Christ of the Celts

Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation
By J. Philip Newell
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008
Review by Carl McColman

One of the concerns I have about so-called “Celtic Christianity” is that it seems, well, so white. It’s spirituality for nice middle-class white folks, who want to feel good about loving nature and embracing a basically liberal theology. I’m not saying that Celtic Christianity is racist so much as it is simply ethnic, rather than catholic (universal). So those misgivings lurked within me as I read J. Philip Newell’s most recent book. And I’m happy to say that, while he never addresses the potential shadow of ethnic spirituality directly, he does do a marvelous job at connecting the dots with Celtic spirituality and the larger catholic tradition.

To begin with, Newell’s definition of “Celtic” is as broad as possible, incorporating not merely the usual suspects from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but casting a farther net to include figures like Irenaeus of Gaul, Teilhard de Chardin, and even Julian of Norwich. He also tells wonderful stories of how his own journey has been enriched by encounter and dialogue with Native American and Jewish wisdomkeepers. But perhaps the real star of this book is Pelagius, the British monk whose teachings were condemned as heretical thanks to the attacks of more powerful churchmen like Augustine and Jerome — which, in turn, led to the marginalization of the Celtic way of doing Christianity. So although he never says as much, Newell’s storyline suggests that Celtic Christianity is “Celtic” not by its own designs, but because the larger (catholic) church turned its back on the wisdom of the Celts’ greatest theologian.

Mainstream Catholic and conservative Protestant Christians might find this line of thinking a bit hard to swallow. But as I’ve written in an earlier post, ours is the age of re-examining and sometimes even “rehabilitating” old heretics, and so it is in this spirit that Newell’s championing of Pelagius needs to be approached. The real issue here that Newell zeroes in on is the doctrine of original sin; his argument, that the church should reexamine Pelagius’ teaching and step back from regarding original sin as a dogmatic truth, meshes well with Brian D. McLaren’s argument that much of what ails Christianity today is an excessive Greco-Roman overlay on top of the Bibllical narrative. Remove this “overlay” of original sin, and Newell suggests that what remains is a much more earth-friendly, body-friendly, and — dare I say it? — truly incarnational spirituality. In other words, perhaps Celtic Christianity is not so far removed from, well, the Jewish spirituality that Jesus himself embodied.

And this brings us to the topic of this book: Christ “of the Celts.” I have to read this title with Catholic eyes, and it reminds me of the many epithets associated with Mary: Our Lady of Grace, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Our Lady Star of the Sea, Our Lady of Knock, and so forth. Part of the genius of the Catholic tradition is its ability to embrace the particular within the umbrella of the universal. Having a particular devotion to Mary as she appeared in Guadalupe or Lourdes or Fatima is not to suggest that only that particular expression of Marian spirituality is valid. Rather, it is to bring a universal/cosmic figure down to earth by embedding her (even as an apparition) in a particular place and time. This, then, is how I understand Newell’s “Christ of the Celts.” He is a not a different or better Christ — or even an “ethnic” Christ — but rather a particular Christ, a way of understanding and approaching Christ that is situated in a particular language, a particular world-view, a particular people and place. Christ of the Celts is the Christ of the Earth, the Christ of Creation, the Christ of incarnation and embodiment. Here in Newell’s own words:

Throughout this book, I have been pointing to a way of seeing that has characterized the Celtic tradition over the centuries. Particularly, it is a way of seeing Christ that is distinct from most of our Western Christian inheritance. It views Christ as coming from the heart of creation rather than from beyond creation. And it celebrates him as reconnecting us to our true nature instead of saving us from our nature.

So for the Celtic way of seeing, Christ is not some alien force invading a hostile world to rescue a small number of chosen individuals from it; rather he represents the inherent goodness and “Godness” found in the heart of matter, transforming and healing and divinizing our “fallen” world from the inside out, calling us not to some heaven-as-other-place but rather to accept the free gift of heaven here and now.

What I loved most about Christ of the Celts was the weaving of Julian of Norwich’s and Teilhard de Chardin’s visions into this larger post-Pelagian narrative. Newell describes Teilhard’s difficulties with church authority, drawing an implicit parallel between him and Pelagius; Julian, thankfully, never appeared to have been a target of ecclesial power, probably because she was such a liminal figure in her lifetime. But thanks to a number of Benedictine convents who preserved her writings (probably tucked away in the library, safe from heirarchical snooping), Julian’s wisdom speaks to us today, and it rings with the authority of someone who knew the love of God and recognized it as a force for healing and transforming even our “sensuality” — a concept that dances throughout Julian’s work.

