When Lorna Kettles hit her 50s, she felt more interested in approaching God than ever before. As a new empty nester, the Ottawa resident had a lot of time for reflection. Soon she set off on the Camino de Santiago, a centuries-old pilgrimage route across northern Spain. Taking her time by foot along dusty roads that reminded her of Saskatchewan, she felt herself on a spiritual journey. “I have experiences of God in nature,” she says. “It’s a feeling of peace and serenity.”
Feelings and experiences have informed believers’ concepts of God ever since the early days of Christianity. According to the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul radically changed his religious beliefs after a direct experience of God on the road to Damascus. In the Middle Ages, Christian mystics such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross described the pain and joy of feeling united with God.
To the survey segment we’ll call “intuitives,” feeling the presence or reality of God is an important part of their faith. Those in this group, making up 35 percent of respondents, don’t perceive God with sight, hearing or any of the five senses. Rather, they intuit a feeling of God as something either beyond themselves (43 percent) or within themselves (51 percent). All claim to have a relationship with God, though some feel it to be close while others say it is on-again, off-again or ambiguous. Eight in 10 would like to feel God’s presence more often.
In defining God, intuitives are generally comfortable with ambiguity and metaphor: half chose the statement “God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge” as a good description of their faith, while four in 10 chose “God has created and is creating. God works in us and others by the Spirit.” Intuitives are also open to different ways of imagining God. For example, over 80 percent are comfortable with feminine imagery. At the same time, as several respondents put it, “I don’t picture God; I feel God.”
Intuitives are more likely to be women, over the age of 50 and highly educated, holding a university or graduate degree. They are most commonly found in Quebec and New Brunswick, where they are 56 and 46 percent of the respondents, respectively.
Some members of this group incorporate Jesus into their relationship with God, and others do not. Like the overall majority of respondents, 68 percent of intuitives relate to Jesus as a role model for living. One quarter think of him as the son of God, while most agree he was a prophet (69 percent) or a political rebel (58 percent). “I guess I have trouble interpreting God through Jesus,” admits Kettles. “I prefer to go directly to the source.”
Alice Finnamore, on the other hand, has no trouble seeing Jesus as a representation of God in human form. The 54-year-old New Brunswicker and author of The Glory of Being: A Biblical Journey into Abundance feels that Jesus is her constant companion. “There are times when I feel more aware than usual of his presence,” she says. “But my belief is that he’s always there. I often talk to him, and listen.”
Intuitives are inclined to explore religious possibilities and question established understandings. The Bible is of middling importance to their faith, with the largest segment of them rating it “three” on a scale of importance from one to five. About six in 10 read the Bible at least once a month. The same proportion chose to describe it as a library of Jewish and Christian resources.
For some in this group, the Bible can enhance their experience of God. “The Bible plays a big role in my faith, even though I don’t look at it the way I used to,” says Finnamore. “It has become part of my relationship with Jesus, and I read a portion every day. Some days I read something, and it really speaks to me. Other times it’s like, ‘Oh well, this is just a story today.’”
Prayer is important to the spiritual lives of intuitives, and for some, worship plays a role as well. “I like to take a step back and centre myself,” says Kettles, who enjoys how worship services force her to take time away from her busy schedule. “I come out of it more calm and ready for the rest of the week.”
Intuitives have no strong consensus on how life began, but they accept the reality of climate change and agree that humans are morally responsible to protect the world because of their ability to reason. Most believe humans and animals have souls, and 40 percent believe plants do as well. Nearly all believe our souls live on in some form after death.
Rev. Bruce Sanguin of Canadian Memorial United in Vancouver shares an experiential orientation with the respondents in this group. In fact, he says, people flocked to Jesus “because they could see that he spoke as one with authority; in other words, as one who had direct experience of the Holy.” He feels religion should go beyond telling us about God and actually encourage us to have a direct experience of the Divine. “We are to know God for ourselves,” he says. “The manual is not thrown out. But neither is it a substitute for immediate experience of the sacred. Rather, tradition, rituals and sacred texts point beyond themselves to the Holy, whom we are meant to be in relationship with.”
“Beliefs,” continues Sanguin, “like personalities and social institutions, come and go. Intellectual assent is less important than direct knowledge.”
Samantha Rideout is a freelance writer in Montreal.
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