Celebrating Creation and Life in all its Abundance
The Celtic Christian worldview - which resonates strongly with the Hebrew traditions found in the Bible - runs counter to the compartmentalised, materialistic, spiritually evacuated worldview of modern western society.
Today we suffer from a condition some theologians have called "The curse of the excluded middle". What they mean is that for many, the reality of the physical world around us is our primary and only focus. Although some would acknowledge the reality of the realm of God, they see it as transcendent - a long way off from us - and unless one is about to die, basically irrelevant to daily life.
Between the physical realm and the realm of God is the realm of the spirits, or 'the unseen'. For ancient cultures an understanding of the realm of the spirits was crucially important for their understanding of reality. For modern rationalistic westerners this realm has been evacuated of all meaning or content. As far as a secular New Zealander is concerned this realm of the spirit, or unseen, doesn't exist. Hence we talk about the excluded middle.
This was not the case for the Christian Celts, nor is it a Biblical worldview.
A very important foundation stone for the Celtic and Hebrew worldview is the way they saw and encountered God in their everyday life and work. Paul writes of God's intention that we should come into relationship with our Creator through the Creation. "From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God."1
This statement from Romans reveals the amazing extent of God's revelation of himself in and through the created order. Through every facet of Creation, we finite beings are meant to come to an understanding of and encounter with the infinite God. The Psalms tell the same story:
We look up, like the Hebrew psalmist, and we see God's glory in sky and stars, we hear his thunder in the storm, feel his power in the burning sun and touch his majesty in the night-starred sky. Even though we are fallen creatures, and the world is out of tune with God, the first heavens - the sky and stars - orient us to the higher and highest heavens above, beyond and through them. From the 'seen' emerges the 'unseen'3 and from that unseen emerges the Son of God, the fullness of all things.
This understanding of the heavens and earth and the unseen dimension in, through and over all things4 had a profound impact on the way the Hebrews and Celtic Christians encountered God in all of life. God is closer than your shadow. They saw God move, speak and act in the created realm of nature and they rejoiced in that vision. The psalms give us insight into this way of thinking:
There is no reservation or holding back. Certainly the language is poetic, but this is much more than simply a colourful expressive use of words. For the Hebrews and Celtic Christians God was in and through and over all of Creation. The heavens were "telling of the glory of God. And their expanse was declaring the works of his hands".6
They saw his power in the heavens and they knew his law in their hearts. His display of power over the land called them to himself. Berkouwer, the Dutch theologian, says that "God's communication in nature is not primarily information about God; rather it must be considered to be the very speech and expression of God himself."7
Creation, I believe, is meant to be like a hydro-slide into the presence of God. Down you rush on the hydro-slide carried along by the water. Then whoosh, you are pushed out into the open pool. Your hands are flung up with a tremendous feeling of exhilaration. Creation, likewise, carries us along, not so that we will commune with nature itself, but rather that through nature we will be carried up, up and out into the presence of God who is in and through it all. Nature, then, is a window into the unseen presence of God.
For the Celts, being Christian meant more than mere knowledge of Christian teachings. It was more than simply comprehending book learning with the mind - knowledge of God included all of the senses. It was more like knowing an intimate friend - knowledge that comes from a relationship rather than from ideas.
The Celts knew that the more we know the Father the more we discover that God is greater, more mysterious and awesome than we have understood before.
To live a Celtic Christian lifestyle is to purposely seek to discover God in everyday life. To live in the 'now' of God's presence. To use Creation as it was intended, as a hydro-slide into God.
This means refusing to live with the dualism of the sacred and the secular, or the physical and the spiritual. All reality is inter-permeated with the unseen.
This was the preoccupation of the Celtic Christian life: a vision of life caught up in the love of God.
For too many of us life is somehow divided up between church and work, the spiritual and the worldly. This sort of dualism was foreign to Celtic Christians whose worldview was far more Hebraic and biblical in orientation. Celtic Christians, influenced by the Eastern Orthodox church, were not caught in the Greek dualism of body/spirit which plagued western Christianity and even today influences so much theology and limits the Christian's experience of life and God.
In his book "The Church Beyond The Congregation"8 James Thwaites catalogues the demise of a Hebrew worldview. He notes how from the fourth century on, the church became more Greek than Hebrew in its worldview.
Thus Plato, a Greek philosopher, became the patron saint of the medieval church. Plato's influence had by the sixth century clearly permeated the Roman Catholic Church. By this time the average Christian believed in a spiritual reality that was very much separated from his/her everyday life.
Hope of heaven was centred on the Church and in turn dependent upon the priest who represented this realm. The Christian lived in a "whisper land of shadows" that was not much more than a temporary testing ground before the reality of the next world arrived.
The spiritual was evacuated from the physical/material world. The goal of spirituality was to somehow subdue the body, and escape from the material world into a spiritual realm of ecstasy and delight. It was believed that this state was attained by only a few spiritual 'heavies' in this life. For most people it was reserved for heaven.
