“I used to think that God was the star on the floor Johnny Carson stood on,” says Bruce Feiler, author of Walking the Bible. Now, he says, “I don’t think of the Bible as a book. It’s a map. We’re all walking on some path and looking for something and putting together the journey we want to make.”
Feiler has made that journey recently with his new six-part PBS series, “Sacred Journeys with Bruce Feiler.” In one year, he went on six pilgrimages — to France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem, India, and Nigeria.
“On the TV show,” he says, “I’m in every scene. I’m going through an emotional and intellectual transformation.”
When he was first asked to do a series on pilgrimages, Feiler said no. “I wasn’t interested in doing a series of Wikipedia entries,” he says. But he was finally persuaded, and doing the pilgrimages has changed his life.
Feiler didn’t start out being a “religion person.” Walking the Bible was more or less accidental. He went sightseeing while visiting a friend in Jerusalem and found himself at the Dome of the Rock, the place where, in Jewish tradition, Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac. Feiler thought to himself, “What if I traveled along the path and read the Bible?”
He says that the project “allowed me to process the intensity of the experience. It was not a religious thing. I was not interested in faith. It was an emotional arc. I went looking for science and came out with meaning.”
Since then, Feiler has written a number of books, including Abraham and The Council of Dads. The latter came when he thought he was dying of leg cancer in 2008 and summoned a group of male friends to help bring up his children. “Suddenly, I was ‘the walking guy’ who never walk again,” he says. “Everybody thought I was going to die. I had chemo, crutches, a cane.”
Feiler is a fifth-generation Jew from Savannah, Georgia. He is, he says, classic Reform Jewish. His wife is Jewish, he sends his kids to Hebrew School, but “much of my professional life is trying to live in different worlds.” He says he is constantly trying to bridge differences.
Feiler says that there is a lot of energy around religion today, from ISIS to the Pope. He thinks that organized religion is threatened, but pilgrimages are more popular. He says people are moving from institutions to home, from religious bodies to individual beliefs. “The traditional wall separating religions are crumbling,” says Feiler. “Soon it will be people who care about these religions and people who don’t.
“It’s empowering,” he says. “Each of us gets to decide for ourselves what we believe. The pilgrimages are pathways to go at these questions.”
Feiler has difficulty answering the question of whether he believes in God. “Growing up, that was not the locus of what mattered. I was not God-fearing. I was more connected to the story, the people, the family aspect. It was not about quaking under the covers, having conversations with God. I never had long, intimate conversations with a personal God.”
He says that when he was sick, he prayed for his children, “but I didn’t pray to God to heal me. I didn’t believe God was going to cure me. I had powerful emotional, spiritual, maybe even godly moments — but not like we read in the Bible. Not like God speaking to someone or coming to them in a dream. That’s not the way I experienced it. I wasn’t looking for that.
“God is the agent for connecting to the unseen, the possible, the horrible, the universal and the eternal,” he says. “I’m deeply committed to touching the unseen.” He is also committed, he says, “to keeping religion alive, but all of us have to do it privately.”
In person, Feiler is irrepressible. He is full of energy, excitement, and hope in a way that you would expect from someone who cheated death. He is tall, slim, and walks perfectly well — you’d have no idea that he ever had leg cancer.
Feiler says he was 43 when he was diagnosed. He had written 10 books. “No one said I hadn’t lived my life,” he says. His “council of dads” project helped him chronicle his illness. At the end, he went back to the surgeon who had saved his life and his leg. Feiler asked him what he would have said to his daughters if they ever came to see the surgeon after Feiler died. His doctor said he would tell them that everybody dies, but not everybody lives. Feiler told his daughters, “I want you to live.”
For Feiler, the most important thing is “to try to find out what it means to be alive.” He adds, “I don’t think you can answer that question without going on a pilgrimage.”