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First Church of the New American Pastiche
Since the 1960s a fierce debate has raged among scholars seeking to assess the puzzling state of Americans' religious commitments. In one corner are the experts (historians, sociologists, and a host of other specialists) who characterize Americans as the most conspicuously religious people of the Western world. From the other corner, an equally formidable scholarly contingent sees a secularized society in which religious institutions are increasingly marginalized. Both sides muster a good deal of evidence, and the debate is far from being resolved.
What is and has been clear, however, is that in every town, city, and county, Americans are foraging for new forms of meditation, home-spun wisdom, and formulas for ecstatic experience that can patch easily into a highly individualistic, customized religious life. Impassioned, often undisciplined questers, with little respect for boundaries, theological underpinnings, or tradition, these seekers are very much in the American grain, but they seem to many observers to be a larger presence than ever before. Snatching up books, attending seminars and workshops, they represent an enormous, informal, rudderless congregation that somehow flourishes without committees, flea markets, bake sales, budgets, building campaigns, or denominational ties. Worshiping in the church of the Mysterium Tremendum, a placeless space without cornerstones or choirs, a mind-boggling arena where God answers to many names, they gather in disposable communities, retreat centers, and small groups of all sorts.
Ask them what they believe, and seekers will say, as if repeating the cardinal creed: "I am not religious. But I am very spiritual." Ask them about their practices, and prepare for tales of angels or shamans; natural health remedies and psychology; warriors and wolves, new rituals, mysticism, holy texts, and various forms of meditation. Audio- and videotapes, cds, and Tibetan bells call them to worship. They speak of feng shui, 12-step groups, promise-keeping, ...