MARGARET WARNER: During a season that, for many, centers on religion and spirituality, Ray Suarez talks to one author about his search for divine meaning.
RAY SUAREZ: Keeping with this country’s appetite for inventing and reinventing yourself, today’s Americans choose their own religion in much higher numbers than ever before.
Writer Eric Weiner, who calls himself an agnostic by default, set out on a worldwide personal quest about his own beliefs, and shares what he found in his book “Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine.”
As we enter the final stretch of this holiday season, Eric Weiner joins me now.
ERIC WEINER, author: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: As many of these stories over the years, this one begins with a health scare. But how would you describe your religious posture before the beginning of your journey?
ERIC WEINER: I didn’t have much of a posture.
I was raised as a secular Jew. We maybe went to synagogue once a year. I like to think of us as gastronomical Jews. It was about the food, and not really about God, not about religion. And, essentially, whatever religious or spiritual inklings I had were suppressed for most of my life.
RAY SUAREZ: What did you head out looking for? What did you think you were doing when you first got started?
ERIC WEINER: I knew I was looking for something, because I found myself in the hospital with a well-meaning nurse who asked me this question, “Have you found your god yet?” That was her question.
And, essentially, I tried to answer her question as seriously as I could and as broadly and ecumenically as possible, so that I wasn’t just looking for the god of the Jewish people or the Christians, but really the broad spectrum of religious options available to us. And it is a huge spectrum. There are some 9,000 religions out there.
RAY SUAREZ: But you have spent much of your adult life immersed in other cultures. And reporters are kind of sociologists on the fly.
ERIC WEINER: Right.
RAY SUAREZ: You must have come at this with already a smattering of religious knowledge, no?
ERIC WEINER: Just enough knowledge to get in the way, I would say, actually…
ERIC WEINER: … because I was a foreign correspondent for a number of years for National Public Radio. And, to be honest, I saw a lot of religion at its worst, covering suicide bombings, scandals involving the Catholic Church.
So, I was not particularly predisposed toward religion. But I did have these spiritual yearnings. And that’s what I was trying to satisfy.
RAY SUAREZ: You’re trying to do something, I think, very difficult in this book, which is write seriously about the content of various faiths not your own, but also keep it light.
ERIC WEINER: Right.
RAY SUAREZ: Flirtations. They really are flirtations, in a way.
ERIC WEINER: Yes.
I mean, look, G.K. Chesterton said the test of a good religion is whether we can make fun of it. And I think there’s something to that. Nowhere is it written that religion and spirituality have to be so dour and serious.
Just look at the Dalai Lama, one of the most respected religious leaders in the world, and he has an incredibly infectious laugh. This is a joyful being. And so I did approach it with a light touch, but I took the journey seriously. And they are flirtations, in the sense that I was trying to test out various religions.
And if you think about it, when we’re trying to find a partner for life, a spouse, we engage in a sort of flirtation, where we’re sort of trying on the relationship. And that’s what I was doing in this book.
RAY SUAREZ: You know, immersion journalism is not an easy thing to do…
ERIC WEINER: Right.
RAY SUAREZ: … because by habit reporters keep things at, at least one arm’s length. How do you get yourself in there and suddenly find yourself part of the story?
ERIC WEINER: Well, you have to suppress the journalist in you, to be honest, because that was exactly my natural inclination, was, you know, observe, but don’t participate.
And I made a concerted effort from the outset to do more than that, to actually participate and get involved, even if it meant making a complete and utter fool out of myself by attempting to pray in a Catholic mass, which I had no experience doing, or attempting to meditate in Katmandu with my instructor, when I had no experience doing — and so, if we’re going to take this spiritual search seriously, we need to make ourselves vulnerable. And I did make myself extremely vulnerable.
RAY SUAREZ: You know, again and again in the book, you come to small words that mean big things to the people who are in this religion…
ERIC WEINER: Right.
RAY SUAREZ: … grace, joy, silence, stillness. And I think you made a sincere attempt to be with those people and understand them. I suspect you also admired some of them and liked them a lot.
ERIC WEINER: I did.
And I have to say that was a bit of a surprise in the sense, Ray, that, as a sort of cerebral, East Coast journalist, I always thought that religious people were somehow more narrow-minded or not as expansive in their world view as secularists.
And I have totally changed my mind about that. I found people of all religious stripes who, in fact, are filled with not only intellectual curiosity, but a kind of deep doubt that nourishes their faith.
And let me tell you what I mean. We normally think of doubt and faith as being on polar opposites, they’re not compatible. But, in fact, I found that some of the most religious people who I admire quite a lot have this doubt that actually motivates them and that actually lives quite comfortably within their faith.
RAY SUAREZ: But, again and again, even when you got a glimpse of what joy really meant, of what stillness really meant, it was like you couldn’t make that last step, again and again.
ERIC WEINER: I would get seven-eighths there, and that was about it.
And it’s that last leap that — it’s a cliche, leap of faith, to make that last move that is the hardest. There was always something holding me back. And what I think that something is, is my skepticism.
And this is where I think the whole notion of the spiritual journeys or religious-seeking is so tricky, because we need to maintain a certain skepticism, or we might be lured into something dangerous. I mean, let’s face it. There are dangerous cults out there. And history is replete with these stories.
So we need that skepticism. But in order to have that moment of grace, as the Christians would call it, or a glimpse of nirvana, as perhaps the Buddhists would put it, you need to drop your guard. You need to make yourself vulnerable and actually be devoid of all skepticism. So, that’s what I was wrestling with and what I’m still wrestling with.
How do you approach this — approach this journey skeptically, but also open to the possibility of grace, for instance?
RAY SUAREZ: It seemed like some of the toughest times for you were — came when you were going full circle and back amongst Jews to do a fuller investigation into Jewish mysticism.
ERIC WEINER: Yes, because, let’s face it, we always bring some baggage to any religion that we approach. And I probably brought the most baggage to my own faith, Judaism, because of my history, or lack of history, or whatever feelings of guilt I may have had.
And so I decided to dive into the mystical arm, if you will, of Judaism, which is Kabbalah. And I traveled to Israel. And I wasn’t expecting to find much, but, again, I was surprised by the deeply spiritual lives the Kabbalists I met were leading. And these were people who had sort of cobbled together a kind of freelance Judaism that was very impressive.
RAY SUAREZ: So, we spend 300-plus pages at your elbow as you go through a smorgasbord.
Are you still hungry? Where are you at now?
ERIC WEINER: I’m less hungry and I’m somewhat less confused. But I don’t have a Hollywood ending for you.
I don’t walk off into the sunset with the deity of my dreams or anything like that. And I think, in fact, the question that set me off on this search, “Have you found your god yet?” is not exactly the right question. God is not a destination. It’s not a train station or an airport that we arrive at.
The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, God is a direction. And I quite like that. We don’t arrive at a direction. We head in a direction. And that’s where I am right now, heading in a direction, not there yet.
RAY SUAREZ: Eric Weiner, thanks a lot.
ERIC WEINER: Thank you so much, Ray.
GWEN IFILL: We have more of Ray and Eric Weiner’s conversation on our website, including his take on religious tolerance in America.