‘Celtic Orthodoxy’ – ancient or modern? (iii)

Beyond dualism

Having advanced the idea in the first two parts of this post that there is a common spiritual heritage linking the Celtic nations and Eastern Christianity, I would like to offer a few thoughts suggesting some reasons why this should be emerging (and I use the term in full awareness of the contemporary resonance of the word) at this particular juncture in history. What is it in this spirituality that is proving so appealing at the present time, not least to faith communities in other parts of the world?

All I can do in this present instalment is to sketch an answer to this question; aware that I am doing nothing more than scratching the surface, I would like to take a look at the frequent appearance of both Celtic and Eastern themes in the work of a number of Christian contemporary authors convinced that the Church will only be able to remain relevant for contemporary society if it can move beyond the pathologies of the Western culture of late modernity. As the Franciscan Richard Rohr (for my money one of the most compelling current writers on spirituality, in the lineage of Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen) has pointed out at length,[1] the modern mindset has increasingly tended over the course of the last few centuries to operate in ‘either-or’ categories giving rise to a whole range of largely unhelpful dualisms. These are not difficult to identify: examples would be the West’s typical severance of the head from the heart, the mind from the body, or human beings from the natural world. Using theological categories, one might add the tendency to pit grace against nature, contemplation against social action or Christ against culture. This dualistic mindset of modernity, of  which technology is the expression par excellence (as we have hopefully seen in my recent posts on the thought of Jacques Ellul) is wedded to the idea of knowledge as a form of domination, whereby the sovereign, individual subject manipulates, masters, controls an inert, passive object whose only interest is as something – and by sinister, though logical extension, someone – to be used.

Fr. Richard Rohr (left) with Rita Brock and N.T. Wright. Photo Becky Garrison

This type of thinking has of course produced some impressive results: the whole modern scientific project, founded on the power of rational analysis and empirical research, would be unthinkable without it. I have not met too many people who are not prepared to recognize the benefits of flush toilets or cures for smallpox, and you would not be reading these lines or consulting the webite of Fr. Rohr’s Centre for Action and Contemplation if it were not for semiconductors, fibre-optic cables and the like. There has however been a huge price. On one level this should by now have become glaringly obvious in terms of minor matters such the current ecological crisis, huge economic injustice on a planetary scale, and the development of weaponry capable of annihilating life on earth, but I would argue with Rohr and many others that modernity’s love affair with dualism has also had psychological and relational  consequences for human beings which are no less serious for being intangible. What we have lost, and urgently need to re-acquire, is a vision of Being as Communion (to use the title of John Zizioulas’s ground-breaking study of the 1980s on human personhood). In the dualist scheme of things there is no room for any kind of communion between subject and object, or between Descartes’ res cogitans and res extensa, no sense that both participate in a bigger picture, in a Great Chain of Being that unites them. What you essentially have is a recipe for conflict between opposites: thesis and antithesis, but without the possibility of reconciliation at a higher level of complexity where contradictions become ‘a single reality seen from different angles’, to use a wonderfully telling phrase of Olivier Messiaen (like Rohr a non-dualist and spiritual descendant of St Francis). When communion disappears, the alternative is only too apparent, as a visit to any sprawling urban conurbation will confirm – instead of communities, we are left with mere agglomerations of disconnected human beings herded into proximity with one another but not united by any shared values . People feeling no link to the Transcendent, alienated from their environment, from each other and indeed from their own selves.

An alternative seed?

It is hard not to deny that Western Christianity has often been complicit in this atomization of society; after all, what could be a more tragically faithful mirror of dualistic ‘us-and-them’ thinking than a religion divided into 33000 denominations (and counting). It is therefore not suprising that some of the most perceptive observers of the current state of Christianity are looking around for alternative models of what we mean by the word ‘Church’. This is particularly true of authors who are anxious not to fall into the temptation of  tearing up the rule-book and starting again by jettisoning tradition entirely (as this would be tantamount to replicating the dualistic logic of exclusion), but who rather seek to relativize post-Reformation doctrinal wrangling by appealing in an ecumenical spirit to an older and more authentic tradition of the undivided Church – the legacy of First Millenium Christianity. Writers such as Huston Smith (The Soul of Christianity), Phyllis Tickle (The Great Emergence) or Harvey Cox (The Future of Faith) are figures – all interestingly over 70 – who come to mind here in their attempts to seek renewal of their own Western traditions (Methodist, Episcopal and Baptist respectively) through openness to other Christian faith streams. They can perhaps be described as ‘post-modern’ in their view of religious language as an essentially inadequate human approximation to spiritual, mystical realities, but it would be unfair to see this as a capitulation to a thorough-going relativism, as they argue on solid historical grounds that this apophatic approach to doctrine has not only always characterized the Eastern Church but was also the default position of the first 1200 years of Western Church history. Their vision for the future of Christian faith retrieves ancient spiritual practices as part of a forward-looking critique of modernity which does not simply seek to react to it allergically, but instead challenges the very dualistic framework within which modernity insists that all discussion be conducted. Both Celtic and Eastern Christian spirituality strike these thinkers as deeply attractive because of an essentially holistic character which is confirmed by more specialist studies. As Brendan Lehane remarks in his Early Celtic Christianity, there is a sense in which the history of the Celtic Church in the early centuries as the outpost of the Christian East at Europe’s western edge is rich with contemporary potential. It can be seen as an ‘alternative seed’ whose time is yet to come, combining profound devotion and an openness to the life of the mind with a deep environmental awareness (which the missionaries already encountered and valued as part of the indigenous culture of the Celtic world):

