HOW TO START A RELIGION

This article shows the extreme to which mankind is going. This couple have made themsleves their own God from scratch, and the world will love it I gather.


Beyond 2000: Many Shape Unique Religions at Home

Over the years, Ed and Joanne Liverani have found many reasons to summon God. But now, at middle age, they've boiled it down to one essential: "Not to get clobbered by life."

Years of Catholic school never taught either of them how to "cope;" indeed, they said, it only made them more neurotic. By now, "there isn't a church in all of America I want to go to," said Joanne, setting out dinner plates in her Burke living room.

So sometime in the last 10 years the Liveranis began to build their own church, salvaging bits of their old religion they liked and chucking the rest. The first to go were an angry, vengeful God and Hell "That's just something they say to scare you," Ed said. They kept Jesus, "because Jesus is big on love."

From the local bookstore, in a bulging section called "Private Spirituality," they found wisdom in places they had never before searched, or even heard of: In Zen masters, in New Age chestnuts such as "A Course in Miracles," in their latest find, a bestseller called "Conversations With God."

Now they commune with a new God, a gentle twin of the one they grew up with. He is wise but soft-spoken, cheers them up when they're sad, laughs at their quirks. He is, most essentially, validating, like the greatest of friends.

And best of all, He had been there all along. "We discovered the God within," said Joanne. "That's why we need God. Because we are God. God gives me the ability to create my own godliness."

Traditionalists worried the '60s might kill off God. Instead, the era seems to have uncorked a free-floating ether of spirituality. Americans have responded to the question on Time magazine's 1966 cover: "Is God Dead?" More than 30 years later, a steady 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God, more than in any other Western country. And they believe with urgency; about half of all Americans think the nation is in the midst of a religious revival.

But in the last decade or so, even as that revival spreads, many have stopped believing so strongly in church. Seven in 10 Americans say they can be religious without going to one, and every year fewer and fewer do. Since 1992 alone, church attendance is down 12 percent, according to the Barna group, which tracks religious trends.

"In the new millennium, there will be a growing gap between personal spirituality and religious institutions," write Richard Cimino and Don Lattin in their new book, "Shopping for Faith," which is filled with portraits of such home-brewed religions. "Spirituality and religious faith are increasingly viewed as individual private matters with few ties to congregation and community."

A Coping Mechanism

On her most confident days, Joanne feels closest to God when she looks in the mirror and sees godliness right there. On days when she can't see it and she's feeling slumped, she needs God's help to understand "why I should even get out of bed."

No worry is beneath His concern, no detail too small. Take that awful table in her dining room, for example. That misbegotten, hulking pile of splinters came months late and was delivered in the wrong size, and the manufacturer could not have been less helpful and then the idiots went out of business.

Years ago, the haggling would have had both Joanne and Ed slamming the phone on the counter. Now they see the hassle as God's gift, "exactly the way things are supposed to be," a chance to let their own godliness shine.

The voice on the end of the 800 line is really a "friendly soul," explained Joanne. The more obnoxious life gets, the deeper Ed and Joanne reach into reservoirs of "pure love." As a sign of her gratitude, Joanne got the address of the voice from the furniture company, in this case a young woman, and mailed her a gift: a copy of "Conversations With God."

The terminology "friendly soul," "pure love" sounds like flotsam from the '70s, a last whiff of New Age vapor. But Ed and Joanne are no aging hippies. He works for the Army, she's a court reporter. They're both clean-cut parents raising a teenage son in a suburban house that smells more like Windex than patchouli.

"The '70s were all about freedom and sex and drugs, but this feels different to me," said Ed Liverani. "We're older now, we've moved into a different stage. And with age you feel these things deeper, more weighty."

Publishers call the phenomenon "private spirituality." Beyond that, they don't distinguish. New Age, Buddhist, blipish, Christian they're all on the same bookstore shelf. The national midlife crisis has reaped the industry so many profits and has come to dominate book sales so thoroughly that publishers have dubbed the last 10 years "the decade of the soul," as in the "Chicken Soup" series "A Sixth Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul," "Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul."

"It's an eclectic approach," said Lynn Garrett, who tracks religious books for Publishers Weekly. "People borrow ideas from different traditions, then add them to whatever religion they're used to. But they don't want anything to do with organized religion."

