For the next several blog posts, I’d like to explore a few important themes in Celtic Christian theology. Most of these thoughts come from reading John Philip Newell’s book Christ of the Celts, among others.
|A Celtic Cross
I grew up in a home with a very strict authoritarian father. There was little I could do to receive his favor. I was constantly in fear of misstepping and being punished for it. I grew up in a church with a very strict authoritarian God. There was little that I could do to receive his (sic) favor. I was constantly in fear of misstepping and being punished for it. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” a proverb based on Proverbs 13:24, was often quoted in my home and church.
My father’s “rod” was usually made of leather and was wrapped around his waist. My God’s “rod” was usually imagined as a bolt of lightning, zapping me for stepping out of line. This view of an angry, retributive God, was reinforced by innumerable evangelistic meetings that emphasized my sinfulness and degraded nature and the need for repentance if I wanted to avoid the eternal damnation of hell.
John Philip Newell, in his book Christ of the Celts, has written that the view of God which I portrayed, and the way my father reared me, comes from the doctrine of original sin. “It teaches that what is deepest in us is opposed to God rather than of God. It means that we are essentially ignorant rather than bearers of light, that we are essentially ugly rather than made in the image of love. . . It is a doctrine that disempowers us. . . The consequences, both individually and collectively, have been disastrous,” p. 19.
Individually, this doctrine has made me feel like a worm; like a worthless creature incapable of ever measuring up to the standards of either my earthly or heavenly father. It has made me nearly incapable of receiving or giving love. If I wasn’t worthy of love, neither was anyone else. It has taken me YEARS to mitigate this self-loathing and projection on to others, and I am still a work in progress.
Collectively, Newell shows how the doctrine of original sin “was a convenient ‘truth’ for the builders of empire. They could continue to conquer the world and subdue peoples. And now they could do it with the authority of a divine calling,” p. 19. In other words, the Roman empire now had the church to help keep its conquered peoples in line. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who developed the idea of original sin, lived during the time when the Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (380). A highly influential theologian, he became a leading apologist for the fusion of church and state.
In contrast to Augustine, Newell, citing many Celtic thinkers and writers, emphasizes that instead of being “opposed to God,” we are “essentially of God” (p. 58), because we were made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1: 26-27). Furthermore, when God saw his creation, he pronounced it “good” six times, and after creating humankind, he pronounced them “very good!” (Gen. 1: 31).
“The image of God is at the core of our being,” writes Newell. “. . . it is at the beginning of who we are,” p. 3. Some writers call being created in God’s image “original blessing” as opposed to “original sin.” This is not to deny the presence of evil and sin. It didn’t take long till Adam and Eve rebelled and tainted their God-likeness with disobedience. However, this does not make their origin—their beginning—evil. They were created good. It was their rebellion that caused evil and sin.
Because of the doctrine of original sin, “We have tended to define ourselves and one another in terms of the blight, in terms of sin or evil, in terms of the failings or illnesses of our lives,” writes Newell. This is certainly how my upbringing, both church and family, defined me. Rather, according to Newell, we should be “seeing what is deeper still, the beauty of the image of God at the core of our being.”
How different would my childhood have been, had I been affirmed as essentially good, rather than essentially bad? What if my church had declared my original blessing instead of my original sin? I can only imagine that I would have experienced a genuine love; a love that would not have been based on intimidation and fear, but instead based on the beauty of our mutual God-likeness. A love that would probably kept me from rebelling as much as I did.
Affirming our original blessing instead of our original sin does not mean that we do not need grace and repentance when we rebel. “Instead of grace being viewed as opposed to our essential nature or as somehow saving us from ourselves [our original sin], [. . .] grace [is] viewed as flowing […] from God,” writes Newell. “Grace is given, not to lead us into another identity but to reconnect us to the beauty of our deepest identity [image of God, original blessing].”