Monday, June 13, 2016

Celtic Christianity: Original Sin or Original Blessing?

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].”



9 comments:

  1. The Wesleyan concept of prevenient grace finds a place for both original sin and blessing. And keeps the atonement as the high mark of God's love. We are "prone to wander." But grace leads us home - even grace that comes before salvation. Overwhelming any sense of goodness in me is God's love for me. While I was yet a sinner, Christ died for me. A wrong orthodoxy (wrong understanding of the character and nature of God) does not mean we have to change the definition of who we are. Rather it is to look at Jesus to correct our mis-definition of who God is.

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    1. Thank you, Stan, for your thoughtful comments. I like this notion of "both original sin and blessing." Few things in life are black and white. We all see things "through a mirror dimly." I also like the idea of "looking at Jesus to correct our mis-definition of who God is."

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  2. Don- you and I had very similar upbringing; I too have been reading John Philip Newell, Richard Rohr, and others, who point out the human being's "original blessing" status- and not only that-God chooses to inhabit the human- a universal incarnation, not limited to Jesus. How liberating- if only I could have known that as a teenager! I too am still trying to absorb this.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Will. We've both come a long way, in more than just our theology! Blessings as you continue "falling upward!"

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  3. Don, I too am drawn to Celtic Christianity through the work of Phillip Newell and travel to Iona, Lindisfarne, Durham, and Whitby, the places of rise and fall of the idea of original blessing, sacredness of nature, and the experience of God in everyday life.

    We grew up in the same church and the same conference at the same time. My father was authoritarian, but he never used his belt on me and only spanked me twice. My minister's primary theme was love. I got to play in creeks and meadows and therefore knew Celtic spirituality before I had a name for it. That was an original blessing indeed.

    I am glad you are recovering from the Roman/Calvinist/revivalist emphasis. I like that Newell does not deny sin and evil but subordinates it at both the beginning and end of time. In the meantime, we live in the messy middle but with hope!

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    1. Shirley, thanks for your comments. I, too, played in meadows and creeks, I also experienced a lot of love from my church, but wonder how you avoided the revivalist part of our era. I also like your "messy middle" designation.

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    2. The revivalist era found me! I write about it in "Getting Saved" in BLUSH. Because of the imprinting I already had, I refused the scare tactics of some revivalists and responded to a pastoral calling from evangelist Wilmer Eby to follow Jesus.

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  4. To much to discuss here, but the wounds of being raised in a religion based on original sin run extremely deep and feel like they'll take a lifetime to recover from. I think JP Newell speaks the truth and articulates well the knowledge and conviction of the universal incarnation and summed up so well in the last sentence of Newell's that you quote. Taking on a new identity based on the image of God that is incarnate in each one of us is experiencing the reality of unmeasured grace and love (and nothing could be more humbling)!
    The institutional church has wandered far, far off track on this one! Newell's got it right!

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    1. Thanks so much for your comments. I wish you much peace as you work through your wounds and come out on the side of love and grace.

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