Churches survive, obviously. But the ones that thrive do so by trying to tune into this rootless questing and harness it, as advertisers tried to co-opt the '60s counterculture. In a recent survey, according to Barna, six out of 10 pastors described their churches as "seeker-sensitive," meaning that they are open to those who are still just looking and are not yet entrenched in any belief.

For many churches, surviving means adopting some of the drifters' lingo. These days, the strictest evangelical church overflows with 12-step classes. Hidebound institutions bubble with self-help. Even religions imported by waves of immigrants eventually succumb to the therapeutic fever.

At a school for Catholic priests in Omaha, seminarians learn to "discover the feminine" as they meditate to cassettes of "Blowin' in the Wind." At a synagogue in blip, an Orthodox blipish woman wonders why Isaac never "communicated" with his dad. At a mosque outside Chicago, Muslim students practice Native American meditation techniques to help them commune with Allah.

Transcendental Journey

This spiritual quest is the latest leg of the transcendental American journey. If any one thing defines the upright piano of this country's religious life over the last 200 years, it's Americans' unique demand for "direct, personal access to God," wrote the late historian Richard Hofstadter, an attitude summarized by Thomas Jefferson's statement, "I am a sect myself."

The first such audacious demand predates the country's birth. When Massachusetts Bay Colony was barely 10 years old, obstreperous Anne Hutchison announced that God had spoken to her, without the intervention of clerics.

She was run out of the colony, but the seed of rebellion was planted. ("I had rather hear such a one that speekes from the meere notion of spirit, without any study at all, than any of your learned Scollers," wrote one of her many livid followers). Since then, a nation of Hutchisons has blossomed.

In the 19th century, during a period known as the Second Great Awakening, America's religious rebellion began in earnest. Parishioners published biting doggerel aimed at their own clerics and even overthrew some of their religious leaders. Charismatic itinerant preachers sprouted across the East Coast and made their way west. Some rebels won a solid following, growing into what later became well-established churches: the Methodists, the Mormons.

The latest wave of rebellion has taken its own unique shape. In the past, splinter groups called themselves Protestant, but that dominance has dimmed in the past 30 years. Old denominations are fading, overrun by churches that call themselves nondenominational or adopt names like "Vineyard."

The profusion of new religions has rendered the countryside unrecognizable. You cannot drive into any large city or suburb anywhere without stumbling upon glorious Hindu temples or Sunni mosques. Last year, the first suburban schools began granting days off for Ramadan along with Christmas, in deference to the 4 million Muslims in the United States now, five times as many as lived here in 1970. (Hindus have grown from 100,000 to 950,000 in that same period, and Sikhs from 1,000 to 220,000.)

Different too, is the peculiar temperament of this latest rebellion. In fits and starts since the 19th century, Americans have spit at ecclesiastical authority. But this time Americans seem blandly admiring of clerics.

Churchgoers say they like clerical garb because it's "authentic," priests because they are "spiritual." Like the Liveranis, they choose the elements of traditional church they like and ignore the rest.

Americans write their own Bible. They fashion their own God, then talk incessantly with Him. (Think here of blip blip's possessive pronoun: It's between me, my wife and "our" God.) More often than not, the God they choose is more like a best friend who has endless time for their needs, no matter how trivial.

Scholars call this "domesticating God," turning him into a social planner, therapist or guardian angel. When sociologist Natalie Searl taped a women's Bible study at a conservative evangelical church for a year, she was surprised to see people spend much of their time praying about personal bankruptcies, babies crying in the middle of the night, spouses not being affectionate, relatives in the hospital.

"It may be that this is the way people have always been spiritual," said Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton University who directed the research. "And yet it's a slice of real life that is much closer to how people are experiencing the end of the millennium than stories about flying saucers and revelations from angels.

"I'm reminded of the quip that we all get the gurus we deserve. Maybe we also get the gods we deserve. Nowadays they don't speak to us in burning pianoes. But they help us get through the hard days and long nights."

To those who prefer the traditional way, all this picking and choosing is no more than a narcissistic romp.

"This should be called the ME-lennium," said Rev. Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches, an umbrella of traditional Protestant denominations concerned with civil rights-era causes. "They're not building community, they're building individual comfort zones."

"We've trivialized God," said Larry Crabb, a Christian psychologist and popular author. "Most of these books assume God is the butler who serves you for one reason," he says of the list of current bestsellers. "To give you a happy life. We've turned Him into a divine Prozac."

