Writing about God poses a particular challenge for an author. Besides the ever-present risk of offending someone, or everyone, lurks a more fundamental problem: there is nothing to say. The great spiritual masters of centuries past — people way more enlightened than I'll ever be — knew this. "Why dost thou prate of God? Whatever thou sayest of him is untrue," observed the Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, some 500 years ago. God is ineffable, beyond words.
Yet I am a writer. Words are all I have. So I ignore Meister Eckhart's warning, and I prate.
Immediately, I sensed trouble. Tell people you are writing a book about happiness, the subject of my previous project, and their eyes light up. Tell people you are writing a book about God and their eyes dart about, looking for the nearest exit.
I can't blame them. I was treading on treacherous ground. Good writing is honest writing, but honest writing also carries with it the greatest possibility of causing offense. Which is fine if you are offending someone's favorite sports team or cartoon character, but what if you're offending their heritage? What if — and this gets to the heart of the problem — you are offending their God?
Which is even easier to do than I imagined. The difficulty begins with spelling. Is it "God" or "god," or perhaps "G-d," as some orthodox Jews refer to the Almighty. A cursory search for definitions of God proves no more enlightening. God is, variously, "infinite" (Spinoza), "a direction" (Rainer Maria Rilke), a "poem" (Matthew Arnold), "a matter of taste" (Paul Davies), "a verb" (R. Buckminster Fuller), "an underachiever" (Woody Allen), "an irresistible influence" (Jung), or "dead" (Nietzsche).
The ancient Hindus, I think, got it right. God, they said, is netti, netti. Not this, not that.
God, I decide, is too vague a term. Besides, I was interested not only in Him (or him), but in the religious experience, and some religions are non-theistic. They don't believe in God at all. Religion. Yes, I was sure that word would be easier to pin down.
I was wrong. The word religion, if not the concept, has nothing to do with God. "Religion" comes from the Latin religio, which means to bind, or re-bind. That doesn't strike me as terribly uplifting. Who wants to be bound, aside from a few kinky types? Yet, I know from my research into happiness that it is our binding, our inter-dependence, that fulfills us. Make a commitment (a binding agreement, you might say) to volunteer at a soup kitchen and chances are you'll be happier. Marriage, a binding relationship if ever there were one, also makes you happier.
When it comes to religion we are, at the most basic level, binding ourselves to each other. This is something all faiths have in common. They facilitate social cohesion — people of like mind, united by a common purpose, hanging out together. This social binding –"collective effervescence," Durkheim called it — clearly explains some of religion's appeal.
But what exactly is religion? Marx famously called it the "opium of the people." I always found that overly pessimistic, and narrow. Religion is also the amphetamine of the people. Have you ever seen a Southern Baptist revival? People there are pepped up on something. Religion is also the Prozac of the people, the religious being statistically happier than the secular. A few of the trendy new religions might well be called the Viagra of the people. Marx, whatever you think of his political thought, was woefully behind on his pharmacology.
Paul Tillich, a particularly thoughtful theologian, said faith is "being grasped by an ultimate concern." That sounds good, but what if I am ultimately concerned about lunch, as I often am? Is lunch my religion? Alfred North Whitehead defined religion as "What a man does with his solitariness." I like that a lot. It speaks to the fundamental truth that ultimately we are born and die alone and we must come to terms with that. Any religion worth the name attempts to answer three questions: Where do we come from? What happens when we die? What should we do in the meantime? (The truly ambitious ones also tackle that timeless question, "Where do the missing socks go?" but do so at their peril.)
Definitions settled (sort of), I then encountered the "cleverness problem." We writers admire cleverness — in others, sure, but nowhere more than in our own work. Yet all religions warn that cleverness is simply another avoidance strategy, albeit a particularly clever one. Those who are serious about their "spiritual development" (another problematic phrase, but I'll let that one slide) need to maintain a "beginner's mind," as the Zen Buddhists call it. Or, as Rumi, the great Sufi poet said: "Sell your cleverness. Buy bewilderment!" It's quite possibly the best stock tip ever uttered.
While it's true that words can get in the way of a genuine spiritual experience, and I suspect many writers (myself included) are engaged in a very eloquent type of evasion, there's more to the story than that. God gave us the power of speech for a reason, I figure. Words don't only hold us back. They can also propel us. Lift us. The Bible is words. So are the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada. It is words that inspire a young Catholic nun to help the poor of Calcutta, and it is words that comfort a mother during a time of unbearable grief. Words matter. How can we use them wisely, without getting snared in their net?
An old Buddhist parable offers a clue. It tells of a young man who built a raft to cross a river. He found the raft so helpful, so indispensible, that even on dry land he continued to carry it on his back, buckling under its weight.
We need to know when to use words. And we need to know when to drop them.
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Eric Weiner is author of the New York Times bestseller The Geography of Bliss, which has been translated into 18 languages. A former correspondent for NPR and the New York Times, Weiner has reported from more than three dozen countries. His latest books is Man Seeks God.
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