In April 2010, I travelled to the Isle of Iona in Scotland as a spiritual pilgrimage (and also to do a little birding). Every evening and morning for ten days, I worshiped in the Abbey. It was there that I was first seized by Celtic spirituality; it resonated deeply and touched on beliefs and perceptions I had long forgotten. When I returned to Tuckerton, I incorporated many Celtic elements into the liturgy at First Presbyterian; especially during the season of Lent when we sang the songs of Iona to guide our journey. Celtic spirituality is known for its creation undertones.
Less than a year after that trip, I began the DMin program at Palmer. The first course was designed to help us delve more deeply into our own theology and spirituality, with the goal of moving us onward toward personal transformation. The premise of the course was that unless you know and have experienced something about renewal yourself, it will be fruitless to try and lead it in others.
On the first day, in the first lecture, the professor introduced Process Theology as an entry into a discussion on theological anthropology (meaning, our relationship as humans before God). We considered the work of Marjorie Suchocki, who teaches that “Process theology sees the universe as creative, inter-relational, dynamic, and open to the future. God is relational, present in every moment of our lives and in all entities and levels of being. The world is interconnected, in effect a giant ecosystem, where what harms or blesses one, harms or blesses all.” Process theology holds a very high view of mankind (anthropology), asserting that humans are essentially good and have unlimited potential since we are created in the image of God. Unfortunately, we fall into destructiveness by our own choice.
As intended, it was a provocative lecture. Process theology was new to me and it flew in the face of the reformed theology of my tradition. Reformed theology espouses the five points of John Calvin, known as T.U.L.I.P. :
Total Depravity (also known as Original Sin)
Perseverance of the Saints
I’ve always had trouble with “T” and “L.” Does this make me a heretic? Process theology offered solutions I hadn’t heard or considered before. As I’ve learned more about it however, I’m aware that there are some irreconcilable issues with process theology. For starters, it has a low Christology and it purports God’s only power is the power of influence. A Lutheran theologian once said that “the only thing wrong with process theology is that it is such an attractive alternative to Christianity.”
But couldn’t it be that we are essentially good and not essentially sinful, as reformed theology teaches? Not only that , but I cannot believe that Christ’s atonement is for the “elect” only — I don’t even believe in the elect! Jesus Christ is for the whole creation. I didn’t make a connection between Celtic spirituality and process theology until recently – and there are some similarities. My tradition of Presbyterianism seems to be able to hold both Celtic Spirituality and Reformed theology together, in loose tension. Until recently I hadn’t really considered the points of conflict. Are they opposed approaches to God? Can they peacefully co-exist? It seems I am living proof they can...or else I’ve just been clueless about the disparities.
A friend and colleague directed me to the writings of John Philip Newell, a resident theologian at Iona. I read Listening for the Heartbeat of God when I returned from Israel this spring. It is influencing my beliefs in ways that I could not have predicted at this point in my theological development. The book recounts the history of Celtic Spirituality throughout the centuries. In 664, a mission to the Synod of Whitby by Lindisfarne (through Iona) claimed the authority of the apostle John. A concurrent and conflicting mission by Augustine (by way of Rome) claiming the authority of Peter was also considered at the Synod. Each mission presented different spiritual approaches. The Celtic mission remembered that John was the beloved disciple who leaned against Jesus at the Last Supper. He had become an image for the practice of listening for the heartbeat of God at the heart of life — in all Creation. The Roman mission argued for the authority of Peter and therefore favored listening for God in the ordained teaching and life of the Church. The decision at the Synod of Whitby favored the Roman mission and so Augustinian theology became orthodoxy and the authorized religion of the land. The message of the Celtic mission began to fade, though it never disappeared altogether. It even went “underground” for a time, and survived unmarred for centuries. In some people’s eyes, my bent toward Celtic Spirituality might indeed qualify me as a heretic.
But Newell’s writings revive and explore Celtic Spirituality as orthodox theology. He writes:
“The feature of Celtic spirituality that is probably the most widely recognized both within and outside the Church, is its creation emphasis...Like most children, I had grown up with a sense of awe at creation. Our earliest memories are generally of wonder in relation to the elements. Do we not all carry within us, for instance, something of the memory of first listening to the waters of a river or to rainfall, or lying in the grass, feeling and smelling it and seeing its brilliant green, or watch sunlight dappling through the leaves? Connected to these moments will be recollections of experiencing at the deepest of levels a type of communion with God in nature, but there will usually have been very little in our religious traditions to encourage us to do much more than simply thank God for creation. The preconception behind this is that God is separate from creation. How many of us were taught to actually look for God within creation and to recognize the world as the place of revelation and the whole of life as sacramental?” (Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God, p. 3)
I am captivated by the possibilities of Celtic Spirituality as a lens through which we might glean a deeper understanding of the Kingdom of God among us in Creation and the Lord of Heaven and Earth among us in Jesus Christ. It is part of an ancient stream of contemplative spirituality stretching back to the Beloved Disciple, and even before him to the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament.
Listen with me, if you will, to the song of Creation that sings and pulsates with the lifeblood of God.