That 'New Thought' Religion

A diverse group of seekers arrives at religious science's spiritual shore

BY: Cathy Lynn Grossman
USA Today

 
Los Angeles--Sunday morning services at the Agape International Spiritual Center, a church of Religious Science, marry sense and spirit. The air tickles with patchouli as 1,500 people crowd into a warehouse-turned-church in suburban Los Angeles. The view swirls with humanity dressed from dashiki to Armani to aloha, coiffed in every style from the pastor's dreadlocks to starlet platinum manes to aged silver buns.

Hands fold in stillness, flutter overhead in spontaneous joy, clasp unhesitantly on friend and stranger alike. Waves of hugs embrace the room from the first greetings to the final affirmations. Sound wells up from silence. The 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. services begin with meditation. Rickie Byars Beckwith leads the music, which taxis from a whispering "om" to jet open throttle into jubilation and supplication proclaiming God within and all around.

The Rev. Michael Beckwith, founder of this church congregation, delivers his empowering sermon at full voice, proclaiming everyone's "potentiality" while zipping around the pulpit like a soccer forward. "It's not the Lutheran church where I grew up," says Abby Elliott. "It's never boring or fearful or full of guilt." Agape is a "transdenominational" church of today.

In an era when many claim they are spiritual but not religious and turn away from institutions, authority and text, Agape seems to meet their longing for connection and celebration without fretting over theological niceties or doctrinal demands on faith or practice. There's no talk of damnation here. No yesterday. "We don't believe you are born into sin. We are born into blessings. While some seek salvation, we call it 'self-elevation,'" says Beckwith, acknowledging that Christians might call this blasphemy.

"We're not here to tell God what to do or to ask God for things but to absolutely be available for what God is already doing, to open ourselves up to catch what's already happening," says Beckwith, who calls his church an amalgam of "new thought" and ancient wisdom teachings.

It's a crossroads for myriad spiritual experiences, virtually none of them Christian. At Agape, it is taught that the kingdom of heaven is within everyone already, that Jesus is not the only access to grace. Yet familiar hymns and gospel rhythms weave through several songs, and snippets of Scripture float through Beckwith's sermons.

Six copies of the Bible languish on a bottom shelf in the well-stocked Quiet Mind Book Store amid thousands of books including shelf-loads of pop psychologists, gurus, goddesses, mystics and masters of self-healing, self-love and transformation such as Queen Afua of the Sacred Afrikan Order.

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