Celts and Creational Theology
- Sunday, March 16, 2008
March 17, 2007
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork. Day to day they pour forth speech . . . (Psalm 19:1,2).
We are currently in the midst of the latest renaissance of interest in Celtic Christianity. These periodic revivals have come around with regularity since the halcyon days of Patrick, Columba, Columbanus, Cuthbert, Maelruib, and Eriugena came to a close somewhere around the ninth or 10th century.
Both the Roman Catholic Church and various strains of Protestantism have, from time to time, tried to connect their roots to this dynamic, expansive, enduring period of Church history. And with good reason: The period of Celtic Christianity, which lasted some 400 years between the fifth and the ninth centuries, is one of the most fascinating and fruitful of epochs, and one which continues to appeal to Christians in all kinds of communions for a variety of reasons.
One of the very alluring aspects of the Celtic Christian experience is their acute sensitivity to the revelation of God in creation. Theologians from every era have acknowledged, to a greater or lesser extent, the teaching of the Bible that God makes Himself known through the things He has made. Most don’t go much beyond that, however.
Celtic Christians, on the other hand, not only emphasized the revelation of God in creation, but they celebrated it in poetry and the arts and incorporated what theologians refer to as “general revelation” into their devotional practices. You get the impression, reading the works of Celtic Christians, that if God is making Himself known through the things He has made, then we need to be studying those things carefully, in order to discover His glory, encounter His presence, and learn what we can. Let’s look at some examples from the Celtic Christian period of this commitment to what I’ll call creational theology.
The greatest of the Celtic peregrine—those wandering preacher/scholars who re-evangelized much of Western Europe—was Columbanus (AD 543-615). Trained in the monastery at Bangor, where for many years he taught Hebrew and the classics, Columbanus, at nearly 50 years of age, set off with 12 companions on the defining mission of his life.
For the next 12 years he labored at preaching, evangelizing, training missionaries, chastising irresponsible priests, and founding monasteries in France, Switzerland, and Italy. Columbanus left behind a string of disciples and provoked a flood of missionaries who followed him from Ireland to the continent, and whose work extended his own even further. Columbanus’ biographer, the monk Jonas, often remarked his intimacy with created things. He seems to have loved forests and animals and felt a close kinship with God in the company of all kinds of creatures.
In one of his extant sermons, Columbanus exhorted his monks to press on in seeking to know the Lord, beginning by discovering His glory and encountering Him in the creation 'round about. God, Columbanus declared, “is everywhere present and invisible . . . He fills heaven and earth and every creature . . . Therefore God is everywhere, utterly vast, and everywhere nigh at hand, according to His own witness of Himself.”
Many priests and theologians sought to know God mainly by prying into mysteries they could not understand and promulgating teachings that were more the constructs of their pet philosophical projects than their experience with the living God. But Columbanus believed that to know God one needed to experience Him in all His multi-faceted beauty, wonder, and might.
If his monks wanted to know the depths of God, they first had to meet Him in the shallows of the creation: “Seek no farther concerning God; for those who wish to know the great deep must first review the natural world . . . If then a man wishes to know the deepest ocean of divine understanding, let him first, if he is able, scan the visible sea, and the less he finds himself to understand of those creatures which lurk beneath the waves, the more let him realize that he can know less of the depths of its Creator . . .”
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