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.
Or maybe that's what's going on now--a kind of balancing of those two tendencies. You can find interiority in the Western church. Thomas Keating is a Trappist who is working on the Centering Prayer, very much finding a contemplative strain using Christian inflection. The Jesus Prayer was a contemplative movement within the Christian tradition. But most people don't know that. So India filled in the experiential part.
It is the buzzword at the moment. What people are saying is that they're interested in this personal, interactive experience that changes their life in some way. They're not interested in these theological differences. But obviously it becomes this gigantic term for everything.
[Hotelier] Andre Balazs at the Chateau Marmont says people now choose Buddhism or Christianity the same way they choose Prada or Hugo Boss. It's part of the mix of choices in people's lives. You can look at that snidely, but in a way it means religion has just become a part of life. It's become de-mythologized, de-mystified. That's something Deepak Chopra's very big on. He talks about spiritual ideas being disseminated like Calvin Klein ads--again, it can be an annoying comment, but he's saying that if spiritual ideas become popular, they can be a part of people's lives.
Do you think America's wealth changes how people approach their spiritual life?
Oh sure. The questions that are asked in America haven't been put on the table before, about money and sex and how they fit into spirituality. You have people saying you can be spiritual and have money. That's kind of startling. In the Christian tradition, spirituality and money are separated. And oftentimes spirituality and sex are separated. Yet in the gay-identified denomination I write about, the Metropolitan Community Church, the hot button is somehow connecting sexuality and spirituality.
It's definitely connected to the AIDS crisis, and that confrontation with death and sickness. But gays are emblematic of something Americans are all going through spiritually. We've seen it already with sex, love and relationships. When you flip on TV these days, you see gay characters and gay jokes out of all proportion to the 10 percent of the population who are gay. Why are gays so fascinating? I think it's that they have always had to deal with love, sex and marriage without rules. Americans are interested in how you deal with these things when no one is telling you what to do.
I think the same with spirituality. Gay men have been burned by religion. Even movements that seem enlightened in other ways turn out to be homophobic. So gays are pursuing spirituality without institutional backing.
In your travels from Islam to fundamentalist Christianity to gay and New Age spirituality, did you find anything common to all these movements that you would define as faith?
John Ashbery said the beauty of religion is it might be founded on nothing at all. With all these religious experiences, the people I met are basically saying that something happened to them, something made them start looking around. And that was some inner event.
It reminded me of coming out a little bit, among gays. Something inside of people tells them that they are gay, and that it's an unpopular sort of choice, so they ignore it. When they decide to come out, they are responding to some sort of subtle inner signal that they wish would go away.
That was the common thing in all the people I wrote about. They were all choosing to follow through on this in some way. You can always say "I am Methodist, I have always been Methodist." But as soon as you ask "Why Methodist? Why not Roman Catholic or Presbyterian?" you step into the wonderful world of spirituality. I sometimes talk about the anxiety of spirituality. Because as soon as you ask that, you suddenly have all these choices pop up. And it leads to as much anxiety as peace.