‘Christians of all persuasions have always loved the saints of the Celtic Church and the traditions of sanctity, learning and stewardship for which they stood ; and the Celtic or, as it is also called, the British Church has always represented an ideal for those who have known of it, and not simply as a Golden Age of innocence and purity which, in the words of Nora Chadwick, has “never been surpassed and perhaps been equalled only by the ascetics of the eastern deserts,” but also, and more importantly, as an alternative seed, “a light from the west,” perhaps obscure and even alien, but nevertheless powerful and true with the kind of reality we seem to need today. “If the British Church had survived,” wrote H.J. Massingham, “it is possible that the fissure between Christianity and nature, widening through the centuries, would not have cracked the unity of western man’s attitude to the universe.” This combination of saintliness and ecology is but one aspect of the heritage. The other is made up of the sacred and secular traditions of learning, science, poetry and art, which were seen as the essential concomitants, the frame and the vehicle, whereby God’s purpose for the cosmos, its transfiguration, might be aided and fulfilled.'[2]

This constitutes a broad and inspiring vision that contrasts vividly with the narrowness and exclusivity of so much that passes for organized religion. In this conception there is no rigid polar opposition between immanence and transcendence; the Creator and the creation are certainly distinguished but not alienated from one another. The Word of God is not emphasized at the expense of the Spirit, nor the Oneness of God to the detriment of the three persons of the Trinity. Much contemporary theology has now come to a realization of the contribution of the Eastern Cappadocian Fathers in developing a ‘social’, relational Trinitarian vision (in tension with Augustine’s psychological analogy between the Trinity and the individual human mind with its knowledge of itself and love of itself) in which the difference of the Divine persons is as fundamental as their unity. A similar balance can be found in the famous opening  of St Patrick’s ‘Breastplate’:

I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the
Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession
of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.

Saint Patrick: contemporary icon by Maria Manley

A minority report

Another factor linking these contemporary writers is a deep-seated desire to break with what might be termed ‘Imperial Theology’, epitomized more than anything else by the ‘conversion’ of Constantine and the subsequent establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. [4] This is where the flourishing of Celtic Christianity, in its independence from Rome and centralizing bureaucratic power provides tantalizing food for thought in terms of showing the missional potential of an anti-imperial spirituality and ecclesiology. This is put succinctly by Brian McLaren in terms that could have come straight from Ellul’s Subversion of Christianity (1984) or the ideas already set out by Jürgen Moltmann in The Church in the Power of the Spirit in 1975:

‘What we have called Christianity for 1,500 years in the West turns out to be a Greco-Roman version of Christianity. There’s been a lot of talk already about the Greek influence on Christianity. But I think we’ve underestimated the Roman captivity of Christianity from those early centuries when Greco-Roman philosophy was becoming the tool of Roman domination of the empire.
The problem is that this process led to a connection between Christianity and systems of power and domination throughout Christianity that sure look antithetical to the way of Jesus.
We’ve mentioned the Celts. Well, the early Celtic Christians represented this minority report on the way of being Christian that wasn’t Roman –- and it flowered in one era, but was domesticated again by the Romans.
You can make a pretty strong case that St. Francis himself represented a re-flowering of the non-Roman, Celtic approach to faith. And I’m sure this is a speculative idea as I’m describing it here –- but I think that Francis represented an alternative idea much like what the Celtic missionaries spread through Europe.'[4 ]

A similar thought is expressed by Graydon Snyder in Irish Jesus – Roman Jesus, emphasizing that what is at stake is not merely the possibility of distancing ourselves from a shameful and violent past in which Christianity has all too often made unforced sacrifices to the idols of worldly power. This is also a quest for paradigms shaping the current engagement of the Church with the world:

‘Why is Christianity, as Westerners know it, Roman rather than Irish? Is Roman Christianity the best and only way to convey the Jesus tradition to other cultures? […] These questions are nearly impossible to answer, yet they are critically important to a Christian world seeking new life and new forms.’[5]

