Saving Celtic Spirituality
A recent web search on the word Celtic identified 976 sites, while a similar search on Jesus Christ located 896. In our local book-and-music megastore, Celtic music is one of the largest categories—well behind rock but gaining rapidly on classical. In the same store, the word Celtic appears frequently among the titles of the spirituality book section.These Celtic spirituality books are generally beautiful, lavishly decorated with a colorful knotwork of intertwined beasts and plants. The contents are organized around the seasons or the Celtic Pagan holy days (Samhain, Beltane, and others). The spiritual content is generic and safe, usually preceded by some warnings about the difference between Celtic spirituality (which is inclusive, and hence good) and Christian religion (which is exclusive, and hence bad). The introduction from one of these books is typical: "This book is for people of lively, questing spirit who want to lay down a personal pattern of spiritual practice but who do not wish to practice this within a specific religious framework. The material within this book springs from the spiritual current of Celtic tradition."Thus Celtic spirituality becomes one more dish on a spiritual smorgasbord, alongside various ancient and exotic traditions. We are used to such a spread in these late-modern times, whose inhabitants (like the Athenians of Paul's day) are always hungry for the latest ideas.The current wave of Celtophilia might be of only marginal interest to the Christian—except that a substantial and rapidly growing Celtic Christian movement also exists within the evangelical Christian community. So the word Celtic occurs with increasing frequency in the books and music of Christian bookstores, as do the rhythms of Celtic idiom in Christian worship. (Witness, for example, the current popularity of the ancient Irish hymn, "Be Thou My Vision," recorded not only by Christian groups but by secular stars like Van Morrison.)To many Christians, hints of a distinctive Celtic source have beckoned like cool water in a desert land. Michael Mitton—director of Anglican Renewal Ministries within the Church of England—writes in Restoring the Woven Cord about discovering the Celtic tradition after a trip to the "Holy Island" of Lindisfarne:
I discovered a burning and evangelical love for the Bible … a depth of spiritual life and stillness … a radical commitment to the poor and to God's creation; and the most attractive expression of charismatic life that I had yet encountered. … I am in no doubt that the Spirit of God is reminding us of the first expression of faith in these isles to give us inspiration for Christian ministry and mission today.
Many Christians, however, rigorously resist any influence from the Celtic tradition. This reaction ranges from guilt by association ("If it's Celtic it must be pagan") to a more scholarly perception that what much of our contemporary spiritual questing finds in the Celtic is a mere projection of our own longings. In a recent work, Ian Bradley admits that his earlier book, The Celtic Way, played "a small part in promoting the present revival." But in a new volume, Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams, Bradley tries to strip away the "layers of distortion and fabrication" that color much contemporary Celtic enthusiasm. He quotes favorably from Clifford Langley, a respected London journalist, that it is "time for a backlash against Celtic Christianity":
It is truly the myth whose time has come. But its very convenience, its extraordinary ability to meet so many current needs, should make us suspicious. For it is also, to use an old Celtic expression, phony baloney—a legend still in the process of being invented. … It will be all things to all men and score high in the ballyhoo department. A touch of skepticism would be timely.