Is God with us in the middle?
A review of the second chapter of George G. Hunter III’s book, “The Celtic Way of Evangelism”
Despite a lack of written records regarding the first century of Celtic Christianity, Hunter tells readers that other evidence shows an explosion of the faith during – and after – Patrick’s life. Hunter also uses the second chapter to compare the Roman and Celtic cultures of Christianity.
As I personally prepare to serve the Irish people as a missionary, I’ve often realized how unique they are. They are still aware of their past, of Ireland’s history as one of struggle and floods of injustice. Only a determined people could have survived; and yet, emotion and imagination still characterize the Irish. Keeping the past has, as some argue, also been harmful in moving past hurts and being able to step forward into the healing God offers them. The Irish are Western and yet not: many have noticed but Hunter goes on to explain. This is how it’s always been.
Hunter mentioned it in chapter one: the Celtic peoples were considered barbaric by Romans and the Roman-influenced. (read: conquered) Rome’s mass and strength never allowed it to reach Ireland “so a distinctively Celtic approach to ‘doing church’ and living the Christian life emerged.” Hunter writes of the Celtic Church as a movement rather than the Roman approach of an institution, and notes that laymen were a common sight in Celtic ministry. Geography and the abundance of rural versus city made the typical parish structure impractical for Ireland’s Christianity. Hunter says “This movement…was more imaginative and less cerebral, closer to nature and its creatures,”
Instead, monastic communities grew. Rather than cloisters these Celtic monasteries revolved around hospitality and welcome for the stranger. Families were a vital part of the structure and Hunter points out that, for peace and quiet, a monk would have left the monastery rather than flee to it! Scholarship, arts, community worship with psalms, and contemplative prayer were all key quantities of Celtic Christian life.
By emphasizing the communal aspect of Jesus Christ’s love and what that means in following Him, Celtic monasteries organically addressed what Hunter refers to as the “middle-zone” issues of life. Hunter refers to the work of Paul Heibert, whose article ‘The Flaw of the Excluded Middle’ agrees with Hunter’s belief that “Western society and the Western churches, especially since the Enlightenment, have tended to exclude from their view of reality a middle level that is nevertheless quite real to people in most societies (and increasingly real to post-modern people in the West).”
Middle-level issues are what some would term the everyday, or the commonplace. It is the unknown of the past, present and future, the accidents, deaths, and other things humanity cannot control. Even for Christians living with faith in God’s omniscience and ultimate control, this can be a troubling truth to grapple with. Via Heibert, Hunter says that this is why so many Christians go to church for the “big issues” but still rely on everything from luck to the witch doctor’s potions for the everyday events.
I was struck by the truth of this point. In the past I’d been taught, chiefly with examples from Africa or Asia, (though North America has a myriad of its own) that this kind of split-personality in faith is the result of inaccurate theology or holes in Biblical teaching. In some ways that is true – the holes and inaccuracy are the failing to see God as not only transcendent and worthy of reverence, but also as Emmanuel: God with us.
One of the ways Celtic Christianity reflected this truth was through prayer, imaginative and creative prayer that worshipped the Creator. People learned prayers for events from milking a cow to asking healing for a bruise or kindling the morning fire. While some of today’s more legalistic evangelicals could argue that this would descend from worship to mere ritual, these contemplative prayers kept God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ the Son, at the forefront of the Celtic Christian’s mind and heart. They knew better than anyone how present He is in all that we do and are.
Hunter uses chapter three to give a brief history of how Celtic missionaries reached much of Western Europe. Check in next Friday!