Short Celtic Christianity Rant

The Episcopal Cafe has been running a number of things on Pelagius recently on Speaking to the Soul. I have thus far refrained from making any comments on the subject. But today’s passage made me comment.

I’m intrigued by Celtic Christianity; I think it’s a fascinating topic. But so much of the material published as “Celtic Christianity” is a shallow artifice that skims a bit from some sources and grafts it onto a model that owes more to 1970’s Earth spirituality and modern liberal protestant theology than it does anything truly and historically Celtic. Furthermore, it participates in a similar sort of project that Elaine Pagel’s did with the Gnostic Gospels—accuse Christian orthodoxy of being the repressive patriarchal bad guy, take a few isolated items from some texts and spin them off in your own direction that may or may not have any correlation to the historical movement.

One of the favorite ways to do this is to lionize those condemned by orthodoxy. But there’s a problem here easily identified as a lack of clear sources. More often than not, we don’t have the actual texts of those condemned by the Church. As a result, recovering these people and their thought can only happen by looking at what their opponents said. So, to learn about Pelagius, you read Augustine and Jerome where they criticize him. But, if you’re not being rigorous, this is where the potential for all kinds of abuse crops up. The parts that you like, you proclaim genuine; the parts you don’t, you call slander… Furthermore, you indulge in mirror reading—(If the orthodox source argues X, my guy must have taught the exact opposite [anti-X])—but that’s not always (or even often) accurate. What really comes out is little data that provides the opportunity for a great amount of personal pontification safely stuck under an historical label.

I’m saying these are trends I’ve seen–I’m not accusing Newell (the guy being excerpted at the Cafe) of this, because I don’t know him or his work. He may well not be doing this–but I’d want to see his sources and methodologies instead of blanket accusations like the first one raised at today’s post.

Saying that Pelagius was condemned for suggesting that women should read Scripture sounds fishy to me for two reasons: 1) it completely matches modern liberal expectations of the “mean patriarchal orthodox Fathers” and 2) it contradicts actual evidence that we have of those same “mean patriarchal orthodox Fathers”…

To counteract some of the stuff out there, I recommend reading some real Celtic Christianity—which tends to be quite ascetic and apocalyptic in ways that discomfits moderns—and here’s a short taster: The Confession of Patrick, Patrick’s Letter to Coroticus, The Life of St Columba, and The Fifteen Tokens of Doomsday

16 thoughts on “Short Celtic Christianity Rant

  1. Michelle

    Thank you Derek! I was stunned speechless by their quote on Pelagius for the feast of St. Aidan of Lindisfarne!! What were they thinking?!

  2. bls

    Celtic Christianity. Gee, there’s something else I don’t know anything about.

    (I did wonder when somebody was going to comment on the Pelagius thing, though….)

  3. The young fogey

    I’m intrigued by Celtic Christianity; I think it’s a fascinating topic. But so much of the material published as “Celtic Christianity” is a shallow artifice that skims a bit from some sources and grafts it onto a model that owes more to 1970’s Earth spirituality and modern liberal protestant theology than it does anything truly and historically Celtic.

    Thank you!

    I admit I don’t know much about the Celts but know enough to know you’re spot-on.

    Real early Celtic Catholics used a Latin rite but not the early Roman one. (St Patrick, who BTW wasn’t Irish, celebrated in Latin.) And they were severely monastic rather like Mount Athos today.

    What you’ve nailed here is much like the American Indian-wannabe phenom (the Newage or Wish-I-Was tribe): people identifying with and distorting traditions they know little about, with mucho projection and wishful thinking (‘unlike the big bad church the Celts/Lakota/whoever would let me _____’).

    An old acquaintance in Dublin’s litmus test for pseudo-Celts is ‘Do you speak the language?’ (He, orthodox as his klobuk, can speak Irish.)

    Speaking of the archimandrite, this also happens with some Western mistreatment of the Orthodox and other Eastern churches. Vagantes have enjoyed posing – badly – as Easterners about as long as there have been modern vagantes (the 1800s!). Easy for them to do as many Westerners still don’t know much about these churches. A far commoner phenom now is abusing icons and making other paintings in that style as Archimandrite Serge notes: as pretty pictures and New Age geegaws and not the quasi-sacramental presence, entirely orthodox, they really are.

    I’m enjoying reading your articles on the Café – you seem to have been slotted in there as the voice of credally orthodox young practising Episcopalians.

  4. Anastasia

    I once met an irishmen and I asked him if he spoke irish and he said “of course not. It’s stupid language for stupid people.” True story. I’m pretty sure he was a proper celt, at least after a fashion.

    now, what I was going to say was…I’m also more generally against the practice of identifying oneself with heretics, which you mention here. When did it become acceptable to take sides with Pelagius? I really don’t get that.

