Local and Universal

Christianity claims to be a universal spirituality: it’s for all people, at all times, in all places. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,” Jesus instructs his followers at the close of the Gospel of Matthew. All the nations: everyone is invited. It’s not just for Jewish folks, or people from the Middle East, or people of European ancestry. It’s for everybody. As a monotheistic faith, it worships a God who is seen to be the One God for all people and places. No matter what your cultural or social or ethnic background might be, Christianity says that what it has to offer is just right for you.

But we live in an age that has begun to deeply question the idea that one culture, or one ideology, or one set of values or ethics, is right for all people. Take business for example: many of us reject the idea that more Wal-Marts and more McDonalds’ and more Coca-Cola is the happy goal of American commerce. On the contrary, more and more of us have begun to reject the multi-national corporations that destroy other businesses — and unique local cultures — with their ubiquitous “mono-culture” as problematic, instead seeking to support businesses that are locally owned, locally operated, and responsive to local needs and concerns.

So if Christianity is the one-size-fits-all religion of universal applicability, perhaps it has a shadow side as bad as anything Wal-Mart or Coca-Cola can dish out to local economies that are forever altered in the wake of their expansionist policies.

Pagan and indigenous spiritualities, traditionally, are local rather than universal in their orientation and scope. Polytheistic spiritualities honor many different gods and goddesses in part because so many local variations exist within a given spiritual culture. In the Celtic lands, for example, many deities are anchored in a specific place, where a cult of devotion or worship might develop — but down the river, or on the other side of the mountain, or the next forest over, a different group of people (tribe, clan, kindred) venerate different deities.

I’m not suggesting that every Christian ought to become a polytheist. But I do think this question is worth answering: in a world created good, with amazing biological and cultural diversity, how are we to integrate the strengths of Christianity as a universal faith with the many unique circumstances and needs of endless different local communities, nations and ethnicities?

One of the reasons why I remain so interested in “Celtic Christianity” is because it — the Christian culture that emerged in Ireland, Wales, and the other Celtic lands, largely outside the sphere of the influence of the Roman Empire — represents one way of approaching the challenge of integrating a universalizing spirituality with local needs and cultural expressions. A form of Christianity that is not afraid to questions itself, or Christianity as a whole, or the relationship between the liberating gospel and the human tendency to create conformist religious institutions, is an expression of Christianity that can provide insight into addressing the universal/local problem. And Celtic forms of Christianity seem to fall into this category.

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  1. One of the things that Catholicism has over Protestant Christianity is its emphasis on the saints: every saint shows a different aspect of God through his or her particular (aka local) relationship with God. In this respect, Christianity is much more like an economy based on local businesses (ie cults of the saints) than it is on a one-size-fits-none monoculture like Wal-Mart.

  2. Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Albanian Orthodox…all are who they are, and all are Orthodox.

  3. I think that the national church culture in Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, the cult of the saints and the variety of religious orders in Catholicism, and the sheer sectarianism within Protestantism, are all manifestations of the universal/local problem. None of them are perfect answers, but all represent ways in which this tension has played out over the history of the church.

  4. Infinite Warrior says:

    “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.”

    Problem number one is that “nation” is a mistranslation and should never have been (or be) applied to “nations” as we understand the term today. “Nations” in this passage refers to the tribes of Israel in Jesus’ day as does the exhortation found in Matthew 10:5-6. “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.”

    Jesus, the man, really wasn’t too concerned about how well those outside his own culture were faring spiritually. His concern was with the well-being of his own people and the fact that they were being misguided by those who should have known better. It is both our great misfortune and great fortune that this has been neither clearly understood nor taught by many Christian religious leaders over the centuries. The great misfortune is, of course, that devastating wars have been fought in the name of the religion and that there are scores of Christians running around out there today convinced it is their mission in life to convert, not only Jews, but everyone else in the world to Christianity, the religion. The great fortune is that what is universal in Jesus’ teachings have been preserved and passed down relatively unscathed.

    “Conversion” in all the religions applies to a metanoia of consciousness from human to “divine” (or fully “in tune” with the Divine) and not the exchange of one set of beliefs for another, which is the form it normally takes. Hidden at the core of all our wisdom traditions, however, are universal truths and values (such as “the Golden Rule”) we all share and which, I believe, are fast-rising to the surface in our times.

    Non-commercial Christianity, at least, is one lifestream flowing in a vast ocean of consciousness. It, like all the others, has been a source both of light and darkness, but the “emergent” and “organic” varieties obviously desire to effect an Integral era of awareness and consciousness that still respects the unique heritage of all our various and vibrant cultures.

    It’s actually quite a wonder to behold and if it’s not “the Spirit of God [moving] on the waters of the deep” we are witnessing today, I’m sure I don’t know what is.

  5. I very much like Infinite Warrior’s response to this. All religions offer gnosis / metanoia /enlightenment / theosis (I realise these terms are not interchangeable). Why would the Divine only reveal itself to one tiny cult in the Middle East, which then took centuries to spread everywhere else? The Divine is always and everywhere revealing itself, in the beauty of the world in which it is immanent.

    I think it’s worth comparing the way Christianity was spread with the way that Buddhism was spread.