In his other works, notably Listening for the Heartbeat of God, J. Philip Newell connects the dots between the Celtic saints and more contemporary figures like George MacDonald (the 19th century fantasy writer who inspired C. S. Lewis) and George Macleod (founder of the Iona Community). Adding Teilhard and Julian to this list both broadens the Celtic vision beyond the narrow confines of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and also strengthens the argument that the “Celtic” way of seeing is a long-standing alternative voice within Christianity. Perhaps this is the same voice that so many of the mystics tried to give utterance to — and perhaps it is the same voice that figures in our time like Richard Rohr and Brian D. McLaren are proclaiming. Or maybe not; perhaps this is just my wishful thinking and my own nice white liberal projection. But it’s a thesis I’m willing to test.

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Mirabai Starr: Giving Julian of Norwich a Lucid Voice


  1. Thanks Carl once again…
    I have been struggling with these issues a lot.
    Christianity (as every other spiritual tradition) is clearly a diamond with many facets.
    As to great Catholic (stigmatized) visionaries, I wish to say that everyone speaks of inherited sin as Augustine does.
    Think of Picaretta, Valtorta, Robin, Menendez, Padre Pio, Faustina, von Speyr, …

  2. Just ordered the book from Amazon (following your link, of course). Go Pelagius!

  3. Fred, I know that many of the mystics spoke of original sin; obviously that has been the church’s “official” teaching for over 1000 years, so of course many mystics (who often bend over backwards to appear orthodox, for fear that they will suffer the same fate as Origen or Meister Eckhart) uphold the “party line.”

    But I think J. Philip Newell’s point is worth considering: that perhaps we need to look at what difference it might make to our understanding of the Gospel if we removed the idea of original sin (and its Calvinist corollary, total depravity) from our spiritual lexicon.

    I am not suggesting we get rid of the notion of sin altogether; I think plain common sense demands us to have some sort of a theology of sin. I just think that as long as we focus on human depravity instead of the fact that we are so deeply and dearly loved by God, we are creating a world where more emphasis is being placed on the sickness rather than the cure. Any psychologist can tell you that this is a mistake!

  4. brazenbird says:

    dare I say it? — truly incarnational spirituality.

    DARE TO SAY IT! Yes. Carl, it’s so haunting – I started Heartbeat a few weeks ago and also have Christ of the Celts awaiting me on my bookshelf and I’ve been in deep discussion with a few folks about the concept of original sin. It seems like every time I am directed to your blog you’re writing about something I’m contemplating or reading.

    What a gift to have another voice, another perspective to consider in what would otherwise be a rather lonely path.

  5. The book sounds very interesting and I think I may try to find a copy. The review sounds like, after Mr. McColman gets past his guilt of original sin, he should work on his guilt of being a “white” liberal. Do I need to stoop so low as to say I’m NOT a white supremist? However, there is something just a tad condecending (and self-loathing?) in the idea that a product of anglo culture can only be redeemed by a dash of Native American story telling and Jewish mystisism and even at the end of an evidently great read, the reviewer still finds himself feeling guilty for having enjoyed something not *entirely* multi-cultural. I can only imagine his own revulsion of a review of a book on African spirituality that began by doubting it’s relevance because it was so “black.” White people have done much that is wrong in the world, as has the Christian church, however we are not totaly lacking in our own legitimate cultural history and, perhaps, like the Church our ancestors occasionaly produced some things of value, as well.

  6. Carl,

    Maybe this would’ve been more relevant to your post on Pelagius, Augustine, and original sin, but your comment above in response to Fred made me think of this. In your mind are original sin and total depravity necessarily linked? Does the former necessarily entail the latter? Or is it possible to maintain the idea of original sin and jettison the idea of total depravity? I couldn’t be sure from your comment and wondered if you would care to clarify.

    The early Cistercians (and I’m thinking particularly of Bernard and William of St. Thierry, both of whom were greatly influenced by Augustine), who I suspect, though I can’t verify this (and I’m open to correction), would have subscribed to some notion of “original sin” also believed that, while the likeness to God in us was tarnished, the image of God was unharmed. They believed that we retained, even after sin, a capax Dei, a capacity for God. This seems very different than a belief in total human depravity.

    Sorry if this distracts from you conversation on Christ of the Celts, but I just had to ask.


  7. Infinite Warrior says:

    One of the concerns I have about so-called “Celtic Christianity” is that it seems, well, so white. It’s spirituality for nice middle-class white folks, who want to feel good…. Celtic Christianity is… ethnic.