What role can a recuperation of Eastern Orthodox tradition play in this attempt to construct an alternative, de-imperialized Christian narrative? It might at first sight hardly seem credible to appeal to Byzantium as ‘anti-Roman’ given that even today the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch bears the official title ‘Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome’; what could be more theocratic and imperial than the magnificence on the Bosphorus celebrated by Yeats in his yearning for the Age of Justinian? However, authors such as Diana Butler Bass (in her eloquent People’s History of Christianity) are quick to point to the East’s critical theological voices, whether that of St John Chrysostom, whose tenet that ‘the desire to rule is the mother of all heresies’ led him into conflict with the empress Eudoxia,[6] or of the Desert Fathers intent on preserving true spirituality against its compromise with imperial power. As I argued in part ii) of this post, it was this ascetic strain of Eastern Christian thought and practice, rooted in radical poverty – another ‘minority report’ of sorts -, which  seems to have found its way to the Celtic lands, not collusion with Empire.[7]

At this point it scarcely matters whether the current Western retrieval of Celtic and Orthodox spirituality (as well as that of other ‘counter-narratives’ to the conflation of secular and spiritual authority such as those of the intinerant medieval orders, or later the Anabaptists and Quakers) is historically accurate. The present appropriation of an ancient heritage is not the expression of a desire to ressuscitate a lost past in all its minutiae but rather a search for inspiration, sifting history for elements suitable for integration within a dynamic and flexible model for future development. After all, the authority of any spiritual tradition does not lie in its antiquity alone, as much as in the authenticity of lived experience it conveys and in its generative power for the present.

This mention of the generative power of the past brings us back to the starting-point of this series of posts: contemporary art. The East-West musical conversation currently in progress at the edges of Europe may refer to seemingly archaic sources, but the resulting output is without doubt on the cutting-edge of artistic praxis. Here we are confronted with a strange paradox; compared with the settings of texts going back to the roots of Judeo-Christian tradition by Pärt, Silvestrov, Tavener or others, the products of the high modernism of the post-war era (the heyday of integral serialism and musique concrète) now appear as dated as 1960s high-rise blocks. It is in the art of creative memory, not in acts of cultural iconoclasm and violent rupture with the past that true radicalism may perhaps best be found.

For those artists wishing to do something genuinely new at a time when many are proclaiming that everything has already been tried, the lesson would seem to be this – you might do worse than to scour history for what has been forgotten.


[1] A podcast featuring a fascinating introduction by Richard Rohr to the subject of ‘non-dual thinking’ and its relationship to Christian mystical tradition can be downloaded here from http://www.homebrewedchristianity.com . Also highly recommended is audio of Fr. Rohr’s recent Fuller Seminary lecture on Emerging Christianity and the contemplative tradition.
[2] Brendan Lehane, Early Celtic Christianity (London : Continuum, 2005), 9-10.
[3] This last point is perhaps not as speculative as McLaren – whose friendship with Richard Rohr ought not to surprise us – makes out here. Not only have many commentators noticed the similarity in lifestyle and ‘creation spirituality’ between the Franciscans and the Celtic monks, but George Hunter III, Distinguished Professor of World Mission at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of the influential book The Celtic Way of Evangelism, has claimed that Francis’s love for the animal world was kindled at the monastery of Bobbio, a foundation of St Columba (see ‘How the Irish spread the Gospel’ at http://www.holytrinitynewrochelle.org/yourti17376.html). Indeed, the following verse of Patrick’s ‘Breastplate’ could easily have been penned in Assisi rather than Ireland:

I arise today, through the strength of Heaven:
light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendour of Fire,
speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea,
stability of Earth, firmness of Rock.

[4] The thesis of a ‘Constantinian Fall of the Church’ is of course not a new one, and can be traced back to the Anabaptists in the sixteenth century. While Luther and Calvin held a similar view of church history, they dated the fall to the papal assumption of temporal power (by Boniface III and Gregory the Great respectively), whereas the Anabaptists laid the blame squarely at the feet of Constantine, as is clear from an Anabaptist tract published in Augsburg in 1530: ‘There was not among the Christians of old at the time of the apostles until the Emperor Constantine any temporal power or sword’
(quoted in William Roscoe Estep, The Anabaptist Story, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 243).
[5] Graydon Snyder, Irish Jesus – Roman Jesus: the Formation of Early Irish Christianity (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 1-2.
[6] While it is clear that Eastern Orthodoxy has its own historical demons with which to deal, such as the dark side of pan-Slavic nationalism, whose destructive potential was made painfully obvious during the conflicts in the ex-Yugoslavia of the 1990s, many have also found inspiration in the witness of twentieth-century Orthodox Christians in terms of their underground resistance to Communism. The practice of Friday evening prayer around the Cross incorporated by Roger Schütz into the worship of the Taizé Community was for example a direct result of the Taizé brothers’ clandestine contact with Christians in Moscow – a telling example of the implicit socio-political dimension of contemplation.
[7] See Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 67-70.


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