Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America

Sep 25, 2002 at 12:00 am

A few weeks ago, I visited a friend in Miami’s South Beach for a bit of revelry. Come Sunday morning, though, she insisted that we attend her church, a massive Holy Roller bunker well removed from the cosmopolitan demimonde of Ocean Drive. The experience was a real revelation — the hopeful pride of the congregation, the fervor of the minister, the soulful vamping of the organist. These people meant business. And their business was God, unseen, enigmatic, yet in the most powerful moments of the service, seemingly close at hand.

In his own fantastic tour through the American spiritual kaleidoscope, author Brad Gooch experiences many such moments, even when he jet sets with Deepak Chopra, pop guru to the stars. We meet the silky charlatan on the beaches of Goa, long a favored destination of Western hippies and ravers. The occasion is an expensive retreat, held at the Taj Holiday Village:

With 175 participants from twenty-three countries — many from America and Australia, few from India — the place was effectively transformed, from Sunday through the following Saturday, into an upscale New Age Club Med.

Then onward to La Jolla where Chopra has his headquarters, a spa-cum-meditation center-cum business center where guests come to soak up the soothing vibes that he has culled from the Vedas. Tellingly, Chopra has not transferred his medical license to California, lest disappointed seekers be moved to sue for malpractice.

The true dubious genius of Chopra has been to clatter around in the arcane texts, thousands of volumes, and pull out “kernels of wisdom” which he translates into a gauzy mishmash of self-empowering credos. To the cynical observer, Chopra, along with female guru Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, is simply another huckster of Hinduism, pimping it to narcissists and ninnies with ready cash and clapped-out souls. There’s a Lennon born every minute. But Gooch sees something deeper:

In its colorful panoply ... there is something of a Bollywood film about their intentional communities ... The American manifestation of this sensibility is of course mostly confined ... to those self-selected ones who are open to the foreign and exotic, and who are generally more traveled than the poorer Indian devotee who is only unawedly rather than self-consciously costumed or cinematic.

From the coasts of India and California, Gooch shuttles to the heartland. His first stop is Dallas, where a large, affluent gay church has commissioned the architect Philip Johnson to build its Cathedral of Hope. Johnson had already built the Crystal Cathedral for telegenic evangelist Robert Schuller, one of the most thoughtful conservative religious figures in the country. Gooch does a lovely job of drawing out the sophisticated Johnson about how the church’s design not only articulates the aspirations of a gay congregation, but also imbues those aspirations with a transcendent beauty. When Gooch moves on to the tortured relationship between gay activist Mel White and his former boss, Jerry Falwell, one well understands how gay Christians would value such a sanctuary. It’s one thing for the Bible to condemn gay love as immoral, but quite another to have a demagogue of Falwell’s charm and cunning leading the charge against homosexuals in a country primed for homophobia.

Long infatuated with the Trappists, Gooch visits the Abbey of Gethsemani, the home of legendary monk Thomas Merton, in Kentucky. Home is not quite the right word, because Merton was a proponent of hermitic communal living — the ultimate definition of together alone. Gooch, as he interviews various monks at the abbey, teases out this theory as a metaphor for society at large as it could be. Willful moderation and discipline are the keynotes of the monastery. One chooses celibacy to achieve the goal of solitude. Likewise obedience to the abbot is the lifeblood of the community; the whole dictates to the parts.

Contrary to popular belief, Gooch points out, the abbey is filled with neither homosexual swingers nor with wallflowers. Many more monks leave because they can’t stand following orders than those who leave because they can’t get laid. One could easily assume that the abbey is far removed from the bustle of American life, a bulwark against it. But if you go, as Gooch does, to the corner of Fourth and Walnut in nearby Louisville, you’ll find a plaque marking the time and place where Merton had his revelation that he was every bit a citizen of the outside world.

For all his ecumenical subtlety and calm, Gooch is a bit of an overly earnest cold fish. At times he sounds like he’d be perfect on NPR, especially when he pulls his punches about how the more-conservative religions do little to address gay supplicants and their homosexuality in a modern, realistic way. He gives us a lot of light but not much heat. H.L. Mencken would have made short work of the modern-day believers of The Urantia Book — and roasted Deepak Chopra for a midmorning snack.

On the book jacket, Gore Vidal pronounces Gooch a fellow traveler of de Tocqueville. But the Frenchman, arriving in America when the republic was barely 50 years old, saw much that raised his patrician hackles and wasn’t afraid to say so. To spice things up a bit, Gooch might have a considered an additional chapter for another group of spiritualists — the atheists and agnostics.

Just as people are free to believe in whatever they like in this country, they’re equally free to embrace apostasy. Yet to disbelieve or never to have believed carries a certain risk of public censure when the Pledge of Allegiance, a rank piece of Cold War jingoism, is defended to the high heavens by politicians, demagogues and preachers alike. What of the astrophysicists, the geneticists, the paleontologists, the cream of this country’s scientific elite, who can’t bring themselves to believe in anything other than what their experiments reveal about the chilling forces of the universe? And what of the millions of little people who’ve lost their faith as life has ground them down with small, ugly indignities?

In the last chapter, we see the author confirm, above all else, his sense of being a true American spiritual pilgrim; nothing American is strange to him, no matter its origins:

During my months making way through the maze of Islamic life in New York City, I became less distracted by the charm and busyness of the surface of the mosaic, the sensation of walking into a virtual Damascus or a virtual Cairo, and much more taken generally with the regional suburban dialect of much of the Islam actually being practiced. Muslims in America these days often blend in with the other nine out of 10 Americans who profess to believe in God. And wherever I went, I kept hearing a familiar God talk being spoken.

Is this entirely true, though? Has Islam been neutered into a suburban Chopra-esque pabulum? Gooch spends far too much time with Sufis, the most mystic and yuppie-friendly of Islamic practitioners, and not enough with the peons of Wahhabism, the fundamendalist Saudi strain that is taking the terrorist world by storm, abroad and at home. Mohammed Atta, the mastermind of Sept. 11, lived a life in Southern Florida that was a quintessential American macho wet dream — days spent pumping iron at the gym, taking martial arts classes and flying lessons before tippling vodkas in strip clubs, all paid for by generous secret benefactors. Atta was a zealot, writing off his sins on the coming payday of absolution, many miles and many mph away. This manic, covert piety is a slap in the face to Gooch’s kinder, gentler view of American spirituality.

To borrow from the economist Benjamin Barber, the hubris of globalization is to think that tribalisms can be conquered with global capital’s surface allures, when in fact it is perhaps tribalisms such as religions that’ll have the last laugh. In the end, God talks louder than Gucci, no?

E-mail Timothy Dugdale at [email protected].