Christ of the Celts

Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation; by J. Philip Newell

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  1. Whether you consider yourself a “mainstream Christian” or not (but especially if you do) this short book is enlightening.

    In it you will find an entirely new (actually entirely old) version of Christianity. By old, I mean back to the Synod of Whitby (664 CE), when the early Christian Church decided to go with the customs, teachings, doctrines, usages, etc, of the Romans instead of the Celts.

    It’s hard to imaging how vastly different today’s Christianity would be (better, daresay) if the decision at Whitby was pro-Celtic, not pro-Roman.

    For example, consider (to quote the book) “… the doctrine of original sin, a belief that has dominated the landscape of Western Christian thought and practice since the fourth century. It teaches that what is deepest in us is opposed to God rather than of God. It means that we are essentially ignorant rather than bears of light, that we essentially ugly rather than rooted in divine beauty, that we are essentially selfish rather then made in the image of love – the list goes on and on. It is a doctrine that disempowers us … The consequences both individually and collectively have been disastrous.” p. 19

    Does this doctrine of Original Sin strike anyone else as hurtful?

    It is interesting to me that historical accidents and agendas led us toward, and not away from, the doctrine of Original Sin. It was in large part the debate between Saint Augustine and Pelagius in the 4th and 5th C. that presaged the Synod of Whitby in 664 CE, when the leaders of the early Christian Church(es) were struggling with the direction in which to take the church.

    They decided to go with the customs, teachings, doctrines, usages, etc, of the Romans instead of the Celts. It’s hard to imagine how vastly different today’s Christianity would be (better, daresay) if the decision at Whitby was pro-Celtic, not pro-Roman.

    “Pelagius was, unlike St. Augustine, convinced of man’s original goodness or at least of his perfectibility based on his free will, while St. Augustine supported the doctrine of original sin and man’s corruptibility which made God’s grace necessary for salvation. The former insisted on man’s dignity and personal relationship with God, the latter on humbleness and obedience to the Church.” – From Vesna Lopičić, Facta Universitatis, Series: Linguistics and Literature Vol. 5, No 1, 2007, pp. 11 – 18; Culture Studies between Fact and Fiction: The Synod of Whitby and Its Interpretations.

    Indeed, I think that Augustine and his doctrine of Original Sin has caused more harm to generations of Christians, and to Christianity itself, than perhaps any other person. Christian writer Karen Armstrong makes this point:

    “Some Western Christians read the story [of Adam and Eve] as a factual account of the Original Sin that condemned the human race to everlasting perdition. But this is a peculiarly Western Christian interpretation and was introduced controversially by Saint Augustine of Hippo only in the early 5th century. The Eden story has never been understood in this way in either the Jewish or the Orthodox Christian traditions.” The Case for God, p. 120

    Augustine was an intolerant, misogynist, depressive man who suffered much, not only from his own hurtful repression, but from the calamitous, barbaric, vicious and violent time in which he lived…

    “This [the time in which he lived] is the context of Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin, one of his less positive contributions to Western theology. He produced and entirely novel exegesis of the second and third chapters of Genesis, which claimed that the sin of Adam had condemned all his descendants to eternal damnation. Despite the salvation wrought by Christ, humanity was still weakened by what Augustine called “concupiscence,” the irrational desire to take pleasure in beings instead of God itself. It was experienced most acutely in the sexual act, when our reasoning powers are swamped by passion, God is forgotten, and creatures revel shamelessly in one another. The specter of reason dragged down by the chaos of lawless sensation reflected in the tragedy of Rome, source of order, law, and civilization, brought low by the barbarian tribes. Jewish exegetes had never seen the sin of Adam in this catastrophic light, and the Greek Christians, who were not affected by the barbarian scourge, have never accepted the doctrine of Original Sin. Born in grief and fear, this doctrine and has left Western Christians with a difficult legacy that linked sexuality indissolubly with sin and helped to alienate men and women from their humanity.” Ibid, p. 122

    To quote the Newell book below, “… the doctrine of original sin, a belief that has dominated the landscape of Western Christian thought and practice since the fourth century. It teaches that what is deepest in us is opposed to God rather than of God. It means that we are essentially ignorant rather than bears of light, that we essentially ugly rather than rooted in divine beauty, that we are essentially selfish rather then made in the image of love – the list goes on and on. It is a doctrine that disempowers us … The consequences both individually and collectively have been disastrous.” p. 19

    Thoughts?

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    Another gem of Celtic Christianity: Respect for matter (this is probably why the Celtic cross has a circle at its center, a symbol of the sun, moon, universe, etc):

    “As Macleod later said, ‘Christ is vibrant in the material world, not just in the spiritual world.’ Or as Teilhard put it, ‘At the heart of matter is the heart of God.’… What we do to matter, therefore, is at the heart of our spirituality, whether that be a matter of our bodies and how we touch one another in relationship individually and collectively, whether that be the matter of the earth’s energies and how we handle and share its goodness, or whether that be the matter of the body politic and how we approach one another’s sovereignty as nations. These are holy matters.” Newell, Christ of the Celts, p. 96-99

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    The Christian doctrine of vicarious or substitutionary atonement, from a Celtic perspective:

    “Another major disharmony in our Western Christian inheritance … is the notion of God needing to be paid to forgive us, the cross as a type of blood sacrifice to purchase salvation for sinful humanity. Does this not fly in the face of everything we most deeply know about love? Think of the people who have truly loved us in our lives. Would they ever require payment to forgive? And yet the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, in which the death of Christ is viewed as a substitute payment for the life of our souls, has been allowed to occupy central ground in the landscape of Christian teaching and practice.” p. xv-xvi. From Christ of the Celts.

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    My daughters and I were talking about various conceptions of God a few days ago, with age-appropriate language of course – eg, the God-as-being of Heidegger and Tillich; the jealous, vengeful, violent God of the Old Testament; the kinder, gentler, but still personal, God of the New Testament – and as we were talking about the concern that many have about the problems associated with a personal God (eg, Karen Armstrong’s in the comment section for The Case for God), we came upon a third gem of Celtic Spirituality:

    “The doctrine of individual salvation [is] an obstacle in recovering our sense of oneness of the universe. It gives the impression that one part can be complete with the other parts are broken. It would be like saying that I can be well when my child is suffering or that any of us can be complete when our nation is being false to itself or that we as a human race can be healthy when the body of the earth is infected. It runs counter to everything we know about the body of reality. Wholeness not come in isolation. It comes in relation to the whole. And so as we ask the question “Who is Christ for us today?” it is increasingly meaningless to answer with the traditional teaching that he is the Savior of our individual souls. In what sense can individual strands be torn from the one fabric of reality and be considered complete?” Christ of the Celts, J Philip Newell, p.xvii

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