Picture a tree with roots spread out in several different directions, says Rev. Nancy Steeves, the minister of Southminster-Steinhauer United in Edmonton.
“The roots of Christianity reach back 2,000 years,” she says. “And they’re very diverse but we always seem to come to a place where they’re squeezed into the trunk of orthodoxy. What pushes through the ground is constrained and identifiable.” Finally, the trunk gives way to branches that reach into as many different directions as the roots.
Steeves feels herself rooted in the Christian tradition as she reaches for “an emerging understanding” of the sacred. “We see spirituality permeating everything,” she says, referring to those in her congregation who feel they have moved beyond the concept of God as a transcendent, personal entity. “It’s like [the Jesuit priest] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said: ‘We are not human beings seeking a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings living a human experience.’”
Like Steeves, eight percent of survey respondents do not conceive of God in personal terms. This includes 12 percent in this category who say they don’t believe in God at all, and 78 percent who say their belief in God depends on what one means by “God” — indicating that they may conceive of God as an abstraction or a sacred but impersonal force. People in this category — let’s call them “nonconformists” — are sometimes labelled non-theists or post-theists. A few could be considered agnostics or even atheists.
Most nonconformists who are willing to offer an opinion on Jesus say he was a reformer or political rebel. “Jesus was a real human who carried a message of reform for the Judaism of his day and wound up inadvertently starting a new religious tradition,” says Thomas Creighton, 80, of Halifax.
Seventy-eight percent agree Jesus was killed because his popularity threatened the authorities of his day, and most believe the story of his resurrection was told to bolster the idea that he was God. “I’ve always known in my heart that the stories we were told were just that: stories,” says Brenda Armstrong, 42, in Leamington, Ont. “I knew the purpose of them was to teach us lessons.”
Nevertheless, many people in this group maintain a sense of spirituality, offering reflections like, “When I picture God, I imagine the unaccountable resonance that I feel when I sing certain old hymns,” or “The open prairie has long been for me an important symbol of the divine, a spaciousness that relativizes.”
“To me, God is a concept that describes the connection of all people to each other and to all living things on the Earth,” says Armstrong, who — like six in 10 of the nonconformists in the survey — believes she feels the presence of the sacred from time to time. “It happens rarely because it takes so many factors to reach the perfect storm,” she says. “But once I felt it at a U2 concert with 20,000 people, all in the moment, experiencing the music. It was amazing.”
Sixty-two percent of nonconformists recorded that they rarely or never pray. But some might do something similar. “I like talking out my hopes and thoughts,” says Creighton. “I don’t know if I’m talking to anyone, but it helps.”
The Bible is seen by 82 percent of nonconformists as a collection of writings by humans trying to advance religious understanding. Most do not rate the Bible as very important to their faith, although some, like Armstrong, see great value in the teachings of Jesus. “He could really think out of the box,” she says. “With his parables, he could see things that other people couldn’t and still can’t.”
Nonconformists take part in the United Church for a variety of reasons. Some were immersed in the Christian tradition earlier in life and grew away from its traditional understandings without rejecting it as a whole. Creighton, for example, grew up singing in church — “I’ve been a choir boy off and on since I was nine” — and he holds great admiration for Christianity’s moral teachings, particularly social justice. “I also love the fellowship it offers,” he says.
There is great concern about climate change among nonconformists. Almost eight in 10 agree that it could lead to human extinction sooner rather than later, and 40 percent consider climate change to be the most pressing issue for United Church people today, “and it is among the most pressing issues for all people,” adds one respondent.
“If you don’t see this life as a dress rehearsal for the next one, and you don’t think this world is going to be replaced when it passes away,” explains Steeves, “then it gives you a heavier sense of responsibility for caring for the world.”
Samantha Rideout is a freelance writer in Montreal.
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