    Are you sure that’s not itself a projection and perpetuation of some sort of Original Guilt? “White liberal” guilt, perhaps.

    Though people of Celtic ancestry are, skin pigmentally-speaking, generally whiter than most “white” people, the Celtic tribes themselves were considered something less than human by the Anglo-Saxon British Empire and, frankly, the descendants thereof here in America.

    You live in the South and so are probably aware that there are still a plethora of “whites” (Christian and otherwise) who call themselves “redneck and proud of it”, having adopted the pejorative still leveled against them and their Celtic ancestry much the same as members of the black community have adopted those leveled against them. I can’t say I understand the mentality of doing so, but do understand — first-hand — the historical classism of “whites” against “whites”, which of course has more to do with economic “class” in our times. Most people of Celtic ancestry are, frankly, not members of the economic “middle class” and are reminded of their “lowly” station in look, word and deed at every available opportunity.

    One look at me and it should be obvious that my own ancestry is predominately Scotch-Irish as redheads account for less than one half of one percent of the world’s population (and, naturally, the myths about us are impossible to overcome) but, though I celebrate my ancestral heritage at every available opportunity and even consider it part and parcel of my own “spirituality”, it’s never interfered with my Universal outlook, though others have insisted that it must and, in fact, belittled it themselves thinking, no doubt, that the “Celtic Dragon” must be perpetually slayed to collectively overcome this “white liberal guilt”.

    Do the political labels, guilt feelings and guilt-mongering never end?

    I can’t say the concepts of “doing” faith, “doing” Christianity, “doing” spirituality resonate much either. The Way (regardless which cultural flavor of the Way is practiced) is not a way of “doing”. It’s a Way of Being.

    More to the main thrust of the book itself, losing or, at the very least reinventing the doctrine of Original Sin would be one of the best things that ever happened to Christianity, imo. It’s sense of time (and timing), the true meaning of “judgment” and so much more certainly would be uprighted, perhaps even instantly.

    I doubt Christianity will ever get me back, though, as I’m pretty sure I will be forever awaiting the day that no one has to be “a Christian” ideologically to be considered a member of “the (Universal) Body of Christ”.

  8. Wow, I had no idea that my “white liberal guilt” would engender such a reaction! My issue is simply that I love and celebrate the multi-cultural make-up of my very ethnically diverse church, and I wish that “Celtic Christianity” likewise appealed to a more diverse constituency. The fact that it doesn’t, I believe, has to do with its ethnic character. But as I (thought I) said in the review, the splendor of this book is that it articulates a Celtic understanding of Christ that is particular rather than ethnic. While I am not sure that this will bring people of color into the greater conversation about “Celtic” Christianity, it does, at least to my mind, philosophically resolve my “problem.”

    I don’t feel the least bit guilty about being white, or liberal, for that matter. But I do think that it is a problem that 11 AM on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. I think Christians (of all ethnicities) ought to do something about it. This isn’t about “guilt,” but it is about seeing a problem and addressing it.

  9. Response to John M.: I’m sure that there are all sorts of theological nuances to delineate the distinction between the catholic doctrine of original sin and the Calvinist understanding of total depravity. And you’re right, the hair-splitting between “image” and “likeness” has been one such way of trying to hold to a doctrine of original sin while retaining at least some sense of original blessing (to use Matthew Fox’s term). But I think, practically speaking, original sin and total depravity are somewhat conflated on the level of practical religion, and I think this holds true for Catholicism as well as Protestantism (thank you Jansenius). Certainly so much original-sin rhetoric such as “there is no health within us” etc. seems totally depraved to me. :-)

  10. suzanne kurtz says:

    Thank you Carl, I spent a Celtic week on Iona, with Newell, where the theme of the week was this book, just before it was published.

    Your comments seem to me spot on—and the main thing I always carry away from times being with Newell, it that yes, there is darkness within us that needs to be recognized and addressed, but there is nothing in our very nature (no original sin, no depravity) that is opposed to God. What is most true in us is our “original blessing”. Newel has come to a point in his life where he refuses to take any of his children into any church that would tell them otherwise.

  11. Carl,

    I agree, if I understand you correctly, that at the practical level we, Catholics as well as Protestants, too often equate original sin, or even just particular sins, with depravity. We do forget that our human nature is good and remains open to God, and we probably need more reminders of that than of any sinfulness. But for various reasons we seem to like to beat ourselves up over sin. With friends like ourselves, who needs the Enemy!