This world-denial meant that things like human sexuality and other aspects of everyday life were considered to be at best irrelevant, and at worst in opposition to higher spiritual pursuits.
God was found in prayer - but not in work. Marriage, family and work were devalued, giving way to otherworldly things like celibacy, sacraments and obsessive moralism.
Thwaites notes that it was this brand of Christianity that spread across Europe, extinguishing the lamp of Celtic Christianity in Ireland, and found its way into the Holy Roman Empire. It was after the council of Whitby in the seventh century that the healthy distinctive marks of Celtic Christianity began to be compromised.
We need to throw out this stiff unbiblical dualism, which divides the sacred and the secular, and reclaim the biblical celebration of life seen so clearly in the Old Testament and expressed in the Psalms. We need to rediscover the strengths of the Celtic Christian life.
By rediscovering the presence of God in daily life, in celebration and in love, we will find our lives to be much more rewarding, less stressful and more in touch with the 'being of God' who is the ground of our being.
As we daily encounter the mystery of God, our lives will take on a richness that will bring a deep satisfaction and fulfilment. Intimacy with God, a sense of the exuberance of life and a joyous sense of humour will break us free from the stressful grind that western Christianity has taken us into.
All life is to be lived in the presence of the Father, seen and experienced in and through Creation. A biblical lifestyle is to know the immanence of our transcendent God. God's self-disclosure to us arises out of his wonderful, endless and unfathomable love.
Revelation of God is, of course, incomplete without the Scripture. However, the revelation of God in nature is a crucial part of God's continued self-disclosure, which we need to get in touch with again.
It doesn't surprise me that some people say that they feel closer to God in the garden than in a church building. That may be a sad criticism of the church, but it is also an affirmation of God's immanent presence in and through his Creation.
I've taken a corner in our garden and made it into a pool with a stream. There I sit and ponder, entering into God's presence as I look at the stars above and hear the gentle gurgle of water bubbling over the rocks.
It is a tragedy that people set God's presence in Creation over against his presence with us when we gather together to worship him. Maybe we should bring elements of God's Creation into our worship services.
On Good Friday at my church we have a single, central floral arrangement - a large display of white flowers with a swath of bright red running diagonally through them - a stunning portrayal of the death of Jesus. The number of people deeply moved by this profound representation of the blood of Jesus shed for them is amazing.
In these days of modern technology, how about using a projector to project scenes of mountain grandeur or an awesome coastline onto the front wall of the church while we sing praise to God? I wonder what people's reaction will be? Maybe they will decide that they feel close to God because these elements of Creation help them worship him.
How many of us feel close to God as we watch a sunset or tramp in the bush, or walk along the beach? That is how God intended it to be. Because of our western worldview even these experiences of God in Creation are a mere shadow of what God intends. It's like our perceptions have been deadened, our senses have been inoculated by our rationalism to the presence of God inter-permeating Creation.
The spiritual dimension of life is the heart or essence of every created thing, both seen and unseen. We need to understand that what we have generally called 'the spiritual realm' was, to the Hebrew mind, simply the unseen realm.
The Greeks saw the spiritual realm as disconnected and separate from the material and relational world. The Hebrews and Celtic Christians would never have tolerated such a blurred vision of reality. For them the spiritual - and by implication the presence of God - encompassed all of life. That is why they sought God just as much in Creation as in buildings. They climbed to the top of hills and held prayer vigils; they fasted and slept in caves.
The presence of God inter-permeated life, work and the daily routines of their existence. It gave all of life the dignity and doxological purpose that we certainly lack today. Take this simple prayer intoned by a farmer as he milked his cow:
Do you sense the partnership that the farmer feels he has with God - the involvement of prayer and faith in every aspect of life? I wonder if we have ever prayed the same sort of prayer with each keystroke of our computer and each turn of the steering wheel of our car? If we did, we surely would live with an immanent sense of the presence of God.
The famous hymn called "Saint Patrick's Breastplate" begins with a verse which was almost certainly a dressing prayer - a prayer to be uttered as you dressed yourself in the morning:
Other parts of the hymn underline this desire for the whole of life to be surrounded with the presence of Christ.
The following extract is a fine example of a "prayer of encircling", in which the Celtic Christian surrounded himself with the presence of God:
In these prayers we sense the sincere desire for all of life to be lived in the presence of God.
What we find in the Celtic Church is a passion for holiness - for 'whole-iness' - a passion for experiencing God in the whole of one's life and for giving the whole of one's life to God.
Jim Wallace is Senior Minister St John's Presbyterian Church, Roto-rua, member of International Charismatic Consultation on World Evangelisation and past Chairperson of Presbyterian Renewal Ministries. Jim is married to Laurelle and between them they have 5 children.