Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Introduction to Celtic Spirituality and Theology

Book Review: J. Philip Newell. Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality. Paulist Press, 1997.

            I have recently immersed myself in some reading in the area of Celtic spirituality, theology and history. In the great sweep of history, it is remarkable that the Celtic worldview was so thoroughly crushed by the authority and control of Roman theology as early as the 7th century. Thus the Celtic vision had, as far as I can tell, no influence on the Protestant Reformation in England, Scotland or Ireland. It is not until much, much later, in the 20th century, that this quiet and gentle stream of Christian theology re-emerged and has been enjoying a grand renewal, now with a rebuilt Iona as a powerful spiritual location. How would our American Presbyterian Church history be different if the Scots, Irish and British Presbyterians who first immigrated here had a theological worldview that included some of the Celtic themes? In a larger sense, the utter crushing of the Celtic worldview by the powerful dominance of the Roman Church begs us to ponder the source and formation of Christian doctrine itself. There were some powerful forces in the realms of international relations and politics that allowed the ascendancy of the Roman perspective and the declaration that the Celtic perspective was heretical. Was this the work of the Holy Spirit? If so, how do we understand the re-emergence of these Celtic themes now, and their popularity today? Is it possible that we got it wrong in the first place? Is it possible that the intention of the Holy Spirit, as demonstrated by the recent, influential rebirth of the Celtic vision, is to help us in the Church realize that there are different viewpoints, perspectives, and worldviews? Maybe the Church is at its best when we learn to respect and hold on to all of them.    

Today J. Philip Newell is one of the leading voices for the reclaiming of the Celtic perspective. I highly recommend his small book as an easy introduction to these questions. The one paragraph copied here introduces many of the deep questions I believe we should ponder:

“The stream of Celtic spiritual, from Pelagius in the fourth century to George MacLeod in the twentieth, is characterized by the expectation of finding God within, of hearing the living voice of God speaking from the very heart of life, within creation and within ourselves. It is a spirituality that recognizes the authority of St. John and reflects his way of looking and listening for God. At the decisive Synod of Whitby in 664, where two distinct ways of seeing, represented by the Celtic and Roman missions, came into conflict, the former allied itself to John. Coleman of Lindisfarne argued that the Celtic tradition originated from St. John, the disciple who was, he said, ‘especially love by our Lord’. Wilfred, on the other hand, argued for the Roman mission, which, he claimed, was based on the authority of St. Peter, whom, he claimed, was based on the authority of the Apostles.’ The tragic outcome of the synod was not that it chose the Roman mission but that it neither made room within the Church for both ways of seeing or declared that both were firmly rooted in the gospel tradition.”

Other resources in Celtic thought:

Esther De Waal. The Celtic Way of Prayer. (Kindle edition).

Grace Clunie. Sacred Living: Practical Inspiration for Celtic Spirituality for the Contemporary Spiritual Journey. (Kindle edition, 2011). (The Rev. Grace Clunie is the Director of The Centre for Celtic Spirituality, Armagh, Northern Ireland.)

The Classics of Western Spirituality. Celtic Spirituality. (Kindle Edition).