Listening for the Heartbeat of God
We are truly the product of our experiences. For us today our experience of church and even how we express our faith in God is so much shaped by the history and ideas of those who have preceded us. As a Christian church and specifically Presbyterian denomination we view the world and our relation to it from a certain theological perspective. That perspective has been shaped and reshaped over the centuries by the reflections of major thinkers who have sought to guide us in our worship of and life with God so as to ensure that we were doing everything that was right and proper. Certainly we can say that they didn’t get it all right but we must consider carefully that they ever sought to lead us on a path to a proper and full understanding of who we are as a creation of God and how best to be the people they believed God had created us to be.
As you can no doubt appreciate - even from reading the four gospels and the many letters which compose the accepted version of the Bible and chroncile the birth of the Christian church - there were many different ways of interpreting not only what we are to believe about God but how we are to express that belief not only in worship but in our daily living. In fact there are many points in the growth and spread of the Christian faith where conflicts arose over how to interpret the words of the writers of the Bible and even how to guide the faith of the people so as to develop a proper view of God and ensure that people took the right path.
And so it was that there developed in a part of the world isolated from the influence of the Roman Empire and the religious thought in Rome, a way of seeing God and our faith in God that led the people to an understanding of their world and their relationship to God that was a challenge to the accepted position of church leaders such as Augustine and Jerome. What I am speaking about is the Celtic church.
The Celtic church had developed a spirituality that stood in sharp contrast to the Roman church. Firmly rooted in the spirituality of the gospel of St. John, the Celtic church listened for the heartbeat of God. They believed that this heartbeat is at the heart of all life while the Roman church listened for God in the ordained teaching and life of the church. At a synod of the church catholic in 664, the decision was made that only one view would prevail. The decision was for the Roman church and so the spiritual heritage of the Celtic church was discouraged and gradually over time it faded into obscurity. Rather than believing that both ways of seeing God and our relationship to Him were good and acceptable, the decision was made to accept one and reject the other – the belief being that this would promote unity in the church. Of course we know that God does not meet us all in the same way and that each of us finds God or is found by Him in our own time.
And so what was it that so alarmed the traditional church fathers who sought to protect the orthodoxy of the church from these radical Christians? There were two things that troubled the Roman church. The first was the Celtic emphasis on creation. For the Celts, God was not just the creator but inherently present in all of creation. For the Celtic church God could not and should not be separated from the creation. While many of us think of the created world like a piece of art that stands on its own once finished, the Celts believed that God has never stepped back from creation. In fact the belief is that God dwells within every part of the created order. The world in which we live cannot be distanced from us. And even though there will be a new heaven and earth, the beauty and vibrancy found in the world as it is cannot be seen apart from God. For the Celtic church, we are to seek God by looking towards the heart of life, not away from life. To believe that the heartbeat of God is found in all of creation causes us to pause and give serious consideration to how we interact with all of creation. It forces us to consider more carefully what it means to be a steward of creation. You could say that the Celtic church was more sensitive to the environment as all of life contains the sacred presence of God and needs to be respected and honoured.
One other point of conflict between the Celtic and Roman church was whether or not the image of God was present in all people or only those who believed in God as expressed through the church. Perhaps you have heard of Pelagius. He is associated with a heresy that has led him to be condemned as one of the greatest deceivers of Christians of all time. Sadly, the difference in interpretation of the faith between Pelagius and Augustine became a political struggle that ended with the excommunication of Pelagius and the push to eradicate any of the theological views of the Celtic church. Pelagius maintained that the image of God can be seen in every newborn child and that, although obscured by sin, it exists at the heart of every person, waiting to be released through the grace of God. Pelagius was up against Augustine who not only was one of the great theologians of his time but who lived closer to the political centre of the faith. It was his interpretation that every one of us is born sinful and that the image of God can only be restored to us through the Church and its sacraments. Augustine developed a spirituality that accentuated a division between the Church, which was seen as holy, and the life of the world, perceived as godless.
And while we may think that the Celtic spirituality grew out of a misguided path borne of an isolation it actually has its roots in the teaching of St. John and even to the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. It was a spirituality characterized by a listening within all things for the life of God.
While this series of talks will not be presented consecutively due to a number of special events, there will be six over the next two to three months. All will be posted on the website for you to review or catch up on what you missed.
As with any topic that concern our faith in and life with God, the spirituality of the Celtic church will resonate with some of you while others may opt for a different path. However, I believe it is important for us to understand and appreciate that while we all come to God in Christ, we may choose different ways to find our way there. My prayer is that you will find in this series something to help you plumb deeper into the mystery of life itself and your life with God.
Reverend Bruce Kemp