Man Seeks God: My Flirtations With the Divine
By Eric Weiner
Twelve, 368 pages, $26.99
I’ll be honest: I normally hate books like this — memoirs of spiritual tourism, jauntily retold by trustworthy but neurotic narrators who are careful never to be more knowledgeable than the reader. I have read about two dozen of these things, some best-sellers and others obscure little books, and I find them unfulfilling, irritating and pointless. Again and again, they make the same fundamental mistake: You can’t “get it” if you’re a tourist, if you only spend one or two weeks in colorful foreign locales rather than do the hard, long-term work on yourself. The premise of these books, tied to their commercial proposition (“Make it accessible!”), undermines the hope that their protagonists’ searches will be fulfilled.
So, when I received Eric Weiner’s “Man Seeks God,” tellingly subtitled “My Flirtations With the Divine,” I didn’t expect to like it. And yet, while I’m still not convinced, I found it better than most entries in this genre, for reasons that I think are fruitful to explore.
First, Weiner gradually unveils the fact that he does have more at stake than the typical spiritual tourist: He has suffered from depression his whole life. This fact, familiar to readers of Weiner’s previous book, the best-selling “The Geography of Bliss,” gives his search a certain poignancy. He’s suffering, and he’s articulate enough to know it. He’s not comfortable in his successful, basically secular New York Jewish life, and so even when the characters he meets are worthy of ridicule (UFO enthusiasts, wacky kabbalists), he holds back. After all, they seem happier than he is. This vulnerability and this stake are crucial, and establish a lot more credibility than the ability to make a joke.
Which leads me to Weiner’s second advantage: the awareness that, in his words, “smart-assness is an impediment to spiritual growth.” That insight comes on page 297, and I wish it had been in the foreword, but it’s still an important truth. As a writer of “spiritual” books myself, I know the temptation: If you always make jokes, if you always undermine sincerity, you can stay cool. Spirituality is not cool. It requires self-revelation, self-examination and, yes, a willingness to be honest, sincere and direct.
So while Weiner may flirt, he also is willing to go all the way. He gets naked with the Wiccans, cross-dresses with the Raelians, davens with the kabbalists and is generally willing to be put through the paces by his short-term teachers of Sufism and Buddhism. He even tests the claims of mantra meditation by reciting “Yabba dabba doo” in lotus position for half an hour. (It worked; he chilled out.) Maybe he’s just this game in order to get good material for the book, but I admired his spirit anyway.
But I think what most attracted me to Weiner’s book shows up in only the last few pages: Finally, some insight. Without getting corny about it, Weiner does in fact find himself a spiritual home, in — surprise, surprise — a spiritually inflected Judaism that doesn’t take itself too seriously.