Do you think feelings and intuition trump revelation?
- Mr. Trump
Dear Mr. Trump:
I think that feelings and intuition are among the tools which allow us to discern revelation.
In guiding our beliefs and our actions, a number of Christian teachers — John Wesley likely being the most famous among them — have suggested that we draw upon a balance of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. We might paraphrase Wesley and Co. by saying that we equip ourselves to hear God’s voice when we read the Bible, when we consider the wisdom of our ancestors, when we employ tools such as evidence and logic, and when we pay careful attention to the paths upon which we walk. I would be inclined to put feelings and intuition into the final category: they are a vital aspect of our experience.
Moments of revelation — those instances in which God speaks to an individual or to a community — tend to be subtle. God prefers to whisper rather than to shout. For every pillar of fire or voice thundering forth from a cloud, there are countless more moments in which we can only just make out God’s footsteps. Thus, revelation is something that it’s easy for us to miss or to misinterpret: we often don’t realize that we are standing before the shining face of the numinous until we discover how to look more deeply.
The gentle and surprising nature of revelation and the vital role which experience plays in it is attested throughout scripture and throughout our lives. Think of Jacob, who is startled to find God through the dream of the ladder; of Samuel, who doesn’t clue in that God is calling in the night until Eli invites him to listen with new ears; of Mary Magdalene, who mistakes the risen Jesus for a gardener until he speaks her name. In your own life, think of those moments of “yes” — to love, to vocation, to compassion — which arrive with sudden and quiet clarity through the voice of a friend, through an afternoon of solitude, through an experience of beauty, or through still another moment of simple understanding.
I suspect that John Wesley and his friends put experience last in their four-fold batting order not because it is the weakest hitter but, rather, because they knew from their own lives that it is the final place through which revelation must pass before we accept it into our hearts. (In the story of his conversion, Wesley famously spoke of feelings: “I felt,” he said, “my heart strangely warmed”). Revelation is always verified by feelings or intuition. That’s true even with respect to a religion’s most basic tenets. Consider, for instance, the Christian belief that the Bible is the Word of the Lord. Paul’s second letter to Timothy may testify that “All Scripture is God-breathed,” millions of our ancestors may agree, and the claim may pass the test of our reason. But, because belief is something that we may never incontrovertibly prove, it still remains for us to intuit whether or not Paul got things right before the Bible becomes integral to our own understanding of the divine.
When our intuition allows us to say “yes” to revelation, we enter into a place of humble trust in God. In this place, we are set free to say not, “I believe,” but, rather, “I know.” I can’t prove that I am loved by my parents, my wife, my children, or my friends: I just know. I can’t prove that the music of Benjamin Britten or the poetry of Emily Dickinson shines with a numinous truth: I just know. I can’t prove that we all are God’s beloved children: I just know.
When we find this place of gentle knowing, there is no need to speak of one thing trumping another. This isn’t a card game. Rather, we may speak of one thing completing another. In moments of revelation, scripture, tradition, reason and experience sing in harmony.
I guess that all of this might be mere intuition. But I have this feeling that intuition is a door which often reveals something extraordinary.
Do you have a question about ethical decision making, living a faithful life or theology? Leave a comment below or send your question for Martin Elfert to firstname.lastname@example.org.