For 40 years Joe Merlo told me he was a man born before his time.

When I learned of his death last week, I suddenly realized: He was right.

Born near Venice, Italy, Joe (Giuseppe) moved to Mexico City as a young man to embrace his destiny. He was a disciple of spiritual leaders like Krishnamurti and Edgar Casey — writers and thinkers who thrived on the fringes of religion until, in recent years, they have slowly seeped into the mainstream.

Joe was New Age decades before people realized they lived in a new age.

He was a guru before people knew what a guru was.

In 1974 he became my father-in-law.

When we spoke, our discussions were always spirited and spiritual and usually frustrated us both. He believed deeply in "received wisdom." He felt people should simply accept certain facts because divine guides believed them. He believed in reincarnation and the healing power of pyramids. Every light in the sky was a possible UFO for Joe, every bump in the dark sounded like a disembodied soul.

He wrote several books, most of them cut-and-paste volumes that incorporated a dash of Christianity, a pinch of Zen and a full helping of New Age philosophy and shamanism. And in third-world Mexico, where magical thinking is the norm, such a mixture went down like a dinner. Joe appeared at conferences, spoke on the radio and gave seminars. He healed people of their ills and started their watches.

But what made him a man before his time was his way of blending religious traditions. Believers in the United States, according to recent polls, are slowly edging toward Joe's brand of smorgasbord religion. We are becoming a nation of spiritual pickers and choosers.

In a country like ours, where people insist on having soda water flavored to their tastes, the idea of customized religion is a natural step.

Do you like Christianity but are uncomfortable with notions of sin? Well, simply peel off what troubles you and hold to the things that don't.

The same goes for Buddhism, Hinduism and Kabbalah Judism.

Americans, more and more, not only express their individuality in their clothing and diets, but in their religious beliefs.

Where all this will lead us, I don't know.

I know Alexis de Tocqueville said France had a thousand sauces and two religions while America had two sauces and a thousand religions. He also said each American citizen was a democracy of one.

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Combine those two thoughts and you get each American slowly becoming a religion of one.

This is a new development.

Americans in the past never felt brazen enough to pick and choose among religious traditions and precepts.

Now we do.

But then my friend Joe Merlo was doing that same thing back in the 1950s.

His passing will not be noted by the New York Times or even the Mexico City Excelsior. But the world of religion is a little less colorful and interesting this week, because Giuseppe Merlo Aliprandi — a one-of-a-kind original — has gone home.