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.