This book is a kind of departure from your previous books, your novels and the biography of poet Frank O'Hara. Was there a spiritual awakening behind "Godtalk"?
One Sunday in 1995, I was in an Episcopal church, St. John's in the Village, which I went to on and off. I was sitting there after communion and I had this feeling that I recognized. I'd had it just a couple times before, a kind of personal awakening. The first time I was about 13. I was pretty much brought up nothing, which was normal enough in secular suburban America. So I'm 13 and I go to a screening of "The Cross and the Switchblade" [about converting gang members to Christianity]. And at the end, they said to come forward, and I did. I started watching mass for shut-ins and on Saturdays I started waiting for my friend Bobby to get out of confession to ask what happened. I got myself baptized by a Presbyterian minister. So I had this little obsession, which was partly because I felt I wasn't included. Not being brought up in it made me more fascinated.
In my early 20s it happened again. I was living in Paris, reading Thomas Aquinas and going to cathedrals and having a medieval obsession, which I thought was a desire to become a monk. That's when I visited [the Trappist monastery at] Gethsemane for the first time, and I joined this community called the Trees, a semi-monastic community of men and women connected to St. John the Divine in New York.
So sitting there in 1995, I recognized that tingling curiosity, but now I was a writer and journalist and I sensed there was a story beginning.
We've always had these awakenings, as historians call them--one before the Revolutionary War, one in the 19th century that led to Mormonism and Seventh Day Adventism. I think the notion of separation of church and state kind of backfired. It's a little like my growing up as a kid without a religion, and then becoming obsessed. Americans were free to explore religion and spirituality, and as a result you have these booms.
The people who came of age in the '60s seem particularly drawn to what were once foreign religions. They have become a little more sophisticated about the cultural context of these movements. Converts to Tibetan Buddhism are studying Sanskrit, and people who are interested in Sufism are going to Mecca, at least until last year.
It seems recently, however, people aren't just crossing from one faith to another, but are joining other faiths without leaving their original one.
That is huge. Someone told me recently they are Buddhapalian. I've met Episcopalian Sufis, Quaker-Methodists. In my hotel room in San Francisco there was a Gideon Bible and the Teachings of Buddha. People are mixing and matching, personally tailoring various faiths, because we all have more actual religious choices, not just mental choices now.
In the book, I wrote about Congress's decision in 1965 to allow more Asians to immigrate to the United States. That meant all these people from Southeast Asia--Buddhists and Muslims--coming into the country. Suddenly, investigating another religion is not just reading a book by Alan Watts or poems by Rumi, it's actually attending a mosque.
People are more interested in the experience, as opposed to doctrine. Frank O'Hara said that politics is face to face; spirituality is face to face for Americans. People have a positive experience meditating in a seminar, or their friends are going someplace, or they are attracted to a particular minister. That's how they choose what they become part of, much less than theology, dogma, doctrine.
This goes along with de-denominalization. Denominations were divided for racial reasons, or for doctrinal reasons that don't matter to many people anymore. There are many churches now that are Christian, but they are community churches. They don't particularly worry about the Trinity or transubstantiation as much as the affinity of the people in the group.
Why has dogma and doctrine lost its place?
The Christian church in the West seems to have become connected with rituals, these sort of fish-on-Friday sort of rules. Americans first became interested in India in the 19th century, when the first Hindu leaders came here and Ralph Waldo Emerson became interested in Indian thought because it was a real alternative, it emphasized interiority, meditation and philosophical religion. It actually allowed for a kind of balance.