  12. Ian Bradley wrote in ‘Celtic Christian Communities’:

    “It is noticeable that the great majority of those speaking at and attending conferences and retreats on Celtic Christianity have English accents (and mostly southern English accents). The current Celtic Christian revival has been a predominantly English and Anglican phenomenon. Some of its fiercest critics have come from the ranks of the indigenous Celtic population of the British Isles, most notably the Gaelic-speaking Scots.”

    The issue is not whether the modern expression of Celtic Christian spirituality is ‘white, middle class, liberal…etc’, but whether it is rooted in the Celtic ethnic sense or not.

    The ethnic Celtic viewpoint in such matters has been by-passed in Britain because of the excessive confidence (and arrogance, it must be said) of Anglo-Celtic enthusiasts focused on Northumbria.

    We can see our churches in Celtic places themselves as ‘Celtic’ communities as the word is interchangable with Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Manx and Irish.

    It is time to stop using the ‘C’ word so broadly. This is our heritage: it is not that of St Francis, Bonhoeffer, Fox, Julian of Norwich, de Chardain etc etc because they were not Celts.

    For others to use this word in this indiscriminate fashion is patronising towards today’s ethnic Celts. If someone British dresses up as a Native American, and is taught to dance like a native American, that does not make them a Native American. It just makes them look silly.

    Please stop doing this. This is our ethnic heritage after all.

  13. 1. Don’t shoot the messenger. I didn’t write the book, I just wrote the review.
    2. As someone of Scottish ancestry (last time I checked, the McColmans come from the Hebrides), I have as much right to speak of the Celtic experience as any. If you are going to start playing purity games (“you’re only an authentic Celt if you are a native speaker of one of the Goidelic or Brythonic languages”) then all you’ll end up with is the satisfaction of the “rightness” of your position. If that is really important to you, be my guest. But I don’t think that’s what following Christ is all about, which leads to my third point:
    3. If “Celtic” Christianity (however we understand the term) is to be as faithful to its Christianity as to its Celtic identity, then it will have to wrestle with the ethnicity/particularity issues that I’ve delineated in my review. Christianity that retreats into the purity of a particular ethnicity or cultural expression soon stops being Christianity at all. I think this is something that all of us — regardless of our “Celtic credentials” — need to bear in mind. And if Celtic Christianity is, ultimately, an expression of following Jesus, then we will have to accept the fact that “unclean” people (like those pesky Northumbrians, not to mention us vulgar Americans) will be invited to the banquet.
    Sorry if this comment seems a little strident, but it’s frustrating when I as an American try to honor the culture of my ancestors and them I’m told to lay off — presumably because I’m not pure enough or good enough or whatever. I understand that romanticizing the Celts does little to address the real economic and cultural challenges facing the people of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, etc. — but I think it makes more sense to inform and challenge, rather than merely demonize or dismiss, those who are drawn to the “romance” of Celtic Christianity. We have a saying here in the states: “You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Perhaps the next time you encounter Americans or British “cardiac Celts,” that might be a principle worth keeping in mind.

  14. As an Asian, i go beyond the Celtic label and allow myself to be “formed” (as in formation) by the spirit behind it. And the nice thing is – a lot of the opening hymns in the Divine Office are of Celtic flavor and they are delicious daily bread to me next to the Psalms…

  15. Infinite Warrior says:

    This isn’t about “guilt”

    I don’t think the more subtle points made in your post about the book itself were lost on anyone. If the book does manage to reconnect the Celtic Christian tradition with the larger spectrum of wisdom traditions and “zeroes in” on the question of whether or not the maintenance of Original Sin as a doctrinal “truth” in Christianity is itself wise, it’s another I will have to add to my wishlist because, according to your review, it has been cast as a philosophical “problem” (i.e. “entanglement”) and not an ideological one. But that begs the question why “white liberalism” came in initially as “misgivings” about Celtic Christianity at all. How can Celtic Christianity “seem so white” in one breath and be a “way of seeing” maintained by Celtic wisdom keepers in the next unless there are some very subliminal political under and overtones at play around us initially felt as “misgivings” about expressions of Celtic Christianity that you feel the book more than adequately addresses? What does “liberalism” (or “conservativism” or even “whiteness” for that matter) have to do with Celtic wisdom and why is it (seemingly) a given that Protestant and Conservative Christians will react negatively to the book? Wasn’t the question it raises about a central Christian doctrine and how it might be interfering in expressions of Love and Life?