    Both spread on the backs of empires, but Buddhism mostly respected indigenous traditions and left them alone; Buddhism was an add-on, an extra layer of the cake, rather than a replacement. Also, different schools of Buddhism had dialogue with each other, rather than dismissing the others as wrong or heretical. (There may well have been persecutions in the history of Buddhism, but by and large, the way the religion functions is inherently pluralist.)

    I am sure that we are all aware of the history of Christian evangelism, so I won’t bother rehearsing it here, although notable exceptions from the norm are indeed Celtic & Orthodox Christianity, which took on the wisdom of indigenous traditions and allowed people to continue with their customs if they weren’t in conflict with Christian ideals. But they didn’t let people continue honouring their gods, whereas Buddhism did.

  6. I think, moving forward, it is essential that Christians find another way to share the Christ story than by demonizing indigenous spirituality and demanding assent to propositional religion. I agree that an important clue to this lies in the etymology of metanoia and theosis. Likewise, the culture of Christianity still needs to do a lot of divesting of its early unholy alliance with the zeitgeist of the Roman Empire. What will be left may not look very much like institutional Christianity as we know it; but I suspect it will be a lot closer to Jesus’ own vision for spiritual transformation.

  7. we have too much intellectualised spirituality which still leaves us starved.
    kahlil gibran s words make sense……….when you thirst and the well is full your thirst is unquenchable
    i live in ireland , i am irish and live in an areawhere in a 5 mile radius there are at least 30 holy sites………..saint patrick and saint bridghid often

  8. I agree with a number of previous posts on this topic. What comes to mind for me is the realization that the Holy has always been speaking to humanity as a whole, but in ways each culture can comprehend, at least in the very basic of truths which bind us all together as reflective and moral beings, affecting a widespread commanality of conscience, reverence, and awe in the face of vast, infinite expanses of creation, and the unanswered questions which point toward the existence of the transcendent Numen and the immanent presence of divinity.

    As far as more effective, yet culturally respectful ways of spreading the Good News, I have always been impressed with artists who, for instance, would portray the Madonna and Child in the ethnic and cultural trappings unique to their own area of the world. Also, the work of Bede Griffiths with his Christian ashram in India, where he fully respected and made use of prevailing Hindu practices to convey the essentials of the revelation of Christ. Not to mention the exploratory dialogue between Buddhists and Christians as exemplified by Thomas Merton and others.

    As I see it, respect of others is the key, and always being aware of the axiom that where religious truth is taught and spoken, there is the voice of the Holy Spirit in some fragmentary form. So our goal in proclaiming the Gospel should not be the suppression of previous revelations of truth, but finding ways of sharing the relevance of Christ in the midst of their own cultural identity.

    On the other hand, the colonialistic missionary zeal of past generations which sought to obliterate every last vestige of “heathen” culture, mythos, and religion, is, to my way of thinking, an unconscious continuation of Roman imperialism reincarnated in its decendant, the institutional church. May God help us to recify such spiritual destructiveness in the name of Jesus!

  9. InfiniteWarrior says:

    I agree that an important clue to this lies in the etymology of metanoia and theosis.

    And perhaps of such central Christian concepts as poverty (emptiness) and detachment, heaven (nirvana) and hell (dukkha), Eternal Presence, etc. that precisely parallel other wisdom traditions in their original meanings.

    I believe noel is right and that all of them (not just Christianity) have over-intellectualized to the point that concepts such as these are literally and figuratively over-stood far more than they are understood, even to being detrimental rather than beneficial to the spiritual life of both individuals and whole communities. Little wonder, too, that the faith traditions have had such a hard time understanding each other historically…when they’ve bothered to try.

    The increasing popularity of “mysticism” is indicative of that great spiritual thirst, I think. Though there are far too many holdouts at present, Interfaith and Interspiritual dialogue I also take as a good sign that we are emerging from our self-imposed trek through the desert.

  10. Has anyone here read the actual words of Saint Patrick founder of Celtic Christianity? He was a biblicist – continually quoting both Old and New Testaments, testified a very Catholic, Trinitarian creed, he pointed to Christ as being absolutely better than the native Irish religion, had experiences typical of Charismatic Christianity. One experience he describes even sounds like maybe he had spoken in tongues. The Irish freely and voluntarily left their pagan roots and enthusiastically embraced his message. I think much of modern “celtic christianity” is wishful thinking and a fantasy that bears little relation to the historical reality.

    • I agree with you, Jeff. And there remains a unique flavor to Celtic expressions of the faith, as exemplified by early Irish nature poetry, stories of the Celtic saints (see especially the stories of Brigid of Kildare and Kevin of Glendalough) and by vestigial practices such as the veneration of holy wells and other sacred sites. Meanwhile, the Irish, if anything, were stricter in their practice of Christianity than their continental counterparts, something that I find as attractive as their more “mystical” qualities.

  11. Here is a link to a translation of Patrick’s words, agreed upon by all scholars as being actually his, an amazing preservation over the long centuries! http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_text_patrick.htm

    Patrick, though he saw himself as being merely Christian and a member of the universal church, by modern standards he is a interesting blend of fervent Evangelicalism, sacramental Catholicism, and Charismatic Christian experience. Elements that are often separated in modern Christianity. I think he is a balanced integrated model of spirituality that should have more attention.

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