  5. The Postulant

    Amen and Amen! My home parish has a large (pseudo-)Celtic spirituality contingent, and all of the folks involved are exactly as you describe them. The last thing any of them would want to do is actually read any of the old guys; it’s enough to invite Newell to speak and to use woozy-ass Iona liturgies before Vestry meetings.

    Oh, and Anastasia, you have to remember that Augustine is the great enemy, so logically Pelagius must be a misunderstood and shamefully traduced hero. (If you don’t believe me, ask my rector.)

  6. The young fogey

    Actually, Anastasia, I’m not surprised! The Irish nationalist/independence movement nearly loved Irish to death. Making it an official language they forced all the school kids to take it, which as you can imagine produced scads of fluent speakers and endeared it for ever in those kids’ hearts including that Irishman. ;)

    Yet for all that the gaeltacht (the small section in the western part of the country where it’s still people’s first language and the language of everyday life) has shrunk.

    That said Archimandrite Serge and others tell me Irish has survived in spite of the government. In Dublin for example it’s hip to be a hobby speaker so adult language classes are popular; some well-off parents send their kids to schools that primarily use it.

    One more lingustic fact: Welsh is alive and well; a big minority of the people are native speakers. Many non-Welsh don’t know that English was Richard Burton’s second language!

  7. Christopher

    Martha Stortz wrote her dissertation on Pelagius. I recommend her work as a possibility that is fair to Pelagius and yet rooted in her own Augustinian heritage as a Lutheran.

    Pelagius is a sticky wicket as we have only others’ writings about him, but we do have sources of one of Augustine’s main opponents in the fight over Pelagianism, Julian of Eclanum, whom by Eastern standards was perfectly orthodox.

    Like Jerome’s attack on Jovinian, I suspect that far more was going on including personality issues that we are not privy to.

    As for Celtic Christianity, I wonder, does anyone want to honestly take up the level of penitential practice rooted in that tradition? Folks want the pretty language and imagery without the proper ascesis. Give me Benedictine balance any day of the week, even as I will continue to honor the patron of my native land, David of Wales.

  8. A Simple Sinner

    In the last 20 years Icons and chotki have trendily vied with books on “Celtic Spirituality” for followers of fads. (In and of themselves, these things are not fads. How the bookshops, catalogs and “Experts” have run with them, definately has been faddish.)

    Though 20 years on I still have no clear idea what the hell the latter concretely is – except for any one author’s take on what was done in Ireland 1300 years before he or she was born. At one point I had cynically contemplated setting up an online business to sell packets that included chotki, faux ancient Greek icons and Celtic St. Brigid crosses.

    I would do a killer business among RC soccer moms, Evangelicals and folks who proudly tell you which county of Ireland their great grandfather was born in, but could not find it on a well-marked map.

    I have to agree with Young Fogey yet again on this one. Folks REALLY interested in Celtic spirituality, should go stand waste deep in an ice cold stream and try to sing a psalm. (The first time out, I won’t demand you do all 150.) After you dry off, get treated for hypothermia, and return to your nice warm home, I would say reconsider next time you are tempted to lament the loss of this and excoriate the Roman Church for bringing the continental practice more into play in the Irish Church.

  9. HanseaticEd

    Sorry for the long Amazon URL, but the following book is a no-nonsense treatment of the real issues of ‘Celtic Theology’ by one of Britain’s most important scholars in the field:

    Take a look as well at his work on St Patrick:

    I hope these will prove of interest to some of you.

  10. Michelle of Heavenfield

    O’Loughlin’s Celtic Theology is good. I’m reading it now, perfect for liturgy nuts! ;-)

    Table of contents:
    1 Celtic Theology?
    2 Patrick the Missionary
    3 The Penitentials: The Human Dilemma
    4 Adomnan: A Theologian at Work
    5 Murchu: Dramatist or Theologian?
    6 The Collectio canonum hibernesis: Marriage and Sexuality
    7 The Stowe Missal: The Eucharist as Refreashment
    8 The Litanies: Petition, Procession, Protection
    9 The Cycles of Prayer
    10 Jerusalem: Our Mother and Home Above
    11 Conclusion

    It is worth reading, even if only to refute neo-Celtic claims. :-)

  11. Dano

    There’s a former RC Priest (left the priesthood, now married) out on the Aran Islands who is into the whole “Celtic Spirituality” fad. The actual Irish-speakers and Christian worshippers on the islands think he’s crazy (and from what I’ve heard, they’re probably right). Most of his “parishioners” are tourists from East Asia who come to have their weddings done in a ruined church and leave shortly after. I don’t even know if any of them are Christians or not.

    He’s mostly harmless, although I wince at thinking of those ruined religious sites that were once centers of Christian devotion being used for idiotic postmodern spiritualism.

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