    I think maybe it is very much about all about “guilt” and a very deep seated and unwarranted “sense” of guilt at that — one directly traceable to Augustine’s idea of Original Sin — first imposed on the indigenous people of the British isles and later by the British empire on the indigenous peoples it “conquered” and now finding insidiously problematic expression in American imperial ideologies. That it so co-incidentally undergirds nearly the entirety of Western and, especially, political thought and action does appear, indeed, a problem. That’s about all politics in this country are about at the moment: “the blame game”.

    I think Christians (of all ethnicities) ought to do something about [the most segregated hour in America].

    I think people of all ethnicities need only get over our selves to be loving toward each other and our communities as well as individual members of our communities, but that’s just my “opinion” and you’d be amazed (or perhaps you wouldn’t) how many times it’s been insinuated to me (though only these past five years and only via the Internet) that people of Celtic ancestry are not only incapable of participating in “civil” society but are incapable of loving because we’re naturally “incivil”. Incivility is in our genes; we’re “barbaric”; we’re “brutes”; yada-yada-yada. That’s all political propaganda, of course, and it’s sad beyond measure that people actually believe this, not only about each other, but about themselves. I wasn’t actually too surprised to discover in my research where such disparaging ideas about people of Celtic ancestry in America actually originate: people of Celtic ancestry who also just happen to be either power-mongering politicians and pundits or comedians trying to inject some humor into our collective suffrage at the hands of political propagandists.

    As for us, I’d have to agree with C.G. Jung on the wisest course of (at least, initial) socio-political action:

    The best political, social, and spiritual work we can do is to withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others.

  16. This blog has been one of my faved daily stops. More often, the stopover has been refreshing (as a result only and not a prime motive. I’m operating these days on “truth over happiness” mode). Lately though, the discussions, especially on original sin, have been mentally crucifying because they become so heady, not to mention arrogant as if one knows what guilt or original sin is when only God alone “probes the human heart, or searches the mind.” The thread comments on original sin have been terrible on the doctrinal side, when in real life, there’s nothing more enlightening or dragging than sin’s existential pull. I am bringing in here Fr. Cantalamessa’s sentiments and perhaps, spending time for example in meditating the prodigal son’s sense of sin, obviously an initiative by the Holy Spirit could deliver us all from the divisive tendencies of doctrinal squabbles: “Father, I have sinned.” What’s gets to be more real than saying for example: “I have sinned. I’m sorry. Please forgive me”? Luke made no mention at all of a doctrine of sin before or after the son’s repentance took place. It keeps me asking if a doctrine on sin is indeed necessary for metanoia…

  17. dFish,
    I heard good things about this Fr. Cantalamessa. What did you read?

  18. Infinite Warrior says:

    I am not sure that this will bring people of color into the greater conversation about “Celtic” Christianity

    One other thing discovered in my travels I intended to mention is the great feeling of kinship between Celtic peoples and the indigenous peoples of North America as well as those of other tribal lineages. When my own ancestors settled here, it was the Cherokee with whom they found commonality of both spirituality and experience. I will never forget that, when I was around six years old, my Grandmother began insisting that my parents take my sister and I to the Land in the Sky to meet our neighbors. It was somewhat of a mystery why she should be so adamant about it until it was discovered a few years later that they weren’t just our neighbors, but quite literally our kin and she wished for us to become familiar with the culture of our extended family. Though it is that particular branch of the family with whom I personally feel most “at home”, the experience also instilled in me a lifelong love of learning about various other cultures. It didn’t take long for it to sink in that they’re all “extended family”. I imagine “people of color” might find Celtic Christianity (or, at least, its symbolism), more familiar and relatable than the Greco-Roman variety.

  19. Carl, thanks for the excellent review. Actually, I thought Listening was the better of the two books. Newell however, does an excellent job in trying to demonstrate just how broad the Celtic tradition is, and includes so many thinkers, we don’t necessarily think as Celtic.

    That’s not to infer that Celtic Spirituality has all the answers to the questions we’ve always been asking. Rather, as you point out, and I think rightly so, just being aware of the Celtic tradition helps us to understand that there is a different “brand” of Christianity than the one offered by Rome. These contrasts are healthy and good in my opinion.

    I love your blog and look at it often. I’ve even linked it on my own blog on Celtic Spirituality,

    Fr. Andrew

  20. Andy Phillips says:

    Oh, if anyone is still listening, they may find this article I wrote in the UK Catholic Herald interesting.

    Andy Phillips

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