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Stumbling Toward the Divine

A depressed but wisecracking journalist trots the globe to “test-drive” various faiths

Author Eric Weiner was in a suburban Maryland emergency room with abdominal pain when a nurse asked him an unsettling question: “Have you found your God yet?”

Weiner didn’t think the nurse was in any position to judge — she was there merely to collect a blood sample — but the question startled him enough to inquire, “Why?” (Privately he wondered, Will I be meeting Him soon?) The nurse responded only with a “wise, knowing look.”

Weiner’s painful symptoms soon passed — his mysterious ailment turned out to be gas — yet the nurse’s question stayed with him. Eventually it launched him on the earth-circling journey described in Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine.

Weiner also wrote the 2008 bestseller The Geography of Bliss, and fans of that earlier work will recall his skill at making light of heavy topics. He approaches religion with a similarly large dose of skepticism here, but his quest is genuine — and a continuing bout of severe depression makes him newly receptive to spiritual remedies. The author crisscrosses the globe to explore eight different faiths in situ, hoping one of them holds the belief system capable of easing his psychic suffering.

Weiner, who once reported from the world’s trouble spots for NPR, describes himself as a “Confusionist” — a group that, he says, lacks “the smug uncertainty of the agnostic.” He was brought up in a secular household of “gastronomical Jews,” who ate traditional Jewish foods such as rugelach and latkes. “As far as I was concerned,” Weiner confesses, “God resided not in Heaven or the Great Void but in the Frigidaire.”

Weiner considers himself a rationalist but admits the term falls short. When it comes to describing the human condition, he prefers a phrase favored by 17th-century French Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal: “God-shaped hole.” After trying, unsuccessfully, to fill his own God-shaped hole with food, sex, success, travel, drugs and various other worldly pursuits, Weiner decides to try filling it with God.

Each of the faiths “auditioned” by Weiner entails a trip from his home near Washington, D.C. The destinations are as close by as the South Bronx, where he lives for a time with Franciscan monks who run a homeless shelter, and as far away as China, where he studies Taoism and strives to cultivate his chi, or vital energy.

Weiner’s descriptions of certain faiths verge on the comedic. But then it may be hard to get too serious about the Raelians, who believe humans were created 25,000 years ago by aliens known as the Elohim. Raelian theology envisions a return to Earth by the Elohim in 2035; until that fateful day, they believe, humans should enjoy themselves to the max. At a Raelian Happiness World Tour that Weiner attended in — where else? — Las Vegas, participants were greeted by a bowl of condoms at the registration desk.

Weiner immerses himself in the convention, even attending a gender-switching workshop — in drag. In the end, he concludes, “hedonism is a lifestyle, not a theology.” Still, he writes, the Raelians — with their worship of technology and instant gratification — may be “more like us than we might care to admit.” And there’s no contesting that they imbue their followers with “a sense of community, of belonging, of human grace.”

Indeed, Weiner finds something to admire in every religion he explores. And though his depression persists, he revels in the quest. He traces the Sufis from the New Age version in California to their origins in Istanbul, and eventually learns to whirl like a dervish. He appreciates the Sufis’ “heart-first approach to life” but struggles with the concept of submission that is central to Islam.

Sojourning with Buddhists in Kathmandu, Weiner is drawn to the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, “All is suffering.” (Buddha, he helpfully explains, literally means “ ‘the Awakened One,’ or more colloquially, ‘the Guy Who Woke Up.’ ”) But the strongest attraction for Weiner seems to be the practicality of Buddhism — specifically, its do-it-yourself nature: “ ‘Be a lamp unto yourself,’ the Buddha famously said. I find this liberating — and terrifying. What if my wattage is insufficient?”

Weiner also flirts with Wiccans, or witches, a type of neo-pagans who venerate nature and practice magic and ritual. But ultimately all that questing leads him back, with considerable trepidation, to Judaism. He decides to investigate Kabbalah, a set of esoteric Jewish scriptures that discuss the nature of the universe, because it offers “a Judaism of the head and the heart.” He spends several weeks in Israel studying under Yedidah Cohen, a British anesthesiologist who immigrated there to live in the land of her faith, and David B. Barrett, an American artist who now teaches Kabbalah. In particular he discovers (and appears to have internalized) tikkun, the Jewish spiritual practice of fixing the broken world by first repairing our own consciousness.

When Yedidah teaches Weiner how to pray, the author predictably experiences “performance anxiety” over the practice. But then he concludes, with Yedidah’s help, that it’s acceptable to grasp the gist of the undertaking, which is intention.

And that’s largely how Weiner wraps up his search for God: “ultimately, the choice is ours.” He resolves to construct his own God: “His foundation is Jewish, but His support beams Buddhist. He has the heart of Sufism, the simplicity of Taoism, the generosity of the Franciscans, the hedonistic streak of the Raelians.” In Man Seeks God, Eric Weiner finally jettisons his “flirtations with the divine” and returns to a sentiment articulated by one of his favorite secular authors, the philosopher William James: “Truth is what works.”

Joan Mooney is a writer and reviewer based in Washington, D.C. She previously reviewed Mark Matousek’s Ethical Wisdom and Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life for AARP The Magazine.