I have been interested in Celtic Christianity for a long time. Over a thousand years ago these amazing Christians gave us powerful models of how to follow Jesus, respect creation, do faithful scholarship, spread the good news, build communities, and deepen our spirituality. For those frustrated by the standard Western — Catholic and Protestant — ways of doing theology and church, discovering these remarkable Christians is an astonishing and life-giving revelation.
But Celtic Christianity has to move beyond a kind of romantic immersion in the ways of 7th century Irish monastics. As important as it is to learn about them, we have to do more than merely transplant some “Celtic” music and language styles into our worship. There is a huge gap between the final dying out of a distinctively Celtic Christianity in the 12th century and now. We have no ongoing tradition to connect with. What might a fuller Celtic approach to faith look like today?
The word in Greek, Keltoi, refers to the peoples who lived mainly to the north and west of the “civilized,” that is, Mediterranean, world. Keltoi more or less meant “barbarian,” “foreigner,” and “other.” Might we not, therefore, use the word “Celtic” today to talk about theology and spirituality outside the boundaries, margins, fringes, and control of the centralized powers of the world? Might Celtic not be a way to embrace a non-imperialist, indigenous way of being Christian?
Celts do actually show up in the New Testament. Rome fought a protracted war with these people; Celts even sacked Rome in 390 BCE. The Romans called them Galatai, or “Galatians.” When the Romans finally prevailed, they published a lot of propaganda across the Empire denigrating and mocking the defeated Galatai. The people of Galatia, in central Anatolia, were members of Celtic tribes whose ancestors migrated across the Black Sea. Indeed, the Apostle Paul probably extended his ministry to that region intentionally to take advantage of the people’s famous hatred for Rome. He expected the message about a Judean man whom Rome crucified for sedition, but who then didn’t stay dead, thus exposing Rome’s powerlessness, to resonate with them. And it did.
So add to the outsider identity the fact that they were defeated by the Empire, and we have a model for what it might mean to talk about being “Celtic” today. I am suggesting that “Celtic” may be a way to describe a Christianity of the vanquished, indigenous, marginalized, exploited, and disenfranchised peoples of the world. Celtic Christianity looks at things from the perspective of the people at the bottom, the ones who do the work and are victimized by the wealthy and powerful.
Actually, as we see in Mary’s hymn and in Jesus’ whole approach to his mission, this preferential option for the poor is the foundation of Christianity generally. Hopefully, the attention we give to the Celtic Christianity of long ago will lead us to a better appreciation of how we need to be a church of the marginalized in our own time.