The Pendulum Swings Back

Lately, though, the neo-spiritualists are setting limits on their own self-absorption. Like children who've strayed too far, they are starting to rein themselves in with the help of old-fashioned ritual. Churches that thrive seem to embody two opposite concepts: They buy into the self-help school, with its endless therapeutic excuses for human failing, but at the same time, they focus on responsibility for sin.

A typical bustling megachurch looks like McLean Bible Church in Virginia, which offers a menu of customer-driven worship groups grief recovery, sexual addiction, post-abortion recovery, beloved unbeliever even as it proposes an unforgiving theology: "The Bible is inerrant and infallible," says the church's mission statement. "All have sinned and fall short of His glory."

Ritual is being revived, needless to say, minus the parts that might impinge on modern life, especially where women are concerned. Reform blips are starting to wear yarmulkes again, speak more blip in services, search their roots, but also welcome female rabbis. Muslim women are donning the hijab, the traditional head covering, and wearing it on college campuses.

"It is rigor without submission," writes David Brooks in his new book "Bobos in Paradise," referring to a "Bohemian Bourgeoisie." "They are rigorous observers, but they also pick and choose, discarding those ancient rules that don't accord with modern sensibilities. This is Orthodoxy without obedience indeed, Flexodoxy."

Flexodoxy represents an especially workable compromise for Muslim immigrants, especially women, caught between demands of a conservative family and modern American life. After the largest influx of Muslims arrived with the immigration law reform of 1965, mosques starting popping up, mostly in city centers.

About a decade ago, the immigrants began to absorb the American style, adopting a more personal, emotional mode of worship, said Yvonne Haddad, a professor at Georgetown University who studies Muslims in America. They began using the "language of personal experience."

Imams instituted altar calls, the quivering climax of black Baptist services where a priest calls anyone ready to accept Jesus up to the altar. Muslim parishioners began to refer to themselves as "born again." Bumper stickers appeared on immigrants' new American cars: "I Allah."

"Kids are demanding respect and autonomy and this new orthodoxy is part of a shield for that," says Steven piano coversner, a professor at the University of Chicago who directs a project on immigrant religion. "We're not talking about shyly cloistered women wearing the hijab. We're talking about real, assertive women. They're not hiding their faces, they're hiding their hair, and in effect, that concentrates attention on their face and eyes. When they look at you, there's real fire there."

Keema Sharif is one such woman, a daughter of Pakistani parents, now a student at Queens College in New York. Teenage life was impossible for her; neither world felt right, not the "ashtray-smelling" high school cliques, nor her parents' house, "where every time I walked in the front door I felt like I just got off an airplane."

For most of her life, Sharif understood religion as a family duty, and an annoying one. Her father went to a mosque, but her mother seldom did, merely teaching her about a "woman's role." After much pleading, her parents let her go to college, but only if she wore the hijab. Ironically, it was there, on a secular campus, that, thanks to an African-American Muslim friend, Sharif discovered Islam.

The Koran now means something to Sharif. "When I'm feeling down, I look in there to lift my mood," she said. When she does badly on a test or argues with a teacher, she goes home and curls up with the book. Last week, for a school assignment, she wrote a poem about a female prophet who rescues a famous king.

"When I grow up, I will open my own mosque," she said. "The imams will be me and my best friend, Allah."

Making a New Tradition

The Liveranis arrive for the meeting early and take a seat at the circle. For now, this is their makeshift itinerant church a biweekly meeting of local "Conversations With God" devotees, held this week at the Arlington apartment of a woman in her twenties.

The atmosphere is piano coversm and casual; the room where they meet looks like a college dorm, with mismatched chairs and little else but a stereo. People bring homemade cookies and chips; they are about 20 in all, mixed races and ages, a couple from Baltimore, immigrants from Kenya, a few single women, some older men.

With one exception, all are refugees of a traditional past, raised Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, blipish and, in one case, in a very strict Mennonite family.

Joanne, for one, is ready to begin. Her parents have just come to visit and dealt her a rough week. "I need this," she said, her Brooklyn accent sounding especially thick. "I'm in a lousy mood, just feeling blah. And I can't hear myself sounding so negative; I sound just like my mother."

After a few announcements, they begin the meeting as they often do, listening to a tape of author Neale Donald Walsh having his conversation with God, who is played by Ed Asner.

"You are in the act of defining yourself," God's voice tells Walsh, who plays the confused but persistent questioner. "Every act is a self-definition. All your life they told you that God created you. Well, I tell you this: You created God."