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.