel to explore Kabbalah. Why did you choose this over another path of Judaism?

I needed to catapult myself clear of my past relationship (or non-relationship) with Judaism. What little I knew about Judaism struck me as very head-centric, and all about following rules, do this and don’t do that; sort of like a religious version of the childhood game Simon Says. Kabbalah seemed different—more heart-centric, more intuitive, and that appealed to me.

What do you make of the fact that this generation today is becoming known for mixing and matching different religions? Are there concerns here or does it just help us connect better?

To be honest, I’m torn on this question. On the one hand, I think the mixing and matching is a very good thing. It makes us more tolerant of others, since the “other” is now part of us. We see this phenomenon in the way that some Eastern practices, such as meditation and yoga, are incorporated into “mainstream” faiths in this country. Churches and synagogues, for instance, now offer meditation classes. It’s also helpful, I think, to be able to choose the “best of” various religions. We do this in other areas of our lives—from music to fashion—why not in religion? So, overall, I applaud this a la carte approach to religion, but with one caveat: have a foundation. Without a foundation, we risk becoming spiritual dilettantes. Afraid of making a commitment, we hop from one faith to another, moving on whenever the going gets tough (and it always gets tough). This is the New Age movement at its worst.

While in Israel, you say before departing “It’s important to know when to travel to a holy city. It’s just as important to know when to leave such a place.” When should you leave?

You should leave when you start to get too comfortable, or smug. Holiness is like anything else in life. We get used to it, numb to it. We need to leave every now and then in order to stay fresh.

You begin this book as an agnostic. Having dipped your toe into various religions, have your beliefs changed in any profound way?

I’ve changed in many ways, though I’m not sure my “beliefs” have changed. Let me explain. We are too hung up on belief. It’s the only way we have, it seems, of talking about the religious experience. Not all faiths, though, are so belief-centric. Buddhists, for instance, could care less what you believe. What do you do? What do you experience? That is what they care about. In that regard, I have changed. I begin the day by meditating, even if I’d rather drink coffee. I pause before meals, not exactly saying grace but more conscious of the gift of food nonetheless. As for labels, neuroscientist David Eagleman calls himself a “Possibilian.” So would I.

Many people are not quite sure of their spiritual beliefs and feel this is okay… until they have a child who starts asking for answers. You have a 7-year-old daughter who is surely looking for answers. How do you advise her?

Before I wrote this book, I was planning on exposing her to a variety of religious and spiritual practices so that she could choose for herself. Now I realize that is too much to ask of a 7 year old and would only confuse her. She needs to be grounded in one faith, the faith of her parents, so that when she turns 18 years old, she can abandon that faith and break our hearts. So has it been, is, and always will be. Seriously, we’re sending her to Hebrew School, and I hope she finds meaning in Judaism. If not, I hope she finds meaning in another faith. The other day, she was talking to a friend and said, “I’m Jewish now, but when I grow up I can be whatever I want.” That sounds right to me.

In Israel, one of your spiritual mentors tells you that Judaism needs people like you. What did he mean by that?

I think he meant that Judaism needs doubters, those who question assumptions and desire a meaningful religious life, not one that checks off boxes—people, in other words, who are more interested in the food than the menu.

Throughout the book, you refer to the idea numerous times that “What you see is not.” What does that mean to you, and how does it alter your everyday life?

I first heard that phrase from a Buddhist in Kathmandu, and it stuck with me. “What you see is not.” It’s an important reminder, I think, that we skate only on the surface of life. We think we know things, understand them, but the fact is we don’t. None of us do. We haven’t a clue, really. Today’s truths (scientific and otherwise) are tomorrow’s embarrassing myths. In our own lives, what seems at first like wonderful news—or terrible news—turns out to be exactly the opposite. What you see is not. In a way, it’s a call for humility, a recognition that we do not know and never will. And that’s ok.

Anything you wish I would ask you that I didn’t?

Humor. You forgot to mention how incredibly funny I am. For some reason, there is an unwritten law that books about God and religion can’t be funny. I don’t know why this is. God gave us a sense of humor for a reason. At its best, humor illuminates truth. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my book.

About the Author

Eric WeinerEric Weiner
Eric Weiner, author of Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine (Twelve, 2011), served as a correspondent for NPR in New York, Miami, and Washington, DC, and was part of a team of NPR reporters that won a Peabody Award for a series of investigative reports about the US tobacco industry. He attended the University of Maryland and was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University in 2003. He’s also a former reporter for the New York Times. His commentary and essays appear in the Los Angeles Times, Slate, and The New Republic, among other publications.

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